The fog began to rise and thicken behind us as Oskar and I dragged Kellan away from the battlefield. The bridge and the men behind us faded from my sight before we’d even rounded the first bend in the road, and by the time we’d gone a quarter of a mile the shouts and sounds of men struggling against one another had faded away into nothing. The road grew eerily still, except for our footsteps, and the sound of Kellan’s boot heels dragging in the dirt, and the sound of Kellan’s mumbling, which grew more and more quiet as we got further down the road.
I didn’t notice he’d regained his senses until I felt him touch the back of my arm with his hand. “Hold a moment,” he said, “Oskar, Col, just hold. Let me get back on my feet.”
I looked over at Oskar. He nodded to me, and we stopped, neither of us releasing our hold on Kellan’s arms.
Kellan scrabbled for a few seconds to get his feet back under him, and then stood up. He gave the back of my shoulder a couple of pats. “You can let go, both of you. I’m fine.” Kellan’s head was hanging forward, his chin pressing against his chest. “I wasn’t before, but I’m fine now. Spirits curse me,” he added, mumbling the words under his breath.
Oskar looked over to me this time, and after a moment I closed my eyes and nodded to him, releasing my grip on Kellan’s arm. He took a step backward away from us, holding up his hands, his head still hanging forward. “Curse me, I’m sorry.” He bent over forward, planting one hand on each thigh, and for a moment I thought he was going to be sick, but after a few deep breaths he stood up again. “I’m so sorry, to both of you.”
Oskar shook his head. “You’re still alive, we’re all still alive, and that’s what matters.”
“But I made you come get me, and… and Col, I almost… I almost made you…” He bent over again, drawing in a ragged breath. “I…”
I stepped forward and put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s all right, Kel. You didn’t make me do anything, and nothing happened to me. We’re all right.”
Kellan raised his head and looked up at me for a long moment, and then something behind me caught his eye. “Someone’s coming.”
I realized I could hear the clinking of chainmail. I looked back over my shoulder. Bat was coming up the road at a jog, carrying someone over his shoulder, with another three or four men behind him, soldiers from some other knight’s unit. The other men ran past when they reached us, but Bat slowed. “You boys all right?”
“Yeah,” Kellan said, standing up, “just needed a moment. I’m fine.”
Bat re-adjusted the boy on his shoulder, and I found my eyes drawn to the pair of rubbish patched-together boots dangling against Bat’s midsection. Ran’s boots. I pointed to him. “Is he…?”
Bat looked at his burden, and shrugged. “He’s alive, anyway. Hard to know for sure, but I think he’ll be all right; he got belted across the face pretty bad, but I’ve seen men come back from worse.” He shook his head, and a hint of a smile reached the corners of his mouth. “Hell of a spirit in this one, though; he was trying to drag one of those big am Leward boys away from the cliffs, I couldn’t tell which, but Ran just grabbed onto the back of the big bastard’s tunic and set his heels in and didn’t let the fact the bastard was twice his size even enter into it. Didn’t stop even when the big guy started hitting him. Took am Leward five, maybe six punches to knock him out, and he just kept hanging on until he was unconscious.”
“That sounds like Ran,” Oskar said. “What happened to the other boy?”
Bat frowned, and shook his head. “Ran was the only who’d kept his head and was near enough to even try. By the time I got over there, it was too late.”
We all stood silent for a moment. A couple of other men ran up the road past us, at almost a sprint, and off in the mists I heard a clang, metal on metal. Bat turned his head toward the source of the noise, then back to us. “We need to keep moving. You ready to run?”
I nodded, as did Oskar and Kellan. Bat took off at a jog again, and we followed.
There was a small crowd gathered outside the inn when we arrived, some of the camp followers and servants from some of the other knights’ units. They started to ask us questions as we approached, too many for me to make out any individual one, but Bat waved them aside. “Wounded here, need to get him in and looked at.”
Oskar, Kellan and I followed him into the inn. There were thirty or forty men already inside, standing around tables or sitting against the walls, most of them watching the door. The camp alchemist moved from man to man with a small stone crock of something foul-smelling, dabbing it onto any wounds he found with a woolen swab on a stick.
Bat laid Ran down on one of the tables. I was unsure what to do next, so I found a spot where I could watch both Ran and the door and hunkered down to wait. Oskar and Kellan did similarly.
As we waited, more men trickled in in ones and twos, mostly men from the more veteran units. A few others from Sir Hagan’s unit were there, boys who’d been on the front line beside me whose names I’d never learned, but we were outnumbered five to one by older men in nicer, more uniform armor than ours was. The only thing that seemed to be the same about everyone was the expression that’d settled on all of our faces; blank, staring, emotionless.
Sir Tolan staggered in shortly after we arrived, dragging a pair of reins with no horse attached, his scabbard hanging empty at his side. He said nothing, just walked slowly to the bar and sat down with his back to it, never even removing his helm.
