Chapter 9: Change of plan
The fort of Keln was an old hold, built to accommodate and supply the army rather than for defence purposes, nevertheless it was not as small as it appeared from below and its stone walls were fairly strong and tall. It could, should need arise, provide shelter and food for the townspeople for a while. Since Laeden had not seen wars in a long time, it had not been used by the military other than for the occasional field training and to house a small, semi-permanent garrison, but it had been kept in good condition and had often held Keln’s wine reserve. Over the last weeks the staff had prepared it for their arrival.
Inside the walls was a tower with a number of chambers to serve the officers, a meeting room, kitchen and storage. They were small and provided only minimal facilities, but had beds and means for washing. High-Captain Pryce asked the keeper to make one available for Val and Kiran. Some of the barracks had been cleared and arranged for the soldiers and camp followers and the stables had been cleaned and stocked with fresh fodder. There was space in the courtyard to station the carts and still enough left to walk around or train a small army. Close to the barracks were several large fire pits and on the southern side, towards the stables, a clump of planes had been left to grow since the last war, providing shade in summer.
Kiran had not expected to be offered a private room for his and Val’s use and felt much gratitude for High-Captain Pryce’s solicitude. The prospect of sleeping in a room full of strangers had worried him on their way to the fort, but he could not have asked for such a favour and doubted Val had, either—he was not the sort to impose on others. To their surprise, or rather his, Bran refused his room, preferring to sleep together with his men instead. He was the only officer to make that choice, which, in their view, was commendable for a man in his position and proved his men’s loyalty was not unfounded. It also forced Kiran to reconsider his opinion of him, or at least of his arrogance, though he kept that to himself.
Before the sun had sunk below the horizon the fires were burning and dinner was simmering in huge pots above them. The courtyard was astir with soldiers moving about, doing their things and chattering in good spirits, like people on a market day, though more disciplined and each following his orders with fair diligence. But the fact they would spend the night on beds rather than on the ground, in open field, seemed to have made them forget the day’s fatigue. The doctor and his son had taken care of their horses, whereafter, having nothing else to do, they left to settle in their room.
Bran and Bredan were sitting on some logs, which served as stools in front of the barrack, cleaning their leather breastplates, when a young man approached them. He was dressed as fort staff.
Bran raised his head.
“High-Captain Pryce requests you and your Second. He is in the meeting room.”
“The first floor, second door, sir.”
“Thank you, we’ll be right there.”
They took their armour inside, then splashed their faces with cold water from a bowl before going to meet their superior. They found him sitting with High-Captain Uren at the long table in the meeting room. This was probably the largest in the tower and doubled as dining room for the occupants, whenever there were more than the regular staff. A dozen or so chairs lined the sides of the table and High-Captain Pryce motioned them to sit.
“How is dinner going outside?” asked Pryce.
“Still cooking, sir,” said Bran.
“And the men?”
“All settled. We have unpacked everything and taken care of the horses.”
“Good, good. I know you are hungry, we all are, so I’ll be brief. There was a message waiting for us here, from Fiodhin. From His Highness Prince Feolan, to be precise.”
Bran and Bredan exchanged a worried look.
“Has something happened?” asked Bran.
“There has been no attack, if that’s what you fear. No. The message concerns the two of you.”
“His Highness requests your presence in Fiodhin. As soon as possible.”
“We are going there, are we not?”
“Sooner than that. We are moving as fast as we can, but that is not much. Two days have already passed since the note arrived.”
“Does it say why?” dared Bredan.
It was not a soldier’s place to question orders and Uren frowned at that, but since Pryce did not deem it necessary to discipline his man, he said nothing. He did not know these two closely—though he knew Captain Keer was the Senral’s son—but had heard good things about them.
“It gives no details,” said Pryce, “but, as far as I know His Highness, he says immediately means it’s important. I know he trusts you, so I’ll take a guess and say he has a different mission for you. Beyond that I have not the faintest inkling and should not, probably.” He looked at Uren and the other agreed.
Bran though for a moment. “We shall leave early in the morning, then. Travel light, as we did in the last two days.”
The High-Captains nodded.
“Take two more men,” said Pryce. “The message doesn’t say that, but we think it’s better this way. I’ll leave it to you to pick the ones you think are best. The rest of them will be under Captain Kerry’s command and mine.”
