“What was that?” I asked Aler. “He thinks-”
“I know,” Aler said, cutting me off, “I’ve tried talking him down, talking him out of it, but it’s no use, it only seems to make him angrier. He sat with Ran while Ran… while he got worse, and after it was over, he apparently decided it needed to be someone’s fault.”
“And so you told him it was Bliss?”
“No, I tried to tell him it was nobody’s fault, nobody but the enemy, but everyone in the back half of the column heard Sir Bliss say ‘forward’ and Sir Tolan say ‘back’, and so Oksar decided all on his own that Sir Bliss killed him by making us go forward, and Sir Tolan killed him by not making us go back.” Aler held his hands up wide, in a gesture of helplessness. “And nothing I’ve been able to say has managed to convince him otherwise.”
“You could have told him the truth,” I said.
Aler cocked his head at me. “What truth?”
“Come on, Aler. You know what really happened.” When he kept looking at me but didn’t respond, I added, “You were there with the cart. You saw who started the advance.”
“I was with the cart, yeah, right up until Bliss pushed me aside and took up my handle in my place. But I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Bliss didn’t start the attack. He was going to give in to Sir Tolan and retreat. I’m the one who started moving forward.”
“What?” Aler looked away from me, his brow furrowing in concentration. “I mean… I guess I remember you starting forward and Sir Tolan getting in front of you, but Sir Bliss was telling everyone to ready weapons and advance.”
I shook my head. “Not until after I pushed forward. He was getting ready to sound the retreat.”
“I never heard him say anything like that,” Aler said. I gave him a questioning look, and he frowned, shrugging his shoulders. “Honestly, I didn’t. I’m not trying to be cagey or anything like that, and I’m not saying he didn’t say it, I’m just saying I didn’t hear it.” He paused for a moment, looking off into the middle distance, and then looked back at me. “Well, it hardly changes anything, one way or the other. Even if I had heard it, and even if I had told him, Oskar would just be filled with needless rage against you, instead.”
“Hardly needless,” I said, “if it’s directed at the right person.”
“If it’s what?” Aler closed his eyes and brought one hand up to squeeze the bridge of his nose. “Oh, spirits preserve me, not you too.” He opened his eyes again, looking squarely into mine. “Colum. I don’t care if you did start the attack. I don’t care if you came up with spirits-cursed plan to assault the keep in the first place. I don’t care if you secretly founded the whole cursed Concord and personally convinced them to send their people to King Creag to ask Tilaird to join. The only beings responsible for Ran’s death were a ten-foot-tall bird-lizard-monster-thing and the fox-face that was riding it, and you beat one of them to death and nearly cut the head off the other.”
I started to respond, but Aler cut me off again. “And don’t say that we need to ‘tell Oskar the truth’ or that he ‘deserves to know’ or whatever. Because, for one, right now his anger is directed at a dead man and a knight who probably hardly knows he exists. Making him hate someone he shares a tent with isn’t going to do him any favors, and isn’t going to make either of us sleep easier either.”
Aler stepped in toward me, squatting down so that his eyes were at the level of mine. “And for another, there is no ‘truth’ to tell him, because:” He reached forward and poked me in the chest with one finger, not hard but not gently either. “You.” Poke. “Didn’t.” Poke. “Kill.” Poke. “Ran.” He stood back up and turned away, moving back to the table and righting his stool. “Spirits’ sake, Colum, you avenged him.”
I looked down at my feet. It was obvious to me that he was wrong, but I didn’t think I had much chance of convincing him. “So,” I said softly, “we should just, what? Lie to him? Let him go on hating Bliss and Sir Tolan?”
“People believe things that aren’t true all the time. Not correcting them isn’t the same thing as lying to them, and not convincing them to believe some other untrue thing definitely isn’t. And if the only way to make him stop hating them is to make him hate you more?”
He sat back down. “I know you and I were never really friends back home, and at least part of that’s down to how you and Oskar were with each other, but you and me and him are the only ones left, now, the only boys from Cantlay Town still here. It’d be nice if, for a little while at least, one of us didn’t want to beat the crap out of one of the others.”
We were both quiet for a long moment, Aler looking off into the fire while I stared at my feet. Finally I sighed, and raised my head to look at him again. “How… how did Ran die? Did the griffon kill him, or the rider?”
