We camped that night at the edge of the Fen, as the drizzling rain slowly faded to a soft prickling mist. In the morning, word came down from Sir Hagan that we were to be sure to fill all our water skins before we assembled. Skelley showed us to a little brook just a few minutes walk away from camp. “Probably a good idea to drink your fill here, too. There’s nothing fit to drink in the Fen, and The Hen says it’s going to take us two or three days to cross, depending.”
“Depending on what?” I asked.
“Well, weather, condition of the causeway, and, of course, there’s the question of whether we’ll… meet anyone along the way.”
Kellan frowned, as he struggled to keep his balance and keep the neck of his water skin down in the water. “You mean the Happs.”
Skelley paused for a moment, then nodded. “I mean the Grardish, yes.” He squatted down next to the trickle of water, resting his forearms on his knees. “With any luck, we’ll be fine. The Grards don’t like to spend more time away from their boats than they have to, and I doubt there’s anything left in the swamp they’d think was worth raiding. Some of the individual war bands can be quite territorial, though, and there’s no guarantee they’ll have heard that we’re allowed to be on their land.”
“At the very least,” he said, gesturing out at the Fen, “there’s little chance of us being surprised.”
I looked out across the swamp, out where Skelley was pointing. The Araget Fen was a flat expanse of dark-colored mud, broken only by occasional tufts of gray-green reeds, leafless scrub bushes no taller than my waist, and broad pools of brackish water that reflected the dull gray color of the sky where they weren’t colored with green-brown algae. From here, I could see the causeway Skelley had talked about plainly; a raised strip of land a few paces wide that cut a meandering path across the dark muddy plain. The grass that grew up along the sides of the thing stood about as tall as the scrub bushes, making the causeway almost resemble a waist-high wall across the swamp. The actual surface of the causeway itself, though, never rose more than about a foot above the mud.
I nodded to Skelley. So did Oskar. “Not many places to stage an ambush out there,” he said. “Nowhere to hide.”
“Exactly,” Skelley said. He sniffed, and blew a droplet of water from the tip of his nose. “Not unless they’ve learned to breathe mud.”
We each finished filling our skins and drank half-heartedly from the stream; after days of being drenched none of us really felt like we needed more water, but Skelley- insisted. We weren’t the last back to camp, but by the time we’d finished collecting our things Sir Hagan was calling out the order to form up two abreast, and a few minutes later we were marching out onto the causeway.
“Keep close,” Sir Hagan called back across the formation, “and keep to the high ground. The Fen can be treacherous, but the causeway should be safe.”
It was late in the afternoon when we came upon the old holdfast. Built on an island of dry land a little way from the causeway, the holdfast was a squat, square stone building a little smaller than the workshop I’d shared with Master Vardon. It had evidently been a tower at one point, but the top of the tower had crumbled, leaving little more than a rough battlement above the first floor. A series of stone blocks, clearly salvaged from the tower, had been laid out across the swamp in a narrow walkway of a sort, with wooden planks between the larger gaps.
There was no movement on the island that I could see, but a trickle of smoke twisted upward from inside the walls. Sir Hagan had called a halt to the march, called a couple of the other knights to his side, and gone to scout the inside of the structure. They returned after only a few minutes, and Sir Hagan had declared that the building was empty and that we’d be making camp here tonight.
I was glad to be stopping. The whole of the day’s march had been a struggle, right from the beginning. Keeping my footing had gone from something I could do without thinking to something that demanded my constant attention. The causeway was not made of stone or earth, as I’d originally thought, but of wood, whole logs laid down side by side, their tops worn flat by years of traffic. This meant that the surface of the road was solid, if slightly yielding, but that it was also prone to rotten spots, gaps in the road’s surface, and slick patches where the wood had been worn smooth or where it had become overgrown with moss or mushrooms, all of which had been difficult to spot through the slit in my helmet. The return of the drizzling rain around midday had only made everything worse, soaking all of us to the core and making the road slicker and more dangerous.
By the time we’d all made it across the stones and into the building, dusk had settled on the surface of the swamp, leaving little light but the dull, occasional glow of foxfire out in the marshy Fen. Inside, the holdfast was more spacious than it had appeared from the outside, though still somewhat cramped for all of us to fit in. However, it was dry, gloriously, Spirits-blessedly dry, and I don’t think any of us were willing to spend another night shivering in the rain, however cramped it might be.
