“Some have suggested that the power of the Fae to impose their will over a man’s own is a demonstration of the natural hierarchical nature of both men and beasts; the strong rule the weak, a king rules his subjects, and so on. Others have suggested that the Fae represent a subversion of the natural hierarchy, with each of the elves or sidhe empowered only by their own abilities and not by the numbers under their command.
“There is, of course, a third view, one shared by most of the men who actually faced the Fae in combat: the Fae don’t ‘represent’ anything. The Fae simply are.”
-Conroy Raine, “A Critique of Historical Moralism”
Bat and Skelley were both marching next to the column, only a few paces away from me. I called Skelley’s name, and he turned his head back over his shoulder. “Yes, lad?”
“What’s going on?” I asked. “Bat said he didn’t know, but that you’d tell us once we moved out.”
Skelley looked over at Bat disapprovingly. “Did he, now?”
Bat met Skelley’s look with one of his own. “What? I know better to ask a bunch of questions when the first words out of your mouth are ‘Get as much sleep as you can, we’re going to need it,’ but I’m as curious as the next man.” He spat on the ground. “Playing mysterious doesn’t suit you. Talk.”
Skelley sighed. “All right, all right. Sir Hagan pulled me aside last night to accompany him to the King’s keep. He said that as he was the one who’d taken command after the loss of Lord Carson, it was his responsibility to report the outcome of our mission to King Creag.”
“Figured it must’ve been something like that.” Bat nodded. “Didn’t think the King would’ve been back from his own front, though.”
“Neither did I, but Sir Hagan said we were actually the last unit to arrive. He didn’t know the particulars, but he said the armies of both the King and Lord Edson Keays beat us back here by at least a day. He also said that a man he knows in the City Watch says that the King’s men are still on alert, bolstering the Watch’s patrols, but that Keays’ men are standing down until he calls them up again. They’re apparently splitting their time between all five of the city’s ale houses.
“I asked him if he was expecting some sort of trouble, and he said he wasn’t sure what he was expecting, but that he wanted another pair of eyes and ears in the room, to make sure he didn’t miss or forget anything. He also praised my dedication and long service, both to his father Lord Henney and to himself, and said that I was ‘a good man with a good head on his shoulders’.” He nodded at Bat. “You may also have been mentioned, I can’t be sure.”
“All right,” Bat said, “get on with it. Glory hound.”
“When we arrived at the castle,” Skelley continued, “they waved us in through the barbican and the courtyard, straight through into the main keep. I did notice in passing, though, that there were an unusually high number of soldiers hanging about in the yard. Some were clearly on duty, but most of them seemed like they were just… waiting for something, I suppose.”
Bat frowned. “They have the look? Like Secondhill?”
“What eyes?” Kellan asked, from the row ahead of me. “What’s Secondhill?”
Skelley shot another look at Bat, then turned his head toward Kellan. “Secondhill’s a town a few days travel to the south and east, just off the southern end of Silvermorn Bay. Our unit got trapped there for almost a month during the Happ Invasion, caught between the raiding ships out in the bay and the main invasion force marching overland toward the capitol. We’d secured the town, but the Happs had far greater numbers there than we did. They’d have been able to crush us if they’d wanted to, but the Happ chieftain had his eyes set on Kintinvale, and we weren’t in their way.
“We had no way of knowing they’d decided to ignore us, of course, and so we’d sat in that town for a month and waited for the attack, and some of the men developed a sort of look in common. A slackness of the face and a dullness in the eyes, and a tendency to stare off into nothing if they weren’t actively doing anything else. A helpless sort of look.”
He turned back toward Bat. “And yes, Bat, it was that sort of thing.”
Bat’s frown deepened, but he nodded at Skelley to continue.
“Anyway, I’d never been in the great hall of the castle before, not even when we were here during the war. The throne was the first thing that caught my eye, massive dark wooden thing that it is. It was down at the far end on a dias, maybe two dozen paces from the entrance, but it was empty. There was a table in front of the dias, though, with a few men around it arguing about something, and there in the middle was King Dorey Creag himself. He looked… tired. And older than his portraits. He didn’t seem to be much interested in the conversation, he seemed to be mostly staring at the papers on the table in front of him.
“A servant announced Sir Hagan, and the men at the table looked up at us, all of them looking mildly surprised. Sir Hagan apologized for interrupting a meeting of the King’s council, but the King invited Sir Hagan to come and sit at the table.
“The King asked what had become of our force, and said that given Sir Hagan’s presence he assumed that Lord Carson had fallen. Sir Hagan was cagey; I think that he wanted to feel the king out before he gave him the entire story.”
“Before telling him we were attacked by monsters,” Bat said. “Understandable.”
“Exactly. He told the King we’d been routed, and that Lord Carson was dead. The King gave Sir Hagan his condolences; Sir Hagan grew up in the previous Lord Carson’s household, so he and Lord Carson had been familiar. Sir Hagan asked if there’d been any news from Whiteport, from his father. Apparently there hasn’t.
“The King leaned over the table toward Sir Hagan, and asked him exactly what happened. When Sir Hagan hesitated, King Creag told him that his actions and those of his men were not under scrutiny, and that he should not hold back any detail, even those that might seem impossible. Sir Hagan had nodded, and then given a more detailed report of our encounter with the enemy, leaving out only the exact manner of Lord Carson’s death.
“When he finished, the King nodded, and said that his encounter with the enemy had gone about as badly as ours had. He said his army encountered a slightly larger group than the one we faced, around a hundred of them total. When they didn’t immediately attack, he sent an emissary to speak with their leaders. When the emissary returned, King Creag said that the man slit his own throat before him. He made to call the attack, but the enemy called out ‘kill them’ and began their own advance. He’d assumed they were talking to their own soldiers, but just before their line met the King’s men, the King’s own archers began loosing at the back of his main force.
