10. Remembrance

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In Sight of Ravens

READ ME:

Your name is Carth. You’re a bastard, aged boy. You are an Errant-for-hire on campaign with the army of Gorian the Giant on his quest to take the Throne of Thorns from the Nine ContendersAsk daily when you will receive your next payment. Refer to the scrolls next to this one for an index of items, words, places, people and locations.  

* * *

You were ambushed, yesterday, Carth. It was only a small skirmish, between Lohainn’s archers—the Crow’s Claws—putting up a brief fight before melting away into the wilderness. But there’s more that I want us to remember. Though I can’t give you much—do you think anyone truly remembers fights clearly? Or do only you and I suffer from this affliction?

There are some things I’ll let you remember:

I’ll let you remember Jerim dragging a twin away from his brother’s limp body, leaving the corpse on the road for the carrion crows.

I’ll let you remember how you saw Barric spearing an injured horse—and the cavalryman whose leg it had crushed. He looked at you, then. Even through your fog of shattered memories, you knew what that look meant. And you know it now as you read this.

You and I both know how these men felt. I suspect we all know. We’ve all learned the guilt that comes with being alive.

* * *

Let’s remember these things, too:

A field of grass bowing under your progression and rising again after you passed.

A village of wattle-and-daub huts.

White-knuckled hands wrapped around swords.

The glint of iron against the sun.

Your hand, red and wet and holding a longsword plunged up to the hilt in a wide-eyed ser, only a boy.

Jerim saying, “You did what you had to—couldn’t be helped. There’s no shame in it.”

Jerim saying, “Right?”

Jerim saying, “Talk to me.”

Next

9. Led To Slaughter

In Sight of Ravens

And then the army slammed to a halt and as the sudden stop drove you into a warrior in front of you, you felt pity this time for the blacksmith’s hammer.

Ahead of you were sounds of scraping wood and steel; sometimes steel on steel. There were scattered sparks ahead against the mass of men. Some slapped the ground and then tumbled downhill, leaving a trail of blood (at least they left something in their wake). You flexed your hand around your sword; sweat slick and worried that you might drop it.

You could hear men pleading ahead of you crying in various speeches. But like the one-legged boy you knew what they were saying.

They were begging. Pleading. Pleading for mothers; for mercy; for quarter, But they were all silenced by wet sounds—like a bucket falling into a well. The army moved forward after every line lost. You were truly a lamb being led to the slaughter.

Then to your right you noticed the shadow of a Crow skulking through the mist. It leapt forward, sword raised, and you stabbed over two rows of shoulders and shields, taking him through the neck. You thought maybe House Vale’s forces carried saltwater in their mouths, for he sounded like he was gargling it. But all he spat up was blood before he collapsed.

Someone up front shouted, “Thanks!” but as he said this you realized that sinew and bone had trapped your blade in the Crow’s neck, and when he crumpled to the ground your sword was levered from your hand.

One final act of vengeance.

“The sword! Grab the sword!” shouted the Thank You Man. There came a short, suckling sound as the steel was pulled from his throat—like a boot squelching through mud. Then the sword changed hands as the army was pushed back; and then kept changing hands even as you were forced to give ground.

Front seized your wrist and fastened your sword into your hand. “Don’t wait to pull out after you stab,” Front shouted, as you were pushed back onto level ground.

“You’re welcome!” you said. You were shaking and delirious and as frenzied as a sack of wet cats.

The commanders thundered down the line, ordering a retreat. “Keep formation!” they shouted, “Stay in rank!”

Bodies were turning sharply, forcing you around and shoving you forward, away from the village and the House Vale’s forces.

You lost, Emyr. You fled with what few survived the onslaught. At length, you discovered King Gorian and other Sers, smothered in blood and other things you didn’t want to think about. They helped guide you through your retreat.

Lord Gorian was all curses, lamenting that some of his Sers had lost to the House Vale. Apparently they deserved better deaths.

But I have some good news for you: now you know you’re a soldier. Only a soldier could hear such death-talks without bristling.

