Chapter 8: Actions speak louder than words
“Where is Kiran?” asked Bert.
“He was here a few moments ago.”
They looked around, but the man was nowhere to be seen.
“Doctor,” said Bran, “do you know where your son is?”
“Oh, don’t worry about him.” Val waved a nonchalant hand, placing a few stones on the rim of the fire pit. “He is probably foraging… Dear me, not that kind of foraging,” he added quickly, when he understood their horrified looks. “He is looking for edible things. Mushrooms, roots, nuts, that sort of things. He does that when we travel.”
“But we have food,” said Bert, with a sigh of relief.
“I know. It’s a habit. You never know what you can find.”
“I don’t like that he left without a word,” said Bran, frowning displeased. “As long as we travel together I want to know where everyone is.”
“You are right, Captain. But I’m sure he will be back shortly.”
“He should better be, I don’t want to blare our presence.”
“Please give him more credit,” said Val. “I daresay he is the most discreet of us.”
Bran was not so sure, his mind going back to that evening. But he made no comment.
As soon as they had arrived, they had taken the horses to the stream, then had unsaddled and had left them to graze. Some had fetched water and others had immediately left in search of firewood. There were enough trees around, old alders and willows, but dry wood had turned out harder to find and it had taken them a while before discovering, further upstream, a bough that had split from its tree—broken, most probably, by a gust of wind during a storm. Freeing it from the tree had been fairly easy, but chopping it into suitable pieces without making a racket had proven quite the challenge. Knives and swords were good enough to chip off small branches, but when it came to the thick parts they had had no choice but to use Rhun’s axe.
Kiran had been helping all along and they were so caught up in their tasks, no one had noticed him leaving. The sun was still above the horizon, so light was not a problem. His sudden disappearance was. The doctor was cordial and open, his son not so much. His reserved attitude made at least one of them question his actions, and the longer he took, the more Bran’s patience was put to the test.
“Look what I found!” came, at long last, Kiran’s cheerful voice from the road.
His face was glowing with childish delight and the folded lap of his tunic was bulging. He knelt close to the fire pit and dropped a fistful of grass and a sizeable pile of mushrooms. Fleshy and brownish, with rounded caps—which widened and flattened on the larger specimens—and thick stems, they looked positively tasty. The men gathered around him curious and excited. They had not expected anything more than a scarce, cold dinner. Bran’s eyes, however, were watching him, not the fare, and they were not smiling.
“May I have a word with you?” he asked in a low voice.
The young man’s enthusiasm dropped like a fresh flower cut with a pair of sharp scissors. Next to him Rowan caught that and threw him a compassionate look—he had been scolded by Bran before and knew that angry undertone. Kiran stood up with dignity, carefully shaking the dirt off the tunic lap.
Some distance away, so the others would not hear, Bran sized him up in silence. His tolerance had reached its limits and the fact Kiran was obstinate enough to hold his gaze, without a trace of fault or worry, only served to rile him further. His jaw tightened, crushing the angry words trying to push their way out, until they were no longer a threat to his composure.
“Where have you been?”
Oh, that superior tone again! Kiran could not stand that one. But they were a sort of guests, him and Val, so he made an effort to behave.
“I went downstream to search for food.”
To wash, in fact, but that would have sounded pedantic in those circumstances and he did not want to give the captain a chance to sneer at his hygiene habits. He had noticed a few mushrooms and had abandoned his initial plan, going in search for more.
“We have food.”
“You have very little. The heat has exhausted everyone, they need strength.”
“Nobody asked you to do that.”
“I never said they did. And it wasn’t just for you.”
“…Did anyone see you?”
Kiran jerked back when he understood Bran’s thoughts. “You think I stole them from the village? Those are wild mushrooms!” The blood rushed to his cheeks. What had made the man think he could stoop so low? “Don’t put me in the same pot with an underbred soldier,” he said in a low, disdainful tone. “I know better than that.”
Bran stiffened and his lips sealed tightly. He cursed the moment his men had disobeyed their orders, leading to their unexpected encounter with Kiran and his father. He cursed the moment his superiors had made the decision to take this particular road to Fiodhin. And he cursed his own weakness, because he realized he, too, was at fault. His anger had no foundation other than his own dislike, but letting his feelings affect his judgement or manners was not in his character. If the Senral saw him…
“Our presence should be discreet, so far as possible.” He kept a civil tone.
