“The Fae were unlike any enemy Mankind had ever faced before. They fought not with bow, axe, or siege engine, but with words, illusions, and the very forces of nature.”
-General Perion Byrne, Lord Commander of the Concord Army
The inn was large compared to the one in Cantlay Town, a major stopping point on what had been the main trade road between the capitol and the western port cities (or so Kellan theorized), but it wasn’t nearly large enough to house everyone in Lord Carson’s army. Lord Carson and his knights had taken over the rooms upstairs, and the more seasoned soldiers, those serving under Sir Glen or Sir Tolan Robe, had set themselves up in the common room and claimed it for themselves.
We weren’t entirely without our comforts, though. Our unit, Sir Hagan’s unit, had set up our tents in the now familiar manner a little way down the road, but the absence of Sir Hagan’s tent had left a space in the formation. A few boys had found or cobbled together a couple of trestle tables and benches and Kellan had convinced the men in the inn to trade him a couple of kegs of ale in exchange for tapping the others, and so we’d set up our own little common area. We kept a fire going in the middle of the space, for though it was the height of summer the sea breeze carried a chill, and the low, thick fog that rolled in at night took until mid-afternoon to fully burn off.
I was sitting at one of the tables, listening to one of the boys from Wollen make up stories about all of the women he’d bedded, when the horn sounded. It was a high, clear note that hung in the air, one long blast followed by two short ones.
Kellan and Oskar, who’d been playing at jousting on the other side of the camp fire, lowered their practice spears. “Don’t recognize that horn,” Oskar said, “what do you think it means?”
“Not sure,” Bat said, not moving his arm from his eyes. He’d spent most of the last couple of days napping, mostly in or near our little common area so that he could ‘supervise the young men and ensure they maintain proper form and decorum at all times,’ as he’d said to Skelley. “Not Henney’s, though. Probably one of the other knights’. Not our problem, in any case.”
Kellan and Oskar both shrugged, and had started to raise their practice spears again when another horn sounded, six or seven quick little blasts in succession.
“That one’s Sir Glen’s call to-” I said, but before I could finish another horn sounded, different from the last two. Yet another horn joined it, before it had even finished, and then two more, and then it seemed as though every horn in camp was sounding at once like a cloud of discordant noise descending over the camp.
“Spirits protect us,” Kellan said, dropping his staff. “The enemy. They’re here.”
We all moved at once, scattering from the fire, breaking for our tents. I’d just made it to the door of ours when Oskar thrust my helm and coat into my arms. “Here, hurry.”
I nodded wordlessly to him, and I started pulling on the coat as we both began running toward the inn’s stable, where Sir Glen’s men had set up the armory. The long coat felt strangely light on my shoulders, as though it’d been stripped of half its iron plates, but the metal was all still there. It wasn’t really lighter, I realized, it was just light in comparison to dragging a wagon or hauling a sack of salt over my shoulder.
We were given weapons at the stable and directed back out toward the road. Our first night at the inn I’d fashioned a cap out of my torn hood, and I’d managed to get it and my helmet onto my head by the time we reached the formation gathering next to Sir Hagan’s banner but I was still struggling to lace up my coat and hold my spear at the same time.
I felt a tap on my shoulder, and looked over. Ran had an anxious smile on his face, and a steel skull cap he’d gotten from who knows where on his head. The cap had been made for a full grown man with a full-sized skull; on Ran, it nearly covered his eyes, and the strap he’d used to tie it onto his head made his ears stick out at the sides. He looked ridiculous in the thing; still, it was a better helmet than the one I had.
He gestured to my coat. “Need a hand?”
I nodded. He handed me his spear and set to lacing up the jacket, reaching upward to reach the eyelets at the level of my collarbone. I cleared my throat. “Nervous?” I asked.
He started to shake his head, but stopped, and after a brief moment he nodded, making the skull cap wobble atop his head. “A little. Wish we knew what we were up against.”
“Yeah,” I said, “me too.”
Kellan fell in behind us, clapping one hand on my shoulder and the other on Ran’s. “I’m not worried,” he said. “After all, they’ll have to kill both of you to get to me.”
I handed Ran’s spear back to him as he finished with my laces, and then punched Kellan with my free hand. “Really helpful, Kel. Very confidence boosting.”
“Don’t mention it,” he said, grinning at me earnestly.
I motioned Ran around me, to help Oskar finish getting his armor on as well. Past him, at the side of the road where Sir Hagan’s standard was posted, Bat and Skelley were talking to Sir Hagan himself. Both of them were wearing armor I’d never seen before, long coats that looked similar to mine but made of stiff leather, with chainmail coifs on their heads and simple steel spaulders at the shoulders. Sir Hagan himself was dressed in a full suit of plate armor, holding his helmet under his arm while he spoke.
As I watched, he nodded to the two veterans and gave them each a firm clap on the arm, then mounted his horse and rode up toward the front of the column to join the other knights. Like Sir Hagan, each of them were covered in steel armor that gleamed even in the dusky fog. Each carried a long lance and wore swords at their belts, and each had a shield painted with their sigils. There next to Sir Hagan’s hammer and hawk were Sir Tolan’s red crescent, and there was Sir Glen’s crossed spears and silver shield, along with a dozen more, knights I hadn’t taken the time to identify or, indeed, ever even seen in camp.
And there, at the end of the line, was Maddock Carson, the Lord of Cantlay. I’d only ever seen him once in person, when Vardon and I had made repairs on the wall that surrounded his manor house, but there were small paintings and woodcut prints of his face in every home in Cantlay, or at least every home in Cantlay Town, and he’d have been easy to recognize even if he’d been wearing a helmet. Carson’s armor was intricate, the breastplate finely worked and delicately painted in half a dozen different colors.
He wheeled his horse around to face the troops, his red-brown hair fluttering in the sea breeze, and spoke. “For some of you, this will be your first battle. Others have served well for a season before this, and still others have engaged in a dozen campaigns, but today, this day, you all stand united as soldiers.” His voice was deep and resonant, the words carrying in a way that Sir Hagan’s didn’t. He took a deep breath. “Our scouts have sent us the signal that our enemy approaches, but the nature of our enemy is unknown to us. It may be we face the organized strength of another nation, or the wily cunning of a Grardish warband. However, I am not concerned, for we are men of Tilaird! We have held this land against our enemies for a thousand years! It is in my heart that, were the massed armies of all five Grardish clans waiting on the other side of that bridge, we would drive them off!”
Lord Carson thrust his lance into the air. “We will hold the bridge!” A cheer rose up from the ranks, one that I joined in. “We will deny our enemies further advance!” We cheered again, louder. “We will protect the capital, and drive off our foes no matter who they be!” We let out a third cheer, and then Lord Carson wheeled his horse around and thrust forward with the lance, pointing down the road. “Onward! To Victory!”