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Muddling Through

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"I'm not the one who should be in command of this place," Neal says.

Lord Wyldon sits back and rubs his nose. "I know," he replies.

There is nothing they can do about that, though.

***

The place really is a miserable mudpit.

Neal circles the camp, walks the walls, and speaks, awkwardly, to everyone he comes across.

Later, at dinner, when Lord Wyldon and his father finally prod him into giving a speech, Neal can't think of much to say. He stammers through, making a horrible botch of it, and ends up - entirely by accident - officially naming the place Mudpit.

The whole time, Neal is thinking: what would Kel do?

***

Neal doesn't sleep well that night. In fact, he doesn't sleep at all.

He's not right for this job. Everyone knows it, Lord Wyldon (he hasn't been able to think of the man as the Stump, not when he saw the cold fury in Wyldon's eyes four years ago) certainly knows it; his father knows it too, though his father would never say so out loud.

And after his lovely little speech last night, all the refugees know it, too. Neal saw the look in their eyes, the way they shifted on their benches: they saw their worst fear perched awkwardly on a crate - a sap-green knight, who shouldn't be in command but commanded, who is now responsible for their lives.

Neal knows damn good and well he's not up to the challenge. If he were any greener, he'd be grass.

But that morning, the best woodworker in the camp hands him a rustic yet strangely elegant sign, large enough to read across the Greenwoods, that reads simply: Mudpit.

The burly man guffaws at the look on Neal's face, and Neal can't help but join in. Together, they hang it on the flagpole.

It hangs crooked, badly crooked, because the two of them can't stop snickering enough to affix it properly, but somehow, it's perfect.

***

Merric is a strange sort of ballast.

They were friends, and yet they were friends because they were Kel's friends. Prior to Kel's advent in Neal's life, his age and his odd start date meant he hadn't had any among the pages.

But Merric is here now, and Merric is in charge of the military side of things. Neal looks at his younger friend and thinks, I'm fortunate in this, at least. Merric is a bit conventional, but Merric is also sharp, and has a good grasp of logistics and strategy. Merric is the one in charge of the camp defenses, and Neal is happy to leave him to it.

Neal is stuck pulling double duty: he is the camp commander, and he is, after his father leaves, its only healer. He's grateful his father came along, though, even for this short a time; he just wonders what he'll do when his father leaves.

***

Things muddle along. Neal breaks up a number of fights, and finally caves to temptation and uses his Gift to yank apart the most recent offenders.

"I do not know what has gotten into all of you," Neal snarls.

The two men squirm, trying to get away. Green bands hold them firm.

"You are grown men. I might expect this from children, but not from you." Neal never knew he could sound so much like his father. It almost scares him.

"But, Sir Nealan, he's romancing my girl," one protests.

Neal knows. There is a young woman standing in the corner, watching with glee that has turned to nervousness.

"This is a refugee camp," Neal snaps. "And we are at war. If you want to be stupid, do it on your own time."

He lets them drop. They scurry away.

***

They handle the killing devices. Barely.

When in doubt, aim for the head, his grandpa always said.

Raiders are easier, Neal thinks as he takes careful aim. They're just men.

The metal monsters scream like children.

***

Neal gets a bit obsessive about the crossbow, after that.

***

Scribes are nice. Neal quite likes scribes.

He also greatly appreciates midwives and hedgewitches, too.

There's a conspiracy brewing, he's sure of it.

***

Idrius Valestone is a headache.

Neal hasn't gone all noble on anyone since he arrived at Mudpit, mostly because he hasn't had to, and mostly because there are good people here, leaders in their own way, who want to make this camp work. They have to make this work; none of them have any choices in the matter.

Valestone clearly hasn't gotten that missive.

Neal stands, slowly. "I am Sir Nealan of Queenscove, eldest son of that fief, and the commander of this camp." He grins humorlessly. "You will do as I bid or I will drug you senseless."

It's not a nice threat, but it works.

Neal wonders why he feels the need to justify it to himself.

***

There are a lot of orphans.

They're probably, as a group, the single biggest cause of complaint around camp, and that's not because of anything they do. It's just because they exist.

Neal moves them all into his headquarters and starts assigning them work about the camp. There is more than enough to keep them all occupied. They eat with the soldiers in the mess hall. Neal shouldn't be so irrationally angry over a handful of scraggly commoners, but he is.

Neal and Merric still take their meals alone in headquarters, though they skip the formality of actual service. It's the only real break Neal gets from the press of the people at Mudpit, and Merric is Merric, and likes maintaining at least the illusion of proper order.

The fact that Merric sits there, meal after meal, keeping up a running commentary and pulling papers out of Neal's hands with a worried little light in his eyes never really registers.

***

Giantkiller falls.

Neal moves through the camp. There are things to be done. Merric trails along behind, helping with what he can.

The camp noise, that day, is distant. If any fights happen, Neal never stumbles across them. Even the motherless children underfoot in his office are quiet.

It isn't until word reaches Mudpit that Duke Baird is alive and at Steadfast that reality comes back.