Bran nodded. “He’s a good man,” he thought aloud. He was older than Bran—all captains were—but Siams Kerry was the most like-minded of them. They often trained together. A strong fellow with a good head on his shoulders, his men would be fine with him.
“I’m pleased you agree,” said Pryce, reminding them of his sharp hearing. Though whether Bran agreed with his replacement or not was irrelevant. “You shall leave before us, so make your choice and let them know tonight. We’ll make arrangements to have provisions ready for you.”
Bran exchanged another look with Bredan. “Bert and Ceri,” he decided.
“The men we shall take.”
“Oh!” Pryce smiled. “I like the way you two work together,” he said, pointing a thick finger towards each of them. “It’s efficient. Very well, that’s settled. Go tell them!”
“Yes, sir. We shall be ready to leave before dawn.”
“I said before us, Captain, but it doesn’t have to be so early. You should rest tonight, since you don’t have to keep watch. Eat well and enjoy yourselves, but don’t drink too much.”
They stood and saluted.
“One more thing,” stopped them Pryce before they reached the door. “Don’t discuss it with the others.”
Bran paused. “I cannot leave them without a word.”
“I’m not saying you should. Just be discreet. Tell them you were given another mission, but no details.”
“There are no details.”
Pryce smiled. “True. But leave His Highness out. You don’t want to stir unnecessary concerns, do you? And tell them to keep it to themselves. I shall handle the rest.”
“I understand.” Bran turned to leave, then paused again. “What about the doctor?”
“They can stay with us. I’ll see to it, don’t worry. Now, go!” dismissed them Pryce, waving a hand.
Outside the sky was turning a deep purple and a chilly wind was blowing from the north. On the dirty stone stairs of the tower, they stopped.
“I hope they will be fine,” muttered Bran, shivering.
“Who? Val and—”
“Oh! If it’s Captain Kerry, they will be just fine. And we’ll meet in Fiodhin.”
“Will we? I hope so.”
“Are you concerned about them? Why?”—Bran shrugged—“You have it backwards, my friend. We are the ones leaving without an escort. They will have a whole company to ride with, why worry?”
“I don’t know. Perhaps because for some it’s their first time so far from home?”
“How is that amusing?”
Bredan smirked. “You are acting like Glen. If they find out…”
“Tsk!” grimaced Bran. “Let’s go talk to them. Dinner should be ready soon.”
Compared to the previous nights the dinner was positively a feast: soup made with fresh vegetables, cheese, smoked pork stew, soft bread and honey, ale and wine. The keeper had even brought Val a kettle, to brew tea for him and his son, and the doctor was pleased beyond words. The fort had a generous stock of firewood and keeping the fires going for a couple of hours was no significant loss, despite their size. They were not like the modest one from the night before, but big, almost like Ardaena’s New Year bonfires, bright and hot, illuminating the entire court with their heartwarming light. Everyone had gathered around them to warm themselves, talking and laughing, while ale and wine poured from the barrels. Rhun was so pleased he promised to hold back his temper and not get mad at anyone poking fun at him.
“One would think you’ve never spent a day in your life without drinking,” mocked him Toph. “Did your mother breastfeed you ale?”
“Now, that would be something,” replied Rhun, delighted. “I’ll have you know this is the first time I slept on a stomach full of water for two nights straight. I don’t think I could put up with it again,” he said, watching the fire reflect in the amber drink with an affection bordering on piety. He gulped it down in one go, letting out a loud belch that seemed to try the limits of Toph’s forbearance. “Aaa!”
“Unbelievable,” muttered his friend with contempt, sipping his wine with the elegance of a noble-bred.
Kiran’s face lit up and he laughed softly to himself. These two were such an odd, entertaining pair. As were Cai and Owein, Glen and Rowan, Bran and Bredan. Even Ceri and Anwyl, though the former was so uniformly calm it was hard to tell whether anything or anyone could stir an emotion in him. But what surprised him the most were his own emotions, the warmth that had insinuated into his heart, unnoticed, until watching these colourful people had made him aware of it. When, instead of sneering over their idiosyncrasies, he found himself smiling diverted. Had anyone told him, two days ago, he will feel at ease in their company—not enjoy, for that would have been unthinkable—he would have laughed in their face. He glanced towards Val, who was engaged in stories with Glen. He was in good humour, which was to be expected since, unlike him, Val had always been in favour of getting to know these men better.
