Mud and Iron

Chapter 16 Part 3

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I climbed down the stairs into the tower’s ground floor, into the space we’d been using as a common room. Most of the hastily-built trestle tables and benches had been pushed out against the walls, and the room was filled with soldiers, both Euphentines and men from our own unit, packing away foodstuffs in barrels and hauling sacks and crates out into the courtyard.

I spotted Bat by the door, giving orders to the men coming and going. He nodded to me as I approached. “Good to see you back, lad. It’s been a busy day.”

“I can see that,” I replied. “Are they who I think they are? The Euphentine Multitude?”

“Aye, sent on the orders of their General Byrne, under the command of some fellow named Musa.” Bat glanced over my shoulder, and waved a hand at someone behind me. “No! Not that one, the one next to it, the one with the lid already on it! The full one!” He looked back at me, lowering his voice. “I didn’t get much from the meeting he had with the Hen, given it was all in Euphenti, but my impression was that he’s here to take the command.”

I frowned, then shrugged. “Was bound to happen eventually, I suppose. So they’re taking the pass, and we’re being brought back to Euphentis? Seems like a lot of men just to hold a fort this small.”

“Oh, they’re not here to hold the fort,” Bat said, “Sir Hagan said they’re marching out in the morning, and we’re going with them.” He waved to the activity in the room. “Thus the rush packing job.”

“Going with them? Where?” I asked, even though I realized as I said it that there was only one answer that made any sense, or at least only one direction. “We’re going through the pass, aren’t we?”

Bat nodded again, slowly. “Headed west. All the way to Arcar, Sir Hagan said.”

I blinked. “Mirennus? I thought they’d refused to join the Concord?”

“I seem to remember you saying something like that, yeah. But that’s where the Hen said we’re headed, so I suppose something must have changed.” Bat waved one of Sir Lloyd’s men out the door, and he rolled a heavy barrel past us and out into the dusk.

“I suppose so,” I said, “one of the messengers who came through the pass must have been carrying word from their leader.” I tried to remember the name I’d heard months ago, and came up blank.

“Or the man’s dead, and the Princess has decided she needs our help.” Bat frowned. “Or there’s nobody in charge in Mirennus except the Fae, and so nobody to complain about the Concord marching in.”

I felt a shiver crawl up my spine, one that had nothing to do with the evening chill. “I guess this is where Skelley would make a joke about you ‘coming up with such cheerful ideas’ or something.”

“Aye, I imagine he would, at that.” Bat was quiet for a moment, as a pair of Euphentine soldiers carried crates out the door. “Well, lad, there’s some bread and stew still, over by the fire. Make sure you and Oskar and Aler get fed.

I thanked Bat and turned to leave, but he cleared his throat. “And then, when you’re done with that, you’ll need to scrub out the pot and roll it out to the wagon with Sir Hagan’s other things.”

I sighed. “Of course. The glorious duty of the Broken Lance.”

By the time I’d got the worst of the crusted-on stew cleaned out of the round-bottomed pot and pushed the heavy thing across the keep to Sir Hagan’s wagon, it was near midnight, and when I got back to the tent we had set up in the now-crowded stables I strongly considered falling straight into my bedroll. The cold iron pot had half frozen my fingers as I’d rolled it through the yard, though, and so I decided to sit down by the small campfire between our tent and that of the other Cantlay boys for a few minutes to warm myself.

Oskar and Barder am Stomund were both still up, as well, swapping stories of home. “So,” Barder was saying as I sat down, “now Wade’s got one arm wrapped around the first lamb’s neck, and he’s managed to get the second up onto his shoulder somehow, and we’re shouting at him to bring them in one at a time but apparently he’s decided that no, he’s going to bring all three in at once, and so he’s trying to work out if he can, like, grab the third one with his knees or something when the second lamb decides to start climbing up onto his head!”

“What?” Oskar said with a laugh. “Why?”

Barder shrugged. “Who knows? Lambs is lambs.” He put both his hands up next to his shoulder, putting his fingers together like a sheep’s hooves. “So it plants one front foot on his neck,” he said, illustrating with his hands, “and then tries to plant the other one up on top of his head but it can’t get it to grab, so what it ends up actually doing is just kicking him in the forehead six, seven, eight times, and he’s still trying to play it cool, like he’s got everything under control, even as he’s bending lower and lower to try to keep his grip on the first one. Just, ‘Ow. Ow. OK, Ow. Ow.'”

Oskar and I both laughed at the image, and then Barder held up a finger. “And then, while it’s doing this, the third one takes a big run up, leaps into the air, and gives Wade a flying head-butt right in the arse! He lands face-first in the mud, he loses both the lambs he’s already caught and the three of them all take off, bolting straight for the hills, the third one giving his back a nice set of hoof-prints from arse to neck as it goes.”

He laughed, and shook his head. “It took us another day and a half to catch the little bastards again, even with all of us helping, and by the time we got back Old Shepherd is full furious. When he saw Wade, though, with the scrapes on his forehead and the mud on his tunic, he just said the lambs had probably given Wade enough punishment, and he didn’t look like he needed any more.”

Oskar chuckled. “I don’t know if that’s the silliest thing I’ve seen or heard someone do to get a girl’s attention,” he said, “but it’s definitely one of the silliest.”

“Reminds me of Hamund and Munder,” I said, “that time they ran circles around the barrow to prove to Sibley which of them was strongest, and both of them ended up too tired to-”

“Hey!” I heard Sir Tolan’s voice before I saw him, as the knight trudged up to our fire. He sounded angry. “You know we’re going to be on the march in a handful of hours, right?” The light from the fire cast strange, sinister shadows across his scowling face. “So either go to sleep, or shut up so those who are trying to sleep can do so. Got it?”

Each of us held our tongues as he looked at each of us, his eyes lingering on me for what seemed like half a minute. When he decided he’d hear no argument, he muttered a “good” and stomped back out into the night. Oskar watched him go, wearing his own scowl.

Barder rolled his eyes once he was sure Sir Tolan was out of earshot. “Arsehole.” He poked the fire with a stick. “I remember him coming through Wollen a few times, collecting Lord Carson’s taxes. Nobody liked the tax day, of course, but most of the other knights who came through were at least courteous about it. With Robe, it seemed like he cared less about the tax and more about the peasant-kicking.”

“Definitely an arsehole,” I said. I turned to look at Oskar. He was still staring out into the camp, off in the direction Sir Tolan had gone, and while the fire had started to die down I could still see the glow of the smoldering coals reflected in his eyes.

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