When We Were Gone Astray
It was a week before Yuletide, and Miklotov was still missing. In Rockaxe, the stronghold of the Matilda Knights was wreathed in pine boughs, the air redolent with the scent of bayberry wax tapers and mulled wine. And yet the commander of the Red Knights walked the halls like a one-man funeral procession, towing his worries behind him like a phantom bier.
Camus' knights knew better than to question him, stepping aside as he passed, the occasional whistled carol dropping down to contrite silence. There was little secrecy surrounding the fact that he and the commander of the Blues were lovers, but to his knights, it only demonstrated the extent of his devotion to the order. Even so, another knight might let his personal feelings interfere with his duty, but Camus was thoroughly in command of both his men and his emotions. He ordered the extra provisions of ale and the hunting party for the boar with the same distant efficiency as any other provisions for his knights, dispatched his reports for the men on Grasslands border, and oversaw morning training, but his smile was gone.
One man could bring it back, but he was a week overdue, and there had been no word from him in far too long. Camus' aide knew that, and he hesitated before knocking on the door of his captain's office. He did not bring word of Miklotov's approach, and he wished very much that he could.
"I'm sorry to disturb you, sir, but there are some visitors at the gate."
The shadows under Camus' eyes had darkened in the last week; he was not sleeping well. "Give them some cider and a few silver bits, like the rest of the Yule beggars," Camus said, busy writing a note for Shu in Muse. "If they look scrawny, send them down to the kitchens for--"
"No, sir," his aide interrupted. "They aren't beggars. At least, one of them isn't. They asked for you, specifically."
Camus put down his pen, his frown deepening. "What did they look like?"
"There are two of them, sir. A dangerous-looking man in a blue cape, and a huge fellow that's half-bear, by the looks of him. Should we--" the aide got no further, as Camus stood up and hurried past him out the door, his face showing the first, faint signs of a good cheer that had been sorely lacking.
Viktor was not particularly comfortable around knights. They were good fellows, for the most part. A little bit stuffy, though, and something his mother would have called high falootin'. North Wind had been known for its powerful warriors, but they were a practical bunch. War was dirty, messy work, and they were good at it. There were no oaths or vows or fancy rules of engagement, just beating the crap out of each other until one side couldn't stand anymore. Knights were all about the fussy business of honor and fealty. Naturally, Flik got on with them like a fort on fire.
Viktor stood around the foyer of Rockaxe castle with his thumbs in his belt, uncomfortable around the rare paintings and rich tapestries. Flik, however, had struck up a conversation with one of the guards about the merits of brigandine versus ring-mail, particularly in matters of stealth cavalry. He was not so engaged, however, that he would miss it if Viktor tried to touch something expensive and breakable, like the translucent porcelain vase on a stand in the corner.
Stupid thing to have in a damn fortress, Viktor thought. It was a relief when Camus came down the stairs, tying his caplet as he went, wearing a smile that did not reach his eyes. Viktor glanced back up the staircase, but Miklotov did not follow, only a bewildered-looking knight in a red tunic.
"You should have sent word!" Camus said, grasping Flik by the arm and pulling him forward into an embrace. "I'll need to requisition a second larder for Viktor alone!"
"Ah, well we didn't know we'd be here until we got here, so to speak." Viktor clapped a hand on Camus' epauletted shoulder. "Would it be trouble to put us up for a few days?"
"It would be a pleasure," Camus said. "It's a shame Miklotov isn't here to see you both."
"He isn't here?" Flik said, something blade-sharp in his gaze. "If he's coming from the north, there may be trouble. Once that path's snowed in, there's no seeing the other side of it until Spring."
"Come up to my office," Camus said, suddenly brusque. "I wouldn't want to bore my men with our reminiscing."
"This isn't about the weather, is it?" Viktor said, once they were in the cozy confines of Camus' office, and Viktor had his frozen toes pointed towards the fire.
"Miklotov isn't in the Grasslands," Camus said, his profile grim against the snowy window. "This is something only I know. There was word of trouble on the Matilda-Highland border last month, and I sent him out with a team of our new-formed purples to investigate. His messages have all been coded as though from the Grasslands, but in truth, he is on the trail of a band of Highland Nationalists."
"You'd think they'd give it up already," Flik sighed, annoyed. "What is it this time? Someone claiming to be a Blight by their stepmother's second cousin, twice removed?"
"I would prefer not to go into details, but it was sufficient for us to investigate. Miklotov's last message reported that they had found and dispersed the group, but I have heard nothing since." He tugged his glove off, slapping it impatiently against his palm. "Naturally, I cannot send anyone after him, and I can hardly leave Rockaxe myself--"
"We'll go," Flik said at once, and Viktor rolled his eyes. He'd only just started to thaw.
"I cannot ask that of you--" Camus began.
"You ain't asking," Viktor said, getting to his feet. "We're going. Where was your last report?"
