Raoul takes a deep, ragged breath, letting the cool night air fill his lungs. He holds it for a second, feeling it warm in his chest, focusing on the sensation to drown out the cacophony of his thoughts. He’s grateful for the chill--early June is hot, even in the north, but he’s long found cold to be more grounding, and right now, grounding is what he needs.
A second breath. He counts the seconds in and the seconds out. A third breath. A new recruit from Aiden’s squad walks by on the night watch. Raoul should know his name--knows that his name is stored somewhere deep in the recesses of his racing thoughts--but fortunately, the recruit doesn’t stop to chat with his commander.
The wall he’s leaning against is wonderfully solid, the splinters from the new wood (gods, how had they erected a defense system for a whole war in the last year) digging into his back. It doesn’t stop his hands from shaking, though. Nor does it stop his mind from begging for a drink, the kind of drink he hasn’t had in 20-odd years.
He’d held it together all day yesterday--or at least, he managed to look like he was holding it together. Aside from his outburst in Wyldon’s office (but really, how had he not seen this coming), he’d stayed calm. He’d trained his men. He’d discussed strategy for the upcoming battle. He’d sent Dom after her (Dom, who has the liberation of orders. Raoul gets to give the orders to help Kel. He’s not free to follow them). He spares a thought for Dom, for his most promising commander, for Flyn’s hand-picked replacement (they’ll tell him if--when--they all survive this war). But it’s only a second. Because just like every other gods-cursed moment since he’s been able to slip away from his responsibilities, his thoughts are back on Kel. Just like they’d been all that day, which he’d spent going through the motions. He’d shouted drill commands, ridden out on patrol, gone through battle plans with his remaining sergeants. He’s only allowed himself to fall apart when he’s off-duty. He spent last night, and is spending tonight, on the outer wall of Mastiff, trying his best to trust in Kel’s instincts, to remind himself that if anyone can do this it’s her, while trying to place as much ground between himself and the alcohol hidden throughout the fort as possible.
And then, the deep, irrepressible craving to feel nothing washes over him again. Another deep breath. Count the seconds. Feel the splinters.
It would be so easy. There are barrels of wine in the kitchens. Liquor under most beds in the Own’s barracks. No one would question the Knight Commander seeking a late night snack. The new recruits wouldn’t mind passing the bottle (they wouldn’t know better yet, anyway). He grips the railing behind him, willing himself to stay in place.
And then, he thinks of Kel again. She flashes in his mind, still a stubborn fourteen year-old so determined to work that he has to teach her it’s okay to laugh. He’s desperately trying to remember their last conversation--after four years of daily conversation, it had been months since they’d spoken. His mind pulls to the front some meaningless conversation on the road north to the border that spring, supplies him with his parting remark that she’d better do her best to stay alive, or Alanna would kill him.
And she’d done such a gods-cursed terrible job.
He knows (hopes) she isn’t dead yet. But his squire (his daughter, as he’s come to think of her) is miles deep behind enemy lines on a virtual suicide mission. With treason charges awaiting her if she returns (gods, he hopes Jon knows better. He’s almost sure he does. But Jon is a king, and he’s notorious for unpleasant surprises). And he thinks of marrying Buri, without Kel at his wedding. He thinks of having to find another knight to pass the Own to. He thinks of actually having to tell Alanna.
And then, the craving hits again. He lets it wash over him, fantasizes about stumbling into bed, completely numb. A deep breath. Feel the splinters. Deep breath.
He’s not sure how long he stands, one knee bent, ready to step away from the wall and towards full-on collapse.
He’s not sure when another man on watch will pass, not sure if one already has. This is why he’s not initially surprised by movement to his left. He is surprised, though, when he looks up and sees the identity of his new companion.
Duke Baird of Queenscove looks haggard. The lines on his face are deeper than Raoul has ever seen them, and even by the flickering light of the torches on the wall, he can see that his eyes are red-rimmed and swollen.
