They slept like the dead.
It was well earned. The Taraamites that had remained behind to defend the fort clearly made no effort to wake them. Dylan woke briefly, when he heard the sounds of someone removing the barricade outside the barracks door. But he drifted back to sleep in short order.
They came awake one by one as the sun climbed higher. Dylan woke to the sounds of murmured conversation. He looked around with bleary eyes and saw Perrin and Prudence using the lockboxes as makeshift benches. They were speaking, quietly enough that Dylan couldn’t make out the words but loud enough to hear the murmuring waves of conversation.
Dylan realized, belatedly, that he was one of the last to climb out of bed.
One of, he thought.
Borthul was still sleeping, unsurprisingly. And Robin still lay sprawled across his pallet, snoring peacefully. His limbs were flopped around him at random angles. But Aleksandr, Yorrin, and Kerfuffle were nowhere to be seen.
Dylan rose and padded across the floor towards the hearth. A basin of water rested nearby, lukewarm and half full. Dylan cupped his hands in it and splashed it in his face. That cleared the sleep from his eyes. He swished a second handful in his mouth before spitting it onto the hearth coals.
“How do you feel?” Perrin asked from where he sat. “Better? Lefty’s orders were to let you all sleep.”
Dylan glanced over, rubbing the stubble on his cheeks. “Thanks,” he said. “Clearly, I needed it. Where’s Aleksandr?”
“Checking on Bear, I think. And the captain, and the others,” Perrin said. He stood. “I can take you.”
Dylan nodded absently, glancing back at the hearth. “And Yorrin? He’s with him?”
“Him and Kerfuffle went to talk to Lefty,” Prudence spoke up. Her voice was quiet, just barely projected enough that Dylan didn’t have to strain to hear. He nodded again at the news.
“Food should be ready within the hour,” Perrin said. “Lefty ordered a big midday meal. A feast. Or… closest we can do to one, given what we’ve got. To celebrate.”
Celebrate what? Dylan wondered. They lost so many men. Their captain lost his arm. He picked up the water basin, and carried it with him as he walked back towards the rows of pallets.
“Take me to the kitchen, then,” Dylan said. “I’d like to help however I can.”
Perrin shook his head. “That’s not necessary. Lefty wanted to do it as a—a sort of thanks. We never would have made it as far as we did without you.”
Dylan shrugged. “Even so. We should help.”
“We?” Prudence said. “I mean, I guess I’ll go too. But you could at least ask before volun—”
Dylan reached the snoring form of Robin. He splashed a good third of the water basin onto the sleeping bandit’s face.
Robin came awake instantly. He sputtered and coughed as he sat up.
Dylan glanced at Prudence. He smiled, even if the warmth in it was half-hearted. “I wasn’t volunteering you,” he said.
“God dammit!” Robin cried. He coughed and spat, and wiped water from his eyes. “You gangly mop-headed whoreson! You—”
“Time to get up, Robin,” Dylan said. “There’s work to be done.”
Robin glared at him. “Listen here, you skinny Victorian fuckwit,” he said. He blew his nose into the palm of his hand and wiped it on the pallet. “I promised to do what Aleksandr says. Not you.”
Dylan shrugged. “Aleksandr isn’t here. Neither is Yorrin.”
“And they didn’t leave you in fucking charge, did they?” Robin said.
“Not as such. But I don’t much care, Robin. You’re the low man in the company right now. Frankly, I’m not sure what Aleksandr was even thinking, hiring you on. And I’ll be damned if I’m going to let you laze about and get spoon fed by men that you would have happily gutted as recently as last night.” Dylan tossed a handful of Robin’s sodden clothes into his lap, and kicked his muddy boots towards him. “So get up. You’re going to pull your weight in this group. No excuses. Or I swear by God’s Fangs that I will convince Aleksandr to hand you over to them for hanging after all.”
Robin frowned. He looked around the room, perhaps trying to find someone to appeal to. Borthul was still sleeping soundly. Perrin was looking on with his arms crossed over his chest. He was a soldier of Taraam, and no help to Robin. Prudence’s expression was inscrutable.
Robin hesitated, lingering on Prudence. “I don’t suppose—”
“Good habit,” Prudence said. “Not supposing. Especially when you’re dumb enough to think highway banditry is a lucrative career path. Don’t look to me for sympathy.”
Robin sighed. “Fair enough,” he said. He looked back to Dylan, and in an instant his expression had brightened considerably. “Well then, good man, give me a moment to get properly dressed and let’s be off, shall we? No doubt there’s onions to be cut or pots to be washed.”
