Sir Hagan walked away down the stairs, leaving me alone with the fire for the moment. I stared into the flames, thinking about what he’d asked me. If he was as disappointed in my answer as he seemed to be, he’d obviously been looking for another one, but what had he hoped I’d say? That Sir Tolan had been a loyal soldier, pushing forward with the column even if he didn’t agree with the attack? Or that Robe and the men closest to him had deserted, left the battle before it had even begun, that they’d returned to camp only to steal supplies before running and only returned because we’d been victorious and they’d been caught?
I shook my head at the thought. I knew that Sir Hagan disliked Sir Tolan, that he thought him foolish and vain, but I couldn’t think he wanted the man to be a deserter, couldn’t think him cruel or petty enough to go looking for a reason to strip Robe of his knighthood or put him to the sword. Though he’d been cruel enough to hurt Barder am Stomund to make a point, and petty enough to make me his broken lance for reasons that were mostly political…
The sound of clomping footsteps on the stairs broke me out of my chain of thought, and I turned to look in time to see Aler and Oscar’s heads appear in the stairwell. Aler smiled and cocked his head back at me when his eyes met mine. “Well look, it seems the legends are true. Griffonkiller Mason has returned from doing battle in the realm of the spirits to fight alongside us mortal men once more!”
I groaned. “Oh, spirits help me. Sir Hagan said he’d heard some of the men call me that, but I didn’t think he meant you.”
“Blame Bat, he’s the one who started it.” Aler reached the top of the stairs and walked over next to the table in the middle of the room, with Oskar a couple of paces behind him. “He says the more legendary-sounding nicknames we have, the better it is for morale.” He started talking in a deeper, more gravelly tone, badly imitating Bat’s voice. “Men’d rather fight alongside ‘Bat the Slender, Master of the Broken Lance’ than next to ‘Old Norton, son of Bathe the Ferryman’.”
“If we let him keep going,” Oskar added, “we’ll all end up sounding like characters out of the stories of the First Families.” His expression was difficult to read; there was a smile on his lips, but it looked forced, not reaching his rest of his face. His eyes moved around the room, seeming to focus on anything but me or Aler, but he finally looked over at me. “Hey, Colum.”
“Hey,” I said. “How… how is everything?”
“I…” Oskar started, but then stopped, looking away from me again.
Aler pulled out a stool and sat down. “Things are generally well,” he said. “Between the supplies we brought with us and the stockpiles here, we should be well fed through the whole winter, even if the Concord’s magic expert can’t make that summoning thing work. And the keep and stables have enough room between them to house everyone, though I think I’d take our tent over the stables for warmth.” He nodded at my bandages. “That leg of yours earned you a lot of nice warm indoor time. It’s a pity you’ve been asleep, instead of awake to enjoy it.”
“Oh, I’m sure they’ll be putting me you in the cold with you all soon enough.”
“Actually, Bat said they’d probably try and move more men in here soon, now that there’s less need to have this much space set aside for the injured.” He gestured toward me. “I’m hoping being tent-mates with the Griffonkiller might help get us in.”
I laughed. “I’ll see what I can do. Maybe we’ll have to have Ran barter our extra blankets for some of that strong Euphentine wine.”
An uncomfortable silence descended over the room. Aler looked away from me, and behind him I saw the smile slip from Oskar’s face. “What…?” I began to ask, and then I felt a weight forming in my belly as I thought about what I’d said, about why Aler and Oskar would have come to visit me alone. “No. Did… did Ran…?”
Aler swallowed, frowning, and nodded. “I was trying to find a way to… I didn’t know if you knew, or if Bat or anyone had told you.” He looked over across the room. “They had him in that bed there, not next to yours but close, for the couple of days he managed to hold on.”
“Spirits, no.” A thought jumped into my mind, as the world seemed to contract in around me. I killed him. My ears started ringing, and the dizziness I’d felt as I woke up seemed to return. I wanted to help Oskar, but I killed Ran instead. I leaned forward, fearing I was going to be sick, but the room seemed to spin with the motion, pulling me toward the floor.