The roof was sturdily constructed of wood, with heavy beams running across the width of the tower. A ladder on one wall of the fort lead down into a cellar full of barrels and sacks and, covered by a wooden hatch in one corner, a deep well. Another ladder lead up, through a hatch and onto the roof, which had obviously been the upper floor of the holdfast before the collapse of the tower. There was a hearth on the back wall of the main floor, and a large black iron cookpot which the one remaining camp cook had already heated and begun filling with the makings of a stew by the time I arrived. The smoke we had seen from the road, however, had come from a clay brazier standing in the center of the roof, which was still warm when we examined it.
I’d only just laid out my bedroll and had a few minutes to worry about who might have been in the holdfast before us when there was a shout and a crash from the basement hatch. A few of the men got up and moved toward the hatch to see what had happened, and then I saw the closest stumble back from the entrance as a strange man’s head appeared in the opening.
The stranger’s head whipped back and forth, looking around the room. His appearance was unusual; his skin was tan like mine, like most Tillish, but his hair a blond color so pale it was almost white, and his panicked eyes were a striking blue. He was rail-thin, as though he’d been starved; his sunken cheeks only enhanced his wild-looking appearance. As he scrambled up out of the hole, I could see that he wore nothing except a pair of loose, tattered breaches and a band of woven twine around his throat.
The stranger stood up, spinning back and forth as though he was trying to face everyone at once. In one hand he held a short sword, a single-edged blade with a slight curve and an ornate-looking guard that wrapped around half of the man’s hand, and he pointed it at different men as he spun, trying to keep us all at a distance.
For a moment, the situation reached a sort of stalemate, one wary man surrounded by many other wary men, but then Sir Hagan took a step forward. His hands were empty, and stretched out to his sides. He said a few words, in a language I didn’t recognize, a language that sounded hard and rhythmic.
The stranger turned to face him, and rattled off something in the same tongue. Sir Hagan winced, and turned his head a little, speaking across the circle of open floor the stranger had cleared with his sword. “Am Bathe, am I remembering correctly that you speak Grardish?”
I looked from the man to Sir Hagan and back. Grardish? Was this what a Happ clan raider looked like?
Bat cleared his throat. “It’s been a few years, but yeah. Yes.”
“What did he say there?”
“He wasn’t exactly speaking clearly,” Bat said, “but I think he was saying that you don’t have the right to offer him hospitality if he was here first.”
“Damn. Right. Um…” Sir Hagan looked up at the ceiling for a few seconds, and then said something else in Grardish.
The man responded by spitting on the floor, and rattling off another string of words in his staccato tongue. Bat shook his head. “Sorry, sir. He says that he conquered this place when the others left, so it’s now his… something, I don’t recognize the word.”
Sir Hagan looked over at Bat again. “Conquered? Does he not know he’s in Grardish territory?” He looked back at the Grard for a moment, and then shook his head. “This is going nowhere. Tolan, Bliss, to me.”
Sir Tolan and one of the other knights took up positions on either side of Sir Hagan. Sir Hagan drew his own sword, the double-edged straight blade that hung at his hip, and the other knights followed suit. “Tell him,” Sir Hagan said to Bat, “that we are fully capable of forcing him to leave, if he makes us, but that we’d rather not. Not with what’s out there,” he added, under his breath.
Bat spoke slowly in Grardish to the wild-looking man. When he reached the end, there was a change in the man’s expression, his wariness seemingly tinged by curiosity. When he spoke again, it was softer, questioning. Bat raised his eyebrows. “Sir, he just asked if we’ve seen the ‘monsters’, the… fox people? And their… man-fox-dogs? Think I may not have that last one right.”
“No, am Bathe, that sounds about right to me.” Sir Hagan stepped away from the circle for a moment, and returned with the sack he’d spent the last few days carrying. He lowered the sack to the ground between himself and the Grard, and pulled the sacking away to expose the thing’s head. “Does that answer your question?” said Sir Hagan, speaking to the man in Tillish.
The Grard bent down to examine the creature’s corpse. After a moment, he looked up Sir Hagan, and spoke again, even more softly than before.
“He says,” Bat said warily, “that if we’ve fought the monsters, we’re welcome to share his fire.”
Sir Hagan put away his sword, gesturing for the other knights to do the same, and then extended one hand toward the Grard. After a moment, the Grard sheathed his weapon as well, and reached out his own hand, clasping Sir Hagan’s arm in his own. He stood, and Sir Hagan called for the cook to fetch a plate of stew for our new guest as he lead the man over to sit down beside the fire.