Mud and Iron

Chapter 16 Part 2

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Oskar held out a hand toward me. “Here. Your pack.”

“Hmm?” I looked back at him.

“Give me your pack,” he said, “and then hurry up ahead. Whatever’s happening with those troops up there, Sir Hagan’s going to want you and Bat assisting him.” He waggled the hand at me. “Pack. Here.”

I remembered the last conversation I’d had with Ran, before… well, before the battle. He’d said that Oskar’s frustration with me stemmed at least in part from being jealous of my position as Sir Hagan’s broken lance, a position I held because Master Vardon had taught me to speak Euphenti and for no other reason, and how my complaints about the extra duties that accompanied the position had only fueled his resentment. At the time I’d agreed to quiet my grumbling, but I’d still thought that it was a silly notion, Oskar being jealous of my dumb luck and my added responsibility. As I looked at him now, though, it seemed like less of a foolish idea. Far from seeing it as just toil or inconvenience, I thought, Oskar really believes what I’m doing, what I’ve been assigned to do, is important. He really would have taken the job from me, and if he couldn’t do that he was going to make sure he did what he could to make sure I fulfilled my duty.

Wordless, I unslung the pack from my shoulder, nodding as I passed the strip to Oskar. He returned the nod. “Get going,” he said, “we’ll see you back at the stable.”

“Aye, see you then.” I turned away as Oskar and Aler began adjusting the pack so they could carry it between them, and headed for the keep at a fast march.

We’d only carried supplies for the day, a spare tunic, a sharpening steel for the short blades we carried, a little extra food and a tinderbox in case we ended up having to make camp for the night, but the pack itself had some weight, and even the relatively small reduction in my load was a great relief to my injured leg. The evening had started growing dusky, but the sky was still light when I reached the door of the tower.

There was a soldier standing beside the door, wearing a short pale-colored tunic and narrow trousers and a leather breastplate lined with large studs or hammered rivets that, in the fading light, might have been dull steel or polished bronze. In one hand, he held a short spear like a walking stick, butt on the ground, the wide flat head pointed skyward. His stance seemed relaxed but alert, on guard but not expecting trouble.

He watched me as I approached, stepping forward to put himself between me and the door. “You’re the one named Mason?” he asked in Euphenti.

“I am,” I replied in the same tongue.

He grunted an acknowledgment, then tilted his head, looking past me. “You were supposed to be with two others. Did something happen to them?”

I shook my head. “They’re not too far behind me. I came on ahead, when I saw…” I gestured off past the tower and the keep, where the lights of hundreds of fires flickered in the gathering darkness. “…all of this.”

“Fine,” the soldier said, “not a problem. You’re to report to your Sir Hagan, or to a Norton am Bathe. Both should be downstairs.”

“All right,” I said, “thank you.” I stood for a moment, waiting for the man to step aside, but he just stood there, looking me up and down as though attempting to size me up. I cleared my throat. “Anything else?” I asked.

He paused, staring at me for a moment longer, and then said, “No, that’s all.” He stepped back, resuming his post by the door and letting me pass, but as I walked in the door, out of the corner of my eye I saw him turn his head, following me with his gaze, an odd look I couldn’t interpret.

“What in the spirits’ names was that about?” I wondered to myself, as I walked through the door and into the tower.

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