“We chopped wood. We’re making a damn fire!” Kiran threw a hand towards the men moving about the pit.
“It doesn’t say soldiers. The fire pit was here.”
“Well, I’m not a soldier. And don’t imagine people will not know.”
“They would better not know tonight.”
The argument was clearly going nowhere, so Kiran gave up. “I didn’t see anyone.”
The sharp eyes searched his face for the truth—And what else? wondered Kiran—but, at last, the tension in Bran’s muscles eased a little.
“Why did you leave alone?”
“Because everyone was busy. And I don’t need a chaperone. Or do you think you must keep an eye on us? Is that it?”
The captain’s silence was the worst answer, because Kiran could not retort to that without the risk of being wrong. Not that he cared about the man’s opinion, he neither expected, nor wished to make friends, but to clash from the first day… His gaze turned habitually towards his father for help, but he was busy cleaning the mushrooms. Maybe Val was wrong and riding with these men was not a good idea, after all.
Pushing away that feeling he looked back at Bran. “I wanted to help. I thought something fresh would raise the spirits. Wild fare is very nourishing.”
“Next time you go away from the group, let somebody know.”
“What about nature’s call? Must I ask permission for that?”
Bran opened his mouth, then shut it back. Fates, how he hated this brat’s mouth! Were they not indebted to the doctor, of whom he had a good opinion—more so after talking to him during the ride—he would have never agreed to this arrangement. How in the world could these two people be related? He shot him a cold look before turning his back and leaving.
Kiran returned to his father.
“Annoying him is not the wisest idea,” said Val, cleaning the dirt off the last mushrooms. “Not while we travel together.”
“So you saw that… It wasn’t my intention, but I don’t like his suspicious attitude.”
“Well, he is responsible for everyone.”
“He assumed I stole the mushrooms!”
Val’s hands paused. “I told him you were foraging.” He shook his head. “So inexperienced… What they call foraging is really looting. It is forbidden and punished severely. I understand they will be supplied along the way, but in the old days looting was said to be a common practice, with devastating effects on the population. This campaign is far better organized. They learned from the past.”
“Did he tell you that?”
“Some of it… You found some excellent specimens. Let’s rinse them while we can still see something.”
They gathered them on a cloth and headed for the stream. The sun had set and the light was rapidly fading.
“Don’t take it to heart, it wasn’t personal.”
“Of course it was,” Kiran replied calmly. His anger had softened, but his father’s explanation was only part of the reason. Another part was his pride: anger was a sign of weakness, he wanted to avoid it in front of these men. At any rate, losing his temper was a bad idea.
“I will speak with him tonight,” promised Val. “Clear off suspicions. He doesn’t know us.”
They heard steps behind them and closed the subject.
“Can we help with anything?” Owein and Cai were following.
“Certainly,” said Val. “We need skewers. Not too short.”
“Can you find me a flat stone, about this big?” asked Kiran, spreading his palm.
“A cutting board.”
Owein left to find some twigs for skewers and Cai to look for the stone along the river bank.
“What are you doing?” Rowan asked him from behind, holding a water skin in his hand.
“Looking for a cutting board,” said Cai, trying to hide his irritation at being startled.
“A large, flat stone.” He made a round shape with his hands, but that only seemed to confuse Rowan more. “It’s to cut those mushrooms on… Stop staring stupidly and help!” he snapped.
They found one and washed it thoroughly before bringing it to Kiran.
“Perfect. How’s the fire going?”
Rowan shrugged. “It was looking good. Glen is taking care of it.”
“Are you sure these are safe to eat?” Cai’s concern was understandable, he had just recovered from those wicked berries.
Kiran raised his chin, pushing the hair from his eyes. “I know my mushrooms.”
Back in the camp the fire was burning well and the men were moving about, gathering fodder, securing the horses or just busying themselves to forget about hunger. Val nudged his son, pointing discreetly towards the captain, and went to him.
“How are you goin’ to cook ’em?” asked Glen.
“Roasted on skewers is fastest,” said Kiran, kneeling near the fire pit. “We could also bake them on stones, but that would take too long.” He put the mushrooms down and pulled out a knife from his belt.
“Then we need more coals.” Glen pointed to the grass. “What’s that?”
“Garlic grass we call it. Here.” Kiran crushed a long blade between fingers and gave it to Glen. The flavour was strong and resembled garlic.
“I’ll remember it,” said Glen, smiling.
Owein returned with the twigs. “Are these good?”