You feel it don’t you? I feel it to. The resolute nothing inside you when learning this news. That’s why you’re a soldier. And it’s how you survive.

8. Battle Beginning

In Sight of Ravens

READ ME:

Your name is Carth. You’re a bastard, aged boy. You are an Errant-for-hire on campaign with the army of Gorian the Giant on his quest to take the Throne of Thorns from the Nine ContendersAsk daily when you will receive your next payment. Refer to the scrolls next to this one for an index of items, words, places, people and locations.  

* * *

You fought Lord Lohainn and House Vale’s forces. That’s whose blood was smeared on your sword. And you’re using red ink—or has it dried to brown by now? Has it taken you this long to realize you didn’t hang on to any spare berries last night? All you need is a thing stick to write with. Crude, yes, but it gets the job done.

I know you won’t remember much from yesterday’s battle. But I do. Let me tell you, for I want us to remember this, together. These are memories we cannot let go:

Men with skin like black ink and men astride horses and men with great swords were all on your side. Remember our discussion about this armor being a hammer? This was what I meant when I said that. We fought against House Vale’s men, shelled in steel.

The leaders of Gorian’s armies fought like something out the legends we’ve overheard at our campfires. They seemed to have the strength of half-gods and heroes as they slung spears down on the enemy.

Their movements were taut; bronzed biceps growing as they hefted their weapons—and when they threw them, they did not seem concerned with the spears hurtling toward us. They seemed almost lazy—after all, they were our leaders, and had made it this far. They seemed to know they wouldn’t die here.

The same could not be said of soldiers unnumbered, too young or unpracticed, or infirm. The ones could not raise their shields in time, pierced by pikes or arrows or swords and littering the fields with eyes like their leaders—like half-gods and heroes. Eyes that did not seem to see.

But let me take a moment to back up, Carth. Back to when the news first came that the Lohainn the Crow was on your doorstep.

You could not have said what time it was when riders came. But there was a fog in the air that blotted out the sun. Their phantoms rode through the mist. You wondered how many were real. Some of them might’ve been ghosts. They looked like ghosts.

“Form rank!” they called in their various speeches. “Form rank!”

You scrambled to ready yourself. House Harcourt’s men and the other Houses had marched off in a square bristling with spears.

Lord Gorian led those on foot, acting as a personal shield for all of them. And with his longaxe, he seemed nigh-indestructible.

Commanding Sers under Lord Gorian and warriors and crowded you, pushing you forward like a buffeting wind. You were disoriented, reeling. When the ground sloped suddenly downward you worried that you’d been set on a path directly to the God of Death that Barric had once told you about (check your index). Hills went up and down for hours, probably.

But you had no time to think about that. You were still being pushed forward by a wall of people on all sides. You started making names for the four surrounding you: Front, Back, Left and Right. They marched in step, uphill and downhill until at some point you spied something resembling a giant bird sewn onto a heap of cloth snapping in the wind. The army opposite you carried it on a long pole. A Crow with its wings spread. House Vale’s sigil.

Your heartbeat throbbed in your neck and your forearm burned from holding up your shield.

Beating drums rang out from the other army.  Boom-doom, boom-doom, boom-doom. There were Crows grunting and shrieking from atop their hill—a thousand hulking silhouettes waiting for your uphill approach. They fired a volley and you and the men raised your shields.

You tried to remember any drills you fought. Your blade arm was practically twitching to engage in maneuvers you forgot. You wondered if your sword had more memories than you do, and allowed yourself a smile for a moment.

There was then a thrum from atop the hill, as if a thousand birds had taken flight at once. There was a whistling from above, and you saw a thousand silhouetted arrows ready to rain down. You raised your shield and felt about four heavy blows. Pain rocked your arm, strong enough that you felt a sudden pang of pity for the blacksmith’s anvil.

Others caught the arrows head on, and the impact released contraptions that embedded them into their shields. Some of your allies were forced to drop their shields altogether in order to continue moving.

Some were even less fortunate.

You heard scattered, painful shrieks that came muffled from behind your shield from warriors too slow to raise theirs.

