It's my distinct hope to actually write more of these this time, to get some kind of baseball fix in the offseason. We'll see how it goes!
It is over. The word spread like wildfire, written in the smoke that stained the horizon, stamped into the muck by the feet of fleeing men, echoed in the sobs of mothers searching for their sons. It spread from village to holdfast to keep, at first a whispered question and eventually a plain, bare-faced fact. It is over. Saint’s Bay is lost.
The new Lords of the West rode in that very night; they had been ready for this for a long time, and left the Towers in the wake of their conquering army, confident in their victory. So they rode over fields still littered with blood and iron, their red banners snapping in the night breeze, distributing mercy and justice as they saw fit. “What does it matter?” some of the folk said as they passed. “One lord is much the same as another.” They could learn to love Sir Ian and the Uplander and the goldsmith’s son Paul.
And then there were others.
The miller’s son brought them bread and ale, and a haunch of something that the boy insisted was goat but tasted suspiciously like horse. “I hope it’s mine,” said Aubrey the Loon, digging into the tough meat with his dagger. “That fucking thing brought me nothing but trouble tonight, I swear.” He looked up after saying that, as if daring someone to say what they were all thinking. Either seeing the wildness behind his smiling eyes, or lost in their own private miseries, none of the others contradicted him as he sawed off a chunk and took a bite. “Better meal than mount,” he pronounced. “Dig in, lads, she’s not getting any fresher.”
They fell on the poor meal like the hungry men they were. Hungry, thought the Bruce, but not hungry enough. They had learned that tonight, chased from the field by a band of red-cloaked nobodies, the son of a common goldsmith leading the charge. A green boy, with the fear still on him. He’d said that, hadn’t he? It seemed hard to believe. It must have been some other man. Some old fool.
“M’lord.” Cripple Mark was in front of him, holding the remains of the meat out, a heel of bread tucked under the stump of his elbow. There were fresh “goat” drippings over the twin roses embroidered on his ragged surcoat, and older bloodstains under those. He’d fought fiercer than many whole men during this bitter campaign, and this was what it had won him. A grain house to lick their wounds in, a few loyal peasants to feed them, and a dawn full of questions.
“My thanks, Mark. I’ve little appetite.” The one-armed soldier – no knight, he – shook his head stubbornly.
“You need to eat, m’lord. I’ve been here before, just as you have, and starving yourself never made it better. Asides, there’s plenty left, and horse won’t keep.” He smiled bitterly. “Goat, I mean. Don’t ask me how I know that.”
“As long as the rest have eaten,” Lord Bochy allowed. “I can afford to miss a few meals.”
“If you say so, m’lord. That’s everyone but you and young Brandon, who’s on watch.” Mark looked over towards the door of the grain house, both of them thinking it – what watch? If anyone comes and bothers to look, we’re as good as dead. But neither said it.
“I’ll bring him the rest, then,” the Bruce decided. “Eat with lad.” He ignored Mark’s questioning look and dragged himself to his feet, looking at the seven men clustered in the corner of the silo. Huddled in that yawning space, they seemed even more pathetically few. He thought about saying something, then just took the meat and bread from Cripple Mark and walked away, pausing to add a jar of ale to his burden.
He almost walked right past Brandon Mac Beholt, standing in the shadows of the entryway.The boy – young man – had a way of standing that made you forget how tall he really was. Even snapped to attention, Brandon seemed to slump. Or maybe that was just the Bruce’s mind playing tricks. “My lord?” the tall boy said earnestly. He did everything earnestly.
“Food, Sir Brandon.” He held up meat and bread. “Perhaps I’ll prove a better manservant than I did a general. Sit, eat.” Brandon sat promptly, and Bochy followed suit, with a great deal more groaning and creaking. He pulled out his dagger and sawed off another chunk of charred horseflesh, offering it to the knight, who dipped his head and quickly took it. Even now, Bochy almost laughed at the look that came to his face.
“Goat. Or so our loyal hosts tell us.” He smiled wearily. “There is an old saying about beggars and the choices they’re allowed to make. Not having been a beggar before, I don’t expect you to know it.” Get used to it, Bochy almost said, but decided against it as the young knight dropped his eyes and attended to the jar of ale. Gods, he’s as shy as a maiden. “There’s a theory that it’s Sir Aubrey’s horse.”
“I don’t feel bad, then, my lord,” Brandon said loyally. “That thing was nothing but trouble.”
“Did you notice,” Bochy said drily, “How many of the Loon’s horses were nothing but trouble of late?” Mac Beholt had noticed, he could see that in the flush on the young man’s face, and more tellingly, in his refusal to respond. Bochy waited for him to chew through a tough hank of horse, taking another drink as he did so. “Anyway. You do know, lad, there’s no need to keep a watch.”
“My lord? If someone comes looking–”
“If someone comes looking, we’re buggered. You know that, Sir Brandon. There’s eight of us, six fit to fight, and on foot. How did Mac Ross put it? We’re living on a prayer, lad.” He took another drink. It was good ale, really, better than they’d any right to expect. “Why are you keeping watch?”
The shadowed interior of the silo made it hard to read Brandon’s face. “I don’t know, my lord. I wanted to do...something.” He wiped his greasy hands on his breeches. “Do my duty.”