I felt something firm and unyielding wrap itself around my chest, pulling me back upright. I jumped a little, surprised, and looked up. Oskar seemed to have transported himself from the table to my side in an instant and was holding me up, reaching across my chest so he could grip both of my shoulders, one in each hand. “Easy,” he said softly, “you’re all right.”
Aler was standing now, the stool he’d been sitting on lying on its side behind him. “Should we move him back, get him back over…?” He gestured in the direction of my bed.
“Maybe so,” Oskar said. He tilted his head to one side to look me in the face. “Can you walk if we help you?”
I raised a hand, waving him away. “No, I don’t need to…” I took a deep breath, trying to clear my head. “I’m all right. I just need… I…” I felt a sob starting to push up out of the pit in my belly, and I let it come, let the sorrow and guilt spill out of me in waves as Oskar held me up.
After what felt like an hour I felt the waves start to subside, and I managed to suck in a ragged breath. I turned my head toward Oskar, looking straight into his eyes. “Spirits, I’m so sorry.”
“It’s not your fault, Colum,” Aler said.
“No,” Oskar said, looking away from me, “not your fault at all.” I felt the muscles in his arm clinch, a moment before he let go of my shoulders, and this close I could see his jaw tighten in anger. “Spirits curse them.”
I looked from Oskar to Aler and back again, as confusion joined the other feelings still roiling in my gut. “Did someone-”
Aler raised a hand, cutting me off. “No, nothing like that, just-”
“They never should have ordered the attack,” Oskar said, his voice bitter. “Not when they could see and hear that the plan had already gone wrong.”
I blinked, wiping tears from my face with the sleeve of my tunic. “But without the distraction of the attack, they would have been focused solely on you, on Sir Hagan and all the rest of you.”
“We’d already gotten inside the keep,” Oskar said, “even without the distraction. We’d set up outside the door, ready to attack, when one of the sidhe opened the thing and came out to piss or something. We surprised it, but it shouted as it died, and we pushed in before they could organize themselves.”
He rolled his eyes. “There was hardly anyone inside to fight. They apparently had scouts watching the main road, because they were already gathering out in the courtyard, and we came down through here and into the room downstairs and just barred the main door. We locked them out.”
“But,” I said, “there was still the griffon, and the sidhe casting spells.”
“The monster, the griffon, whatever, it hit the door a couple of times, but only hard enough to rattle it a little, not enough to damage it, and whatever the sidhe was throwing at us, it didn’t seem to be able to aim it through the arrow slits. Half of Sir Erian’s bunch brought those Euphentine cross-bows in, though, and they’d started to loosing bolts at the fox-faced little bastards with no trouble. And if that hadn’t worked to finish them off, the rest of us were headed up to the roof to ready the scorpions.”
He shook his head. “And if that hadn’t worked… maybe we would have needed help, sure. But they should have pulled back, sent scouts, tried to figure out what was going on, and instead they just decided to march straight in, right into the jaws of the waiting monster, and now Ran is dead and you were almost dead with him.” He closed his eyes, and I saw his spear hand ball up into a fist. “Spirits curse Sir Bliss as he joins them, and curse Sir Tolan for not stopping him when he had the chance. The sidhe eat both their souls.”
I looked back over at Aler, my eyes wide. He’d been right next to me at the cart. He knew what had really happened there. Knew exactly who’d been the one to push forward, who’d made the decision to attack. Who’d gotten Ran killed.
He looked back at me, and gave me a subtle shake of the head. I opened my mouth to speak, but he shook his head again, the motion sharper this time, and then he looked over at Oskar. “Hey, Oskar,” he said, the gentle tone of his voice at odds with the pointed look he’d given me, “I don’t think Colum’s had anything but broth in his belly for a week and a half, and I’ll bet a plate of that stew that’s on the fire downstairs and a couple pieces of twice-baked would do him a world of good.”
Oskar looked back at him, and then sighed and nodded, unclenching his fist. “Yeah,” he said, his voice matching Aler’s, “I can get some.” He stepped around me, briefly putting a hand on my shoulder, and then walked past Aler and down the stairs.
Hey folks! If you’re enjoying the story and want to do something small to help out, please vote for Mud and Iron on Top Web Fiction. It takes literally two seconds, and even a single vote can often be enough to put Mud and Iron on the charts, where more people can find and enjoy it. Thanks!