It didn’t matter what had happened as a result of the fight with the amarog, even if somehow, something had changed. Madoc had changed, or was changing. But not in any way that was important. Nothing excused Banvard’s ghostly chief setting all his warriors on the two of them. And no matter what, Madoc was his shieldmate, his brother, and his truest friend.
“Can’t you see?” Madoc sounded puzzled.
“I think I’m just drained bad from before,” Tyrel improvised. Working out details needed to wait.
“Then stay behind me. I wish we had something for you to eat. Or that other flask of beer.”
“So do I,” Tyrel said feelingly.
The legs of a ghost warrior appeared through the hole. Madoc attacked, ignoring the arrows that came down on both sides. The curved blade of the sica hooked around one of the legs, and as their owner screamed and tried to retreat, one lower leg fell downwards instead. There was no blood, only a kind of viscous stretching between body and leg, like melted cheese or honey, which finally parted.
No one else tried to come through the hole in the roof, though they could hear the enraged voice of the Chief, muffled by the walls but presumably driving his warriors onwards.
That bought them a breathing space.
The next assault was on the door itself, with a battering ram. The wood splintered and fragmented, exposing most of the interior of the barracks to the archers even though the warriors clearly couldn’t step across the line of oil and herbs.
“Bunks,” Tyrel said, trying his best to stay out of the line of fire.
The bunks were heavy, not meant to be easy to move, but they flipped one up on end and shoved it over to cover the door, then two more flanking it to make sure there was no crack an archer could aim through, and a fourth across the ends of those three just to make them even harder to displace.
A longer silence. The brothers sank down on one of the still-upright bunks, keeping an eye on the hole in the roof and on the door.
As it stretched on longer and longer, Tyrel found himself dozing, leaning against one of the bunk’s vertical posts. He jerked back to alertness with a soft curse.
“Don’t worry,” Madoc murmured. “I’ve been watching. And listening. The Chief told them to tear the building down to reach us if necessary. The problem is, any opening they make, we can attack before they can. He wants multiple attack fronts, but no one wants to risk being one of the ones who gets cut down to size while the others are getting in here. I think we’ve given them their first real scare since they died.”
“Good. If they can just keep arguing for long enough, maybe we’ll live through this.”
“Could happen. You were out for a while. It’s actually not that much longer ’til dawn. Less than a couple of hours, I’d say.”
“Why did you let me sleep?”
“Because I’m not tired and you needed it,” Madoc said calmly. “You’ll fight better for it. I don’t think they’re going to let us go without at least one more try.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right.”
Both tensed, hearing raised voices outside.
“And burn down the entire fort?” the Chief bellowed. “Idiot! You’re a great lot of cowards and idiots, all of you! They should never have made it out of the Hall! Bad enough for us to fall before magic, but to be made fools of by a pair of living whelps?” His voice grew even louder, a battlefield roar. “Tyrel of Dunnval! Do you hear me?”
“I hear you,” Tyrel shouted back, tightening his grip on his katar reflexively.
“You’ve outfought and outfoxed the warriors of Banvard. Had you come alone, I think you’d have made Dunnval a Chief to be proud of. Think on this until sunrise frees you: you will never be Chief of Dunnval, not through lack of ability, but through your misplaced loyalty or your ignorance or your arrogance, whichever it was. You’ve certainly holed up in an appropriate place. Time was, to seek the title of Chief and fail led to thrall chains, not exile. You have your life, you’ve earned that much—cower in your hole and think on what that life is worth.”
“Maybe if I surrender to them…” Madoc began.
“Why would I want to be Chief without you watching my back?” Tyrel demanded. “And why would I want his approval if to get it I have to let you sacrifice yourself? We stick together, always, remember? Life and death and anything between. No conditions, no exceptions.”
Silence, then Madoc chuckled. “Fair enough. You’d probably have a convenient accident within a very few years, and all our brothers would be coincidentally far away at the time. Whatever happens, we face it together.”
“Let’s just live through tonight, then we’ll figure out what to do next.”
They waited quietly, listening for any hint of further attempts to reach them, but there were none. They heard footsteps on the roof, two sets, then the muffled sounds of bodies settling themselves, presumably sentries to keep them from trying to escape. Madoc climbed up a set of bunks near the door to look out the small windows, and reported that there were warriors watching the door from nearby, though he couldn’t confirm how many. They made themselves as comfortable as they could on a couple of the bunks, leaning against the posts, to wait for the dawn.
It was subtle, at first, only a faint wavering of the walls. Tyrel thought he was imagining it, a product of fatigue and hope. The effect increased, however, and the sky visible through the hole in the roof paled from black to grey.
“Madoc,” he murmured.
“Yeah. I think maybe we can get out of here soon.”
“Let’s not jump too fast. I’d rather give it long enough that they can’t get a last few shots in on the way out.”
As the sun climbed higher, they abandoned their seats on the bunks, which were beginning to feel less than secure. The walls wavered, parts of them turning more and more translucent, revealing the gaping damage left by time.
Tyrel tentatively reached out to touch one of the vanishing walls, and his hand passed through it with only mild resistance. “It’s like pushing through water,” he said. “I think we could get out the gates now.”
