“No, but seriously, Ran- and not to sound like you’re not welcome, because you absolutely are. But Ran, not to put too fine a point on it, why are you here?”
I stared at Kellan, my mouth hanging open in surprise. So did Oskar, Bryce Haeward, and both of the am Lewards. The only one present who didn’t seem terribly shocked by the question was Ran.
For a moment, the only sounds were the crackling of the fire and the distant snores of soldiers somewhere else in the camp. Munder and Hamund and Bryce shared the tent next to ours, and we’d all drifted in and gathered around the small campfire between their tent and ours as the evening had worn down. A little distance away, Bat was sitting with his back to a crate, possibly asleep.
Despite my melancholy afternoon and my late start I’d managed to get well and pleasantly drunk, and I felt better than I had, though I harbored a suspicion that I was going to suffer for it come the morning. There’d been a few jeers at me earlier in the evening, but most of it seemed to be good-natured ribbing rather than actual anger, and most of the same boys who’d joked about my getting them ‘killed’ had been the ones to share toasts with me, or get me to join them in songs about the glory of combat and the honor of the fallen. None of the jokes at my expense had been as startling as the question Kellan had just asked.
Ran shrugged. “Recruiter said we were supposed to sign up, it seemed like a good idea to me. So I did.”
“Yeah, but…” Kellan gestured toward Ran with his half-empty cup. “The recruiter said everyone over sixteen. No offense, but you’re maybe fourteen, and born late in the year at that.” He sloshed the cup in my direction. “I think Colum’s kid brother is taller than you are.”
Ran looked at me. “You have a brother? You never said.”
I nodded. “Thon. He’s thirteen this year. Don’t know about the height thing though.”
“I think Kellan’s right,” Oskar said. “Thon’s probably two fingers taller than you are, Ran.”
“Wait,” Ran said, “Oskar, didn’t you say you had a brother named Thon? Are you and Colum brothers too, then?”
I coughed, spraying out the drink I was taking. I could see Kellan wince, and Oskar gave me an apologetic look. “Well,” he said, “it’s sort of a complicated-”
“We’re getting off the topic,” Kellan interjected. “The point is, why did you, Ran, fourteen years old, four foot tall and eighty pounds, march off to war? I’m not trying to be rude, or… I’m trying not to be rude, I guess, but it’s going to be dangerous, and I’m worried it’ll be even more dangerous for you than it will be for the rest of us.”
Bryce raised a hand. “Easy, Kel. The kid doesn’t want to say, he doesn’t have to.”
“No,” Ran said, “it’s all right.” He took a swig of his mead, and cleared his throat. “It’s true I’m not sixteen this year, but I am fifteen. And I’m skinny, sure, but I’m not that short, not compared to most people in Stony Hill.”
“That’s fair,” I said. “I’ve been up to the quarry there a couple of times, and I was the tallest one there. Not a lot of tall miners, I guess.”
Ran nodded. “Yeah. But, yeah, I am pretty skinny, not all that strong. I’ve got five brothers, and all of them have arms like Oskar’s. I’m not great with a pick and can’t really carry a basket of ore, and my father says I have to work if I want to eat, so they make me squeeze down in places where they can’t fit, go looking for ore or coal with no help but a line tied around me.”
He stared down into his cup, his voice flat. “I’ve been almost caught in cave-ins a couple of times, and last year I got into a patch of bad air and passed out before I even knew anything was wrong. If my brother hadn’t been paying close attention to the rope…” He shook his head. “When Lord Carson’s recruiter came to town, I signed up right away. Everyone in my family thought I was crazy to do it too, said some of the same things Kellan just said, but I guess I figured it’d hardly be worse, right?” He took another drink. “Rather die with a view of the sky, I guess.”
Another long silence hung over the campfire. Kellan cleared his throat as though preparing to speak, but didn’t seem to be able to get the words to leave his mouth. Ran looked up, and winced. “Sorry. That was a bit darker than I meant it to be.” He smiled a sheepish little grin. “Mostly I just wanted to make a bunch of money so the next time my brother tells me to cram myself into a hole in the ground I can tell him to cram himself up his own asshole.”