“I’m so pleased you finally allowed yourself to relax,” said Bredan, appearing out of nowhere, in his usual manner, to sit beside him. But that did not startle Kiran as before. “You should smile more often. It suits you better.”
“They are an intriguing lot,” admitted Kiran, pointing to the others with his chin.
“I told you,” said Bredan with a playful grin. “There’s not a dull day with these ones. They are good men. All of them. You’ll see.”
All? Of course, he was talking about the other men under Bran’s command, the ones they had met that morning—how many were they? For a few moments Kiran just stared at Bredan, trying to guess his thoughts, his intentions. With a man like him, he felt, there could always be a reason behind his affability. But in that moment he could see no deceit or falsity in the jade eyes or beyond them. Nor in the smiling face, or the hands casually cupping the wine mug, or the legs upon which the elbows rested… nor the heart which was beating steadily, kind and caring. A complicated man, indeed, but a good one, as he often said with fondness about his comrades.
“I believe they are,” said Kiran, at last, sipping from his tea.
“Hoy, Kiran! What’s that in your cup?” boomed Rhun’s voice behind him. “Tea? Damn it, boy, what are you, a milksop? Drink like a man!” He took the cup from his hand before Kiran could say anything—“Allow me”—and gave it to Bredan. “I’ll bring you a proper drink.”
Bredan nudged him. “If you were planning to run, now would be the moment.”
“Thank you.” Kiran took back the cup, downed the tea and leaned closer to Val. “I’ll go see Sylph and Danan,” he whispered.
“Be careful,” said Val, then returned to his conversation.
We’re in a fort, what could possibly happen?
“Where’d he go?” asked Rhun, looking around the fire. Bredan shrugged. “Damn! He tricked me,” grumbled the big man. He took a gulp from the mug, licking his lips. “Slippery bastard.”
Ales & Tales was not crowded yet, but twilight was the time folk usually began to fill the tavern. The regular customers were already there, warming up. By nightfall there would hardly be an empty table. Drest and Alden were sitting in a corner, far from the door. Gelda placed two pints in front of them.
“Thank you, dear,” said Alden, smiling at her. He looked around the place. “I like it better at this hour. It’s quiet. Cheers.”
“Cheers,” answered Drest.
The wooden mugs clanked with a dull sound.
“Mmm, so good!” said Alden with satisfaction, wiping his mouth.
“I heard there was a row at the inn, after the fair.”
“Row? No. Folk got stewed and some blockheads thought a hopping match was a good idea.”
“On the tables,” added Alden.
“Aye. They broke two tables and some benches. Sturdy pieces, those ones,” said Alden, grabbing the table top and shaking it, as proof. “Oak.”
“Can you fix them?”
“Pfft! Finished them today. Good as new. Noll helped me. He’s got good hands, that boy.”
“Treading in your footsteps, eh?”
The tavern was slowly filling. The doorbells jingled every time someone came in and Alden, who was facing the door, sometimes nodded towards the newcomers. Drest never turned his head. He seemed preoccupied and not in the mood for meeting others. Well, he had never been a chatty fellow. From the kitchen came the smell of fresh pottage.
“Tomorrow I want to finish Val’s shelves,” said Alden. “Varnish them.” He was just making conversation, until his friend was ready to speak. Drest was the one who had said he wanted to talk to him.
“About that…” began Drest. “They left yesterday morning. Val and Kiran.”
“Don’t think so.”
“What, travelling again? I thought he said they will stay put for a while.”
“He did. But he got a letter from a friend. Said they must leave after the fair.”
“It’s the first time I hear about this. When did you talk?”
“The day of the fair.”
“We met here, at lunch, after they helped those soldiers. They said nothing of the sort.”
“I know. Val paid me a visit after that.”
Alden’s eyes narrowed. Drest may have been Val’s oldest friend, but they all took turns in looking after the house when he and his son were away. And they all cared about them. Sharing their plans only with Drest was a little unfair.
“What did he say?”
“That his friend needs their immediate assistance.” It was not the first time Val received such requests, but… Drest took a mouthful of ale. It tasted sweeter than other times, but had a pleasant flavour. “I think that’s not the real reason, though.”
“Because, when I went to their place yesterday, I found a letter for us. It says that if anyone came here asking about him, we should say he is travelling to Vessar.”
“I didn’t know he had friends in Vessar. Wonder why he never mentioned it.” Alden lifted the mug as if weighing it.
