“We’ve made it, boys!” Bat called out from behind me. “Welcome to the capital!”
I looked up, and realized I’d probably been staring at the ground for the better part of an hour. Ahead, I could see a round stone tower emerging from the late afternoon gloom, and tall walls stretching out and back behind it. Up and down the column, I could hear a series of low, uncoordinated cheers, cheers I was too tired to echo.
The rest of the march to Kintinvale had been miserable, but uneventful. At the end of the causeway through the Fen, the road had continued into sparse woods, the scattered trees enough to block out some of the already weak sunlight but not enough to keep off any of the wet. The intensity of the rain rose and fell but never stopped entirely, and any fires we lit lasted only as long as we continued to tend them, put out by the wet only minutes thereafter. Bat marched at the back of Sir Hagan’s unit, just behind us in the column, and our Grardish ‘escort’ stayed with him, grumbling almost continuously and completely unintelligibly, even to Bat.
Each night Orva, the woman who’d been assigned to us, would fuss around with our things, knocking the mud off of our boots or wringing out our clothes as best she could while we settled in to sleep, and each morning she would cajole and sometimes kick us out of our bedrolls and into the driest clothes we could find. The days of marching and nights of cold seemed to blend together, and by the middle of the remaining days I barely thought of anything except food, heat, and sleep.
The only real bright spot in the march had been on the morning we left the holdfast. Sir Hagan had ordered a few of the boys in our unit to search through the cellar, to see if there was anything we could ‘forage’. Most of the casks and crates were filled with things that were valuable, but worthless to us: rolls of parchment, sacks of cloves and other spices, a few pieces of silver jewelry. Aler ev Cantlay did discover a barrel half-filled with ripe bird cherries, which we emptied into a small sack after filling our pockets with the sweet fruits. We also found several pairs of good leather boots in varied condition, which were given to Ran and a few of the other men who’d worn through theirs. The real prize, though, was discovered by Wade ev Wollen, one of the boys in Barder am Stomund’s tent: a long-aged fruited pudding hanging from one of the ceiling joists in a burlap bag.
Sir Hagan had taken one look at the thing, and had ordered it cut up and shared around immediately, each of us ending up with a hand-sized sliver of the dense, rich cake. Kellan had grinned like an idiot as he bit into his slice, and while I’d rolled my eyes at him, the taste of the fruit and meat and suet as I took my first bite had lifted my spirits enormously. It tasted like home, like the world that, before that moment, it felt like we’d left behind entirely. The world that, until that moment, I hadn’t known just how badly I’d needed to be reminded of.
Sir Hagan rode up to the front of the column, and called up to the tower. A guard poked his up over the parapet, and he and Sir Hagan had a short, shouted conversation, after which Sir Hagan led the column off along the wall to the left of the tower. After a few minutes, we came to a pair of heavy-looking wooden doors set into the stone wall, which swung inward as we approached. There, we were met by a man wearing a long, draping coat in blue and copper-orange. He took the lead ahead of Sir Hagan and lead us all into and through the town. In my exhaustion, I followed more or less blindly, my eyes seeing only the cobbles of the street in front of me. I only noticed we had reached our lodgings when I bumped into Ran’s back.
The bunk-house was a long, narrow wooden building running the length of one side of a square stone plaza, with a low roof of wood shakes and a single door at one end. Inside, a row of cots ran along each wall for most of the building, interrupted only by an open area halfway down with a large, solid iron brazier at the center. Coals burned in the iron vessel, and though the building seemed drafty and somewhat ramshackle, compared to a bedroll in the rain it felt warm and snug.
I had a vague impression of Sir Hagan asking Skelley to come with him and leaving, but my focus was on other things. I found the first bunk that hadn’t already been claimed, dropped my things beside it, and flopped face first onto the cot.
I must have been asleep in seconds, because it felt like only an instant later that there was a hard yank upward on one side of the cot, spilling me onto my hands and knees on the hard stone floor, and a shout of “Dammit, Mason, I said up!” Confused and panicked, I jumped to my feet, lashing out with my fists. I hit something that felt hard and rough, cold like metal, and my assailant took a quick step back. “Woah! Easy! Nobody’s here to hurt you, fool!”