“Hm?” He blinked. “Oh. The griffon. Sort of. I mean, it was definitely the griffon, but it didn’t…” He looked at me, and then back at the fire. “When the thing first pounced the column Ran ducked in under the battering ram, which protected him from the initial attack, but then it went for you and Bliss and the cart, and on the way it-”
“Jumped on the ram, broke it all to bits. I remember. Spirits, and Ran…?”
“Yeah,” Aler said. “He tried to get out in time, but the the log came down on him, right across the middle of him. He was one of the first wounded we brought inside after Sir Hagan opened the gates, just after we dragged you in. Took four of us just to lift the end of the log enough to slide him out from under.”
Aler took a deep breath before he continued. “For a couple of hours we thought he might be all right, because he wasn’t bleeding and his back didn’t seem broken, but he went all hot to the touch and his belly started turning black. He only woke up a few times, and the first time he was well enough to tell us how he got under the ram, but other than that all he could do was beg us for water and cry about the pain. All considered, it’s probably a mercy he went as fast as he did.”
“Spirits.” It was all I could think to say.
After another long, quiet moment, Oskar came back up the steps, holding a steaming wood trencher in one hand and balancing a few heavy-looking clay cups on a plate with the other. He set both on the table, and I felt my stomach begin to churn as the scents of stewed meat and strong green herbs reached my nose. “You both all right?” he asked.
Aler looked over at me, raising an eyebrow questioningly, and after a short moment I nodded. “Yeah, Oskar, we’re all right.” I pulled myself closer to the table, scooting my stool forward with my good leg. “Thanks for this, I didn’t realize how hungry I was until just now.”
Oskar nodded to me. “No worries. And there’s this, though Bat said you should probably go at it slowly.” He set one of the cups in front of me, giving the other two to himself and Aler. “That patrol Sir Atelic was leading came back with it. I heard Sir Atelic tell Sir Hagan they found it in an old cache a few days march away, along with the last of the sidhe who ran. He said they found the fox-faces all huddled together next to the cache marker, along with a couple of frozen rabbit carcasses and a little pile of sticks and logs, said it looked like they’d been trying to start a fire and just couldn’t figure out how.”
I picked up the cup, which was warm to the touch, and sniffed at the cloudy amber-colored liquid within. There were unfamiliar spices and notes to the scent I didn’t recognize, but he smell of cider was unmistakable and immediately familiar, enough like the stuff in my father’s old barrel that I felt a sudden wave of homesickness.
“So, that’s it, then?” Aler asked, “He said they got the last of the little bastards?”
“Well, we didn’t get an exact count or anything, but we saw the fox-faces split into four groups as they ran away, and the scouts have found four camps. Unless they had stragglers split off, we’ve caught or found them all, and if they’re freezing to death in groups I somehow doubt a lone survivor would do much better.”
I set down the mug, picked up the carved wooden spoon that was sitting on the side of the trencher, and lifted a little piece of meat from the stew to my mouth. It was only salt mutton, the same thing I’d been eating for a month before the battle, but I found that the gamy strangeness of the meat had grown on me, and my hunger made the taste of the stringy meat slick with its own fat immensely satisfying.
“And if we’ve caught them all, the Fae won’t have word we’ve taken the pass?”
“That’s what Sir Hagan says. And he said that if the Concord’s magic expert can figure out how to make the summoning plate work, the Fae won’t even know their people are gone. We’ll be safe here as long as we need to be, all winter and beyond if need be.”
“Well, then,” Aler said, “here’s to Sir Hagan!” He lifted his cup above the table, and then nodded to me. “And to Griffonkiller Mason, may he kill a hundred more!”
I rolled my eyes and shook my head at him, but raised my own cup alongside his. “To Cantlay Town and all its sons, here and elsewhere.”
Oskar lifted his cup, as well. “To Kellan, who’s probably back there now, having Merey feed him currants and icing!”
We all chuckled at the image, but then Oskar’s expression grew serious, and in a softer voice he added, “And to Ran, who got his wish and didn’t die in a hole in the ground.”
Aler nodded solemnly. “To Ran.”
“To Ran,” I agreed.
We each drank from our cups. Outside, in the fading afternoon light, I could just make out the first flakes of new snowfall as they drifted past the narrow arrow-slit windows.
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