God damn, he’s two-faced, Dylan thought. I knew he was, I guess, but that was still something to behold.
“Right,” he said. He glanced at Perrin. “Lead the way.”
By noon, the men of Fort Taraam celebrated the return of their Captain.
After a fashion, anyway, Dylan thought. They left too damned many of their comrades behind in those caves to be excited. But a few of them survived, and that’s worth celebrating.
The Taraamites had slaughtered a hog early in the Songbirds’ siege, and they’d cured much of the meat over the last few days. Now, they opened their stores and pulled out a quite a few rashers of bacon and ham steaks. The kitchens were full of the mouth-watering smells of frying pork fat as they cooked up enough meat to feed some forty people.
They dissolved some flour into the rendered fat, making a rich gravy seasoned with mushrooms and young herbs gathered from the nearby woods. By the time Dylan and Robin arrived, they were tasked with making a turnip mash, and softening slices of hard bread by frying them in bacon grease. As feasts go, it was simple fare. But the smell of it nonetheless had Dylan’s stomach grumbling.
Robin and Dylan completed every task the cooks put to them. It seemed Robin was always angling to find some way to slack off any difficult chore, but Dylan kept on him mercilessly. The Taraamites held their tongues, but Dylan saw more than one look of appreciation when he kicked Robin’s lazy ass into a proper gallop.
When they’d done their part, they moved into in the hall with everyone else. For what was ostensibly a celebration, Dylan couldn’t help but notice that the mood was noticeably subdued.
It’s so empty, he thought. This hall was probably built with ten times this number in mind. We don’t even fill two tables.
Spirits rose when Captain Olivenco entered the room. He walked unassisted, though Alaina was only a few steps behind him. He’d changed into clean clothes, no doubt clothes he’d left behind here at the fort. A doublet and leggings in the Spatalian style, with the right arm of his shirt folded in and hemmed to keep from flopping awkwardly at his side. He still looked weak, and tired, but worlds better than he had just yesterday.
More color in his cheeks, at least. And it looks like someone washed his hair.
The men broke into raucous cheers when Olivenco stood at the head of one of the tables. He smiled at them.
“My friends,” he said, rolling the R in his musical Spatalian accent. “It is good to see you again. I wish things were better. I wish…” he paused. Swallowed. “We all wish the same things, I think. What is, is. We will remember the fallen, and honor them. We have dark days behind us, but Fort Taraam has stood for centuries. The days ahead will be brighter. We will endure, and renew our strength. And when we have, you will show the duende, those goblin fuckers, what the men of Taraam can do!”
He had clearly regained a lot of strength since the last time Dylan had heard him speak. His voice sounded much clearer, projected across the room. His proclamation garnered a number of scattered cheers.
“Whatever lies ahead for Fort Taraam, and for each of us, just know that it has been my greatest honor to serve as your Captain. We are more than a company. We are familia. You are as brothers to me.”
The room quieted at the words. It was plain in Olivenco’s face that he was sincere. More than sincere, there was anguish and regret etched across his expression. Dylan had a feeling that many of his men shared in that feeling.
He’s saying goodbye, Dylan realized. He knows he can’t continue to serve like this, even if his men haven’t fully accepted it yet.
After a lengthy pause, Olivenco seemed to force himself to smile.
“Well then. This food smells too damned good, si? Let’s eat!”
Olivenco gestured for everyone to take their seats and dig in. Several seats near him had been set aside for Aleksandr, Yorrin, and Alaina. Dylan kept Robin close at hand. They sat near Prudence and Perrin, further down the table from Aleksandr. Even Kerfuffle was welcome at the table, seated between Geoff Wallbreaker and Connor Quickblade—two of the men that had survived the Underpass.
Bear had slipped into the room behind Olivenco, and now he shoved his way into a seat beside Dylan.
“Whip,” he grunted. “Food! Is good?”
“It’s a damn sight better than what we’ve been eating,” Dylan said. “How are you? Wounds healing clean?”
Bear piled his platter high with meat and gravy. “Smells good!” he said approvingly. He glanced at Dylan. “Da, wounds is fine. Alaina worry too much. Is just more scars. Bear look better with more scars. More fearsome!”
He took a bite of a thick hamsteak. He didn’t bother with a knife, instead choosing to simply tear the meat with his teeth. He gnawed on it, then licked the gravy from his fingers. “Da! Good!”
