Bald Ben Braddock was waiting at the door of Tolometto’s lone inn when Gregory arrived. The Shrikes’ Master of Horse was a bulky, florid man who was, just as his nickname suggested, bald as an egg, and in fact looked rather like someone had enlarged a baby and dressed it up as a man-at-arms. “Oi, Gentleman,” said the old soldier. Gregory looked away. ‘Gentleman’ was a nickname he’d acquired among the Shrikes when it was discovered that his father had been a property owner, and that he could read. It stung--even coming from Braddock, whose family were old Leonais armigers with sizable estates near Hautclaire, and thus could have been called “Gentleman” himself, with a great deal more justification.
Though as he watched Braddock rub his naked scalp, Gregory realized that no one would ever do that when there was a more obvious thing to call the Master of Horse. “The Lieutenant sent me,” said Gregory. Cyrus had arrived back from his talk with the Captain looking even grimmer and more ill-tempered than he usually did, and had insisted that Gregory needed to see the Captain as well.
Braddock merely nodded, a smile lifting up his plump, rosy cheeks, and stepped out of the way. “Well, it’s good to see he still follows the Old Man’s orders,” he noted, chuckling to himself. He gave an exaggerated shrug. “At least, some of the time.” As Gregory stepped through the doorway, Braddock fell in behind him. “So--how’s the Aspiring Prophet?”
“About the same.” Gregory frowned. While he could say with some certainty that none of the Shrikes liked Vathek, for the most part they at least afforded him the respect owed an employer. Braddock was the exception to that. He treated the Ghoul with a mixture of contempt and amusement that worried Gregory. Largely because it was fairly obvious, and because Vathek was the sort of person who eventually responded to such treatment in as brutal a fashion as they could.
Braddock shook his head. “You know, the last time the Shrikes crossed paths with him, he was on the other end of our swords. He and his followers were ambushing Emporium caravans in the Heath and the Waste.” He gave a rolling chuckle. “Amazing that the man can lose everything but his pretensions.”
Gregory snorted. “In my experience, that’s the last thing to go.”
The Master of Horse shrugged as they reached the Captain’s room. “Depends on the man, I suppose.” He sighed. “Still you wish the bastard would acknowledge that he lost…” He knocked gently on the door. “It’s Bald Ben. The Gentleman’s here.”
Eirene Briarbramble opened the door a crack. The witch regarded the pair balefully. Gregory noticed that her long black hair seemed especially disheveled. “Come in. But make it short. He needs his rest.”
Gregory bowed, and then walked into the room. He made his way to the Captain’s bed, and saluted, clicking his heels together sharply. “Gregory Tyne, sir. As you requested.”
Carloman Brand, the Fifth Captain of the Scarlet Shrikes, opened his rheumy eyes, and propped himself up from his pillow weakly. “Very punctual, Gentleman. Very punctual.” He smiled at Gregory weakly, then leaned back. “Ancient came back this morning.” Gregory nodded. Ancient Evreux was a long-time Shrike member, who specialized in scouting. “The Shire Reeve’s been calling a Muster.”
Gregory blinked. “But--how… we’ve been keeping…”
Captain Brand shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. Let’s be honest--they’re the ones who know the ground and the ways here. There’s a thousand ways they might have found out. What’s important is, they did.” He paused for a moment, as if out of breath. Gregory waited for him to recover. “I’m sending horse squads out to watch things. At the request of our Master of Horse, you’re being put in command of the Eastern squad.”
Gregory’s eyes widened. “I… Captain…” He turned to Braddock. “Sir, I’m…”
The Captain raised an unsteady hand. “Don’t try to argue this one. I know it’ll be your first command, Gentleman, but--we figure your ready.” Gregory nodded. “Bald Ben will give you the rest of the details. I just wanted you to know--this had my back--” And then Brand began to cough. He coughed continuously for several minutes, hacking up something that looked rather like blood to Gregory’s eyes. Then Eirene stepped forward and pressed a goblet filled with some greenish liquid to Brand’s lips.
“You mustn’t overtax yourself, dear,” she said, placing a kiss on Carloman’s forehead. “Now--drink it down, and get your rest.” The Captain swallowed her potion, and shut his eyes. After a moment, he began to snore.
Braddock looked at Eirene. “How long…?”
“Not long at all now,” said the witch quietly. “He’s dying, Ben. We all know that.”
Gregory looked at the Captain’s form--so thinner than the man he’d met when he’d joined the Shrikes. “Is there anything you can do for him?”
“Yes,” snapped Eirene. “And I am.” She shook her head. “I’m not the Badb or even the Nemain. Just an ordinary Hedge Witch. Don’t expect miracles from me. When the Breath of Death reaches this state, common witchery is limited to making the sufferer… die peacefully, with as little pain as possible.” She looked at the floor. “I wish I could do more. I really do.”
Gregory nodded. “I know.” He glanced at the door, and then at Braddock. “I guess we should… get going.”
Braddock stepped towards the door. “Sounds like a plan.” He paused to regard Eirene for a moment. “You know, Madame Briarbramble--we all appreciate your--looking after the Captain.”
Eirene smiled ruefully. “Except for those that don’t.”
Braddock crossed his arms. “They aren’t here right now.” And then he stepped through the door.