“If you ask me, they’re not going there.”
Alden’s pint stopped midway to his mouth, then he put it back on the table. “My dear man, you’re confusing me. Would you, please, start over?”
Drest muttered a few annoyed words, before going back to the beginning. “Val got a letter from some friend of his—”
“Not from—just a friend! I don’t know where he’s from. Or when the letter came, so stop interrupting me!”—Alden raised his hands, compliant—“Seems that friend needs their help and so they decided to pay him a visit. That’s what Val told me, but… I’ve been thinking about it since yesterday and I don’t think that friend was really asking for help. I think he was warning Val someone is looking for him.”
“How should I know?” snapped Drest. “I’m just guessing here!”
“Tsk! Why do you think so?”
“Because, in the message, Val says someone—doesn’t say who—might come in the village, asking about him. That sounds very much as if he was expecting it. In which case we should say he went to Vessar.”
“And that’s a lie…”
“It must be, because he never mentioned that when he came to see me.”
“Maybe he forgot,” suggested Alden.
“Val? Ha! Would you?”
“Didn’t think so… In fact the whole letter is strange.”
Drest shook his head. “Better read it yourself.”
“Where is it?”
“I left it at his house. We should meet there tomorrow.”
Alden sighed. “Sometimes I wonder whether we’ve ever known what that man thinks or does. He is so capricious.”
“His mind is complicated.”
“Aye. But that explains why he didn’t show up after the fair… Why didn’t he tell me?”
“You were not alone. He insisted that this must not go beyond you and me.”
“What about Belesni? And Ansa? Noll? They will be worried, especially Ansa.”
“Aye, she is very fond of them, but she can’t keep a secret. Women like to talk. Their tongues slip and they don’t even know it.” Despite often grumbling about her talking too much, Drest loved his wife dearly.
“Can’t argue with that,” agreed Alden. “We’ll have to think of something to tell everyone.”
For a while they just drank, lost in thoughts.
“There’s another thing,” said Drest in a low voice. “He left a book with the letter… Wonders of the East… something, by Ellis Greene.”
“I know. The letter says we might want to read it, you and me.”
“The name sounds familiar, I think I’ve seen it in his library. Did you take a look?”
“I just leafed through it a bit. Has all sorts of pictures.”
Alden rubbed his cheek, thoughtful. “Did you read any of his books?”
“I tried, once. It was…”
“Not for me. Too many words I never heard of.”
“Exactly. This book he left, is it thick?”
“Um…” Drest looked at his palm. “About two fingers.”
“Pfff ha-ha! He thought we might like it, didn’t he? Us, mighty readers! Maybe even finish it before they’re back, eh?”
“Don’t you see? The message, the book, them leaving on such short notice—they’re not planning to return very soon. In fact they might have no plan at all!”
Drest stared at his friend, dumbstruck. “Nails ’n hammers! I think you might be right about that.”
“Sly bastard.” Alden slammed a fist on the table. “Confound him and his secrets! Why can’t he trust us?”
“It bothered me all this time, but I couldn’t put my finger on it until you said it. The message almost sounds like a farewell.”
“We’re going there tonight. I want to see that letter and the damn book.”
“Maybe it’s meant to explain things.”
“I’ll be damned if I don’t read that bloody thing!” said Alden, grabbing the mug. “And there’d better be some answers in there, or else…”
That evening the horses were quieter. Perhaps some had been there before, or perhaps it was the walls that made them feel safer, but few stirred when he entered the stables. Danan and Sylph seemed to have made a couple of friends and Kiran watched their talk and listened to their content hearts for a while, but did not go to them. I’ll let you with your own tonight, he thought, leaving as quietly as he came.
It would have been rude to stay away from the other men for too long, especially after the way he had snuck out. All he wanted was to evade Rhun’s attempts to make him drink and have a moment to himself, perhaps sit a little under the huge plane trees and listen to the wind in their leaves. They were so old the roots were sticking out like veins, thick and twisted, and some of the branches were very low, spreading out almost parallel to the ground, giant arms with hundreds of fingers. Under the pale moons-light they looked bizarre.
He noticed movement in the shadow of the trees. A man was leaning lazily against one of them, as if waiting for someone. Kiran turned to leave—there was no point in staying if he could not be alone—but the man came towards him. He was a soldier, heavily built and not very friendly looking, who, by all appearances, was waiting for him, though Kiran did not remember seeing him before. He was not one of those who had welcomed their party that morning. What does he want? he wondered. The unsavoury smile hanging on the corners of the man’s lips and the lascivious way his eyes measured him, head to toe, were all the answer he needed.