I nearly spit my drink out again, and Oskar and the am Lewards all burst out laughing at once. Bryce clapped a hand on Ran’s shoulder, and gestured to Kellan. “See? He’s here for the same reason we all are.”
The laughter slowly subsided, and I took another swallow of mead. Bryce’s words had reminded me of what Master Vardon had said to me the day the recruiter had arrived in Cantlay Town. “Why are we all here?” Everyone looked over at me, and I raised a hand in front of me. “Not, like, why did you all sign up, but… We’ve been in camp for how long now?”
“Six, seven weeks maybe?” Oskar said.
I gave him a small nod. “Right, so almost two months. And I get that we’ve been training and preparing, but I don’t think I’ve heard anyone ever mention who we’re fighting. Have you?”
“The recruiter said they’d attacked Whiteport and Westharbor,” Munder said.
Hamund nodded, and ran his fingers through his sandy-colored hair. “But you’re right, Colum, I don’t think he ever said who’d done the attacking.”
Ran looked concerned. “Do you think they’re hiding something? Something they don’t want us to know?”
The sitting form I’d almost forgotten was Bat stirred. “You might want to stow that kind of talk, lads,” he said, getting to his feet, “at least until you’re absolutely sure none of the Peerage is around. I’ve heard stories of a lord’s ear catching one too many soldiers saying ‘what isn’t he telling us?’ and deciding the whole unit was secretly out to get him. Didn’t end well, for the lord or the soldiers.”
I lowered my head. “Sorry, Bat. Won’t happen again.”
He cocked an eyebrow at me, then looked over each shoulder. “Sure, lad.” He sauntered over to our fire and then knelt down, gesturing to us to come closer. We all leaned in; Ran got up to a kneeling position, his balance so far forward I was worried for a moment he was going to fall into the campfire.
Bat’s face looked ghoulish in the low firelight. “Now, this is just rumor, mind, but I’ve got a friend or two who earned knighthoods during the last Grardish campaign, and I asked around. It seems like everyone is as in the dark as we are.”
Kellan gave Bat a confused, dubious look. “What, everyone? Lord Carson doesn’t know who we’re up against? The king doesn’t know?”
Bat nodded, slowly. “Aye lad, that’s what I’m saying. According to the rumors, the king sent tax collectors to the coast last autumn, and they never came back. Moreover, nobody’s seen anyone come out of either city since early winter, or even anyone who’s been close enough to see one of the cities. No traders, no merchants, not so much as a minstrel, and none of the scouts sent to see what’s going on have come back either. It’s almost like the cities aren’t even there any more, except anyone who goes to investigate why that might be up and vanishes.”
“How could that happen?” I asked. “Who could even do something like that?”
“No clue. The Hen says Carson’s convinced it’s the Grards, the Ingus clan maybe, trying to take a chunk of Tilaird to match their chunk of Atlin. Thinks they’ve set up a siege and are capturing traders and scouts, but that doesn’t sit right with me. The Grards raid, they don’t seige. They attack, steal everything they can, smash everything they can’t, and then leave. If they do it enough times that everyone leaves, they set up a settlement in the ashes and call the place ‘conquered’.”
Munder frowned, and squinted at Bat as though he were trying to work something out in his head. “So, if nobody knows what’s happening, how does the king or Lord Carson know they need more soldiers to fight it?”
“Officially? The king’s wisdom is his strength, and he knows what’s needed.” Bat leaned in ever closer. “Honestly, though, what else do you do when you’re facing a threat of an unknown size, an enemy army that’s managed to hide itself from you completely? You assume it’s as big as it possibly could be, and raise as big an army as you can in response.”
We were all quiet for a moment. Bat picked up someone’s mead, Hamund’s, I think, and downed the rest of what was in the wooden cup in a single swallow. “Don’t worry too much, lads. Worrying is for the knights and the lords, we’re just here for the fighting. And it shouldn’t be much longer until we know for sure what we’re up against.” He stood back up, and wiped his mouth. “There’s a reason today was the day for the mock battle, and for your big night off. Got word from The Hen an hour ago that orders have come down from Lord Carson. We’re packing up and moving out in the morning.”
He gestured to the tents on either side of our fire. “Finish your drinks, lads, and then get some sleep. We’ve got a long march ahead of us.”