I shook my head, clearing the sleep from my eyes with my fingers, and looked around. Bat was standing in front of me, dressed in his leather coat and chain coif, with his palms raised toward me, warding me off. “OK?”
I grimaced, squeezing my eyes shut for a moment. “Yeah, Bat, I’m OK.” I blinked a few more times. The bunk-house was swarming with activity, the soldiers of our unit quickly donning armor and checking equipment. A glass and iron lantern had been hung from each rafter, filling the room with light. Across the aisle from me, Kellan was pulling an unfamiliar mail-shirt down over his head. “What’s going on?” I asked Bat.
Bat frowned, rubbing his jaw with one hand. “Not entirely sure myself. The Hen just said to get you boys ready, and Skelley said he’d explain on the way.” He grabbed a bundle from a cart someone had wheeled into the bunk-house. “For now, just get this on and get outside.” He tossed it to me, and I nearly dropped it; it was substantially heavier than I had expected. I looked up to ask Bat about it, but he’d already moved down the line, throwing another bundle onto the chest of a still-sleeping Ran.
The bundle was wrapped with an oilcloth and tied up with narrow cord. When I removed both, it revealed a mail-shirt like the one Kellan had just finished settling on his shoulders, as well as a small polished iron cap with a flared rim and a blue and orange tabard with the sigil of a crowned boar on an orange shield on the chest.
I shot a questioning look across the aisle to Kellan, which he returned with one of his customary shrugs. I felt a tap on my arm, and turned. Oskar stood across my cot from me, already wearing the new mail and tabard, with his rough iron helm under his arm. “You’ll, um…” He looked down for a moment, and then met my eyes again. “You’ll want to wear your brig under the mail. It’s not a lot of extra weight, and it keeps the rings from pinching quite so much.” He looked away again, and shook his head. “Figured that out the hard way.”
I took a breath, and nodded to him, muttering a “Thanks,” as I looked around for my coat, eventually finding it folded in a chest beside my cot. It took only a few minutes to get the brig buckled on, the mail-shirt over the top of it, and my cloth cap pulled onto my head.
I pulled the helm my father had made for me out of the chest, and set it next to the iron cap on the bed, looking from one to the other. The cap was hammered from a single sheet of iron, and looked solid and well-made. It also left the face clear, instead of leaving only a small slit to see through. It was, in all respects, a better helmet.
I hesitated only a moment before throwing the newer cap into the chest and picking up my crude helm.
The sky was black as I emerged from the doorway of the bunk-house, and the rain that had for the past few days never advanced beyond a drizzle was now a near downpour, but the light from dozens of lanterns and torches pushed back the darkness that hung over the plaza. A number of liveried servants, with badges on their tunics that matched the emblem I now had on my chest, ran back and forth between soldiers and racks of equipment; one rushed toward me, holding out a pike for me to take, and another fastened a belt around my waist. I was surprised by the additional weight of the belt, and looking down, I saw that I now had a short-sword and dirk strapped to my sides, their round hilts resting at my hips. They then rushed me forward, making room for others to come through.
Without any further direction, I walked out into the plaza, saw a number of our men standing in ranks, and fell in beside them. As the rain poured down, soaking my new tabard and my old wool cap, others joined the formation, filing in beside and behind me, until what was left of our army stood assembled; seventy-odd men, almost half wearing the mail-shirts and flared helmets, the other half in piecemeal armor of their own, all with the blue and orange tabards.
As soon as the last of us had fallen into line, Sir Hagan emerged from the building across the square, wrapped in his suit of plate armor but with the visor removed from his helm. He looked out across us, a grim expression on his face, and then he raised a balled fist into the air.
“On me!” he shouted, and then extended his arm toward the street leading out of the plaza. “We march!” Sir Henney turned and walked away from us, and we formed up behind him, filling the narrow street from one side to the other.