“A soldier may fight for freedom, it is true, and even at times for his own freedom, but the soldier’s very duty is itself a denial of freedom; the soldier is always, by nature, a slave to the war he fights.”
-Caurus Etrenius, “A Treatise on the Nature of Conflict”
“Sure, it looks like the tailor did a good job,” Aler said, “but isn’t it a bit extravagant, three shirts in three different colors?”
I finished pulling my new tunic on, and gave each of the sleeves a little tug to pull out the wrinkles at the shoulders. “It wasn’t any more trouble for the tailor than making them all the same color. It’s not like back home, where Ollifer Weaver buys a whole cask of rose madder from a peddler one spring and for the next year every new shirt is a red shirt. This is Kintinvale, not Cantlay Town.” I brushed my hands down the front of the shirt, picking a couple of bits of straw off of the pale yellow cloth.
Aler shrugged. “I guess so. Just seems wild to me.” He lay back, lounging on his cot. “You’ll be the talk of town when we get back, though. Colum and the mayor, the only men in town with more than two shirts, and the mayor’s modest enough not to flaunt it.”
I shook my head, folding up the other two tunics in the paper wrapper they’d come in. The new shirts would take a little getting used to; I’d only ever worn linen before, except for my short cloak and hood, but when the tailor had said that he’d just received a shipment of fine goats’ wool cloth in a dozen different colors, I’d decided to go for it, since I had committed to splurging when I’d decided to order three shirts in the first place. The resulting garments, in earthy red, pale mustard-flower yellow and deep blue, were a little heavier than my old shirts and a lot warmer.
Given the weather, I was already considering pulling the leather lace out of the tunic I was wearing and letting the collar hang open, instead of lacing it up. The week after the battle had been peppered here and there with short, gentle rain showers, the remnants of the storm that broke that morning, but for the past few days Kintinvale had seen nothing but clear skies and summer sun. Not exactly the weather for wool, but I had new tunics and I was going to wear one of them no matter the temperature.
Ran ducked in the door of the bunkhouse, dodging around the lit brazier as he rushed over to us. He raised a hand, panting hard, trying to speak. “I… I… I wa… I was just…”
Aler stood up. “Easy, Ran. Deep breaths.”
Ran nodded, and took a deep breath in through the nose. Oskar, who had been kneeling before the small ancestor shrine one of Sir Tolan’s men had set up in the corner of the bunkhouse, stood up and came over to us. “Something wrong?”
“Not sure,” I said to him, and then returned my attention to Ran. “You all right?”
Ran took a couple more deep breaths, and nodded again. “I was down by the docks, down on the river, and I saw a ship sailing upstream toward the city.” He paused for another breath. “A Grardish ship.”
“Grardish?” Aler asked. “Like, a raiding ship?”
“Not sure what kind,” Ran said, “was too far away. I’ve seen pictures, though, drawings from the invasion, and its sail had big stripes like the ones in those pictures.”
I looked up at Aler and Oskar, and we all nodded to each other. Oskar motioned Ran toward the door. “Don’t just talk about it, show us!” Ran smiled his usual half smile and ran back out the door, and Aler, Oskar and I jogged out after him.
By the time we got to the docks it seemed like a quarter of the city had gathered there, standing in groups of three and four, staring downriver and muttering worriedly to each other. Oskar and I were both tall enough to see over most of the heads in the crowd; Aler helped Ran up onto a crate to get a better view and then climbed up after him.
Ran might only have seen the one ship before coming to tell us, but there were now three ships closing in on the docks. The ships to the front and rear of the group were small single-masted vessels, with pointed ends at both the front and back, and square sails with broad black stripes running down them, visible even as the sailors folded them away and extended oars out the sides to bring them in close to the dock.
The middle ship was massive, bigger than any ship I’d ever seen before, with two masts, a broad stocky-looking hull, and two separate masts with long diagonal cross-pieces, each with a fat bundle of sailcloth bound against it. The Grardish ships flew no flag or banners, and I could make out nothing about the flag hanging from the taller of the larger ship’s masts except that it was a golden yellow color.
I felt a tap on my shoulder. Ran was crouching down on top of the crate, looking at me. “What do you think it means?”
I looked back out at the ships, and then shook my head. “I don’t know.” The larger ship had oars extended now, as well, rising and falling to the water’s surface like the legs of a centipede as it made its way toward the port.
“I hate to say it now that we’re here,” said Oskar, “but we should probably get back to the bunk house. If we’re needed, Sir Hagan will want to be able to find us, and with any luck Bat will be there and know what’s happening.”
Ran looked at me questioningly, and after a moment longer I nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, you’re probably right.” I helped Ran and Aler down from the crate, and we picked our way back through the still-gathering crowd and back toward South Square.
Neither Sir Hagan or Bat were present at the bunkhouse when we returned, but Skelley was, hobbling around on a single crutch. “I only just got here myself,” he said, lowering himself with a grimace onto a bench by the brazier. “Sir Hagan came and found Bat and myself not ten minutes ago at the Fox’s Folly. Said he’d been called to the castle and asked Bat to accompany him, and asked me to come back here and tell everyone to stay put for the time being.” He gingerly leaned his crutch on the bench beside him.” Probably a tactical blunder on The Hen’s part, bringing Bat instead of myself, but only time will tell.”