He was the first of the knights to arrive; Sir Hagan would be the eighth, and the last, coming in just after Skelley escorted Barder am Stomund and a couple of the other boys from Wollen in the door. Sir Hagan pushed his way in past them, still dragging the same unconscious soldier behind him and carrying something else over his shoulder, a ruddy-colored bundle too small to be a man.
He handed the soldier off to a few other men, and dropped the bundle roughly on one of the only remaining empty tables. It was then that I realized what it was: the corpse of one of the smaller enemy creatures. Its cream-colored tunic had been sliced across the front, and the whole thing was stained with some orange-red fluid, too bright in color to be blood. I found myself staring at the thing’s face, at its almost-muzzle of a mouth hanging open in a twisted, silent snarl.
Sir Hagan took a step back from the table and wrenched off his helm. “Damn things came after us through the mist,” he said, using the corner of his tabard to wipe sweat and blood from his face and more of the orange-red liquid from his gloves. “I managed to cut down a few, just the little ones. Hopefully, it’ll be enough to make them stop and think before they push forward again.”
Frowning, he looked around the common room. “Did Lord Carson make it back here?” he asked, “Did anyone see him?”
There was a collective shaking of heads, and then one of Sir Tolan’s soldiers raised a gloved hand. “I saw… what happened to him.” He shook his head. “Wasn’t right.”
The man fell silent for a moment, until Sir Hagan motioned for him to continue. “When I… when I turned to run,” he said, shame painted across his face, “I saw him, saw His Lordship, walking toward the ocean, toward the cliffs. He’d got off his horse, I didn’t see it anywhere, he was just walking. He looked like the rest of ’em, like he was… sleepwalking, or something.”
The man sniffed, and wiped his face with his hands. “I was thinking about whether I should go after him, maybe, but then I saw Sir Glen, Glen Irby, he sees him too, and Sir Glen went after His Lordship, and he was a lot closer than I was.” The soldier swallowed. “Sir Glen was saying something to His Lordship, and he grabbed His Lordship by the arm and tried to pull him back, but His Lordship, he pulled his sword, and…” The soldier stopped, and started shaking his head. “He just jammed his sword right into Sir Glen, up under the gorget and into his throat.”
There was a murmur from the men sitting and standing around the room. The soldier rubbed the back of his neck with his hand. “He was so quick, just attacked like that, I didn’t know what to do. And then Sir Glen was on the ground, and His Lordship, he just yanks his sword out, cleans it off on the grass, like it was nothing. Puts it back in its sheath, and walks straight off the cliff.”
Sir Hagan closed his eyes. For a long moment, nobody spoke. “All right,” Sir Hagan said quietly, and then he opened his eyes and repeated it, addressing the room. “All right. We’re in a bad position.” He turned his head, looking around at everyone. “Our quartermaster is dead, and it’s likely our commander is dead as well. I know that I’m not the most experienced commander here, but I believe that as Lord Carson’s former ward and as son of the Duke of Whiteport it is my responsibility to assume temporary command, until we can regain contact with King Creag or his army. Are there any objections?”
None of the other knights in the room spoke. I saw Sir Tolan turn his head away from Sir Hagan, staring down at the floor.
After another silent moment, Sir Hagan continued, leaning forward and planting his gauntleted hands on the table in front of him. “How many of us remain? Has there been a count?”
Skelley raised a hand. “I’ve been doing a rough tally, sir.” He frowned. “A hundred and five fighting men, give or take a few. With the servants and camp followers, perhaps a hundred and fifty total; most of them seem to have run when they saw us limping back bloodied. If we rounded them up-”
“No,” Sir Hagan said, “let them run.” He closed his eyes, lowering his head for a moment, and then looked up at us. “Right then. We have a little knowledge of our enemies’ abilities, and many of us who remain seem to have been unaffected by… whatever it was that they did, but I think it’d be unwise to count on being unaffected a second time, or on the enemy not being capable of… other things we can’t imagine, let alone predict. And, based on what they said before they attacked, it’s reasonable to believe there are more of them.”
He stood up, crossing his arms in front of him. “Everyone is to gather all of the food, water, and armament they can carry alone. Bedrolls, but no tents. That goes for the followers as well. We’re traveling light, so we’re leaving the wagons behind. We march as soon as we’re prepared, no more than half an hour. Anything else?”
Bat raised a hand, and Sir Hagan nodded to him. “It might be for the best,” Bat said, glancing over at myself and Oskar, “if the men that have helmets keep them on, and for those who don’t have them to try and find some.” Sir Hagan raised an eyebrow at Bat, and Bat shrugged. “Call it a hunch.”
Sir Hagan stared at him for another moment, and then nodded. “I trust your judgment. Those with helmets wear them, and those who don’t, if you see anything more substantial than a leather cap, take it.” He stood up. “Half an hour, no more. We march from the yard by the well, and we leave anyone who isn’t there on time.” He gestured to the twisted, skinny corpse on the table. “And someone bring me a sack for this. I’ll carry it myself.”
As he turned to go, Sir Tolan spoke up. “Where are we marching to, Hagan?”
Sir Hagan stopped at the doorway, but didn’t turn back to face Sir Tolan. “We’re headed to the capital.”