They were not great, not straight enough and clumsily chopped.
“Ever seen skewers like that?” asked Glen.
“Well, I’m not good in the kitchen,” grumbled Owein, dropping the sticks.
“Put ’em into the fire and go find me some thin, straight twigs. Like this.” He picked one up. “City boys,” mumbled Glen after his comrade left.
Kiran chuckled. “Aren’t you a city person?”
“I grew up in the mountains. Came here when I was a lad, younger than Rowan. But I remember what I learned back home.”
Shortly thereafter Cai came with a bunch of green twigs. They still had leaves, but one could make some decent skewers out of them.
“Owein’s given up?”
While Cai and Glen were busy chopping, Kiran sliced the mushrooms on the improvised board—just thin enough to cook quicker, without breaking—fastening them on the finished spikes and sprinkling them with a little salt. The wood was turning into hot coals and Glen placed a few more pieces on top of them. That broken branch had been a stroke of luck—dry enough to burn with little smoke and large enough to keep the fire going for a couple of hours. The air was already cooler and a soft wind was blowing from the north, pushing the smoke away from the village. The men were talking in low voices, not worried or hushed, just tired. The place was quiet and any sounds coming from the other side of the stream seemed distant.
“I’m hungry!” groaned Rhun, aroused by the pleasant scent of roasted mushrooms. More pairs of eyes turned towards the fire. Everyone was. “Are they done?”
“Yes,” said Glen, throwing more wood into the dying fire, to rekindle it. From the glowing coals leaped up bright flames, like a hungry animal roused from sleep with a piece of meat.
They gathered near the fire pit and split the skewers and some of the food they had left. Val brought some dried fruits. The smell coming from the mushrooms was mouthwatering, yet they were hesitating. Nonchalantly, Val wrapped a grass blade around the skewer and took a mouthful, chewing with his eyes closed.
“The grass was a brilliant idea,” he said, swallowing.
Bredan took a bite. “Mmm.” Then another. “Chewy, yet soft… not overdone… flavoured… these are fabulous!” he said, munching the fleshy, browned slices like a lord assessing the skills of his new cook.
Perhaps he was overacting a little, but it seemed to convince the others. After a first small bite, they leaped at them ravenously, mumbling in agreement. Val glanced towards Bran. He kept his eyes on his food.
“Is this garlic?” asked Ceri, nibbling a leaf.
“Garlic grass,” answered Kiran. “Found it earlier.”
“These almost taste like meat,” said Anwyl.
“Too bad we don’t have more,” said Owein, licking his fingers.
“That’s all I found,” apologized Kiran. “There could be more out there, but we would need time and light.”
Bran ate in silence.
They finished their dinner quickly, which was not hard considering what food they had, but the mushrooms and dried fruits had been a pleasant addition to what, otherwise, would have been a dull meal.
“If only we had a pot,” said Val. “A warm tea would be lovely.”
“Tomorrow we’ll have ale,” said Rhun, a gleam of anticipation in his eyes. “I’m sick of water.”
Glen shook his head with disapproval. “You should be grateful there’s water. You can’t give horses ale.”
Rhun grinned. “Who says I would? Let the horses have their water”—he slumped on the grass with his hands under the head—“and give a man his ale. For digestion,” he added with a hearty belch. “Those mushrooms would’ve been in much better company.”
Toph frowned at his comrade, wrinkling his nose slightly. “Tsk! Wine pairs better with mushrooms.” Not just his face, but his tastes were more refined. “Red, smooth, a little fruity… like a young brunette.” He made an undulating motion with his hands. “Not too bold, but not too sweet either, just—”
“Shut up, Toph!” grumbled Rhun.
“Troglodyte,” threw him Toph affectionately, stirring chuckles around the fire.
Rhun had no idea what the word meant, so he did not bother to answer.
It was dark and the flickering flames were casting a golden light on their faces, emphasizing their distinct features. They looked very different, yet there was something similar about them, as it often is with people who live and work together for long enough. An interesting group, thought Kiran, is what Val would say. His father enjoyed studying people.
Take Toph, for example. His speech was more expressive and his groomed appearance made him look almost pedantic. The square jaw had only a hint of stubble, he had probably shaved the day before they were separated from the rest of the company. Most likely born in a prosperous family. There was a certain arrogance in the studied way he ran his fingers through the flaxen hair, or the way his chin raised slightly when he addressed somebody. It was designed to impress the ladies, no doubt, but Kiran suspected it was not far from his character.