“Did he say anything about the harbor?” I asked, “Or about Grardish ships?”
Henney cocked his head at me. “Grardish? No, all Sir Hagan told me was that I should remain here, and make sure that any others that came in stayed here as well. It seems you know better than me what’s going on. What did you see, lads?”
Ran told Hagan about the ships coming into the harbor, with a few interjections by Oskar, Aler and myself. When we finished, Skelley scratched his head. “All right, I’ll admit my curiosity has been peaked as well. Still,” he said, stretching his injured leg toward the brazier and frowning as he moved the ankle around in a circle, “we have our orders, don’t we? Sit tight. I’m certain we’ll know what we need to soon enough.”
As midday continued into afternoon, more of our men made their way to the bunkhouse, trickling in as news reached them. A few who’d stayed at the docks longer than we had carried further news of the day’s events. One said that the larger ship had dropped anchor in the middle of the river, well away from the docks, and sent a pair of longboats in toward land alongside the Grardish ships. Another, one of the men who’d served under Sir Glen Irby, said he’d seen white flags of peace get pulled up the masts of the warships as they approached; he also swore that he’d seen Iaggi Iaggison, the Grardishman who’d marched into Kintinvale with us, standing at the front of one of the boats and waving like a madman. Wade ev Wollen, who arrived back at the barracks late in the day, said that he’d been there when the boats reached the dock. A man wearing strange white robes with purple fringes had come up the dock, he said, and someone who looked like a lord or a knight had met the man on the docks with a contingent of men from the City Watch, and had led him up away from the docks and toward the castle.
“If it wasn’t Sir Hagan or another of our knights,” Skelley said to Wade, “it sounds like our visitors warranted an escort by Lord Keays.” He stroked his mustache with his fingers. “Very curious, indeed.”
For a while after that we heard no new news. The afternoon stretched out into evening, and by the time the sun went down most of our unit was waiting in the bunkhouse, sitting on their cots or gathering around the brazier as the summer night started to turn cool. Skelley decided to teach some sort of card game to Oskar and Ran and a few of the other boys; from the way he repeated the phrase “No, that’s not a valid play, either,” it sounded like some of them were having a difficult time grasping the fundamentals. I decided to start wearing in my new boots, and had just finished lacing them onto my feet when the door at the end of the bunkhouse opened and Sir Hagan entered, with Bat just behind him.
He looked down the length of the bunkhouse. “Good,” he said, “I’d hoped most of you would be here. You can find the others to tell them later.” He inhaled and cleared his throat. “Right. As many of you may know, a small fleet of ships arrived in the harbor around mid-day today, including a pair of Grardish raiding ships. They were escorting an emissary from the Republic of Euphentis, who was sent here to meet with King Creag. The emissary brought news of war on the Western Continent; the same enemy that we’ve faced here in Tilaird has been pushing back the armies of the continental nations, as well. The Kingdom of Atlin is apparently completely under enemy control, as is the Grardish territory of Ingusslund and the majority of Harrdslund, as well, and there is further word that they may be beginning to push southwest into Mirennus.”
I knew very little of the geography of the Continent beyond Master Vardon’s occasional story; the names Sir Hagan rattled off meant little to me. The thought that there might be enough more of the enemy we’d faced to conquer and occupy multiple countries, though, sent a chill down my spine. I shifted on my cot, my legs feeling suddenly uncomfortable.
Sir Hagan continued. “In order to combat the threat of the invaders, the rulers have Euphentis have banded together with the rulers of Escana, Mirennus, and the other continental nations to form what they’re calling ‘The Concord of Man’, a united council with representatives of all of the nations under threat from our shared enemy. The emissary said that it was the Concord he represented, not Euphentis itself, and that he had come to ask King Creag to formally join the Concord, and to send as many soldiers as he could spare to be integrated into the Concord Army.” He paused, widening his eyes and blowing out a breath between his lips. “After much deliberation and discussion, the King has decided that Tilaird will join in the Concord, and he pledged to send a company of men to fight, as well: fifty men each from the remaining men in both the Royal Army and Lord Keays’ unit, and the entirety of my unit’s combat able forces.”
“What this means for you,” Sir Hagan said, raising his voice to quiet the murmurs that had begun to circulate around the room, “is that in two days, you will be boarding the ship that lays at anchor in the river and setting sail for Euphentis. The King has decided that I will be leading the detachment and serving as his ambassador to the Concord, so I will be accompanying you, as well.” He held up a hand. “I know that this is a sudden change, and for many it is well beyond the scope of your initial muster. The Concord emissary assured us that the Concord would continue to pay you a fair wage for your service; for most of you, I believe it will come to more than triple what you originally signed on for.” He closed his eyes. “However, for those of you conscripted at the beginning of this season, this arrangement is well within the terms of your conscription, just as it is for those of you in longer service.”
Sir Henney opened his eyes again, and looked up at us. “I’ll be sending messengers north to Cantlay and the surrounding areas the morning before we leave. Those of you who can write may wish to send letters with them. For those who can’t, I’ll make sure they’re equipped to write down and deliver short messages. Until then, organize what belongings you have and prepare them for transport.” He turned away from us, and walked out the door without another word.