“Taking a romantic walk under the moons?” asked the soldier.
“Helps with the digestion.”
“Aye, a fine feast this one. You one of the new faces Rhun and his lot brought today?”
Brought? We’re not luggage, you overgrown oaf. “We arrived together, yes.” Kiran started towards the barracks with a calm step.
“Leaving so quickly? Look at this place, all nice ’n cosy… quiet. What’s the hurry?”
“It’s rude to let them wait for me.”
With a few strides the man was by his side. “How’d those pansies get a pretty thing like you to join ’em? What’d they promise?”
“To show me some big swords,” mocked Kiran.
“Who, those sorry arses? Ha-ha! Shitting their pants ’cause of some berries. I could show you a really big sword.” The man grinned, throwing a strong, furry arm around Kiran’s shoulders.
That evoked an unpleasant memory, but he resisted the urge to shake it off right away. He had learned his lesson a year ago. “You underestimate a wild fruit. That was also their mistake. You wouldn’t believe the things it can do to a man.”
“What are you, a doctor?”
“Well, you haven’t seen a real man. Rhun’s all wind and piss, that’s what he is.”
Kiran smirked. So this was an older rivalry. He did not know Rhun that well, but he could tell which of the two had their organs mixed up. As if to prove his opinion, the man misinterpreted his smile.
“I’ve got something very nice down here,” he whispered in Kiran’s ear, touching his groin with the other hand. The ticklish breath made Kiran shudder with disgust, but the soldier took it for arousal. “Could teach you a few manly things,” he added, licking his lips. His voice was growing thicker.
“That’s very thoughtful of you,” replied Kiran, freeing himself from the furry arm, “but I doubt you can surprise me.” He turned to face the persistent man. “I’ve seen a lot.”
“Bet you have,” said the oaf, baring his teeth.
“Swollen, bruised, bitten, broken.” Kiran watched the grin wither. “I remember a fellow who got stuck deep in a sheep’s backside. Ugly business. Took us a while to free him. He was drunk, obviously, nonetheless he was so well endowed he almost lost it.”
The oaf was staring at him, stupefied. The prominence on his neck was moving as though he had trouble swallowing and the hand on his privates was cupped protectively. His aggressive confidence kept dwindling as he was struggling to understand why his advances had led to such a subject.
Kiran was not even blinking. “I’ve seen all sorts of them,” he said with indifference.
“That’s not what I…” trailed off the soldier, noticing someone coming.
“We’ve been looking for you,” said Bredan, walking towards them with his usual, easy-going attitude. But there was something else in it, in the way he put his hand on Kiran’s left shoulder, which made the oaf flinch.
“You’ve got some nerve to sneak away like that,” growled Rhun, offended. He stopped to Kiran’s right, crossing his arms. “Cheeky bastard!”
“Forgive me,” said Kiran, “I just—well, I was having a conversation with this gentleman and I lost all sense of time.” Beyond the guilty tone, they sensed his relief.
“About?” asked Bredan, feigning curiosity.
“Oh, nothing special. I was just telling him of the crazy things I’ve seen. Such as what can happen to a man who sticks his manhood where it doesn’t belong, that sort of thing.”
“You mean that crackbrain with the mare?” played along Bredan.
“Right! I forgot that one.” He turned his attention to the oaf. “There was this odd fellow—”
But the soldier stopped him. “Other time, maybe. I’ve to go.” His passion had deflated. He shot Rhun a hateful look and left without a second glance.
“Sly one, aren’t we? I like that.” Bredan chuckled, patting Kiran on the shoulder.
“What are you doing here?”
“We came to rescue you,” said Rhun, looking in the oaf’s direction. “That bastard was slobbering all over you. Can’t you tell?”
“What do you take me for? I knew what he was doing.” He brushed his neck as if something unpleasant were crawling on his skin. “Thank you for the help. I don’t know how long that game would have stalled him.”
“Anytime,” answered Bredan.
They ambled towards the fire, where the others were drinking.
“Rhun, what’s his problem with you?” asked Kiran.
“Eh, he’s a lout, that’s his problem. His hand’s quicker than his wits. Why?”
“He called you, um… vain,” said Kiran.