Rhun was on the opposite side of the spectrum. Large, coarse and unsophisticated, he almost looked like a brute, were it not for the lively, clever spark in those dark eyes, which said there was more to him than his muscles. But the way he lay near the fire, lax, carelessly scratching his—well, he was clearly a confident man and not very easy to command. From Lower Trade, supposed Kiran. A brewer’s son? A smith’s? Bredan had said he was short-tempered after a few drinks.
Then there was Ceri. The slender man had indeed a calm, almost dispassionate air, but there was something hidden beneath it that made Kiran think of a sleeping cat, looking relaxed and harmless as it curled near the fire, hiding its sharp claws…
“—were safe?” Bert’s voice reached him from beyond those thoughts.
Kiran blinked, aware that the question was for him. “I’m sorry, you were saying?”
“The mushrooms, how did you know they were safe to eat?”
“Shape, colour, smell. You learn after you see enough of them.”
Rhun shrugged. “They all look the same to me.”
“Everything looks the same to you, my friend,” sneered Ceri. His tone seemed to imply that Rhun was the one responsible for their misadventure. That earned him an annoyed look from his peevish comrade.
“There are many edible things in the wild,” stepped in Val with delicacy. “Mushrooms, nuts, fruits, roots. And an even larger number of dangerous ones. It takes a while to learn the differences and, since they have a tendency to look similar, it’s best not to chance if you don’t know them.”
“You know all of them?” asked Rowan.—The others snickered—“What?”
“Idiot, how could he?”
Val chuckled. “Of course not, I think that would be impossible. That is why we always stay away from those we don’t know or are unsure of.”
“But it’s not as if a few berries could kill you,” said Cai. Though it sounded more like a question.
Rhun snorted. “We’re still breathing.”
“You were not so confident yesterday,” teased him Toph.
“The poison of some is so strong, it only takes a dozen to kill a grown man. The death is neither swift, nor easy.” The snickers ceased. Val looked down at his hands. “No matter how hard you try, sometimes it’s too late…” He cleared his throat, looking back at the men who were watching him with less amusement. “But even when they don’t kill you, the experience is very unpleasant, as some of you already know. It’s not worth the risk. Some adventures can have lasting consequences.”
There was a long moment of silence.
“What about us?” asked Anwyl, voicing the question that seemed to hang on most lips. Even Rhun had pushed himself up.
“You were fortunate, the poison of those berries is not deadly and its effects are of short duration. In other cases they last for days,” added Val. There was a sigh of relief around the fire. “But I would not push my luck if I were you.”
“I understand you fare a lot,” said Bredan, changing the subject. “Unlike most of us.”
“Yes. It is the nature of our work.”
“Most doctors I met don’t.”
“Most doctors you met probably buy their medicine from apothecaries we—or others like us—supply,” replied Val. “That doesn’t make them bad doctors, though.”
“But it explains their bountiful waists,” joked Bredan, to dispel the tension. That prompted other jokes and the mood improved.
They were curious about the places they had visited and Val answered their questions with little tales and humour. When Glen heard they had once travelled very close to his home, he remembered an amusing story from his days as a boy. Before long they were reminiscing about their lives before joining the Royal Guards, or various predicaments they had found themselves in after that.
Bran was not particularly chatty, though he was not grim either. In fact, to Kiran’s surprise—and, to a lesser degree, Val’s—not only did he possess a certain sense of humour, but being the object of a few of Bredan’s jokes did not provoke him. He was the most relaxed they had seen him so far, almost pleasant, and his laugh—Good gracious, thought Kiran, he knows how to do that—although more subdued than his comrades’ and nothing close to his friend’s, made his demeanour almost unrecognisable.
So why was it that every time their eyes met, his gaze turned cold and hostile? True, Val had told him to not let his grudge affect his manners, yet he had made no attempt to be agreeable towards the man. I’m equally to blame, he admitted. But that had not stopped Bredan from being friendly. ‘A little late to worry about that after you let the cat out of the bag.’ His father’s words echoed in his mind, making his heart cringe. Had Bran seen anything that evening? He vaguely remembered an odd feeling…
The jokes and stories continued around the fire—at some point Anwyl even began to sing—but Kiran was not hearing them anymore. The events from a year ago were spinning in his mind and his mood was slowly sinking.