The moment you peaked out from behind your shield, the box of warriors pushed you forward. Through the fog and up the muddy hill.

Once, you nearly tripped on your way up the hill, but you had neither the time nor the desire to see if it was only uneven ground that you’d had tread upon. The warriors had practically carried you uphill from the sheer force of their forward charge.

7. First Signs

In Sight of Ravens

READ ME:

Your name is Carth. You’re a bastard, aged boy. You are an Errant-for-hire on campaign with the army of Gorian the Giant on his quest to take the Throne of Thorns from the Nine ContendersAsk daily when you will receive your next payment. Refer to the scrolls next to this one for an index of items, words, places, people and locations.  

* * *

The next morning, the three of you collected your provisions—corn, corn and more corn once again. You stopped in that same alley where you rejoined Jerim and Barric. If you happen to wake up with a taste like ashes in your mouth, you’ll have a small understanding of the ordeal it was to swallow that bile.

“War’s a bitch,” Jerim said, “What did they do to this food?”

“Might be the seasoning,” you suggested.

Barric giggled, sending pinkish corn-juice dribbling down his chin. “You think they have the coin to season this shit, boy?”

“Might be someone thought to use a heap of soil,” Jerim suggested. Yellow filled the gaps between his teeth. “Perhaps they needed a light garnish.”

Before you or Barric could respond, you three noticed a boy staring at you from the other end of the alley. He looked like a skeleton; he’d only a shadow of skin and a face that pocketed deep-sunken eyes that couldn’t remember to blink. His tunic was torn and he was caked with dirt and dust. One side of his red hair had been matted down and crusted with dried blood. Whether it belonged to him or someone else, you couldn’t say. He had only one leg, and leaned on a makeshift wooden crutch for support.

Jerim shouted at him; and then kept shouting until the boy hopped over to you. He tried to teach him the name of his pike, but the one-legged boy only held out cupped hands, saying the same word over and over, as if he couldn’t hear Jerim. The word was foreign, it’s meaning discernible. “Food,” he was saying. “Food, food.”

So Jerim laughed and dribbled some corn into the boy’s tiny hands. Barric closed the boy’s dirty fingers over the corn and said something you didn’t understand. Then the boy hopped off, plucking the corn into his mouth.

So Jerim laughed and dribbled some corn into the boy’s tiny hands. Barric closed the boy’s dirty fingers over the corn and said something you didn’t understand. Then the boy hopped off in search of others, plucking the corn into his mouth.

You asked Barric what he said, ignoring Jerim’s rhythmic chanting of, “One leg…one leg…one leg…” as he stared blankly into space.

“I told him to be careful—made sure he knew not to let anyone see his food—” Barric stopped to smack the back of Jerim’s head. “Stop staring!”

“By the Nailed God, that’s a boy with one leg!” Jerim said. He turned you then, grinning. “Some poor soul forgot to sharpen his blade.

You decided you’d had enough of Jerim, and went off to forget him. But he and Barric followed you, reasoning it was dangerous to leave you alone for very long. I happen to agree. Though they bickered through the whole walk until you found a river just outside the city. It looked like the best spot to rest for a while.

You sat there and watched your reflection. You put your feet in the river contemplated everything you’d read from me. Thoughts of a siege rattled through your mind. You bunched up your cloak, dark as night time. You wondered what might happen to Barric and Jerim. You thought they had been as brothers to you. You racked your brain for some god to pray to, but nothing came. You even checked your index—sifting through all the gods I told you about. You didn’t recognize a one of them.

You realized then that you didn’t—or perhaps couldn’t believe in such things. Gods? Fate? Comforts. Do you think this is happening for a reason?

You didn’t have much more time to contemplate this, for you heard Barric shouting and Jerim rising to his feet. You three rushed back to the city.

“The Crow’s army is here! Lohainn has arrived!” Jerim said. You followed his pointing finger where swarthy men were marching on the city with spears and shields in their hands.

Amidst the confusion, you lost your friends for a moment, until Jerim seized you by the back of your cloak and pulled you toward him. “Don’t wander off, Carth! What did we tell you?”