“Sodding son of a—I bet he didn’t put it so elegantly.”
Kiran shook his head, letting out a playful giggle. It sounded like that of a child and his companions could not resist it.
“Not everyone is a gentleman here,” said Bredan, growing serious. “Don’t let your guard down.”
“Aye. That one’s a horny bastard, though he’s about as witty as a dog’s arse. But others are sharper. Men took an interest.”
“What? You haven’t noticed?”
Kiran was perplexed. Not because such a thing was a novelty, but because somehow it had escaped his attention. Usually he was not so careless. Usually. Except last year. This time he had allowed himself to feel a little too comfortable with these strangers—because they are good men, he argued—ignoring the fact there were other tens of soldiers who had no idea who he and Val were or why they were there.
“You stand out in this lot,” said Rhun. “You’re no soldier.”
Neither were the other camp followers. Just because I am mannered and don’t flaunt a sword doesn’t mean I’m helpless, Kiran would have said, but that would have been rude and unfair. They meant well and none in their group had been any less than friendly. Aside from Bran, that is. “I’ll be more careful… How did you know I was in a tight spot?”
“We’re keeping an eye on you and your father,” said Bredan. “Last I saw, Val was conferring with our physicians. They seemed to enjoy themselves… if talking about medicine and sick can be enjoyable.”
“Oh?… And why do you keep an eye on us?”
Bredan snickered. “So suspicious! Rhun just told you. It’s the least we can do. Why did you help us?”
When they reached the fire, the others raised their drinks and cheered. Surprisingly enough, they were not drunk yet, most of them. Rowan was perhaps the most flushed, his freckles seeming to have multiplied and his dimples deeper than usual, as he kept giggling at the not so veiled jokes of his comrades.
Bran had broken the news before dinner and before Val and Kiran had returned from their room. As expected, it had taken them by surprise. They were not stupid. The order seemed unnecessary, since all of them were heading to Fiodhin. What were an extra few days? Unless something had happened. Even without other details they figured their mates will probably be given a different mission, one that might prevent their reunion once the rest of the company reached the city.
Ordinarily that would have raised no concerns on either part, since duty sometimes took their captain away for weeks, but the prospect of a war and the fact none of them had ever seen one, let alone fight it, made all the difference. For once even the extravagant claims about the enemy king and his army seemed conceivable. It occurred to them they might not see each other for a long time. Or worse. For it was one thing to talk about war and enemies in a history lesson or during training sessions, and another to ride to them, knowing there was a chance they might not come back. And they suddenly realized that chance was entirely possible.
Perhaps that was why they seemed to take drinking less seriously than the rest of the men, as if trying to enjoy the evening with a less muddled mind. They promised their captain to take care of the doctor and his son, and Rhun and Owein swore to beat the life out of anyone who had a problem with them. Of course neither of the two in question knew anything about these plans.
“Is everything well?” asked Bert, when they sat down.
“Yes,” answered Kiran, doing his best to look merry.
“You’re not getting away again without drinking,” threatened Rhun, pushing a mug of ale in his hand. “Bottom’s up!”
“Cheers!” said Kiran and downed it, wiping his mouth with the back of the hand.
“That’s the spirit!” cheered Rhun, overjoyed. Everyone toasted and drank and laughed.
Kiran made efforts to enjoy himself, but Rhun’s words were bothering him. He and Val had just joined the convoy and already there were signs of trouble. Riding with a small group was one thing, but ten days in a company so large and diverse could turn into a disaster. They were safer alone. He had no doubt Val would agree, after hearing about that little incident. Soon, though, the mirth of the men around the fire rubbed off onto him and the darker thoughts left his mind.
Only Bran and Val were missing.
Back in their small room, Val noticed his son was gloomier than one ought to be after such an enjoyable evening. But he said nothing until they cleaned themselves and went to bed. They had found a large bowl of water and clean clothes for scrubbing the body in front of the door. It was not exactly a bath and the water was cold, but it was better than nothing. They already had two days’ worth of dust and sweat on their skin.
“The dinner was good tonight,” said Val.
“Mm, it was,” answered his son.
“Everyone was in great spirits.”
“And the wine was very good, Keln is not famous for nothing.”
“Mm, yes. I didn’t taste the wine,” Kiran answered absently.
“Rhun made me drink ale. I didn’t want to mix them.”