“Of course.” The Bruce took one more long drink of ale and offered him the jar. “You have a question for me, Sir Brandon. Ask it.” The knight sat there, silent and unmoving. “Take a bloody drink and ask it, my lad. Chances are, you’ll be looking for a new lord soon. They usually spare the young ones.”
“They didn’t spare Gerald,” Brandon said quietly, still making no move to take the ale. Bochy leaned back slightly. “They didn’t give him a chance to yield.”
“No,” said the Bruce, after a long pause. “They didn’t.” He took another drink and tried not to let the scene flash before his eyes – the reckless charge, the boy’s courageous stand, the screaming of horse and then of man – before he knew it, he was taking another drink. When he finished that one he thrust the ale on Brandon, closing the boy’s limp hand around the jar. Brandon held on but did not drink, or speak for a long moment.
“Is that why you called me back?” he asked at last, still looking down. “At the ford, when you sent the horsemen under Andres, and told me to fall back–”
“I know the incident you speak of, Sir Beholt.” Bochy stared at the young knight, waiting for him to raise his head, to speak with some iron. “What do you think?”
“My lord, It’s not my place–”
“Fuck your place, boy.” He thumped the wall of the silo. “This isn’t either of our places. Those red bastards are in our place, stepping over the corpses of good men. So tell me what you’re thinking.”
Brandon lifted the jar of ale, looking at it like he’d never seen the like before, and took a long gulp. His gaze followed it down as he finished, but he spoke clearly enough. “I think that’s why you called me back,” he said. “Because of Broken Gerald.” The name still made Bochy flinch. The Unbroken, was what they’d called the boy, after his impossible stand when they’d won a throne together. Nobody called him that now. “And all the others like him. All the other Geralds of the last twenty years.”
“Thirty,” said the Bruce hoarsely. “And what if it is, Brandon? What if I’d rather send a man with blood on his hands to do work like that? A man whose mother won’t weep to see her son brought back to her on a shield?”
Mac Beholt looked up then, his eyes bright in the dim, with weariness or ale or maybe, just maybe, the true steel. Finally. “If that’s what it is, my lord, that’s what it is. But Lord Gibson didn’t worry that the goldsmith’s wife would weep. Lord Gibson didn’t turn to any bloody-handed men with...with bad horses. He never called his boys back.”
They looked at each other for a long, cold moment. Bochy almost reached for the ale jar and thought better of it. “And Lord Gibson won the battle.”
“Aye,” said Brandon, his tone measured, full of an emotion that the Bruce couldn’t quite read. “And we lost.”
“That we did, lad.” The Bruce did reach for the ale then, and took it from young Brandon’s unresisting hand. “That we did.” He took a long gulp, hoping that it would clear the hitch that threatened to choke his throat, wash the taste of shame and guilt from his mouth, flow to his ears and clear away the faded echoes of the screams of men and horses. But it didn’t, of course. It never did.
He handed the ale back to Brandon, who took a long swig of his own. Some watchman, he thought about saying, but he’d already roused the boy enough for one night. Enough to see some iron in him. Maybe I should have had this talk with him in the spring. But there’d been no reason then. In the spring, they’d been conquerors, the avenging sword and shining shield of a king. Now, they were eight men hiding in a grain house, eating a horse.
The lanky young knight lowered the ale jar. “So what’s next, my lord?” He had an uncharacteristically bold tone.
“What’s next?” The Bruce snorted. “Pick a corner of this place to shit in. Sleep. Find another horse to eat. Figure out where we’re going when we overstay our welcome with these loyal supporters of the late King William.”
“Not that, my lord. I mean...what’s next?” Brandon gripped the hilt of his sword. “When are we going to find the others?” Bochy stared at him. “We are finding the others, right, my lord? Lord Sabean retreated in good order. Surely they’re out there somewhere.”
No, you earnest young fool, the Bruce might have said. We’re going to sneak out of this gods-forsaken land, and find a ship down the river. We’ll find our wives, and get to know our children, and mourn our dead, and forget everything we know of kings and the War for the West. He thought about saying it. Had been thinking about saying it, really, since he saw the goldsmith’s boy carry that red banner through his own splintered ranks.
Maybe it was the ale talking. Maybe it was the faint glint of steel in Brandon Mac Beholt’s hopeful eyes. Or maybe it was just the long habits of a man who, when it came down to it, didn’t know how to do much else than what he had always done. “Of course we are.” The Bruce lurched to his feet. “We’re going to pick a corner to shit in, and we’re going to sleep, and we’re going to eat another horse. And then, Sir Brandon, we’re going to go find our brothers.”
“And when we’ve found them?” Brandon himself rose, more fluidly, no smile on his dirt-streaked face.
“Well, as it happens, when you were being so frank with me earlier, I didn’t qutie finish what I was saying.” He placed one great hand on the boy’s shoulder and turned him back towards the interior of the silo. “What I meant to say was – aye, Lord Gibson was bold. He didn’t call Paul the Goldsmith back. And likely that’s why he won.” He paused, wondering if that was true. A green boy, with the fear still in him.
He gripped Sir Brandon’s shoulder firmly, released him. “That’s why he won. This time.” He walked back to what remained of his command, knowing that Brandon Mac Beholt would follow. They all would.