“You’re Bear, right?” Robin asked. He grinned. “Good to meet you properly, friend. Name’s Robin.”
“Da,” Bear said between mouthfuls of food. “Little coward man, I remember.”
“Oh come now,” Robin protested. “You lot had us dead to rights. What was I supposed to do, get myself killed fighting an unwinnable battle?”
Bear grunted, a sound that might have been a laugh muffled by fried bread and bacon. He swallowed. “Da,” he said. “Die in battle, is good death.”
“Hmph. No thanks,” Robin said. He sliced off a bit of ham and stabbed it with his table knife. “Better part of valor and all that.”
“Valor is brave, da?” Bear asked. He looked, not to Robin or even Dylan, but across the table to Prudence for his answer.
“Yeah,” she confirmed. “Basically.”
Bear nodded. He glanced back at Robin. “Better part? What is better? Valor is best part. Valor makes man different from little boy. Is your problem, little bird. Not man yet, da? Still boy.”
Robin seemed taken aback at Bear’s assessment of him. He stared at the big barbarian in silence. Bear, for his part, was totally oblivious. He continued shoveling food into his mouth with enthusiasm.
The food was good. Dylan ate in silence for a while, savoring the change from so many days of trail rations.
“So,” Perrin said suddenly. He was looking at Dylan. “You’re from Victoria, aren’t you?”
Dylan swallowed a mouthful of mash and gravy. “Uh,” he said. “Yes. Why?”
“Prudence says you’re all headed up north, all the way to the Ironblood. To Yerevan.”
Dylan nodded. “We are,” he agreed.
“The northern Cassaline road passes pretty close to Victoria. You going to visit home? How long has it been since you left?”
Dylan felt his mouth quirk involuntarily into some kind of grimace. He stifled the expression, trying to remain neutral. “I didn’t plan to.”
Perrin was no fool. He finally realized he had stumbled into a sensitive topic. “Oh,” he said. “Fair enough then.” He cast his eyes down at his plate and fell silent.
Prudence gave Dylan a skeptical look. He did not miss the disapproval that was clear in her eyes.
He doesn’t mean to prod old wounds, Dylan reminded himself. He’s just trying to make conversation. Make friends, even. He wouldn’t give two shits even if he did know, either.
“Left when I was seventeen,” Dylan said. “Close to a decade ago, I guess.”
Perrin looked up. He smiled. “Oh? Never gone back to visit your kin?”
Perrin hesitated. It was clear he was realizing that he might be straying into sensitive territory. “Oh,” he said. “No kin you care to see, I take it.”
Dylan sighed. “Yeah,” he said. “Something like that. I joined a mercenary band headed south and never looked back.”
“Oh, was that the Free Spears? I think Prudence—” Perrin paused, clearly remembering what else Prudence had probably told him about the Free Spears.
“Not them,” Dylan said. “That was a little later.”
“Sorry,” Perrin said. “I didn’t mean to—I mean, I heard about what happened. Sorry.”
“It’s fine,” Dylan said. “It’s done. Not your fault. Nobody’s fault.”
Nobody but mine.
“Not true, Whip!” Bear said. He clapped Dylan on the back. “Is fault of fighting sea bandits! Good fight. Your old company, they die in battle! Good death. Warrior’s death. Welcomed home to ancestors, I am sure.”
“Bear…” Prudence said, her tone cautioning.
Dylan waved her off. “It’s fine,” he said. “Just Bear being Bear.”
“Da,” Bear said, nodding. “Am always Bear.”
“Sea bandits?” Robin said. “That sounds like quite the story!”
Prudence and Bear replied at the same time.
“Da!” Bear agreed. “Is good story!”
“It’s not,” Prudence said.
Robin glanced around Bear, making eye contact with Dylan. Dylan could see curiosity, but something else, too. An edge to Robin’s inquisitiveness. He’d noticed that Dylan was uncomfortable with the topic, and that made him more curious.
“Go on then,” he said. He smiled, but Dylan could tell it was full of subtle venom. “Tell me the tale, Bear!”
Getting revenge for being made to work for a few hours, Robin? Dylan frowned. That’s fine. Enjoy it. I’ll work you twice as hard once we get on the road, you smarmy little bastard.
Oblivious to any subtext, Bear began telling the story of the battle on the Crimson Serpent. His voice carried, and he told the tale with such simple enthusiasm that he caught the attention of a number of the Taraamites seated nearby.