***

Neal has to report to Mastiff.

It's not something he's looking forward to. There's work that needs to be done, always work, and Neal knows in that moment that he'll never be free of Mudpit, that the nobles to the south just won't take them. Why should they? There's a nice camp right here already, sitting within easy reach of the Scanrans, who can eliminate the whole problem for them. Then they can all tut and say what a tragedy it is, and go back to their fripperies.

Merric finally rolls his eyes and kicks Neal out and orders Gil's squad to drag their illustrious commander all the way to Mastiff if they have to.

Neal gets the hint and goes to saddle Magewhisper.

Loey's already done it for him.

***

Neal registers, just barely, that his friends are at Mastiff. Seaver, Esmond, and Faleron are assigned there; Owen is, of course, Wyldon's squire. Roald is there, down from Steadfast, and so is his squire.

Neal greets them all when they greet him, then goes to report to Wyldon.

***

The next morning, after waking up the quartermaster to get his herbs, Neal leaves for Mudpit.

The day is beautiful, and the forest reminds him, in some inexplicable way, of Queenscove. Neal wistfully thinks about turning his horse and running, but there is the shadow of a dreamy spirit to satisfy, first.

Neal goes home.

***

Home is a burned-out stockade, with cows ambling over the fields for the wheat.

Dead bodies in army maroon litter the mud, with a few other colors on civilian corpses for leavening. They are all in pieces, taken apart like his sister's dolls.

Neal knows the signs of killing devices. Neal also knows there should be more bodies.

He yanks Magewhisper about. Gil has come up behind him; the squad has found Merric and his patrol, all badly injured.

"Back to Mastiff," Neal snaps. "I'll heal them as we ride."

***

"We chased off a scouting party, I thought," Merric rasps. Neal, frowning, pours more green fire into the gash on his belly. "It was a war party. We were managing, but they retreated."

A moment passes.

Merric grabs Neal's arm. "I wouldn't have chased them if I knew about the devices," he says, eyes burning.

"I know," Neal replies. The Gift streaming from his fingers is olivine; Neal frowns at it.

Merric still hasn't let go of Neal. "What happened? To the refugees?"

"The Scanrans have them," Neal says.

Merric's face lights with the same grim realization that has already struck Neal.

***

Merric, more or less healed, insists on going with him. Gil's squad meets him in the stables, where they all plot treason and scamper out towards the gate.

Neal slips up to the wall, toward the night watchman. The last traces of washed-out fire sputter around his fingers.

Kel turns. "Is that any way to treat a friend, Sir Nealan?"

Neal sputters, and lets his Gift fade. "Kel?"

Kel regards him with solemn hazel eyes. She jerks her head toward the gate. "Get going, Neal, before my lord wakes up and catches you."

Neal wants to say something, prolong the meeting, but he has work to do.

***

Gil's squad and Merric are waiting in the shadow of the gates, and Merric has plainly been recruiting. Seaver, Esmond, and Faleron are all there, all ready to go, all stone-eyed.

Arguing wastes time, time they don't have before they're caught.

They go.

***

Neal's idiot cousin meets them on the road, with a whole squad of the Own.

Dom just smiles at the look on Neal's face. "Lord Raoul ordered us to help," Dom says. "We have more of a legitimate reason to be here than you do."

"I wasn't going to argue," Neal snaps. He knows his limits.

Dom's smile is oddly sad. "You wanted to," he says.

***

Owen meets them almost a day later, Kel right behind him.

This time, Neal does argue. "You two aren't just turning on the Crown!" he hisses. He wants so badly to yell, but they're too close to the border. "You're breaking faith with your knight-masters, too!"

Owen goes kind of cheesy, but Kel simply smiles. "His highness issued a royal order," she says, soft and hard, "I am supposed to help you get your people back."

Neal glances at Kel, then at Owen, then back at Kel. The same stone is in their eyes. He sighs.

Kel smiles again, that same knowing Yamani curve, and urges Peachblossom on.

***

When they reach the Vassa, Neal is profoundly glad his knight-mistress' husband Knows People.

***

Neal defers to Dom's orders. Dom's got more field experience than Neal or any of his friends.

Dom, flint-eyed, tells them how to go about whittling down the Scanrans.

They whittle all the way to Rathhausak.

***

There is an army around the castle.

"The banners don't flap," Dom says, confused.

Neal turns his horse toward the road down.

Esmond grabs his arm. "Neal!"

"There's a wind," he says.

Kel, catching on, pulls Esmond away. "Let's go," she says. Peachblossom snorts.

Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

***

Maggur's own people sneak them in through the sewers.

***

Kel has her glaive with her. Neal thanks every god he can think of for that when the monster of a Scanran bears down on them, axe in hand.

Kel handles him deftly.

***

Neal came here for a reason.

He stalks past Kel as she cuts the Scanran's throat and shoulders open the door to a workshop.

The mage has to be in here.

Neal can't see him, but Neal can hear him: his voice comes from all over. And something is giving Neal a headache, like the kind he gets from eyestrain.

