For a moment the bunkhouse was silent, the rattling of the door on its hinges the only sound, but then the room erupted in noise as everyone began talking at once. Bat held up his hands, as the dozen or so men closest to the door started toward him. “All right, boys, all right, settle down.” He pushed through into the middle of the room, and stepped up onto one of the benches next to the brazier.
“All right!” he shouted, and then stood, looking around him stony-faced until the room began to quiet. When the last of the voices trickled away, he spoke again, his voice kept carefully level. “I know you’ve all got questions, but it’s about as cut-and-dry as The Hen says. We’re all getting on the boat, no two ways about it.”
“Why, though?” asked a soldier, one of Sir Bliss’ men. “Why send us?”
Bat shrugged. Skelley, still seated on the bench across the brazier from the bench Bat was standing on, raised two fingers. “I’d imagine it was probably a matter of long-term political thinking. After all, if this ‘Concord of Men’ wins the war, Tilaird doesn’t want to be the one nation that refused to join, and if they lose I dare we’ll not stand a great chance of defeating the fox-faced bastards on our own.”
“Seems like sound reasoning,” Bat said. He jumped down from the bench and sat down, and pulled his pipe and pouch from the back of his belt. “Also, the fellow in the funny dress had a couple of soldiers bring in a chest with a man’s weight in silver inside as a gesture of good faith to King Creag and to ‘aid us in further recruitment’, which may have had something to do with it.”
Skelley gestured to Bat. “You see? Political.”
The soldier shook his head. “No,” he said, “I meant, why send us? Even with fifty of the King’s men and fifty of Lord Keays’, we’ll still only have about two hundred fighters, and half of our unit are still…” He looked pointedly at some of the younger boys in the unit, at Ran and at Wade ev Wollen. “Not untested, for sure, but inexperienced. I somehow doubt we’ll be much help to this Concord Army, especially if the Euphentine Multitude is a part of it.”
I nodded a little at this last point. Master Vardon had talked about the Multitude a few times, mostly in the context of soldiers he’d known and shared meals or jars of wine with. It was supposedly the largest army in the world, ten thousand standing soldiers, not conscripted or mustered from the population but professionals like King Creag’s own retinue, trained to kill with sword and spear and javelin. Soldiers both skilled and disciplined, loyal only to their general and to the rulers of Euphentis through him.
Bat finished packing the bowl of his pipe, and pulled a stick of burning kindling from the brazier to light it. “The King called it a gesture of good faith, like the chest of silver. Said he’d send our newly-victorious force, the men that defeated the enemy at the very gates of the city.” He tossed the stick back into the brazier, and blew out a little puff of smoke. “A clever move on his part, really. He gets the full support of the Concord, whatever that gets him, he can keep his own men here to defend the city, and he can have Lord Keays raise a new army from his untouched, untapped lands to take back the western cities. All it costs him is two hundred men.”
Barder am Stomund let out a loud sigh. “This is madness.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that.” Bat tapped a few ashes out of his pipe and returning the stem to his mouth. “After all, we are the heroes of the Battle of Kintinvale. There were nearly three thousand men in the combined armies of Tilaird before we met this enemy, but this unit, the hundred-odd men in this room? We’re the ones who won. We’re the ones who figured out iron-around-the-ears, and we’re the ones who stopped the fox-faces.”
He puffed a few puffs on the pipe, and then blew out a breath through the accumulating smoke. “Who knows what shape the Euphentine Multitude is in? Maybe their losses have been as bad as ours. Maybe worse. That would certainly explain why they’re coming to us for help. Spirits, if they haven’t figured out what we have, they might name us heroes just for showing them the importance of proper headgear.”
A few of the boys chuckled at this, and Skelley smiled. “Well, let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves. For now, men, get some rest. There’ll be plenty to do to prepare tomorrow.”
“Having trouble getting started, Mason?” Skelley asked.
I looked up. “Hmm?”
Skelley smiled at me, and gestured toward the desk I was sitting at. “That parchment’s been blank for half an hour or so, and I think the ink’s probably dried on that quill.”
I frowned, and touched the tip of the quill to the page. Sure enough, no mark. I cursed, and pulled the bronze dagger from my belt to try to cut a new tip. A couple of the other boys from our unit briefly glanced up, and I heard a couple of chuckles at my curse.