Most of his story was focused on the fighting he and Aleksandr had done. Dylan closed his eyes when Bear mentioned Terence’s death, but to the big barbarian it was barely a footnote to the real tale.
“Bear,” a voice cut through the story. It wasn’t a loud voice, but it was as sharp as the blades the speaker carried.
Bear fell silent. He tilted his head back, looking behind him. “Yorrin!” he said. “I am telling story of Red Snake!”
Dylan looked back as well, and made brief eye contact with Yorrin. “Your tale will have to wait,” Yorrin said. “Aleksandr wants to talk to us. All of us.”
“Even me?” Robin asked.
“Even you.” Yorrin looked to Dylan again. “Whip? How’s he done today?”
“We helped in the kitchens some,” Dylan said. “We got a late start, though.”
Yorrin nodded. “They let us all sleep in.”
“Doesn’t seem right that he feasts with the men he tried to kill, and doesn’t pitch it a full day’s work,” Dylan said.
“Pardon,” Robin cut in. “Can I speak on my—”
“No,” Yorrin said. “The Whip’s right. When the meal’s done, you’ll scrub pots or pans or any earthenware they tell you to. But for now, follow me.”
“I don’t think that’s—”
Yorrin turned around, not listening to Robin’s objection. Dylan rose to follow him, as did Prudence. Bear used a piece of bread to scoop up one last handful of bacon and gravy, stuffing it in his mouth as he climbed out of the bench.
Robin was the last to follow. But he did follow, grumbling under his breath.
Aleksandr sat beside Alaina, to Olivenco’s left side. Across from him sat Lefty, and the serjeant they’d left behind at Taraam. Davan.
“Greetings,” Olivenco said. “We have traveled together, but not been properly introduced, I think.”
He looked worse up close than he had at a distance. There was still a pallor beneath his olive complexion. Nevertheless, he smiled at them. He offered his left hand in greeting, though Dylan noticed he didn’t stand to greet them.
They each shook his hand in turn, and he nodded as he heard each name. Robin was last, and Olivenco narrowed his eyes.
“Sweet Robin?” he said. “Leader of the Songbirds, si?”
Robin hesitated, still gripping Olivenco’s hand. “I was,” he said.
“Quite the nuisance, you have been!” Olivenco said. He smiled. Like Robin, it was clear the Spatalian Captain was practiced at the art of the malicious smile. “If the duende had not increased in hostility, it was you we would have been moving in force against.”
Robin glanced at Olivenco’s missing arm. “I expect that would’ve gone better for you, to be honest.”
Olivenco laughed. “Si,” he said. “I agree.”
Across the table, neither Lefty nor Davan looked as amused as their Captain.
“Sir,” Davan said. His perpetual grimace seemed to deepen. “He’s killed a number of our men, if you need to be reminded.”
“Si, si,” Olivenco said. “And we have killed his. Such is the dance of death, Davan. It is no reason to be rude.”
“Seems a good enough reason to me,” Lefty muttered.
“Si, but you are not Spatalian,” Olivenco said. “Between the canals of Camarr, the life of a bravo was often short. Death lurked in every shadow, and oftentimes on the blades of men you had fought alongside the night before. I mourn their deaths. But our fight with the Songbirds, there is an elegance to it. A dance. I do not hate the men that danced it.”
Lefty shrugged, still frowning. Robin seemed relieved. “That’s a good attitude,” he said. “Water under the bridge and all that.”
“Si,” Olivenco said. His dark eyes glittered. “Especially since you lost.”
Robin swallowed. He finally extricated his hand from the Captain’s. “Ah. Yep. Fair enough.”
That’s enough of that.
“You wanted to talk to us, sir?” Dylan asked.
“Aleksandr,” Aleksandr corrected.
You’re our commander, sir. You’ve got to get used to it sooner or later. Dylan didn’t voice the thought. He just gave a curt nod of acceptance at the correction.
“But da, I did. We have been talking. About the journey.”
“Surely we’re not going yet?” Prudence said. “Your leg…”
“Is a clean break,” Aleksandr said. “Alaina is eager to reach Yerevan. Borthul, too.”
Borthul had not joined them at the table. But Alaina, sitting beside Aleksandr, nodded.
“I hate to say it, but Aleksandr’s right,” she said. “The Bayard of Yerevan is expecting a representative of the Church to arrive as soon as possible. And if there’s any chance of finding out what happened to Iosif… well, sooner is better.”
“Good!” Bear said. “We go soon, then. Find more action!”
