Skelley roused us a little before dawn, with a few words about where we needed to form up and how quickly we needed to be ready. The rain that had started during the night had now settled into a light but continuous drizzle. In silence, we rolled up our wet bedrolls and got everything packed into sacks or slung onto our bodies as best we could. I did my best to avoid interacting with Oskar; there was a part of me that was disappointed he was still here, both because of what he’d said and because of what I’d decided for myself the night before.
Ran, his face still a mess of bruises, had finished tying up his bedroll and was settling his skull cap onto his head. “There’s nothing in my pack as far as food’s concerned. I’m going to see if I can find some breakfast for all of us.”
“No need, boy.” An old woman with a scowl on her face approached us. “Orva’s brought food enough for the four of you.” She held out a parchment-wrapped bundle, full of rounds of twice-baked bread.
Kellan stood up. “Orva? That’s you?”
The old woman nodded, slowly. “Aye, Orva is me and I’m her.” Her hair was snowy white with flecks of dirty-looking gray. “And Orva has been assigned to help you, so I have your breakfasts. Now come get them before they get as wet as everything else, so Orva can get to everything else that needs to happen before you get back on the road.”
“Assigned?” Ran asked, as he and I each stepped forward and grabbed rounds of twice-baked from the packet.
It was hard to tell in the pre-dawn light, but I thought I saw Orva roll her eyes at us. “Yes, assigned. That Mr. Batheson came to us civilians this morning and told some of us that instead of doing our regular jobs, that Sir Hagan had said to take some of us and assign one of us to each tent.” She emphasized the word “assign” as if showing Ran how to use the word in a sentence. “And I was assigned to yours.”
Kellan frowned as he took his own round. “Assigned to each tent? But we don’t have a tent, not any more.”
“Our Lirim ev Fairwood, old Glen Irby’s cook, asked that Mr. Batheson-”
“He’s just called Bat,” Ran chimed in.
Orva narrowed her eyes at Ran. “…asked that Mr. Batheson the same thing. He said each three-man or four-man group of soldiers was a ‘tent’. Or, at least, that those under that Sir Hagan’s command were.” Orva shrugged. “Seems like a silly thing to me, but I’ve never been a knight, have I?”
She tossed a twice-baked to Oskar, and wrapped up the rest of the packet, mumbling to herself. “Sounds like a madman’s recruiting line, if you ask me. ‘In Sir Hagan’s army, you don’t need to have a tent to be in one.’ Bloody nonsense.”
“Thank you, Orva,” Kellan said. “We really appreciate this. I hope Sir Hagan assigning you and your fellow civilians to us isn’t going to be a hardship for the rest of the army as a whole.”
“Oh, I doubt it’ll be of any consequence. After all,” she said, as she looked back toward the center of the camp, “Mr. Batheson said he only needed five of us. One for each ‘tent’.”
I didn’t fully register what Orva’s comment about only having five ‘tents’ really signified until we had formed up with the other men on the road, ready to march. At the inn we’d all been hectic and scattered, and it’d been easy to let your mind assume that you’d just missed seeing the people you knew, but here, in marching formation, everyone who was still with us was right here. As the sun began to crest the western horizon, I finally realized just how few of us there really were.
Of the thirty boys who’d left Cantlay Town, all that remained were me, Kellan, Oskar, and Aler ev Cantlay, the boy I’d knocked down in the mock battle. All the rest were gone. No Rewell Potter or Drewis Woodard. No Bryce or Munder or Hamund or any of the dozen other farmers’ sons who’d come with us. Just the four of us.
We’d taken on almost as many at Wollen as we’d started with in Cantlay Town; now there were only three Wolleners, Barder am Stomund and the two who’d come back to the inn with him. They shared their ‘tent’ with an older boy from some village we’d barely stopped in, a place I wasn’t sure had even had a name. The other three groups were ones and twos from other places, other nameless villages. Only eighteen of us, eighteen men in Sir Hagan’s unit, from the seventy who’d walked into Lord Carson’s camp.
The next three days would see that number fall further. Each day began before dawn, with a rock-hard twice-baked and a hasty repacking. Each day was a hard, silent march, following the road as it ran over and between the rocky hills, that ended only when it got dark enough to see, and ended with no fanfare other than more twice-baked bread, maybe a tiny amount of some smoked salt pork that Orva seemed to have squirreled away somewhere, and an admonishment to sleep while we could. Each night, at least one soldier went missing from somewhere in the army; from our own unit, two boys vanished on subsequent nights, bringing our total down to sixteen, not counting Bat or Skelley.
On the afternoon of our third day on the march, Kellan brought up the disappearances to Skelley as we were marching, keeping his voice low. “I mean, we don’t know for certain how far we are from the… from the enemy. What if they’re luring people away.”
Skelley furrowed his eyebrows. “It’s not impossible, of course, but it seems unlikely to me. If the enemy wished to catch us all unawares, they’d take the sentries, or kill them if they couldn’t.” He frowned. “No, the cause for our army’s low morale may be unheard of, but I expect these missing soldiers are missing for the same reason soldiers go missing in every war: desertion.”
I looked away from the two of them, suddenly intent on studying our surroundings. The road we were following had begun to snake down off of the Shaledown Plain, winding back and forth between low outcroppings and rolling hills. In the distance, maybe an hour’s journey ahead of us, the hills of the plain seemed to give way entirely, and I could determine nothing about the land beyond them except that it was very flat, and it seemed to be mottled in dark shades of greenish-gray. I tried to picture the map of Tilaird Kellan’s father kept in the inn, struggling to remember what lay east of the Shaledown Plain. I wasn’t sure why I couldn’t remember.
Finally, my curiosity getting the better of me, I interrupted Kellan and Skelley’s conversation. “Sorry, but do you know what that is up ahead?” I asked Skelley.
“Hmm?” Skelley looked up ahead. “What what is?”
“The big flat part, straight ahead. What am I looking at?”
“Oh, that?” He studied the road ahead for a little longer, then blinked. “Huh. Interesting.”
Kellan cocked his head. “What is it, Skelley?”
“Well,” Skelley said, “I’d thought we’d be going around it to the north, but unless I miss my guess, Sir Hagan intends to take us straight through the middle of the Araget Fen.”
“Fen, as in swamp?” I hadn’t remembered there being any major swamps on the map at all, nor any labels that said Araget anything. “We’re going to march through a swamp?”
“Oh, it’s not as though we’ll be slogging in the mud,” Skelley said, “there’s a causeway that runs all the way across. That’s not why it surprises me.”
“Then why does it?” Kellan asked.
“Well, you see, since the end of the last war with the Happ clan, most of the Araget Fen is no longer within the borders of Tilaird.” Skelley brought one hand up to scratch at his head through his chain coif. “The way this road takes us, before we get to the capital we’ll be passing well within the borders of Happslund.”
Kellan and I looked at each other; he looked as alarmed as I felt. Happslund meant Grardish territory. Once upon a time, I’d dreamed about fighting Grardish barbarians to protect my home, but now…
“But the Grardish gave us safe passage, didn’t they?” Kellan asked. “They said they weren’t responsible for the attacks, and that we could move through their territory until the conflict is over.”
“They did say that, yes.” Skelley took a long, slow, deep breath. “I just hope, for all our sakes, that they were telling the truth.”