It was a peaceful evening. Kiran walked among the old trees growing on the river bank, breathing in the scent of meadows and wet ground. The sun had heated the land and now the smells were rising in the coolness of the night like vapours from a hot cup of tea. Away from the fire his eyes could see much farther and, through the foliage moving in the gentle breeze, he noticed tiny flickering lights beyond the stream. They were from the village, but the place was quiet. Their camp had not attracted any unwanted attention.
The waning moons were bathing the sleeping landscape in a cold light that seemed to wash away all the colours, reshaping everything from light and shadows. Other times he and Val would have gone for a walk in search of wonders that unravelled only at night. He missed that. Around the fire men were still in high spirits, but their voices had grown sleepier, their laughter softer. The fire was dying and the pit was red with smouldering coals, fewer flames rising from the hot bed. It had not been intended to warm the bodies, but the hearts, and it had served its purpose well. Night sounds filled the air and from the bubbling stream crept up a cool current, touching his face with damp, cold fingers.
The horses were resting, picketed at the edge of the trees. Some appeared to doze, others were still nibbling at the fodder that had been brought to them, but all ears were alert and they stirred upon hearing his footsteps. Despite the last days on the road it seemed like they were not yet accustomed to camping in foreign, open places, without the safety of walls or fences. Kiran could feel it and knew they, too, felt his emotions, that was why he had taken a walk before joining them. Now he spoke to them in a low, soothing voice, almost like a whispered song, chasing away their fears in the same way he had done years before, when Sylph and Danan had first accompanied them on their journeys. They did not need that anymore, not so long as they felt him and Val close by, but Kiran still spent time with them every night before going to sleep. It was for their sake as much as for his.
They were tethered a little further from the others. For all their mild disposition, by the rules of their kin they were still newcomers to the group and had yet to be properly acquainted. But they did not mind the company, nor the unfamiliar surroundings, so theirs was a stir of anticipation, not fear. A massage was always welcome and Kiran, happy to oblige, rubbed them with gentle yet firm moves, kneading their strong muscles under the sleek coats.
After a time, the nearest horse reached to him with his muzzle and was rewarded with tender strokes on the withers. And then the next one… and the next…
When his hands grew tired he returned to Danan and rested his forehead on his friend’s, hugging him, while his fingers played idly with the long strands of his mane. The animal blew out a soft breath and Kiran matched it. His presence had always made him feel better. He had excused himself from the fire because he wanted a moment alone, turning to his inarticulate friends for comfort. His thoughts ran to the grumpy smith from Ulmaby, who loved the company of these creatures as much as he did, and he sighed.
There were muffled footsteps and Danan’s muscles twitched. A few paces away Bran stopped, watching them in silence. He did not look upset, though as he stood against the moons-light it was hard to discern his expression very well. Kiran waited for him to speak, but the man was stubborn, as always.
“What did I do this time?” he asked, moving his hand lazily on Danan’s shoulder. The words were more sarcastic than the tone.
“They were anxious at night,” said Bran, looking at the sleepy horses. “That is some skill.”
Was that praise? Sweet Grian! How long had he been watching?
“You sound surprised.” Kiran turned back to rub his friend’s cheeks. Not just because the horse liked it, but it gave him an excuse not to face Bran.
“I would find that disturbing… if I didn’t know better.”
“I’m just paying attention to them. As you said, it’s a skill.”
Bran moved closer and Danan made a step forwards, protective, before Kiran stopped him with reassuring strokes.
“You seem to understand each other.”
“We’ve been together for some time.”
“He doesn’t look old.”
Kiran reached to his father’s horse. “They’re both fairly young.” Sylph leaned into his touch.
There was a long pause and it would have felt more awkward than it did, had they been face to face, but Kiran still had his back turned, caressing his friends. Bran was hesitant, so there was something on his mind. He had not come just to check on him.
“Thank you for your help,” he finally said.
“What?” Kiran turned to him, bemused.
“For cooking. It made a big difference to them.”
“…I apologize for my manner, it was undue.”
“You all but accused me of theft,” said Kiran, a little resentful.
Bran pulled back unconsciously. He disliked his position, disliked to justify himself to the brat and, despite what he had witnessed only moments earlier, he was not ready to change his mind about him. But he was not too proud to admit he had been wrong this time. “Foraging has a different meaning to us.”
“I heard that. But I also know Val had already explained you.”