There was no time to answer, for black riders of House Rautha came in atop horses, racing through the camp, shouting orders in a foreign tongue. “What is it?” you asked, “Is it the—”

“It’s my folk, boy. I sent them out to scout ahead,” Ser Barric of House Rautha said. A riders came dashing through the streets, all with the same ink-black skin as your friend.

There were scattered shouts a language that you didn’t know. Barric shouted back in the same tongue. He approached one of the horsemen from the side, petting the horse’s mane. Once the beast was at ease, he exchanged a few words with the rider.

Even you could understand there was an urgency in his voice. Barric pivoted to face you and Jerim, “House Vale’s forces are coming upon the city. They’ve taken to arming their damned peasants.”

Jerim hefted his spear. “Draw your sword, Carth,” he urged.

Barric turned and said a few more words in the alien language to the rider, who nodded assent, gathered the rest and rode off.

“Ready your weapons,” Jerim was shouting. “Riders will be attacking the flanks. Men-at-arms, with me! Form phalanx!”

You King Gorian standing atop the city walls looking like some great statue. He held a longaxe in both hands, but at that distance it was difficult to discern how large it truly was. “Bowmen, stay atop the hill. Shoot the center of the Vale lines! Do not shoot the flanks!”

Jerim shoved you forward. “Move, Carth!” he said. “Let’s go!”

6. Fools on the Riverbank

In Sight of Ravens

READ ME:

Your name is Carth. You’re a bastard, aged boy. You are an Errant-for-hire on campaign with the army of Gorian the Giant on his quest to take the Throne of Thorns from the Nine ContendersAsk daily when you will receive your next payment. Refer to the scrolls next to this one for an index of items, words, places, people and locations.  

* * *

You were almost speared during a bath in a river near the village after burning houses yesterday. There were scant others rolling and splashing about in the river, finally clean of the grime choking your skin. Being freed of it brought the simplest grin to your face. You, to your limited knowledge, hadn’t known the sensation of clean skin, and the feel of it was almost overwhelming.

Your ears were so full of water, however, that you didn’t hear the trample of horses’ hooves until the shouting had started. I suspect your ears filled up because your head is so empty. If you don’t have memories, you could at least fill that had up with water. “Cavalry!” Someone shouted. The word echoed down the line of bathers, uttered through various translations. You were shaking the water out of your ears and eyes. All around you was black mist like soot curling ever-downstream. Men were reaching for their gear. Spears, pikes and sheathed swords. No one bothered to put on armor. If Uthar the Brute had found you, you were all as good as dead.

You had just drawn yourself, naked, to the banks of the river and taken your swords, spears, pikes or whatever they had as the men on mounts reined up.

Their commander’s skin was blacker than his horse’s fur. There were three others, two flanking and one behind him. You tilted your head at the commander.

He was reaching for his own blade when you threw yours up to his horse’s head. “Stop this!” you shouted. “Lay down your arms!”

The men grimaced. “Are you in charge here?” the commander asked.

For all you knew you were, so you told him, “Yes!”

“Then what in the Nailed God’s name do you think you’re doing?”

You looked down to the river and then back at him. “Taking a bath?”

Naked, armed men laughed at that. It was an honest truth, if a little simple. Then again, you’re a little simple so there weren’t many answers you could give.

It would seem that a simple truth can make some men angry. “You’re upstream of the watering place!” He fumed, “Do you expect my horses to drink from the same water you lot have been washing your asses in?”

This might shock you, Carth, but being naked and dripping wet in front of black riders in full raiment. does not inspire much dignity. But you clung to what little you could and said, “Do you know who you’re speaking to?” Or something just as stupid. You didn’t even know who you were. Why would they?”

“At your word, I’m speaking to the leader of this company—though I can’t say it shows at the moment.”

“If you’ll give me a moment to dress myself, mayhaps I can make a better impression.”

The commander rolled his eyes, “Once you put on your armor and your fine regalia, I’ll start calling you ser and captain. Until then, have your men lay down their arms before I decide they’re greater fools than you! Now stop fouling my horses’ drinking water—you’ll make them simple!”

