First: Spoils of War I: Surrender
PLEASE NOTE: THIS CHAPTER IS NOW DEFUNCT. I WENT BACK TO THE END OF CHAPTER 21 AND AM REWRITING FROM THAT POINT
“Look, you were the one that said that I was lousy at planning things. And you haven’t manifested a plan. And you’re the one that pointed out that ‘just keep running’ isn’t a solid plan.”
“But you’re in charge and we could just keep running. I mean, it’ll be a solid plan for the next two or three centuries.” Aran huffed. “And it has less chance of us being betrayed by the Mountain.”
“Yeah, that’s true, but look at what we left behind. We left a mess, we left people we knew, and we – “
“We got out with our hides intact. And now you want to talk to some sort of strange strategist so, what, we can – gather an army?” He twisted on his horseback to regard her. “Because I said you were lousy at planning?”
“Okay, I know you don’t like me a whole bunch, but I’m not that petty. No.” She shrugged jerkily. “It just – it – the Mountain isn’t going anywhere unless someone stops it. And we both know what it does, probably more than a lot of people. And- uh. And we can save people.”
“You liked it, didn’t you? Rescuing those people. Killing that monster.” He was still riding sideways, looking at her. Like he was trying to read her or something. Nikol shrugged again.
“The monster had to die just for self-preservation. I mean, I had to get you out of there.”
“I mean, you didn’t have to…” His horse was starting to side-step, made uncomfortable by the way he was sitting. Nikol didn’t blame the beast.
“Yes. I did. You’re mine. You might hate that, but it’s the truth, and that means that I go after you if you end up in a trap with a creepy mind-eating monster. Or any other sort of trap.”
He cleared his throat. “I, uh. I didn’t say thank you, did I?”
“Truth be told, I was so out of it, I wouldn’t remember.”
“I’m not sure if that’s reassuring or not. Uh. Thank you. For saving my life back there, getting me out of that place. It was -” He shook his head. “I don’t have to tell you. You got caught by it, too. You came down there and you almost died to get me out of there.”
Nikol shrugged. “Pissed at myself for getting caught,” she muttered. It wasn’t an answer, but she wasn’t sure she could do better. “I shoulda -” It occurred to her that there’d been a thank you in there, and that generally, that wasn’t how you were supposed to reply to thanks, not even in the army or a merc squad. She looked over at him. “You’re welcome. I’d do it again, too.”
“While I’m – While I’m saying thank you.” He cleared his throat. “Thanks. For not killing me, for dragging me out of there and healing my leg n’ shit. Thank you.”
She eyed him again. “For enslaving you.” She wasn’t sure if she was clarifying or giving him shit. Maybe both.
“Yeah. Uh. Better than dead. It was better than dead when I made the decision, too, and definitely better than the Mountain.”
She turned back to look between Strongfoot’s ears. He was going to drive her bonkers, and she wasn’t the one Kept. He was like this weird road of hills, up and down, up and down, and it made her feel – well.
Like she had been better off in a tent on her own back in a merc company. For the first time in ages, Nikol missed her troop, really thought about the company. The ones she’d seen fall on the battlefield. The ones that she’d seen wounded and carted off by the Mountain, until they all agreed: they finished the job or they healed each other, but nobody was left to the Mountain. After Errol, they’d started burning the bodies, quick funerals, sometimes in the middle of battle.
After Cho, a third of the surviving company had vanished overnight. Nikol hoped that they’d decided to run off, rather than being taken by the Mountain. She had no proof either way and, since if she knew, she was honor-bound to chase them down, she hadn’t looked into it.
They’d still beat Aran’s side, which said something about his forces more than about their trained merc forces, if she was being honest.
She found herself both relaxing and growing sadder, thinking about the people she’d left behind, the people she knew had fallen, the ones whose bodies she’d burned and the ones the Mountain had taken.
The Mountain had taken more from them than any other battle, ever, and in the end she’d left without even taking her pay.
Aran cleared his throat again. She glanced over at him and found he wasn’t looking at her.
“Anyway. I – look, I’ve been thinking, that’s all. And uh. I don’t like the whole being Kept thing, but I don’t hate you. I mean, separate of the part that makes me feel shitting for saying bad things about you or upsetting you –“
“That first part isn’t the Bond,” Nikol offered quietly. “Sorry. That’s just you being a decent person.”
“You remember I tried to hamstring you, right?”
“Hey, that was war. This is-“
“War, again. Just a different flavor of war, a different enemy. So you really want to track down a strategist?”
“Are you by any chance a closet strategist who just wasn’t saying anything?”
“Ha. No. I hit things with a sword. Sometimes I hit them with the right end of the sword. And I talk to animals.”
“Well, I mean, the animals don’t like the Mountain either, but other than that, I’m not sure how useful either of those skills will be.” Then she looked down at their mounts, and looked back at the large cats who had decided they were their escorts. “On the other hand…”
“Not all animals respond like that,” he warned. “There was the slime thing…”
“That, I’m not even sure that was an animal,” Nikol admitted. “But okay. If only we could turn that on the Mountain.”
He chuckled. “Now that I would pay to see.” Suddenly, his tone was considerate. “You know… we might be able to.Want more?