“You might hate the enemy and everything he stands for, sure, but at the level of the battlefield you and he understand each other: you’re trying to kill him because he’s trying to kill you because you’re trying to kill him, and so on. The cold, on the other hand, seems to want to kill you solely out of spite.”
-Norton “Bat” am’Bathe, in a letter home
I set my pack down on the hard-packed snow, and shoved my hands back into the folds of the sheepskin-lined cloak wrapped around my shoulders. “Looks like we’re stopping here,” I said, looking up toward the head of the column.
Oskar grunted, and he and Aler set down the handles of the aura cart. As I was the only soldier other than Sir Hagan who could communicate with Ceyx, the philosopher who’d volunteered to escort the cart and instruct us in its operation, my tent had been on aura cart duty since the day we’d left Etrenium. The philosopher winced as the handles crunched down in the snow, and admonished Oskar and Aler to be gentle in Euphenti.
Aler waved a hand at him. “We know, we know, sollici, sollici.” He chuckled. “If this fellow knew how to say anything else, we’d know almost as much Euphenti as you by now, Mason.”
“If only you did,” I said, “maybe then you could take a turn scrubbing and waxing Sir Hagan’s boots.”
“Alas, the spirits are not so kind.” He ran a thumb along his jawline, through the stubble of the beard he was trying to grow out. “You think this is the last stop of the day? Think we’re camping here tonight?”
I looked back up toward the front of the line. We’d spent most of the day climbing upward, following the narrow road through a long series of switchbacks up a stony slope dotted here and there by thin, scraggly pines. We’d crested the ridge less than an hour ago and were now on level ground. There’d been a few flurries of snow the night before, but while the sky had stayed overcast the weather had been clear, and the air had stayed spirits-blessedly still. Off to the left side of the road, through the trees, I could see a band of tall rushes surrounding a flat, slushy-looking clear space, either a bit of marshland or a small lake not yet entirely frozen. I could also see that there was another slope ahead of us roughly as steep as the one we’d climbed today.
At the head of the column, Sir Hagan was talking to Sir Bliss and Sir Lloyd, pointing and gesturing around him. I looked over at Aler. “Don’t set up the tents until the order comes down, but it’s probably safe to start settling in, yeah.”
He nodded to me. “Good.” He turned to Oksar. “You want to hunt down some rations?”
“Sure,” Oskar said, and trudged off. Aler looked at him, and then at me. I shook my head, and Aler shrugged and fell in behind Oskar.
I watched them go. Aler had been officially added to our tent during the preparations to leave Etrenium. That had been more than five weeks ago, almost half a season, and while Aler had settled in quickly things still didn’t seem like they were entirely back to normal.
Though, I thought to myself, that was hardly Aler’s fault. He got along with both me and with Oskar better than we got along with each other, while things between Oskar and I seemed even worse now than they’d been when we’d marched from Cantlay to Shalecliff. We’d at least been able to work with each other then. Now, it seemed like he wouldn’t even speak to me; he’d do anything I asked him to without complaint, but he asked nothing of me in return, and any information he had to convey to me came through Aler or Ran.
Ran stepped up beside me, and then bent down to adjust the snow shoes that were laced onto his boots. The wood and hide snow shoes had been part of the mass of supplies we’d been given by the Concord quartermasters, far more supplies than Sir Lloyd had requested. On the long line of carts we’d pulled across the plains and into the mountains where were crates of spears with hardwood hafts, fully assembled and sharpened, barrels and barrels of fruits and salted meats and twice-baked bread, heavy tents and thick bedrolls and bales of sheepskins with the wool still on them. The skins had seemed obnoxiously heavy at the time, but now that they were the only thing keeping us from freezing to death at night no one questioned their usefulness.
“Damn things,” Ran said, “can’t seem to keep them from flopping around. I mean, they’re heck of a lot better than the boots I started with, but still…” He tugged at the leather laces, and then looked up at me. “You all right, Colum?”
I sighed, and nodded. “Yeah, I’m all right. It’s just…” I gestured toward Oskar and Aler.
Ran frowned. “Oskar still not talking to you?”
“Not since we left Etrenium.” I crouched down, resting my arms on my pack. “I never expected him to become my friend or anything, I’m not an idiot, but I’d thought…” I sighed. “I thought we were past this sort of thing.”
“Well,” Ran said, tightening the knots on his other shoe, “it might be that he’s jealous.”
“Jealous? Oskar? Of me?”
“You did say he hadn’t talked to you since Etrenium, and Etrenium is when Sir Hagan made you his broken lance.” Ran stood back up, and gave his snow shoe a couple of experimental stomps. “It’s possible he’s jealous at your good fortune, and resentful that the boy who spent a good portion of Oskar’s life trying to punish him for something he didn’t have any say over has now been rewarded for no reason other than the thing the boy wanted to punish him for in the first place.” Ran shrugged. “But I grew up in a hole in the ground, so what do I know?”
I looked up at him, raising an eyebrow. “I take it you’ve talked with him about this?”
“He may have said a few things when you went to prepare Sir Hagan’s dinner two nights ago.” Ran blew out, his breath visible in the chilly mountain air.
“I doubt he’d be happy about you telling me what he said.”
“Probably,” Ran said, “but I’ve got a strong dislike of simmering grudges. In the mines, they tend to get people killed as often as bad shoring or gas pockets.”
I stood back up. “I’d be more than willing to have him take my place, if it were possible. He knows that, right?”
“I’m sure he’d understand that if he were being reasonable. But maybe give him a little room on that? After all, he can’t take your place, and it’s not as though you’ve always been reasonable with him.”
“That’s… fair, I suppose.”
Ran paused for a moment, and then continued. “And maybe hold off on the complaints, as well? There’s noting to make a man resent you quite like having something he wants and mercilessly berating it.”
“All right, all right, I take your point.” I shook my head. “When did you become Kellan, trying to bind us all together as brothers?”
Ran smiled, and shrugged again. “It is Cat’s Night next week, so I’ll be sixteen, a man and everything, officially. Maybe I’m just getting caught up.”
I looked over at Ran again, really looked at him, for the first time probably since we’d left Tilaird. He’d grown taller, I realized; still nowhere near as tall as me, but he’d grown half a hand since I’d first met him. His face seemed leaner, as well, his cheekbones more prominent, and the way he carried himself seemed less awkward and more assured, less lanky and more wiry.
“Well,” I said, “with any luck, we’ll have ourselves a castle to celebrate in.”
“Yeah?” he asked. “Are we really so close?”
I nodded, pointing up the ridge, and Ran followed the line of my finger with his eyes. Just over the tree line, a few trickles of smoke rose from the forest, dark against the pale sky.
Ran’s eyes went wide. “That’s it? Spirits protect us, they can probably hear us!”
“Sir Hagan says the snow deadens the sound of our approach,” I said, “I think we’ll be all right. I’m sure he’ll order heavier patrols tonight just in case.”
“And,” I added, “the smoke is a good sign. If they’re using fires for warmth instead of magic, it means any elves that were there have probably fled to somewhere warmer.”
“So we only have to face the… the sidhe.” He’d only paused a moment before saying the name. It was progress; some of the older soldiers still refused to call them anything but “the short bastards.” Bat seemed to have sidestepped the issue all together by just calling all of the Fae “fox-faces”, with no further clarification needed or expected.
“It’s just a name,” I said, even though every time I said the word my mind went back to that clearing in the woods, to the words I’d said, the bargain I’d asked for. “But yes, we should only have to face the sidhe. And that should be much less dangerous.”