Camus pulled over a sheaf of maps on his desk, thumbing through them. "I suspect he is somewhere in this area," he said, pointing to a patch of delicately-inked trees. "But in truth, he could be anywhere between the border and here."
"Right," Viktor said, with a cursatory glance at the map. He had a better lay of the land inside his own head, and wondered which of the tiny dells and hollows might be hiding Miklotov or his attackers. "If you'll get some supplies together for us, we'll head out--"
"It's nearly dark," Camus began, but there was relief already in his eyes.
"The sooner we go, the sooner we come back," Viktor said, pulling his bearskin cloak from Camus' fancy gilt-legged chair. "Better get some spare horses, too. I've got a few suspicions about what could have happened to them, and we might need the extras."
Camus closed his eyes for a moment, swallowing. "I am in your debt," he said, as fervent as any oath. "Tell me everything you need."
"You're thinking of the ravines, aren't you?" Flik asked, when they were on horseback again for the second time in less than an hour, their horses slogging through the snow-clogged highway and the wind driving flecks of ice into their faces.
"I remember thinking it was nasty enough in summer, on our way to L'Renouille--"
"It's Higheast, now."
"Whatever. There's plenty of pits along the road in the mountains here, and I'll wager my last potch that we'll find them there." Viktor twitched the lead reins of the horse tethered to his mount: Camus' own cavalry bay gelding.
"Fine way to spend Yule," Flik said, glancing up at the darkening sky.
"This was your idea," Viktor reminded him.
"Camus and Miklotov are like us," Flik said, shrugging. "And they'd do the same if it was one of us stuck out here."
"We wouldn't be stuck out here, because we've got more sense." Viktor sighed. "But what can you do with knights, anyway? Come on. Let's go get Camus' Yule present for him."
"I hope he's still alive," Flik murmured, and they galloped forward into the snowy hush of the bare forest, winter closing around them with cold, hoary arms.
"Riders approaching, sir."
Camus hurried across the battlement, snatching the spyglass from the chilly hands of the knight on watch. It magnified the snowy plain beneath the fortress, pink-tinged with the coming dawn. A small knot of horsemen straggled along the road, their horses plastered with snow, Flik and Viktor at their head. Camus recognized the purple tunics of the newest cadre of Matilda knight, and with a sudden tightening in his belly, the blue uniform of a limp figure slung across the saddle of his own bay.
"Open the city gates," Camus said, his voice rasping like a sword from its sheath. "Alert the infirmary that we have casualties."
They had reached the castle by the time Camus got down to the gates, and Miklotov returned home in the somewhat inglorious fashion of ass-first on Viktor's shoulder.
"Found him!" Viktor announced, sounding pleased with himself. "Where do you want him? Up against the wall, or something?"
Viktor's good cheer dispelled the worst of Camus' doubts, but Miklotov's face against the mercenary's shoulders was pallid and still, his mouth cut and bleeding. One of his legs had been roughly splinted with tree branches and strips of cloth.
"Get him up to his rooms," Camus said, struggling to keep his tone in the even indifference of command.
"It's my fault, sir," one of the purples said, limping forward. They too were battered and bedraggled, but their injuries did not all seem to be from conflict. "We were already late on our way home because of the storm, and then Captain Miklotov went after me when my horse took a spill off the path. He got us out but he broke his leg, sir, and we--"
"I'll want a full report," Camus said, patting the young man's shoulder. He was from Tigermouth; he probably had no idea how to maneuver in heavy northern snows. Camus made a mental note to keep him in reserve until he had gotten used to the different climate. "After you've all rested and had a hot meal. I'll send the doctor around to check on your injuries. Dismissed."
"I'll give your message to the doctor," Flik said to Camus. "Go on and check on him."
For a moment they shared a glance of total understanding, and then Camus nodded, hurrying up the steps two at a time, his cape belling out behind him.
The rough mercies of the bonesetter jolted Miklotov to painful consciousness, the snap shattering his uneasy hold on dreaming. In his mind, he was still caged in a world of black and white, the leafless trees like iron bars against the snowy walls of the Highland mountains. Camus' voice broke through the illusion, his grip sure and certain on Miklotov's straining shoulder, and Miklotov opened his eyes to see the ceiling of his own bedchamber in Rockaxe above him.
"Right here." Camus leaned down over him, his wan face and relieved smile blocking out the too-bright light of the lamps. "You'll be all right, now."
The physician began to bind up Miklotov's thigh in a proper splint, and the pain was enough to convince Miklotov that he was not dreaming. "I'd like to order a reprimand for my men," he said, wincing as the brace bit down into bruised muscle. "I expressly ordered them to leave me behind, and they refused." He settled his shoulders back against a pile of deliciously warm pillows, and added, "And once that's done I want to give them all a commendation for extraordinary valor."