Neal, Raoul remembers with a jolt almost strong enough to knock him out of his fog. He remembers Kel’s lanky friend, Alanna’s squire, always ready with sarcasm and generosity in aggravatingly equal measure. He remembers hearing something this morning about Kel’s yearmates, gone since just before dawn that day. The image of Wyldon storming through Mastiff in search of his squire comes flooding back.
“Goldenlake,” Baird says, exhaustion in every syllable. Raoul feels sympathy flood his body--Kel is like a daughter, but Baird’s child has made the same choice.
“Your son?” he asks, by way of response.
“Your squire?” is his only retort.
The two men stand in silence only broken by the muffled footsteps of a man on the night watch for what feels like years. Raoul stares over the rocky terrain in front of him, mountains visible in the distance, wondering where Kel is on it. He knows that Giantkiller is somewhere out of sight to his left, and that the Scanran border is straight ahead. After a while, though, he feels Baird’s attention shift. Those bloodshot eyes are no longer on the scenery, trying to find his long-gone son in the dark, and are instead trained on Raoul.
“She made the right choice,” Baird says, with a sort of resignation that makes Raoul a little envious. “She’s got a good head on her shoulders. She’ll get them out of this.” His last sentence loses the certainty of the first, sounds almost as though he’s trying to convince himself instead of Raoul.
Raoul barks out a laugh, so hoarse it sounds almost like a cough. “The right choice? Baird, they’re twenty fighters against a whole gods-cursed army in enemy territory. Tell me how throwing their lives away helps anything.” The words are harsh, but he doesn’t care. He knows he should be bothered by the sharp intake of breath he hears from his left.
“Sorry,” he mumbles, only half meaning it. After all, it’s the truth.
Baird waves a hand. “You’re not saying anything I haven’t been thinking.” Then, he pauses. For a long moment, both are silent. “But you know as well as I do what they’re after, who they’re tracking. You know that five hundred refugees don’t deserve to die. You know that we can’t fight killing devices to account even for the hundred-odd children they’ve got captive. That’d be the end of this war, and it wouldn’t be pretty.” Another pause, during which Raoul does his best to let that truth sink in. And then Baird finishes his thought: “And you know as well as I do that it was wrong to leave a whole camp of refugees to the enemy. Neal and Kel couldn’t allow that to happen to their people.”
Raoul thinks of Kel again. But this time, he’s not thinking of the near-defenseless (of course, she wasn’t defenseless, even then) fourteen year-old he’d picked a horse for. Instead, he’s thinking of the full knight he’d watched take command with something approaching ease. He’s thinking of her hours of weapons practice, of her kindness to her animals, of her genuine respect for the people in her care. Through his fog of panic and fear, he can see Baird’s right--Kel could never have allowed this to happen unchallenged.
“You aren’t scared for them?”
“Terrified.” Baird’s voice has taken on a new heaviness, one that almost terrifies Raoul with its weight. Instead of probing, Raoul embraces the pause and waits, hoping the older man will pull him further out of his own fear.
“You know, Neal’s only a knight because I lost my first two sons in the Immortals War. He was going to be a healer. I begged him to stay at the university, told him he could serve the crown in other ways, that Queenscove didn’t need a knight.” Baird chuckles. “Sometimes, I wonder whether he’d have actually followed through if I’d kept my mouth shut. He can be stubborn like that.”
Raoul nods as he searches his memory. It comes to him in pieces--vague recollections about the heir of Queenscove being killed in a fight with Carthaki pirates, about a Queenscove squire and his knight master getting trapped by a group of spidrens. He shudders at the thought. And still, in the face of all that loss, in the face of his only living son’s decision to make the same sacrifice, Baird is comforting Raoul .
And Raoul is the one who needs it.
“I don’t know if I can…” Raoul can’t seem to find the words to finish the sentence. He feels like he’s asking something of Baird, but he’s not sure what.