“I should have believed him,” admitted Bran. In fact he did. He believed Valan was trustworthy, and yet…
The first few times he had met Bredan, many years ago, he had been conflicted about the man’s paradoxical character, yet reason—so he believed—had prevailed and had been proven right. So why was it that emotions took over so easily when it came to Kiran? So irritating, he thought, moving to leave.
“It wasn’t much.” Kiran’s voice stopped him. “The cooking. I would have done it anyway, whether with you or not.”
“Thank you all the same… We will put out the fire soon. Tomorrow we wake up at dawn.” He left.
Kiran stayed behind a little longer. Keeping his calm had taken effort and he felt depleted. Sometimes horses are better than humans. They feel your heart.
Before they retired Bran set up the watch and, this time, they all took turns, which meant each one was shorter and they had more time to sleep. Their guests were not included, though. The doctor offered, but was politely refused.
“Did you apologize?” whispered Bredan, wrapped in his blanket.
Bran turned his back to him. “Good night.”
Bredan laughed softly and closed his eyes. It had been a long day.
The morning brought a few clouds in the sky, but Glen reckoned they were not a sign of rain. Nothing had happened during the night and the men were rested and ready to go. They finished whatever was left of their provisions, which was not much, but their company was only a few hours away and next camp was the fort in Keln, where they would find all the supplies they needed. The five had no symptoms of sickness, so it took them less than the day before to pack everything and leave. As soon as they passed the village, Bran picked up the pace.
An hour or so into the ride they slowed back to a walk. Val was in the front with Bran, again. Kiran had avoided the captain so far, but he could not do that all the time and, since it was not clear yet how long they would ride together, it was preferable to win his goodwill. He and his father had agreed Val’s eloquence and diplomatic manner stood the best chance to improve Bran’s opinion of them and reduce some of the tension. Winning the rest of the group was a far easier endeavour. Bredan’s friendly attitude had not changed and, ever since the dinner, the others seemed even keener to talk to them than on the day before. And whether he liked it or not, Kiran had to admit they were a pleasant lot and engaging with them was not so inconvenient, nor lacking enjoyment.
“I’m sorry about last night,” said Rowan to his left, drawing his mount closer.
“You wanted to help us, but the Captain got angry. I saw that.”
“It was not your fault, why do you apologize?”
“I know how severe he can be, but he is not a mean person.”
Kiran seated himself better in the saddle and so Rowan did not notice him stiffening, or the flicker of disdain on his face. The young man had just confirmed that Bran’s problem was only with him, otherwise his men would not think so highly of their captain. “It was just a misunderstanding,” he dismissed it casually.
“I’m sure he will apologize. People say he’s arrogant, but he always admits when he makes mistakes.”
Rowan’s conviction made Kiran smile. “He did.”
The sun was hidden behind thin clouds and the air was cool. It made riding more pleasant, though the day had just begun and, if Glen was right, they would sweat again later.
“When I came to the Royal Guards,” began Rowan, “I had a hard time fitting in because I was so young. I didn’t know anything. I was clumsy… couldn’t even hold a sword properly.” His lips stretched in a self-conscious smile, which produced shallow dimples on his freckled cheeks. It made him look even younger, despite the wispy beard he was struggling to grow. “But the Captain took me seriously. More than even I did. Him and Bredan.”
“Why did you join the guards?”
“I didn’t want to be a shopkeeper. It’s tedious, doing the same thing every day. Being a Royal Guard sounded more… adventurous. Honestly, I was probably just running from my duties.” He chuckled, “Silly me.”
“Do you regret it?”
“No. At first it was not what I had expected. Just training, discipline, more duties… no excitement. I was a pathetic soldier and the Captain kept frowning upon me—you saw how scary he is. But he never told me to quit. After a while it wasn’t so bad anymore and… I felt stronger. So I reckoned that maybe I found my place.” He blushed, misunderstanding Kiran’s gaze. “You think I’m fooling myself.”
“No, I think you have the right heart for it. Everyone else accepts you and your captain thinks you’re worth it.”
“Haaaa… yes, they don’t make sport of me as much as they used to.”
“I’m sure it’s just teasing. You are… ingenuous. But that shows they are fond of you.”
“Now you are teasing me.”
“I am not. Do you think they were any different when they started? Understanding comes with age and experience. You are growing.”
Rowan squinted his eyes, doubtful. “You talk like Glen. Aren’t you young and inexperienced?”
