Later, as the fire in the stone hearth began to die down and most of the men had found their bedrolls, Bat came back over and sat down among the rest of Sir Hagan’s men. “Well, sounds like Iaggi will be coming with us, at least as far as the gates of Kintinvale.” He pulled out his pipe, and started to load the bowl with leaf. “That’s his name, by the way. Iaggi Iaggison, kin of the Happs, called ‘Iaggi Mad Hands’. Or so he says.”
Barder am Stomund lifted an eyebrow at him. “Mad Hands? What kind of a name is that?”
Bat shrugged noncommittally, looking around for something. “He says it’s something to do with battle. Knowing the Happs, though, it could just as easily be about mending fishing nets or running oddly. Ah, here we are.” He bent to one side, reaching for the tinderbox our unit shared, and drug it over in front of him. He pressed a small twig against the hot coal inside until it caught a flame, then used the stick to light his pipe.
“A Happ raider’s going to be traveling with us?” I asked. “And we’re sure he’s not going to kill us or rob us instead?”
“Sure? Of course not.” Bat puffed vigorously on the pipe, until I could see the coal glow red under his nose. “But The Hen’s had Sir Bliss set a few of his men on guard rotation to keep an eye on him. I don’t think he’ll try anything, though. Iaggi technically offered to ‘escort us safely to the gates of the capitol’, and the Happs are pretty serious about their oaths of protection and guest hospitality.”
I nodded, even though I wasn’t entirely convinced this was a good idea. Bat scooted backward, dragging the bedroll he was sitting on with him, so he could lean his back against the wall, and then took a few long, lazy puffs on his pipe.
“So…” Ran said, adjusting the folds of his own bedroll with an idle hand, “what happened to him? He… he saw the same…”
Bat held up a hand, and nodded to Ran. “Aye, lad. Not the exact same ones, but things like the ones we saw.” He closed his eyes. “The way he tells it, Iaggi was one of the fiercest warriors of the Happ clan, both feared and desired by both men and women, a man just one or two raids away from forming his own crew and getting a boat of his own. On their way back from raiding villages along the north shore of Tilaird, though, they sailed close enough to Whiteport to see the harbor, and their war leader saw fat merchant ships sitting in port and no defenders gathering on the docks. So, naturally, he ordered the attack.”
“Iaggi said that, because he’d cut his foot on a fisherman’s knife in one of the earlier raids, he was one of the few who stayed behind with their boat while the rest of the raiding party scrambled up on the docks and ran off into the city. He was a little sheepish about saying it, but he said he got bored of waiting after a little while and, not seeing any guards or soldiers coming to investigate the boat, decided to curl up with a blanket in the nose of the boat and take a nap.
“When he woke up, the could feel that the boat was drifting free, no longer attached to the dock. He got up, and looking around he discovered that he was only a little way from the dock, twenty or thirty boat lengths, and he was alone in the boat. On the dock, he said, were the monsters; one of the tall ones, with short gray hair and long green robes, and seven or eight of the shorter creatures. Each of the short ones was holding up something about the size of a man’s head. Iaggi said that as soon as he saw the creatures, his heart was filled with love, the kind of love he’s only ever felt for close kin.”
I felt a shiver of revulsion crawl up my spine. Judging by Kellan’s facial expression, he was feeling much the same thing. Both of us knew exactly what Iaggi had felt.
Bat continued. “He says that the tall one spoke to him then, in a voice Iaggi could hear perfectly clearly even over the waves. He says the tall one told him, ‘Your cohorts are ours now, those who would listen to us. Those who wouldn’t are here.’ The tall one gestured to the things the smaller ones were holding, and Iaggi realized that they weren’t just the size of a man’s head.” Bat took another lazy puff on the pipe, and shook his head. “He says it makes him feel sick, now, how little it bothered him.”
I caught Oskar looking in my direction. He frowned at me. I returned the frown, and nodded.