“God, I hope not,” Alaina said, smiling ruefully.
“When do we leave?” Dylan asked.
“Tomorrow,” Aleksandr said. “But there is more.”
“Oh?” Dylan asked. “What?”
“Ah… me,” Olivenco said. “And not just me.”
“Da, the Taraamites,” Aleksandr said. “Especially Olivenco and the young man, Lordling.”
“Edric,” Alaina said. “Edric Maron, a lesser son of House Maron in Copperwell.”
“Da,” Aleksandr said. “Edric. He is… not good.”
Dylan looked around the table, realizing for the first time that Lordling was the one injured member of their party that had not attended the feast.
“I think he can pull through,” Alaina said. “But he took quite a few wounds. Keeping him from going septic has been a challenge so far. But I can do it.”
“If we leave tomorrow, how do you—oh.” Dylan nodded as understanding finally dawned.
“Si,” Olivenco said, “Comprende.”
“I suggest that Olivenco and Edric travel with us,” Aleksandr said. “So Alaina may continue tending their wounds.”
“That makes sense,” Dylan said. “Though… that does mean we have two more noncombatants to protect, doesn’t it? No offense, Olivenco.”
The Captain shook his head. “No, you are correct. I am lisado. Crippled. Worse than useless.”
“Sir…” Lefty growled. Olivenco waved off his inevitable disagreement.
“Still, that does leave us a bit worse off,” Dylan said. “Doesn’t it?”
“Is true,” Aleksandr said. “But, well…” He paused, gathering his thoughts.
“If I may,” Yorrin cut in. “Let me cut to the quick of it. Olivenco and Lordling need more treatment. Taraam needs more men. This few troops and they’re teetering on the razor’s edge of collapse. Aleksandr’s been hashing this out with them over dinner.” Yorrin nodded to the various commanders. “They’ve hit on a good plan.
“It’s simple: They’re going to empty out Taraam for a time. With the Songbirds crushed, the fort’s like to stand empty for a time without anyone noticing or moving in to occupy it. Davan’s going to take some men south, to Cardenbury. Try to rustle up some new recruits among the Cardish. Then they’ll come back and begin refortifying the place, training up the new lads, and getting things back to some kind of normal in time for next winter.”
Across the table, Doughty Davan nodded. Clearly he agreed with Yorrin’s explanation of his plan.
“Meanwhile, Lefty will take a few men and strike out north. With us. And the Captain, and Lordling. Alaina will monitor them, and we’ll have a few more swords to keep away the riff raff. They’ll likely bleed off along the road, looking for recruits in Kirkworth and Copperwell. But at least a few of them will come with us all the way to Yerevan. It’s a big city, and they say it’s about half Middish these days. Should be plenty of folk to recruit from.”
Yorrin looked around the table, from Lefty to Olivenco to Aleksandr. “There. That about the right of it?”
Aleksandr nodded. “Da,” he said. He smiled. “Well said, Yorrin.”
“Sounds good,” Dylan said.
“Sure,” Robin said. “Good enough. More swords is always good. But why are you telling us all this now? Why not just tell us to pack up and move out tomorrow, and let us figure the rest out as we go?”
Aleksandr frowned. “That is not how we do things, Robin,” he said. “Is important that every man’s voice is heard. This is plan, but what do you think? Is anything we have forgotten? Speak.”
Robin shrugged. “Seems fine to me. Like I said, more swords is good. More the merrier, I say.”
“We’ll still expect you to pull your own weight,” Dylan said.
Robin shrugged. “As if I’d do anything else,” he said.
Dylan rolled his eyes and turned to Aleksandr. “I think it’s a sound plan.”
“Da,” Bear said. “Is good. Only bad is: some men afraid of big group. Bigger group, might mean they leave us alone.”
“That’s not a downside, Bear,” Prudence said. “That’s the entire reason why I’m in agreement that this is a great idea.”
“Bah,” Bear grumbled.
Aleksandr smiled at his team. “We are all in agreement, then. Good. Though with luck, Bear, more men or less will make no difference. We are through Underpass. Now is just road north, to Yerevan.”
Aleksandr dipped his head in the direction of Lefty and Olivenco. “Is a trade road. Protected by Taraam, and Kirkworth, and other Middish kingdoms. Should be safe.”
Yorrin nodded. “Aleksandr’s right. With any luck, the worst of this journey is behind us now. Finish your meals, all. Take it easy the rest of the day. We leave tomorrow, first thing.”