“I was not looking down on you,” said Kiran serious. He meant it. His first impression of the young man had been one of immaturity and absent-mindedness, but it turned out he was more thoughtful than that. It was more as if his behaviour mirrored the others’ opinion about him, in the same way children tended to act more helpless or reckless, the more adults treated them as such.
“No, you’re right. You’ve seen more of the world. The stories your father told last night… I’m a little envious. This journey is a first for me.”
“You have plenty of time,” encouraged him Kiran. Then he remembered where the soldiers were going and bit his lip. But Rowan seemed to have forgotten too, his eyes staring ahead with anticipation, his dimpled smile full of hopes. No one else was close enough to hear their conversation and, as he watched the young, innocent face of his companion, Kiran desperately hoped the events which they rode towards so decidedly had no connection with himself.
A couple of hours later they caught sight of the carts closing the convoy. They were moving at walk speed and it only took them a short sprint to catch up with them. But those were just the supplies carts, so, instead of slowing down, they rode past them until they reached the vanguard, where High-Captain Pryce and their other comrades were.
“I’ll be damned if it isn’t the Queen of Bramble and her suite!” were the words they were greeted with. “We feared you hopped the twig.”
“You’re not so lucky, bastards,” retorted Rhun, whom the unflattering nickname was meant for. “It takes a lot more to get rid of us.”
“You sure about that, Rhun? ’Cause you look a bit off colour,” mocked him another.
“Ha! Think you’re so clever,” croaked Rhun. “I’ve more berries in my pack, if any of you, pansies, have enough bottle to try them.”
Val turned to him shocked, but the man winked.
“Don’t waste your breath,” joined Toph. “They’re just envious because you have such a great complexion.”
“Aye, thanks for the beauty treatment, Your Majesty,” said Ceri. “Purged the shite out of me. I feel like a newborn.” It was difficult to tell whether he was amused or annoyed, or both.
“Anytime, mate, anytime.”
“I beg of Your Majesty to not concern yourself on my behalf,” went along Anwyl, putting on his silliest, most obedient face. “One treatment was more than enough. I could not impose on your generosity again.” He placed a hand over his heart with affected humility.
“I liked you better yesterday,” said Rhun, baring strong, perfect teeth. “You weren’t trying to be a smart-arse.”
“Don’t worry, Rhun, you’re still my favourite troglodyte.”
“You know where you can kiss me.”
Bert leaned towards Kiran. “Don’t be fooled, they like each other.”
“Had I not seen them before, I would never have believed.”
The teasing and laughter continued with the same enthusiasm, but despite the crude language, which made Kiran wince a few times—only because he associated it with brawls and bad temper—it was clear the men were happy to see their comrades back and in good health. There followed questions about what had happened and who the new faces were, the latter of which aroused a great deal of interest among the soldiers, no less because they learned the newcomers might fare with them all the way to Fiodhin. The journey was tedious and they welcomed any fresh addition.
Bran left the stories to his men and went to report to High-Captain Pryce, who was leading the convoy with High-Captain Uren. Bredan stayed behind. He knew the men were not as rough as their language made them appear, nor did the doctor and his son seem scandalized by uncouth behaviour, but he had noticed Kiran looking down a few times and felt compelled to smooth out the differences. He did not have to, after all, for it turned out even the other soldiers were more self-conscious in the presence of these guests and moderated their speech. So, after the first displays of joy and the introductions—and all inquiries and explanations which followed—they settled into a light-hearted chatter that matched the leisurely pace of the horses for the rest of the day.
“You brought some guests with you,” remarked High-Captain Uren, his tone a little disapproving.
“Yes, sir, that would be the doctor and his son,” said Bran.
“The men who helped you?”
“I understand your gratitude towards them, but this decision is unwarranted. We have our own physicians, there is no need for two more. Don’t you agree, Captain Pryce?”
“I agree we don’t need more doctors, but their presence is not necessarily an inconvenience,” said High-Captain Pryce. “Was it you who invited them?”
“No, sir. It was them who came to our camp in the morning and offered to assist the sick until we would meet with you. I agreed.”
“And after that?”
“I told them it is not my decision and they understood. They have business in Fiodhin as well, but they will not impose on us if their presence is unwelcome.”
“How do you know that?” asked Uren, sceptical.
“Because they are prepared to travel alone, which is something they do often, I understood. I talked a good deal with the doctor on our way here. He is an intelligent and sensible man, with a strong education and experience. His stories, as well as their actions during the course of our acquaintance, reinforce his claims and my own opinion of them.”