Most of our soldiers were here, still lounging around the barracks, or off at one of the public houses in town, starting their last debauches before we sailed away. Despite what Skelley had said the night before, there apparently wasn’t all that much that needed our attention. Sir Hagan had named one of Lord Keays’ knights as his new quartermaster, a dark-complected man with a more-or-less permanent scowl named Sir Lloyd Kinnow, and Sir Lloyd had arranged to have what supplies we were taking with us hauled down to the docks by porters and loaded onto the ships by their own sailors. There wasn’t much, beyond foodstuffs and our personal effects; most of the equipment we’d left behind at the inn at Shalecliff Bridge would need to be replaced anyway, so it was decided it’d be replaced once we got to Euphentis.
A couple of writing desks, with parchment and ink and pre-cut quills, had been dragged down into the barracks house, and one of the King’s scribes sat at one, taking down letters for those soldiers who couldn’t or wouldn’t do their own writing. I’d sat down at the other around the middle of the afternoon, intending to tell Master Vardon and my family what was happening, but try as I might to come up with the words, my mind remained resolutely blank.
Skelley sat down on the bunk closest to the desk, leaning on his crutch. “It’s a difficult proposition, saying your farewells. Wanting your family not to miss you too badly, but not to forget you, either.”
I let out a little snort of a laugh. “A little late for that on both counts.” Skelley raised an eyebrow at me, and I sighed. “My relationship with my family is complicated.”
“I guess I’d gathered that. I don’t need the details if you don’t want to give them. Still, it’s hard all the same.” Skelley looked around, at the boys and men going about their business, and then looked back at me.
“You know what I find interesting?” Skelley asked. When I didn’t respond, focusing on trying to reshape the tip of the quill without splitting the feather entirely, he continued. “Since the day of the battle, I think I’ve seen you go to visit your Kellan over at the Red Bough at least once a day, but I don’t think you’ve left the bunkhouse since last night.”
I stopped, and softly set my knife down on the desk. “I was going to go tomorrow, tomorrow morning maybe. After everything was ready.”
“Progress seems to be coming along on that front without help from you or me. Why leave it until the last?” Skelley looked up at me, his eyes fixing on mine. “I can’t pretend to know the contents of your mind, of course, but focusing on an easier goodbye to avoid a more difficult one is something I might have done a time or two in my youth.”
“I just…” I trailed off. I wasn’t sure what to say, what I was feeling. The reality of the situation, that I was leaving, and that for the first time since the beginning of my apprenticeship I was leaving my closest friend behind, was so strange and sad and heavy a thought that I almost couldn’t bring my mind to contain it. “It’s not as if he’ll even know, Skelley.”
“You’ll know, Mason.”
“But he won’t even hear it. Not while he’s…”
Skelley nodded. “He might not. He might not even need to hear it. But I think you might need to say it. For your own sake.”
I set the quill down on the desk, and put my dagger back in its sheath. Skelley pushed himself to his feet and patted me on the shoulder. “I understand what you’re going through, Mason, I really do. After all, my bosom friend and companion is going to be leaving me behind.”
I looked up at Skelley. “You’re staying here?”
Skelley frowned, and nodded. “Only able-bodied soldiers, for the Concord.” He tapped his injured leg gingerly with his crutch. “Some damned rabbit owes me quite the adventure. But I’ll be here to watch over Kellan and the other wounded. You can count on me for that, at least.” He put his hand on my shoulder again. “I’ve got my share of regrets, Mason. Go say goodbye.”
Slowly, I nodded. “OK.”
I knew the fastest route to the Red Bough, had figured out which streets to take and which alleys I could cut through, but my feet carried me through what seemed like a third of the city that afternoon before I finally wound up before the inn. The sun was just dipping down to touch the top of the city walls, and a late afternoon breeze had sprung up, making the red-painted branch that served as the inn’s sign swing a little on its chains.
I took a couple of deep breaths to steel myself, and then stepped forward to open the door. Before I could lay my hand on the handle, though, it moved, and the door swung outward. I looked up, and found myself standing face to face with Oskar.
He looked at me for a long moment, his eyes looking tired and sad and frustrated, and then nodded to me. “He’s awake.”