“Then let’s,” Madoc said, checking that he had his sica and the nearly-empty flask of oil that had saved their lives. The pry-bar had faded away already into a vague image of itself, too diffuse to grasp, which was encouraging as far as weapons.
The door was a little tricky, since parts of the bunks they had used as a barricade were still real, and they were inclined to splinter and crumble under rough treatment. They got enough of it moved and broken down to be able to climb over it and push the door open.
There were human shapes within the fort still, but they were misty and indistinct and all but transparent. With intense relief, the brothers hastened to where they’d left their packs.
“Damn, my katar’s gone,” Tyrel sighed. “Could be anywhere in this dump, and we don’t have time to search for it. It’d be just like them to throw it down a well or something.”
“They tore everything apart,” Madoc said. “No-bugs stuff is all over the ground, food’s been trampled right into the dirt, beer and water are empty. Even the bandages.”
“I was really looking forward to something to eat. Ah well. We can refill the waterskins at that stream partway down, at least.”
They salvaged what little they could from the wreckage of their packs, and left the fort with an intense sense of relief.
There wasn’t really much to say, and Tyrel was feeling entirely too much the worse for wear to concentrate on both conversation and navigation. Madoc, never much inclined to chatter, didn’t press him, only kept a wary eye on him and supplied an extra bit of support without comment on the rougher parts.
Under bright blue sky, they reached the spring.
“We need to stop for a bit,” Madoc said.
“What? Why? We need to keep moving!”
“No, you need to sit down and drink water, slowly, and I need to see if I can find anything edible. Don’t move from here, I don’t want to lose you.” Madoc didn’t bother to wait for agreement, just walked away, picking his route carefully through the lowest brush. The taller bushes hid him from view before Tyrel could frame a protest.
Muttering halfhearted curses under his breath, Tyrel knelt beside the clear running water, first rinsing his hands, then cupping water to drink. Nothing had ever tasted better, he decided, but he forced himself to go slow, and to stop before he really wanted to. He settled himself leaning against the nearest tree, a rather spindly cedar.
Madoc’s return jolted him back to alertness; he straightened up with a grunt. His brother only looked at him, and set his pack down in front of him.
“Just blueberries, but it’s better than nothing. Eat.”
Madoc didn’t reply right away, only sat down with his legs crossed, facing Tyrel. Tyrel flipped open the top of the pack and jerked the strap out of the way, fishing out a handful of small dark berries. They tasted even better than the water, possibly.
“Banvard’s Chief is a nasty piece of toadshit, but he was right, somehow,” Madoc said at last. “Look at you. You’re pale, your eyes have huge black rings around them, and you’re obviously exhausted. I’ve seen you go through much worse on less food and sleep than we’ve had. The ghosts were hurting you much worse than they were hurting me. And it has nothing to do with being half Forester, that’s bullshit. I haven’t slept but I’m not tired at all. I haven’t had anything to eat or drink, but I’m not hungry or thirsty. I tried a few berries while I was picking them, and they taste fine, but I just didn’t feel like I needed them. And there’s this.” He held up his hands, palms up, showing the lacing of fine scratches left by the brambly brush that proliferated around here. The lines weren’t marked with red, but with hints of greenish-gold, not glowing in the sunlight but definitely the wrong colour.
Tyrel sighed. “It has something to do with the amarog and the moons.”
“Did you notice, its eyes and blood were both the colour of Talir? Same colour as when it vanished?”
“And it bit me,” Madoc said slowly.
“I’m not sure if it was the bite or the blood, ’cause its blood was on your arm around the bite. I could see your eyes last night. They were the colour of Sanur.”
Silence for a moment. “Sanur wasn’t particularly bright last night, was she?”
“No, not especially, not to me.”
“But I could see everything like it was in bright moonlight. Hers, specifically.” Madoc closed his eyes, took a deep shuddering breath. When he opened them, he met Tyrel’s gaze. “’Rel, what’s happening to me?” His voice shook, and both hands were clenched so tightly Tyrel could see his knuckles turning white.
That Madoc, who never lost his head, who could stay calm and practical under circumstances that left others at a loss, was scared was enough to force away some of Tyrel’s fatigue. “I don’t know,” he said honestly. “We’ll find answers somewhere. Maybe there’s a way to undo it. So far it hasn’t been anything bad.”
“It got us attacked and almost killed!”
“That wasn’t it directly. We can’t stay in Dunnval anyway, right? We’ll go tell them that I failed to get approval, we’ll grab our gear, and we’ll start looking for answers. Everything’s all a mess right now, but we’ll get it sorted out. There’s more to the world than the forts and the towns.” He mustered up a smile. “Hey, at least I get to eat all the berries.”
Madoc stared at him, then rolled his eyes, some of the fear fading. “Greedy. Well, finish them and we can get going.”
“Actually, I don’t want to eat them fast, how ’bout I eat while we’re walking?” He filled both waterskins, tossed Madoc one with his own empty pack, and stood up. With Madoc’s pack, now Tyrel’s, arranged so he could easily reach the berries, and the waterskin slung at his side, he gave Madoc an expectant look while nibbling on berries. This was going to be a long hike, they might as well get started.