“Which is?” wanted to know Pryce.
“They are trustworthy. I don’t believe they have any ulterior motives, rather…”
“Rather?… You may speak, Captain.”
“They are more capable of dealing with this journey than many of our own men. Certainly more than the younger ones. So far travelling together has benefited us more than them. I think what they want is companionship.”
He kept quiet about his frictions with Kiran. That was a personal matter and had nothing to do with the last two days. The brat’s behaviour towards his men had been genuine and kind, Bran could not reproach him anything on that account. He was not lying to his superiors.
“I understand,” said Pryce. “Did you pay them?”
“They will not take any payment.”
“You see?” Uren said briskly, as if Bran had proven his point.
Bran wanted to object, but Pryce was quicker. “Have you never met a disinterested person, Captain?”
Uren was only a little younger than him, and a little stiffer, but he had not become a High-Captain undeservedly. Neither had Pryce, whom he knew to be in both the Senral’s and Prince Feolan’s favours. For the right reasons.
“They are not soldiers, they may not wish to comply with the camp’s discipline,” he insisted. “We don’t want unnecessary distractions. Lack of discipline would slow us down. We are almost ten days away from Fiodhin. More, if the weather changes.”
“I understand your concerns, Captain Uren, and I agree about distractions. But not all people in this company are soldiers, and yet the camp discipline has not suffered so far. If those men are as Captain Keer described them, I don’t think they will make trouble for us.”—The other puckered his lips, displeased—“What is two more mouths to feed?”
“And the horses,” added Uren, though he knew that was a petty matter.
“And two more horses. I think it’s not such a bad idea. Who knows, we might learn something from them if they are so capable. I say we see how it goes.”
“As you wish. But they are your responsibility.”
“So they are,” said Pryce, smiling. “I shall speak to them at our next break. Captain Keer, you may go back to your men.”
Bredan drew closer to his friend, so he would not have to raise the voice. “Well?”
“So far, so good,” said Bran.
“No sanctions for disobedience?”
“Not yet. But I expect they will be given more duties than the others.”
“When everyone will be drinking and we will be stuck working, they won’t be happy. That should teach them something.”
“You will join them in their punishment—if there is any. Of course. Very much like you.”
“I’m their captain.”
“And I’m your second, so that makes two of us.” Bredan chuckled. “I can picture their faces, especially Rhun’s. What about our new friends?”
Bran raised an eyebrow at the last word. “Captain Pryce will talk to them later. But they can stay. For now.”
“That’s good news.”
The day felt different from the previous one, for two reasons:
Firstly, they only walked. The provision carts were heavy, so the whole convoy was constrained to move at the speed of its slowest parts. On the bright side, they had plenty of time to talk, and getting to know a little more of their new acquaintances made Kiran loosen up. The soldiers were also eager to hear new stories from the doctor and his son. On the not so pleasant side, the weather did not change, which meant they perspired heavily. Only this time they could not speed up to feel a bit of wind.
Secondly, the landscape was changing. They were drawing near to the hills and the land was undulating more, like waves in a barley field on a windy day, all the while rising gently, but steadily. Corn was more often than barley; they saw apple trees and plum trees and, after a while, the first grapevines—trained in orderly rows, following the slow rise and fall of the land like thin braids on a maiden’s crown, and heavy with fruit. The region was famous for its vineyards, especially red ones, and Toph perorated about the different grape varieties and wines, which some of the men found rather uninteresting and Rhun, in particular, exceedingly tiresome. Not only because he preferred ale much better, but he always lost patience with long speeches, most of all Toph’s.
About an hour or more before sunset the fort of Keln came into their sight, perched atop the hillock which dominated the surrounding landscape. Below it lay the town of Keln. Back in the old days it used to be a small town on the way east, but it had flourished over the years, thanks to its ever growing vineyards, and now Keln was almost synonymous to wine. On the other side the river Kelund, flowing southwards like all its brothers and sisters, used to mark the eastern boundary, but it was long since the town had grown beyond it. It was the main source of water. But they had no business there tonight, because the road split at the foot of the hillock: to the right it led to Keln, to the left it went around the hill and up to the fort. And they made haste to reach it before dusk, for this would be the most comfortable night they would spend since leaving the capital, and the last of its kind before the fort of Damerling, on the Eastern Road—which ran along the eastern border—six days later. Should weather hold.