“You can. You would. It always seems like you can’t survive it, but you do.” Baird’s voice is weary with the weight of experience Raoul is praying he won’t have. “There’s still plenty left to keep going for.”
Raoul grabs that last sentence, tries to hold onto it through the fog that’s engulfed him for two days. It takes hold, catches, burns away some of the fear. And he remembers two days ago, the faith that he’d had through his rage at Wyldon that she could do it, that his orders for Dom’s squad were not to bring her home but to take their orders from her. He’s remembering the girl that fought spidrens at 10 and a centaur at 14, who spent a summer doing battle on the front last year and who’s killed more killing devices than anyone else in the war.
“If anyone can do it, they can.” The words surprise him, even as he says them, and he’s still not entirely sure he believes them.
“I do agree,” Baird said, a smile almost flitting across his lips. “You certainly trained her for it.”
“Just like you and Alanna trained him.”
Baird does actually smile at that. It’s brief, and it doesn’t hold, but it’s something. “Gods, if my son managed to pick up even a tenth of Alanna’s stubbornness, we can expect them home by week’s end with refugees in tow.”
Raoul nods, and his grip on the rail loosens. The weight curled up in the pit of his stomach hasn’t dissipated, and the haze of anger and fear still grips the edges of his mind, but for the first time all night, he’s present enough to feel the exhaustion weighing down every inch of his large frame.
“I’m going to try to get some sleep.” It’s a simple farewell, not acknowledging any of what has passed.
“As will I, when I finish this lap. There’s work to do.” Baird turns to go, takes a few steps back onto his original path, and then pauses again. “And Raoul? There are things worth staying sober for, too.” It’s brief, and quiet--so quiet that the man on watch yards away and moving towards them would never have heard. But as he walks to his bed, struggling to keep his eyes open and holding tight to the words, and the hope he’d found, like a talisman, he spared a second to wonder whether Baird’s finding him had been accidental at all.
Two weeks later, he finds himself standing on the Tortallan banks of the Vassa River, Wyldon on one side and Baird on the other. The arrival of Merric and the adult refugees days ago had buoyed their hopes, but nothing had matched the joy when, mid-battle, three killing devices had simply dropped dead in front of them, motionless. He didn’t need a mage to tell him what that meant.
Now, though, hoards of children had been escorted away by groups of Baird’s healers, and only a few Tortallans remained unaccounted for. Raoul could feel Wyldon’s tension on his right, and he could imagine the man willing the missing knights to emerge through the trees, as though if he demanded it, the world would bend to him and simply return his squire and former trainees to him unharmed.
To his left, though, Baird’s presence was relaxed. He stood, hands clasped in front of him, having directed the arrival of nearly a hundred children. Despite the apparent relaxation, though, a quick glance showed Raoul that his eyes were trained on the forest in front of him, with a focus so great Raoul was half-convinced he could see through the foliage to the rafts on the river.
And then, a rustle, and Raoul’s head is snapping forward to look as a dozen people begin to come into focus through the trunks obscuring them. He’s scanning furiously, taking brief note of the head of dark hair that can only be Dom’s, and a distinctive mop of curls that seems to remind him of Wyldon’s squire. And then, he sees the mouse-brown hair, grown a bit longer than usual in the months of commanding a refugee camp. One arm might be in a sling, and she’s moving slowly, with her monster of a horse supporting her on one side and a lanky man leading his own warhorse on the other.
The urge to run to them is almost overwhelming, and he knows Baird feels it too. But he forces himself to relax. There’ll be hours, days, weeks, in which to talk to Kel, to tell her he’s proud of her and hear exactly what happened. In the meantime, though, as he prepares to greet his men and find out their losses, he spares a moment to turn to Baird.
Taking note of the sheer relief shining in Baird’s eyes, despite the fact his facial expression has hardly shifted, Raoul smiles. Quietly--so quietly that Wyldon, only a few yards away but busy contemplating the task in front of him, can’t hear--but clearly, Raoul says, “Thank you.”