You grinned. Perhaps it was the fact that you’d no idea the danger you were in, but a joke crept up on the fringes of your mind. You had overheard warriors’ complaints while you bathed–before you filled your ears with water.  “A thousand pardons. I’m fresh from Strathbury,” You hoped you were pronouncing that right. “I had upstream baths there and never a problem with those lot turning simple from drinking the bathwater.”

You had begun to laugh. The mountman’s mouth twitched as he tried not to join in. And then he was laughing, too.

Later you would discover that this man was named Barric. Looking back at the accounts I left you, you realized you were already friends. You were with Jerim by the cookfires when you realized this, at nighttime. “Why didn’t he say something?” you asked.

“You were naked and pretending to be the captain of a regiment. Har!” Jerim sniggered. “Everyone wanted to see how the situation would play out. He would have been passing up a better opportunity than the if King Gorian were storming the Strathbury. Can you blame him?”

You decided you couldn’t, and laughed with the giant.

5. The Charred City

In Sight of Ravens

READ ME:

Your name is Carth. You’re a bastard, aged boy. You are an Errant-for-hire on campaign with the army of Gorian the Giant on his quest to take the Throne of Thorns from the Nine ContendersAsk daily when you will receive your next payment. Refer to the scrolls next to this one for an index of items, words, places, people and locations.  

* * *

House Keor’s army camped that night, split into groups in accordance with their names for the most part, all of them huddled by separate cookfires, devouring their rations. You heard others talk of gods in speeches littered with curses. I’ve left you some notes about what they can do in your index. To keep it short, they cursed lightning lords! Masters and creators of storms and stones! For such powerful things, you wondered what good it does to curse them. Do you think they’d be saying the same things during a thunderstorm?

You tried to ask Barric, “Why do we fight the Nine?” But he thrust a scrap of meat in your face, red juice dribbling between his fingers. “Eat,” he said. And you snatched up that strip of meat and wolfed it down. “Good,” Barric said. “You must eat much, boy. Keep up your strength.”

You asked for more so he gave it to you. Strips of meat thick as bark with patches of crisp burn. It tasted like horse. You’ve probably still got some stuck between your teeth if you’re curious.

Then you slinked off to write this letter to yourself. A man of House MacBell was about to put out his cookfire when you caught his arm. “I need to write,” you told him and he seemed to nod his assent. Maybe he knew you—not that you’ll know.

You huddled up and scratched out a note. Jerim had chided you for leaving your berries uneaten, but you’ve got to get ink from somewhere. A thin stick and some berries is enough to give yourself this message.

You hear men in the distance tell their legends of half-gods and heroes. I’ve written a few of them down for you in your index. My favorite is the one where a lightning lord seduces a woman in the form of a cow before traveling across the sea with a woman on his back.

#

You were asked for your own legend, after a time. You scrounged together the scraps of other legends and gave Barric and Jerim this:

Let me share with you one last legend—though I must write quickly, for my memory is already unspooling.

It concerns a man named Tinker Taker—he was the first to claim Grayfell as the First Holding of some long-forgotten empire.

He was a reaver before that, and had spent six days on stormy seas. On the seventh, he spied the timbered fortifications of Grayfell rising up like an obscene gesture along the coastline. “If there’s a meal on the table and a fire in the hearth,” said Tinker Taker, “I won’t be setting foot in a longship for the rest of my life.”

And there was. And he didn’t.

You’ll notice how the legend doesn’t tell you what happened to those who made the meal and lit the fire. We’re going to do the same—understand me, Carth? There are some things that are best left forgotten.

You arrived at Cornoviorum yesterday. I’ve made some additions to your other scrolls. Provisions were dispensed. They’ve got corn, corn and more corn, so don’t act surprised.

It turns out you haven’t been reading this as much as you should be. Didn’t I tell you to read this when you wake? I leave two scrolls right next to you every night. How hard is it to read them?

