“The walls of Kintinvale had shrugged off the Estlay revolt a hundred years previous to the Fae Conflict, and the Happ Invasion had broken its spears on them seventy years later, but against the Fae, I admit I feared that the stones of the city would do nothing but mark our tombs.”
-King Dorey Creag, Lord of Kintinvale and High King of Tilaird
That night, I lay in my bedroll with Kellan on one side of me and Ran on the other, and thought about running away.
Our retreat had followed the road for a few hours as it wound its way along the sea cliffs, but as the gray sky began to darken we’d turned inland, following a rougher, stonier path up into the hills. We’d marched another hour after that before Sir Hagan finally called out the order to stop for the night, just before the light had faded entirely.
A few small camp fires still burned here and there, among the scattered sleeping soldiers and the dark-colored boulders that littered the turf-covered hills. My head was pointed toward the nearest, only a half-dozen paces away from where I lay. I rolled onto my side and pulled part of the bedroll up over my face, trying to shut out the light. From the bedroll next to mine I could hear Kellan muttering to himself, talking in his sleep.
How could we possibly continue? The enemy, whoever or whatever they were, had almost completely destroyed us at our first encounter with them. We were at best a small fraction as strong as we had been then, and while there’d been little talking during the day’s march I doubted anybody expected our second encounter to go any better than the first. What would be the point of even showing up? What good would it do to throw away our lives for nothing? To throw my life away?
I rolled over again; Ran was facing me, and I could see his sleeping face sticking out of the top of his bedroll. He’d seemed a bit battered but otherwise all right back at the inn, at least once the alchemist had waved something under his nose to wake him up. The bruises on his face had swelled and darkened over the course of the march, though, and the flickering firelight distorted his features further, making his face look ghoulish and unfamiliar.
For a few minutes I lay there, trying to keep my eyes closed, finding myself watching Ran’s chest move to convince myself he was still alive, and then I gave up on the idea of sleep, crawling out of my bedroll and making my way over to the fire.
Most of the fires in camp had two or three men still sitting up beside them, but I only saw one figure seated beside the nearest one. Oskar, with his helmet sitting beside him on the grass. I hesitated for a moment, and then stepped around the fire and sat down across from him.
Oskar’s eyes met mine briefly as I sat down, and he nodded to me before returning his gaze to the fire in front of him. I tried to do the same, letting my eyes follow the patterns of the flames as they licked lazily upward, but I found myself looking back up at him, wondering what he was thinking. Wondering if he’d thought about running, too.
I realized that we hadn’t actually spoken to each other since we’d left the battlefield, and I cleared my throat. “Hey,” I said, “I… uh, I just wanted to thank you. For what you did back there.”
Oskar looked up at me again for a moment, then back down at the fire. “Yeah. No problem.”
“It… how did you know?” I cleared my throat again. “With the helmet. How did you know to put it back on me?”
Oskar frowned, and shrugged. “Saw you fighting Kellan, right about the time I figured out what was going on in general. Saw him knock it off of you, and then realized you were acting like the rest of them. Didn’t know if it would work, but you didn’t snap out of it when I hit you, so I figured it was worth a try.”
“Well, I’m glad it worked.” I bowed my head. “Seriously, thank you. You… you saved my life today.”
Oskar sighed, but said nothing. After a moment, I continued, “If there’s… if I can… if you need me to-”
“Don’t.” Oskar looked away, from both me and the fire. “Spirits, Colum. Just don’t.”
“Look,” Oskar said, turning back to me, “I know you don’t like me, Colum. To be frank, I don’t like you either. I was coming to help save Kellan, and then you started acting like he was, and you were between me and him so you were the one I grabbed.” He moved his helmet into his lap, looking down at it. “If he’d have been closer than you…”
A heavy silence descended over the fire. I struggled to find something to say, but I wasn’t even sure what to think. After a few moments, Oskar shook his head. “I’m sorry.” He sighed again. “I know that Kellan said something to you, that night after the mock battle. I can tell that you’re…” He looked back up at me, still holding the helm in his lap. “You can’t just be a massive arsehole to someone for five years and then stop being an arsehole and expect everything to be OK, you know?”
I looked down at my boots. “I get it, yeah.”
“I know Kellan’s a good friend to you; he’s a good friend to me, too. But you and I? We’re not friends. At this point, I don’t know if we can be.”
The silence closed back in around us. For a long while, we both sat there, neither of us looking at the other. I felt a few drops of something cold and wet on the back of my hands, and thought for a moment that maybe I’d begun to cry without even realizing it, but then Oskar said, “Shit, it’s raining.”
He stood up, picking up his helmet. “I’m going to bed. Skelley said we’ll be leaving early, so I wouldn’t stay up if you can help it.”
I gave Oskar a nod and a noncommittal wave, and sat staring into the smoldering fire as he receded into the darkness. I sat there for a long time, feeling the rain patter on my head and shoulders. Thinking about what he’d said, and about how far I could get into the hills if I just started walking now, and about how it’d felt when Kellan had knocked my helmet off. A shiver of revulsion passed through me at that last one, and I closed my eyes tight, like I was trying to squeeze the memory out of my mind.
Oskar was right; we’d been enemies, or at least rivals, too long to ever become friends, whatever Kellan thought. I’d resented him almost as long as I’d known him, and even though I’d kept it contained these past few weeks that resentment was still there, down in my gut. Even though he was Kellan’s friend. Even though he’d saved my life. Maybe especially because he’d saved my life.
I looked off into the darkness, toward where I knew Oskar had laid out his bedroll. Fine. We’d never be friends. I was fine with that. But there was no way I was going to quit before he did. There was no way I was going to run off alone and leave him here with everyone. If he was staying, then so was I.
I scattered the last of the embers with one booted foot to make sure the fire would go out, and then returned to my bedroll, where I eventually fell into a shallow, restless sleep.