“He said he’d ordered his men to retreat, but the archers behaved as though they were unable to hear him, and his knights were forced to cut a path through them to get him to safety. His losses had been total, and he’d retreated, hoping to be reinforced by Lord Keays’ men, but that Lord Keays had run into trouble of his own.”
“It took a little prodding from the King, but eventually Lord Keays admitted that the group he encountered was similar in size to the one we ran into. He said they’d ordered his men to attach each other, as well. He claimed that none of his own well-bred well-trained soldiers had turned, but instead of recruiting from among his population as Lord Carson did, he’d used the gold in Estlay’s coffers to hire a band of Grardish mercenaries, and it was the ‘weak-willed barbarians’ that turned on his men, driving him into retreat and killing two-thirds of his soldiers.
“Keays then told the king that Sir Hagan’s report only confirmed his suspicions: that only the high-born or strong willed were immune to the enemy’s effects. He then insisted to a man in a City Watch tabard who he called ‘Pethik’ that his men were the only ones who could reinforce the City Watch and protect the city. I expected Sir Hagan to correct him,, but when he didn’t I realized that I’d never actually spoken to Sir Hagan about ‘iron around the ears’.
“I admit to tuning out the conversation somewhat at that point, half because I was trying desperately to figure out a way to tell Sir Hagan what we figured out and half because it was around that time Lord Keays implied that our unit was made up of ‘nothing but children and idiot peasants’ and I refused to let any more of the man’s nonsense into my mind.”
Bat raised his eyebrows. “But I assume you did something, given that we’re the ones in City Watch uniforms now.”
“I did, yes.” Skelley paused for a moment. “What I did, was look Lord Keays straight in the eye and say, ‘What a monstrously great fool.'”
Bat, Kellan and I all turned our heads toward Skelley at once. “What?” I said.
“Why?” asked Kellan.
“And you got away with it?” Bat asked.
“I had to get his attention somehow,” Skelley said. “And I had to back step immediately, of course, after Sir Hagan assured them that I was a reasonable man who surely must have good reason for such an outburst. I said that it must have taken a great fool to talk Lord Keays away from the true common factor among the survivors; after all, I said, Sir Hagan had figured it out fairly easily just from the talks we’d had during our retreat.”
Kellan and I shared a confused look, but Bat let out a single, high whistle. “Risky,” he said, “but I’m guessing Sir Hagan caught on, and I’m guessing that because you still have a tongue.”
Skelley nodded. “He gave me a suspicious look, but he thanked me for ‘reminding’ him, and asked me to further remind him of exactly what conversation we’d been having when he’d had his realization. I ‘reminded’ him about the conversation we’d had about Mason.” He looked over at me. “About how Bat saw you only start acting oddly when your helmet was knocked off, and about how you got your senses back the moment Smith put it back on your head.”
“Sir Hagan nodded at me slowly, and I could see it on his face when he made the connection. He turned back to the King and Lord Keays and told them it had been then that he’d figured out that all the men who were unaffected had been wearing steel or iron helmets, not leather. That it was their equipment, not their breeding or mettle, that had protected them.”
Bat raised his spear a little. “There’s our Sir Fowl! Only took him a little extra prodding to get there!”
I looked up toward the front of the column, where I could just see Sir Hagan’s helmet bobbing ahead of the front line of men. I raised my own spear a little, in a half salute. “Iron around the ears, sir,” I said to myself.
“Lord Keays balked, of course. Said it was just as likely that the survivors had metal helmets because they were veterans and nobles able to afford metal. He and Sir Hagan argued back and forth for a moment, and then Sir Hagan hesitantly told them how exactly Lord Carson died.”
“The King nodded at that, and said that Maddock Carson was exactly the kind of brave fool that would go into battle with full armor and no helmet. Then, he held up a note, said that unfortunately both Sir Hagan and Lord Keays would get a chance to test their theories, and asked both of them how quickly their men could be ready to march.
“Lord Keays said that his men were on ‘disbursed detachment,’ and he’d need a day to gather them. Sir Hagan said that we could be ready to march in an hour, if necessary, but that if he was right, we were under-equipped, lacking in both armor and weapons.
“King Creag asked the man in the Watch tabard, Sir Pethik, if the new Watch uniforms included a helmet, and Sir Pethik replied that they did, so the King ordered him to deliver as many of them as he had to the bunk-house on South Square, and then held up a note that a servant had set down on the table during the conversation. One of the forward outposts had sent a rider, he said. They’d reported that the enemy was assembling on the far side of the Kintinwood, along the northwest road, and that at their present speed they’d reach the gates of the city an hour after dawn.
“Sir Hagan and Lord Keays both said they’d get their men ready as soon as possible, but once we’d left the castle Sir Hagan told me to let you get as much sleep as you could. He told me, and I told you, and the rest you know for yourself.”
“You catch any punishment from The Hen for your ‘outburst’?” Bat asked.
Skelley shook his head. “No, but he did tell me once we were out of earshot that he wished we’d actually had the conversation, and I apologized for that.”
“Well,” Bat said, “That’s that, I suppose.” He thought for a moment, and then added, “There is one other thing. I know we’ve all talked about it, but… we’re sure we’re right, aren’t we? About the whole ‘iron around the ears’ thing?”
I saw Skelley look up into the pouring rain, and a flash of lightning briefly lit the clouds above the narrow street from within. “Sure enough to bet our lives, it appears.”