“The horrors of battle, whatever the age, have always been awful but mercifully short. By far, a soldier’s mettle has always been more sorely tested by transit than by the fighting itself.”
-Caurus Etrenius, “A Treatise on the Nature of Conflict”
“He was a bright man, to be sure, but Etrenius died, what, two hundred years ago? Two hundred fifty? The point is, he never met the Fae.”
-Harbort Skel, in an interview with the author
I had trouble sleeping again that night despite the mead, turning what Bat had said over and over in my head, and so when he came to rouse us in the morning I was awake to greet him. We exchanged a look and a nod, and then Bat took a deep breath and shouted into the tent. “Up! Now, boys!” He grabbed the top edge of the door and gave it a few quick tugs, making the whole tent shake. “The Hen wants everyone on parade in ten minutes!”
Ran bolted upright, on his feet even before I was. “Up! We’ll be there!”
Bat grunted his approval and left the tent. Kellan raised an arm to make an indistinct gesture and then rolled over and draped the arm across his eyes. Oskar, who’d pushed himself up to his elbows, picked up a boot and threw it at Kellan. “No you don’t, you bastard,” he said, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. “We’re all just as hung over as you are. Quit dreaming about your bakery maid and her warm tarts and get up!”
Kellan put a hand up and pushed himself up with the other, just as Oskar was about to throw the other boot. “Got it, I got it. Up. Getting up.”
I pulled on my trousers and went looking around my bedroll for my shirt. The one I found was the one I’d worn into ‘battle’, the one covered in grass and mud and the blood I’d wiped from my face. “Ugh, has anyone seen my other tunic, the one I was wearing last night?”
Kellan pointed over at the chest in the middle of the tent. “That it there?”
I looked over. Oskar had just walked over to the chest, and he picked up the tunic that was lying on top. He looked at it, and I swear that for a moment I saw him look thoughtfully at the back flap of the tent, but then he rolled his eyes and tossed the shirt to me wordlessly.
I pulled the shirt over my head, and then looked over at Oskar, frowning. “Hey,” I said. He looked up from the chest, an eyebrow raised. I nodded at him. “Sorry, about yesterday. And thank you.”
He shook his head and waved me away. “It’s… fine. Don’t worry about it.” He finished fishing his own tunic out of the chest and pulled it over his head.
As I tightened the laces on my shirt, I caught a glimpse of Kellan out of the corner of my eye, grinning at me. I scowled at him. He nodded briefly toward Oskar, then at me, then turned up both his palms in a gesture that said, ‘See?’.
I shoved my heel down into my boot, then aimed a light kick at Kellan’s knee. “Shut up. Come on, let’s move.”
We were among the first to line up at the center of our portion of camp, but the rest of the boys followed soon after, and by the time Sir Hagan arrived our full seventy-one man compliment was standing in rough formation.
Our commander took a moment looking us over. He stopped briefly in front of one of the boys from Wollen, who had an impressively dark black eye. “Get that in the battle, did you?”
“Yes, Sir Hagan,” the boy said.
Sir Hagan nodded. “Good, wouldn’t do to have fighting outside of training. You get him back for it?”
“Yes, Sir Hagan. Killed him, sir.”
Sir Hagan smiled a grim smile, and clapped the boy on the shoulder. “Good lad.” He took a couple of steps back, and then climbed up onto one of the crates sitting beside his tent.
“A messenger arrived in camp for Lord Carson yesterday, from His Majesty Dorey Creag, Sovereign of the Isle, Lord of Kintinvale and King of all Tilaird.” He rattled off the king’s full name and title as if it were a well-rehearsed turn of phrase. “So far, no scout has yet reported the position of the enemy to us, but for nearly a week there has been no word from Whiteport or any of the surrounding towns, and no scout sent to that area has yet reported back; thus, we believe the enemy army is marching east or southeast, either along the coast or along the edge of the highlands. If either of these scenarios are true, this means that the enemy are advancing toward the capital.”
“The King and Lord Keays of Estlay have their armies already stationed along the southern edge of the highlands, and will be marching forward to make contact with the enemy. They can’t do so, however, until they know the coast road is secure. To that end, our orders are as follows: we will be marching south, over the Dun Highlands, and then down the River Grey to the east of Lord Keays’ force until we reach the bridge at Shalecliff.”
“A few of you may be aware that this path will take us near the border of the territory that was taken from us by the Grardish during their last attack, the territory they now call Happslund. The King’s message also contained word that he had met with the leader of the Happ clan. The Happs have claimed that none of the Grardish clans are responsible for this attack, and have declared their borders open to us as a gesture of good will.” Sir Hagan paused for a moment. “Whether or not that is the case, we will need to remain vigilant, both during the march and after we reach our destination.”
“Time is of the essence; the King cannot strike until we are in position, so we will be leaving as quickly as we are able. Lord Carson has ordered us to be ready to march by midday, so we have precious few hours to pack up.” He held up a hand, and then brought it down in a chopping motion. “Break camp! Back here in marching formation as soon as you’re finished! Dismissed!”
All of the boys scattered, rushing back to our tents to begin tearing them down.