“Yes, that would have gotten to your head… Are you going to say what it is that bothers you?”
“We need to talk, Val.”
“And here I thought we were talking already. Poor me!”
“I think we should leave them. Ride to Fiodhin alone.”
Val rose on one elbow to see his son’s face better, though not with much success, since the candles had been snuffed out.
“Remember that evening at Tam’s, when our friends amused themselves on my account and you said that sometimes circumstances give rise to unusual behaviours?”—Val flumped on the pillow with a sigh—“And that I should learn to keep my wits about me and deal with it?”
“And did you?”
“Quite nicely, actually.” He told his father the whole story.
“Well done,” said Val, feeling both amused at Kiran’s preposterous lie and sympathetic towards that soldier. “Though perhaps you exaggerated a little.”
“Perhaps, but it was refreshing to see that oaf’s consternation. He repelled me. I felt revenged.”
“I’m sure you did. And I see your point.”
“Rhun says he might not be the only one.” Rhun was certain of it, but he did not want to say so and admit he had been careless.
“One would not be so hard to deal with, but more… I don’t think their captains will blame them, should anything happen. We are the ones who don’t belong here.”
“Therefore the source of trouble.”
Val paused, thoughtful. “You were right, this was not such a good idea.”
“I know you meant well with it. And I must say that, to my surprise, Bran and his men are not so bad. A little rough around the edges, but once you get past that… I’m beginning to like them.”
“Had I thought less of them than I do, I would not have suggested to join. But tonight’s incident shows that it was a bad decision, regardless of my intentions. Imagine what would happen if he awakened. It would wreak havoc.”
“They would think me an abomination.” What would they do to him? And if word got out, how long before those men would hear about it?
Kiran’s stomach tightened. Riding with the Royal Guards was supposed to shield them from prying eyes. But an incident such as that could, instead, draw more attention to them than if they were alone.
“I should have thought better.” Val’s tone was ridden with self-reproach. “Not that I didn’t, but I made the mistake of assuming all of them were like Bran’s men… To think I disregarded my own statements.”
“You could not have known, Val.”
“I ought to have. What is the worth of my experience otherwise? Your duty is to protect him, and mine is to protect you… I still believe we should go to Fiodhin, just not with them.”
The question hanged in the silence of the room for a few moments, and Kiran heard his own heart beating loud and fast.
“We’ll decide that later. One thing at a time.”
Val’s words were reassuring and, because he was not eager to make a decision, Kiran felt some relief. “I don’t regret coming so far,” he said, after a while. “Nor meeting these people. There’s something about them that reminds me of our friends. I will miss them a little… I think.”
“That’s a good feeling. Sleep well. I will speak to High-Captain Pryce in the morning.”
“Good night, Val.”
Both of them woke up at dawn, to the low, steady patter of rain on the stone casement. Val out of habit and Kiran because he had another nightmare. Lately—since around their last journey that summer, he realized—they were more frequent. Every so often they started off as his own, with him being trapped by the cold, wicked will of that man, but ended as one of those strange dreams that were not his. Just like on the morning they left Ulmaby. And although the latter were not frightening, there was an ominous feel about that juxtaposition, of which he could not rid himself.
They were not the earliest risers, though, some of the fort staff were already up and they offered them the use of the kitchen to make tea.
During the night the weather had changed. Temperature had dropped. Grey clouds hung low in the sky and the rain poured from them with a dull hiss, blending with the thin veil of mist which filled the entire court. They took refuge in the stables, sitting in the open doors, on trusses of hay. And, as they enjoyed their privacy and the flavoured brew—while most of the camp was still asleep—they conferred about the dream, turning it over and making assumptions, and eventually came to the conclusion it was merely a reflection of Kiran’s uneasiness with regards to their situation, which the evening’s incident had brought to the fore.
On the way back to the kitchen they met High-Captain Pryce, who was coming down to have his breakfast. Val joined him and they retired in the meeting room.
“How did it go?” Kiran asked eagerly.
“Splendidly,” said Val, looking well pleased.
“Did you tell him the truth?”
“No. I said we should be in the city sooner and he understood. We travel light and much faster.”
“That sounds believable.”
“Because it’s true. I would not be surprised if he guessed more, he is a clever man. But if so, he didn’t show it.”
“Clever and considerate.”
“He is a High-Captain, I should expect at least that much. Anyway, we might still have some company.”
“It is not confirmed yet.”