The headache comes and goes in spurts.

They happen when he looks at the table.

Neal flips it.

The mage, now visible, goes crashing to the floor.

"I was forced to do this!" the man whimpers. "You … you've just freed me!"

Neal just stares.

"I can be a great asset to your king!"

Neal kneels, slowly, by the mage's side.

"Let me show you what you did to my people," Neal whispers.

He takes the mage apart, like one of Jessa's dolls.

***

Kel is the only one who ever learns just what happened in that workshop.

***

They go home.

Kel really had been under royal orders, and Roald makes it sound like they all were.

They get pardoned - or rather, they are never charged with anything in the first place.

Neal is not sure that is a good thing.

***

The killing devices have all stopped dead.

***

The nobles further south actually do come through, and Neal's people are slowly transferred out of their new village, Haven, as fall goes on.

The day Haven is finally empty, Neal burns it to the ground.

***

Wyldon never gives Neal a command again.

Neal is ridiculously relieved.

***

Neal is actually ordered to attend Roald and Shinko's wedding, as the representative for Queenscove. His father is still needed on the border.

Corus is a weird dream. Or the border is. Neal's never sure which.

***

After the wedding, Neal's reassigned to Frasrlund, where he works alongside his charming former knight-mistress. She takes one long, hard look at him, then assigns him to the hospital.

"I'll come for you if we need more knights," she snaps when he asks.

Neal sighs. Some things never change.

***

When the war finally ends, Neal goes back to Queenscove with his father.

He glues the heads firmly onto all of Jessa's old dolls, even though she hasn't touched them in years. She looks at him oddly, but shrugs.

***

The next morning, Neal is rudely awoken by a bucket of snow in his face.

He springs up and gives the intruder his best Queenscove glare.

His father just laughs, then ducks as Neal wakes up enough to throw some back.

Something settles down in the back of Neal's brain, after that.

***

Neal, bored to tears, is finally kicked out of the fief by his father.

"Go do something, Neal," Baird snaps. "You're bored to tears, and it shows." He tugs at his shirt for emphasis.

Neal suspects he may be driving his parents a bit crazy.

His father doesn't look all that good in fuchsia, anyway.

"I could always go to Corus," Neal muses.

"Good. Go see Yukimi."

Yuki.

Baird rolls his eyes at the sappy look on Neal's face. "Yes, son. Your fiance. Go bother her."

Neal thinks that is a fine plan.

***

Yuki doesn't put up with Neal's pranks.

She encourages them.

Together, they have all of their friends running scared.

***

Neal is there when Kel finally has her Ordeal.

He gives her a one-armed hug when she stumbles out, cheers at her knighting, and generally avoids her.

She sits down across from him one day at lunch. "Neal," she says.

Neal fidgets.

Kel regards him with solemn eyes. "Did I do something to anger you?" she asks, voice gone all Yamani like it only does when she's upset.

Neal shakes his head.

"Then what?" Kel asks. When Neal makes no move to reply, she places a gentle hand on his wrist.

"It should have been me," Neal says at last.

One eyebrow raises. "You should have repeated four years of page training because my maid got kidnapped?"

Neal snorts. No power in this world or beyond it could have made him retake all four years. "No. I should have been your knight-master."

Kel sits back. "Oh," she says.

"I mean, I doubt I would have been a good one, but Kel, you're my friend. We were all pulling for you, and we all discussed it, how we'd make sure one of us got you so no other conservatives could pull what Joren did, or worse." Now that Neal's speaking, he can't seem to shut himself up.

Kel's eyebrows are both at her hairline. She opens her mouth to speak, but Neal steamrolls right over her. "And then maybe I wouldn't have been stuck there all alone, with no idea what I was doing. I don't have the head for command, Kel, not like you do - I knew it, Merric knew it, Father knew it, they all did. Wyldon knew it, too, and he even wanted you there, but you weren't a knight yet so he had to make do, and all he had to make do with was me."

Kel's mouth sets in a grim line. "Neal."

Neal is staring down at his plate. It looks a bit hazy, like a foggy morning at Mudpit.

"Neal."

That tone is too much like his mother's for Neal to stop himself. He looks up.

Kel's eyes are solemn and direct. "Neal. You managed to keep that camp together, and its people alive, for almost a year. Under your direction, Mudpit fought off three separate attacks by killing devices; it took three devices at once to bring it down, and the only mage they had on hand was you. Your magic's no good for handling killing devices, so you basically did all that mageless. No one else can say that."

"We lost people, Kel. I lost people."

"We all did. Even Roald and I did, over at Steadfast. You're also forgetting that you rescued six hundred people with a grand total of twenty soldiers, counting yourself; you lost, during that whole operation, seventeen people total."

Neal shakes his head. Kel makes it sound so grand.

Kel grabs his wrists. "You saved them, Neal, that's what matters. It doesn't matter what happened to Blayce or what you felt or whether you did things exactly like your grandfather or your father would've-"

"You."

Kel stops and stares.

"I did it for you."