“Iaggi said the tall one asked him what he had in the boat,” Bat said, “and Iaggi told him: fish, mostly, stolen from villagers, a few spare swords and spears, clothes and blankets. He says the tall one looked disappointed, and had shrugged, then told him, ‘Raise your sail, and then make as many holes in your boat as you can.'”
“By the time he recovered his senses and stopped prying apart the boards of the hull with his sword, Iaggi said he was a mile from shore and knee deep in seawater. He said he turned the boat east, hoping to land before he sank, but that the boat went down well before he reached land. He says he spent a day or so floating on top of a wooden chest, but at some point he lost consciousness, and the next thing he remembers is washing up on the shore and wandering inland until he found the Fen.”
“Huh.” Kellan reached up to scratch the back of his head. “So he came more or less the same way we did, and set up here? This must have been some months ago, then.”
Bat shook his head. “He says he’s been in the Fen for a few days, but didn’t see the causeway until yesterday, the same time he spotted the tower. I think he must have washed ashore well to the south, and slogged his way more or less northward through the mud.”
“Then who was living here?” Kellan asked.
“Iaggi said there were maybe a dozen men, said he didn’t really get a good look at them. Said he snuck up close enough last night to hear them speaking Tillish, so he knew they weren’t Happ clan. He said he was getting just desperate enough to walk up to them and ask them for food and water when they started yelling to each other, and then packed up in a hurry and left.”
“He says he took the opportunity to come in and look around the place, found the well and some food in the cellar, and decided to stick around a little while. When we showed up a few hours later, he heard Sir Hagan and the other knights and hid, hoping he’d have a chance to escape later on.” Bat shrugged. “Might even have worked, if Sir Hagan hadn’t had a couple of Sir Tolan’s men go searching for things we could use. Iaggi gave one of them quite the black eye, and then I think you lads saw the rest.”
Several of us nodded, myself included. “Who do you think the men living here were?” I asked.
“Probably bandits, I’d wager, outlaws hiding out in the Fen. Not a lot of people use the causeway nowadays, but there might be enough traders and travelers willing to risk the shortcut to make it worth robbing them or charging them ‘tolls’.” Bat gestured toward the roof with his pipe. “I imagine they saw us coming from up there, figured either justice or the Grards were on the way, and ran for it before we even caught sight of ’em.”
Oskar frowned again. “Is there any chance they might come back? Attack in the night, try to take the place back from us?”
“Nah,” said Bat, “No bandit would ever face down a military force like ours unless he had superior numbers, and even if Iaggi was wrong about how many he saw, I doubt more than fifteen or twenty men could live here for more than a couple of days, let alone long term. If they ever come back here, it’ll be after we’re long gone from this place.” He closed his eyes for a moment. “In any case, we’ve got bigger issues to worry about, don’t we?”
He took one last puff on the pipe, and then tapped the ashes out on the stone floor. “Iron around the ears, lads. Helmets on when you’re on watch, and keep ’em close when you’re sleeping.”
Each of us listening nodded, to ourselves or to others sitting in the group. We’d all had little conversations, here and there, with Bat and Skelley and each other, and each of our experiences only seemed to confirm the ‘hunch’ that Bat had told Sir Hagan the afternoon of the retreat: whatever effect it was that the creatures had, whatever it was they had done to us, wearing a helmet of iron or steel seemed to block it. It didn’t have to be solid, as chainmail worked, and it obviously didn’t have to cover everything, as Ran’s skullcap certainly didn’t. It did have to be metal, though. We’d all seen men and boys with leather caps walk to their deaths that morning.
“Iron around the ears,” I said, more to myself than for anyone else’s benefit.
Ran looked over at me, and nodded sagely. “Iron around the ears, and spirits watch over us,” he said, like a blessing.
“And spirits watch over us,” I repeated back to him after a moment. We both nodded to each other again, and then I curled up in my bedroll and fell almost immediately into a deep and dreamless sleep.