"I'll see to it," Camus said, his fingers busy smearing salve on scrapes too minor for the Doctor's attention. "You look awful."
"So do you. I've been down a hole in the woods for three days, what's your excuse?"
Camus' only answer was a soft chuckle, as the physician murmured his final instructions and departed to tend to the other knights.
"How did I get here?" Miklotov asked, struggling to sit up. The effort made him break out in a chill sweat, but he tried anyway. Camus' hand, firm on his chest, kept him down.
"None of that, now. I hope you like the view, because you'll have it for a month and a half while you knit." Satisfied that Miklotov would not try to wriggle up again, Camus reached for the ewer on the side table and splashed some wine into a cup. "You're lucky Flik and Viktor happened by and they were willing to go out and fetch you."
"I remember seeing them," Miklotov said, softly. "I thought I was delirious, having flashbacks to the war."
"I don't doubt it." A spoon clattered in a cup. Camus was doing something beyond Miklotov's field of vision. "I trust you took care of business before jumping down a hole?"
"Work before pleasure," Miklotov said, wincing. "The bastards didn't even have enough gumption to give us a decent fight. Took a few cheap shots at us then threw down their weapons and ran. I'll be happy to give you a full report, but only if you give me some of that wine."
"Nothing wrong with your spirit, obviously." The mattress dipped down as Camus sat on it, putting his arm around Miklotov's shoulders to lift him up. "Easy, now."
Miklotov made a noise of more frustration than pain, though it was both. "I feel compelled to tell you how humiliating this is."
"You've nursed me out of a worse state. Here." Camus put the cup to Miklotov's lips, and the warmth of spiced wine could not quite cover the bitterness of powdered medicine. Miklotov swallowed it gratefully, knowing it was the taste of shelter and civilization, and that it would dull the thudding pain in his leg. "All of it," Camus said, though the blue knight did not need the prompting. By the time he saw the bottom of the cup, a buzzing numbness was already spreading through his limbs. "Good." Camus put the cup down, and eased Miklotov back down onto the bed. "A full sleep will do better for you than all the water runes in the world."
"You have to thank Flik and Viktor for me." Miklotov knew he must be feeling respectably awful, as he had no heart to protest as Camus pulled the blankets over him, tucking him in like a child. "They had no reason to go out into the cold after us."
"No reason save friendship." Camus hesitated, fidgeting with the empty medicine packet on Miklotov's bedside table. "Mik," he said, the nickname enough to add an extra weight onto his words, "I know it should have been me out there, coming to get you. A hundred times I thought of just riding out on my own--but I could not. Any day now I expect Tinto to request reserves from us, and things in the Grasslands are not as settled as I would like. We're spread thin until we have enough recruits to replace Gordo's whites, and Rockaxe could hardly spare one of us, much less both--"
"Camus." Miklotov fumbled one arm out of the blankets to reach the red knight's hand, twining their fingers together. "Had you come, I would have been relieved, but disappointed. We should have waited out the weather longer, I know. I'm ashamed of myself enough for taking such a foolhardy risk, I would have been doubly ashamed to make you tarnish your honor in my rescue. A knight's first duty is to his oath, not to his heart, or to the recklessness of his friends."
"This from the man who tore off his insignia rather than betray his conscience," Camus said wryly, his mouth twisting into a bitter smile.
"And from the man who tore off his rather than arrest me for it."
"I would do it again." Camus' hand gripped Miklotov's more tightly, as a man would his sword in the face of certain death. "Had Flik and Viktor not arrived, I would have gone out after you myself this morning, oath or no oath."
"And I'm glad you didn't have to," Miklotov said, feeling his words slurring together as the drug took hold. "I thought I was going to die out there, and yet all I could think was that is would be a foolish way to end it all, not even in battle, and how furious you'd be with me." He tilted his bruised face on the pillow to get a good look at Camus before his vision blurred too much, leaden eyelids too heavy to keep open. "Sorry. At least I made it back in time for Yule."
"And you should sleep through it," Camus answered. "I'll offer your apologies at the feast tonight." Miklotov heard the rattle of his sword-belt as Camus placed Dunceney within its owner's reach. Even though Rockaxe was secure, even though Miklotov was in no state to fend off attackers if there had been any, Camus knew what Miklotov would reach for first when he woke. "Get some rest, Mik. And I'll pass on your thanks to Flik and Viktor."
It's you I want to thank, Miklotov thought, but he could no longer form words, and his answer was nothing more than a dreamy murmur as he sank down into layers of sweet, painless warmth. You're the one that's suffered for my carelessness. I won't let it happen again.
Even asleep, Miklotov knew that Camus was still there, within reach as easily as his sword, and just as trusted. The shortest day of the year broke clear and sparkling over the eastern mountains, and Miklotov let its light pass over him, carrying him towards a day when he would be worthy of the love of the finest man Matilda had ever knighted.