“The history of Mirennus is a history of excess, of a society that lacks entirely a sense of moderation. Either they are ruled by a single king, or they are a thousand tiny kingdoms. Either they worship a thousand gods, or claim that only one even exists.”
-Caurus Etrennius, A History
“If you need to stop,” Oskar said, “we can stop. You don’t have to prove anything to us, Colum.”
I shook my head, even though the muscles in my leg burned with every step. “Not trying to prove anything,” I said, trying not to grit my teeth. “Just want to get back to the keep before we lose the light for once.”
“OK,” Oskar said dubiously, “we’re following your lead.” He glanced back over his shoulder, giving Aler a slightly alarmed look I don’t think he meant for me to see.
From behind me, Aler said, “You should pack some ice around your leg again when we get back, though.”
“If we can find any,” I said, “sure.” I stepped down onto the next flat section of the wall, grimacing as my foot slipped a little on the wet stone.
The week after I’d met with Irandrya and the philosophers, I’d told Bat that while my leg felt mostly healed, I was worried I’d not be able to keep up when we got orders to march again. His solution had been to ask Sir Hagan to put our tent on the rotation for the wall patrol. At first we’d gone out only every third day, marching the five or six miles out to one end of the massive barrier in the morning and coming back in the afternoon, arriving well after both supper and sundown. The first time we arrived back in time for a hot meal, though, the frequency had increased to every other day, and then to every two days out of three. We’d not yet made it back before the sun dropped down behind the trees on any of our patrols, though our evening meals had still been at least a little warm at our most recent return the day before last.
Today, though, it seemed that we might finally manage it. I’d felt well-rested as we’d set off in the pre-dawn gray, and while there had been a few light showers of rain over the course of the day the snow and ice that had made the first weeks’ patrols a difficult slog was now all but gone. We’d reached the northern end of the wall maybe half an hour before noon, and spent an hour or so there eating a meal of twice-bake softened with water from our skin and some sort of salted hard cheese, brought to the keep in a supply wagon from a town down on the border between Escana and Euphentis. There’d been a small square of irimae, a kind of sweet cake with a dense consistency almost like meat, in our packs as well; it was one of the Fae foodstuffs Irandrya brought in with the summoning plate to keep up the illusion that the sidhe still held the Mendoscori Pass. The thought of eating something summoned and bound together by magic sat poorly with me, even though I knew half the things she summoned got dumped into the camp stew pots and I’d eaten plenty of that stew without ill effect, so I’d dumped my irimae over the side of the wall at the first opportunity.
The afternoon’s march had been more difficult than the morning’s. While the wall sloped up from the keep on either end and the climb made harder work for my back and thighs, descending back to the floor of the pass meant more stress for my injured calf, the jolt of each step down causing the pain in my leg to intensify a little bit more. Still, today I’d pushed myself to keep going, and I was familiar enough with the whole wall now that I knew we were no more than a half hour from the keep.
I reached the end of the section of wall and took another step down, inhaling through my teeth as I landed on my injured leg. After another couple of steps, I felt a hand on my arm, and Aler stepped up beside me.
“OK, Griff, take a break,” he said. “The shadow from the wall isn’t even halfway up the trees yet. We’re not going to miss supper if you sit for a few minutes.”
I stopped, looking over at him, and after a moment I nodded. I stepped to the side of the wall and leaned back into a half-sit against the parapet, taking the water skin when Oskar offered it.
“Sorry,” I said.
Aler shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. I’m getting pretty worn out myself, and we’ve got the other end of the wall tomorrow.”
I grimaced. “Ah. Right.” I lifted the neck of the skin to my mouth, careful not to spill the thing out on myself as I had on one of our earlier patrols.
“Hey,” Oskar said, looking past Aler and I in the direction of the keep, “do either of you see that smoke?”
“Probably the cook-fires back at camp,” Aler said, taking the skin from me. “See, we’re even closer than we thought.”
Oskar shook his head. “It’s the right distance, maybe, but there’s too much of it.”
I looked down the length of the wall. Sure enough, I could see a dense haze in the air above the trees, too much to be the product of a half-dozen cook-fires.
“Huh,” Aler said. “What do you think it could be?”
“Don’t know,” I said, pushing myself away from the parapet, “but if something’s happening we’d better get back.”
Aler and Oskar both nodded to me, and we set off again. The brief moment of rest did little to calm the pain in my leg, but the last section of the wall was mostly flat and didn’t inflame the injury further. I started to hear the murmur of voices and the sounds of people cooking and working a few minutes before we reached the clearing around the keep, and though he setting sun had just dipped below the tops of the trees when we finally saw the keep, in the fading light it was no difficulty at all to see where the smoke was coming from.
For months, only Sir Tolan and the men who served under him had been camped outside the walls of the keep, only about a dozen men. Now, tents and cook-fires and lines of tied-up horses filled the entire clearing, and I could make out smoke rising up between the trees at the far end as well. The army encamped around the keep was the largest I’d seen, at least double the size of Lord Carson’s army, larger even than the force that had been camped outside the walls of Etrenium. Hundreds of banners flapped in the evening breeze, half of them the golden standard of the Concord, the other half sliver-gray and marked with an eagle in black or dark purple, a banner I’d seen a few times during our brief stay in the Euphentine capitol.
I wasn’t completely certain that I knew who the men were, and I didn’t know why they’d come here or how I’d missed the word of their approach in my work for Sir Hagan, but there was only one explanation I could think of for the sudden appearance of this many soldiers, all bearing the same silver banner: the Euphentine Multitude had come to the Mendoscori pass.
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