Kiran wanted to know more, but he knew from his father’s look that he will not say anything else until he was certain, so he did not insist.
“Good morning, Captain,” greeted Bran. “You wanted to speak?”
They were in the meeting room, just the two of them. The camp was awakening and High-Captain Uren was outside, checking the provisions with the keeper.
“Good morning, Bran.” When they were alone, High-Captain Pryce was not formal. He was old enough to be his father and liked him nearly as much. They knew each other since Bran was just a boy. “Sit. Are the lads ready?”
“Yes. A quick breakfast and we are good to go.”
“Very well. There’s been a change this morning and I wanted your opinion on it. The doctor said he and his son will leave us. They must reach Fiodhin sooner than we can. It’s understandable, the carts are slow.”—Bran frowned—“Do you know anything of it?”
“No, we didn’t speak this morning.”
“I thought so. But you don’t seem surprised. Is there anything I should know?”
Bran did not answer immediately. He would have preferred that others did not learn about it, but he never lied to his captain. “There was a small incident last night, but nothing of consequence. We dealt with it.”
“It cannot be of no consequence if you think they could be leaving because of it. Go on!” encouraged him Pryce.
“One of the men had a disagreement with Kiran.”
“Of what sort?”
“The… improper sort.”
“I see,” said Pryce, smiling. “The boy stands out, eh?” He leaned back in his chair. “I cannot say it surprises me, although the doctor made no mention of it. Who was it? One of your men?”
“I’d rather not say, if you will allow me. We dealt with it in a civil manner and no harm has been done.”
“Hm, not one of yours.”—Bran did not blink—“Very well, I will not pursue this. Better not stir the pot. But I was thinking you could continue the journey with the doctor. You said you trust them and they have more experience with long travels. It could prove helpful. What do you say?”
“You said we must ride fast,” riposted Bran. It came out so spontaneously he did not even think about it. Valan and his son were perfectly capable to match their pace. These were his emotions speaking.
“I don’t see that as a problem, but you know them better. It is why I’m asking. If it’s troublesome, then forget about it. Your mission comes first.”
“Have you told them?”
“I told them you will leave, but I didn’t suggest anything.”
And why should there be any problem, reasonably speaking? They had many qualities to recommend them. Moreover, could this not be the perfect opportunity to find some answers to the questions that had been secretly bothering him for a year? And if they could not keep up…
“I see no problem, either,” he made up his mind. “If they slow us down, we can always part ways.”
“Then I will let them know.”
By the time the whole camp was astir they were on the move and, besides their trustworthy group, the fort staff and a handful of early risers, nobody noticed them missing yet. Their comrades sent them off with promises to get together in the city as soon as they arrive. They thanked again Val and Kiran for all the help and expressed the pleasure of having made their acquaintance, hoping to meet again and have another drink.
“Next time I won’t let you worm your way out of it,” Rhun threatened Kiran.
“Interesting way to make an invitation. But I’m afraid our paths will separate there. Fiodhin is a big city and we each have our duties, I cannot see how we could accomplish that.”
“We’ll think of something,” said Toph. “You and Valan take care and don’t let those two”—pointing to Bert and Ceri—“eat anything unusually tasty looking.”
Those two sneered and scoffed at him. Ceri, in particular, expressed his opinion in a very eloquent, though not equally polite manner.
An unexpected feeling nudged Kiran’s heart when they passed the fort’s gates, a mixture of sadness and concern. It was almost the same as when they had left Ulmaby, wondering when they would see their friends again. But they barely knew these men, where did that sadness come from? Was it because they were marching towards unknown dangers? Or because they reminded him of their true friends? He could not tell. Perhaps it was just the weight of that leaden sky, lazily emptying its load over the land. For the rain was not heavy and tempestuous like summer storms, nor was it merely a drizzle, but it poured gently and incessantly—a cold autumn rain, the sort which lasted for days. There was a certain sadness about those. He pulled his cloak tighter around himself.
“Will you miss them?” asked Bredan.
“Perhaps, a little,” he admitted.
“Then you must meet them in the city.”
Kiran was confused: were they not getting ready for a war?
“We are not regular soldiers,” Bredan answered the unspoken question. “Our duty as Royal Guards is to protect the Royal House. We will probably not engage, unless the King himself or the princes will.”
“Or if the worst comes to the worst?”
“Let’s hope for a happier conclusion.”