I passed Sir Bliss Lynott going the other way as I neared Sir Hagan’s standard. His eyes fell on me, looking me up and down as though he were sizing me up, and then met my eyes with his and gave me a curt nod, his expression unreadable.
I nodded back, even more confused now than I’d been before. For the most part, the knights tended to seem to think of us foot soldiers less as people and more as equipment, or livestock; a look and a nod was more direct interaction than I’d ever had from any of the knights, ever. What in blazes was going on?
Under Bat’s supervision, a couple of older soldiers were digging out a shallow hole in the dry turf near the standard. A fire pit, I guessed, judging by the shape and placement. Behind him, Sir Hagan sat on a short stool with a lap desk balanced on his knees, scratching out something on a piece of parchment with a short quill.
Bat smiled at me as I approached, and then cleared his throat. Sir Hagan looked up. “There you are. Good.” He looked back down at the desk, continuing to write. “You speak the local language, Mason?” he asked. “Euphenti loquari?”
“Loquo ia,” I answered. Yes, I speak it. “My master back in Cantlay Town is from here.”
Sir Hagan looked up at me again, and raised an eyebrow. “That’s a long way for a stone mason to travel. Did he ever say why?”
“No, sir. He never offered, and I never asked.”
“Pity.” Sir Hagan frowned for a moment, then went back to his writing. “Well, no matter either way. You’re to be my new broken lance, Mason. We’re to meet with the Concord general and the heads of the other nations’ armies in an hour’s time; make yourself presentable and be back here before then.”
I stood there, stunned, certain I’d misheard him. Sir Hagan continued writing for a moment, then stopped and looked up again. “That’s all, Mason. Unless you have something to say?”
“No, sir. It’s just… No sir. Sorry, sir.”
Sir Hagan sighed, and laid his quill down on the desk. “As a broken lance, Mason, you will often be required to speak your mind to me, even if you think I’ll disagree with or dislike what you have to say. Best start now.”
I swallowed, and cleared my throat. “It’s just… between the veterans from our own army and the men from the King and Lord Keays, you have your pick of experienced soldiers. Why choose me, sir? And why now?”
“It’s a fair question,” Sir Hagan said. “The meeting I mentioned is the reason for the timing. I’m expected to go, and to bring a retinue of four with me. It’s symbolic, apparently; five nations, five from each nation, something like that.
“So,” he continued, holding up a fist, “there’s me.” He extended his thumb. “Kinnow, my quartermaster, and am Bathe, my broken lance.” He counted the two men on his first and second fingers. “Lynott’s offically one of the King’s men, he was serving under Lord Carson as a Royal appointment, so he balances out Kinnow and makes both Lord Keays and King Creag’s men feel like they’re part of the unit.” He extended his third finger to represent Sir Bliss, and then took the little one in the fingers of his opposite hand. “I can’t use another of either the King’s men or Lord Keays’ without shaking that balance. Tolan Robe’s an idiot and I don’t want him with me, but he was the head of Lord Carson’s retinue and I can’t assign another of my knights without insulting him.
“But, if I promote a second broken lance from the commons, Robe saves face and the balance is maintained. And, though am Bathe has been silent on the matter out of respect for Harbort Skel, I’ve waited too long to pick Skel’s replacement. So, it’s the right move for everyone.”
I opened my mouth to speak, but Sir Hagan held up a finger. “Getting to it. You’re right that there are plenty of experienced soldiers among the commons, but almost all of them are loyal to other knights or other Lords. There are only a handful left in the unit, only a dozen or so, who are my men specifically, men I recruited and trained, men loyal to me personally. I’m sure you know this.
He didn’t wait for me to nod or respond before continuing. “I might have had a difficult choice picking from among those men, but then on the way here one of them started in on a conversation with our boat captain in fluent Euphenti, much to my surprise. am Bathe confirmed you speak the language, and so did you just now. Given the present circumstances, having another man who understands what’s being said in the room is going to be far more valuable to me than someone who’s done a lot of fighting, and we’re all equally experienced when it comes to fighting this particular enemy, anyway.” He lowered his hand. “That clear things up for you?”
I nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“Good. Now go and get cleaned up. You’ve got less than an hour. And Mason?” he said as I turned to leave. “If you have any trophies from the Battle of Kintinvale you can wear on your person, do so. Let’s show the Concord we know what we’re up against.”
“Does this mean we have to take orders from you?” Ran asked, as he stuffed a cloth into the neck of his water skin and turned the skin upside down to wet it. He’d taken a break from setting up the newly-delivered tent with Oskar to help me, after I’d told them what Sir Hagan had said and then started digging through the chest and pile of bundles that comprised our worldly possessions to find my things.
I took the cloth from him, using it to scrub my face. “I’m not sure if we technically have to take orders from Bat or Skelley, unless we’re in battle. So, maybe?” I handed the cloth back to Ran, and started pulling my blue tunic on over my head. “I don’t really plan on giving any, so hopefully we won’t have to find out.”
I pushed my head through the neck of the shirt, and started doing up the laces. It was far too warm for it, but Sir Hagan had said to look presentable. As I worked, I looked over to where Oskar was still working on putting up the tent. He’d been quiet when I’d relayed Sir Hagan’s orders for me, and now seemed to be avoiding making eye contact with me entirely.
Ran held my belt up for me to take. “Don’t worry too much about him,” he said, in a low voice. “After my father gave the mining rights for the north pit to Cousin Guin, my oldest brother didn’t talk to any of us for a week. He came around, though. Jealousy never lasts forever.”
I chuckled grimly. “Hope he handles it better than I did.”
Ran frowned. “I’d almost forgot.” He paused. “What exactly did he do, that made you hate him so much?”
“Him? Nothing.” I took the belt from Ran, and buckled it around my hips, over the tunic. “I mean, to my mind at the time he was the bastard who’d stolen my family from me, who deserved anything I could do to him short of outright murder, but it was never really his fault. He was just the one my father chose.” I looked over at Oskar again. “Let him hate me for a while. I deserve it, after all the time I spent hating him.”
“Huh.” Ran looked up at me.
“It’s just,” he said, “I can’t really picture you like that, all full of bile and hatred. Doesn’t sound much like the Colum I know.”
I shrugged. “It all just seems so… unimportant, I guess, compared to what’s happening now. Maybe I just have more perspective. Or maybe I’ve just changed in the past few months.”
Ran reached into the chest and slowly lifted out my dagger, the wood-sheathed bronze knife taken from the woman I’d killed outside the walls of Kintinvale. He held it out to me, handle first. “I think the past few months have probably changed all of us.”
I wrapped my hand around the handle of the knife, noticing for the first time how comfortable I’d become with having a weapon in my hand. I tucked the sheathed blade into the side of my belt. “Probably,” I said, “yeah. Probably.”