Now read closely Carth: there is talk in Cornoviorum that you’re now commanded by a man named Hanno—he is kin to Gorian Keor. There is also talk that Hanno doesn’t want to linger in Cornoviorum. Most people talk about the likelihood of a siege.

I’ve left you some notes on sieges as well as a few vague scatterings of memory the word retched up for me. I’ll bet you remember them too—frozen in time, without context.

After you received your provisions, Jerim waved you over to an alley where he and Barric had sat down to eat.

Jerim was cleaning his nails with a dagger, stopping every now and then to feed scraps of corn to his dog, or scratch him behind the ear.

He said that it was you who found the dog during that first raid of yours just before you met the burned man. “He was protecting that girl you met during the village raids on our way here.”

I didn’t bother to mention them to you. Tinker Taker, remember?

Your hand went to the necklace in your travel sack. “A girl? What girl? I don’t remember,” you said.

“I don’t know how you could forget someone like that,” Jerim derided. He compared her beauty to a few goddesses whose names I’ve left for you. I’ll let you forget some of his choice descriptions. I wish I could.

Your conversation lapsed as he went back to cleaning his nails. To break the silence he mused, “I’ll probably lose a finger one day. Won’t be able to hold a spear after that. Won’t be able to fight.” He scratched his dog behind the ear.

“Why not do it now?” Barric asked, “Get it over and done with?”

Jerim grinned. He pet his dog so that its tail thumped against the ground. When he turned to look at Barric, his grin was gone. “What do I look like to you? A coward?”

4. Legends and Lore

In Sight of Ravens

READ ME:

Your name is Carth. You’re a bastard, aged boy. You are an Errant-for-hire on campaign with the army of Gorian the Giant on his quest to take the Throne of Thorns from the Nine ContendersAsk daily when you will receive your next payment. Refer to the scrolls next to this one for an index of items, words, places, people and locations.  

* * *

House Keor’s army camped that night, split into groups in accordance with their vassal-Houses for the most part, all of them huddled by separate cookfires, devouring their rations. You heard others talk of gods in speeches littered with curses. I’ve left you some notes about what they can do in your index. To keep it short, they cursed lightning lords! Masters and creators of storms and stones! For such powerful things, you wondered what good it does to curse them. Do you think they’d be saying the same things during a thunderstorm?

You tried to ask Barric, “Why do we fight the Nine?” But he thrust a scrap of meat in your face, red juice dribbling between his fingers. “Eat,” he said. And you snatched up that strip of meat and wolfed it down. “Good,” Barric said. “You must eat much, boy. Keep up your strength.”

You asked for more so he gave it to you. Strips of meat thick as bark with patches of crisp burn. It tasted like horse. You’ve probably still got some stuck between your teeth if you’re curious.

Then you slinked off to write this letter to yourself. A man of House MacBell was about to put out his cookfire when you caught his arm. “I need to write,” you told him and he seemed to nod his assent. Maybe he knew you—not that you’ll know.

You huddled up and scratched out a note. Jerim had chided you for leaving your berries uneaten, but you’ve got to get ink from somewhere. A thin stick and some berries is enough to give yourself this message.

You hear men in the distance tell their legends of half-gods and heroes. I’ve written a few of them down for you in your index. My favorite is the one where a lightning lord seduces a woman in the form of a cow before traveling across the sea with a woman on his back.

You were asked for your own legend, after a time. You scrounged together the scraps of other legends and gave Barric and Jerim this:

Let me share with you one last legend—though I must write quickly, for my memory is already unspooling.

It concerns a man named Tinker Taker—he was the first to claim Grayfell as the First Holding of some long-forgotten empire.

He was a reaver before that, and had spent six days on stormy seas. On the seventh, he spied the timbered fortifications of Grayfell rising up like an obscene gesture along the coastline. “If there’s a meal on the table and a fire in the hearth,” said Tinker Taker, “I won’t be setting foot in a longship for the rest of my life.”

And there was. And he didn’t.

You’ll notice how the legend doesn’t tell you what happened to those who made the meal and lit the fire. We’re going to do the same—understand me, Carth? There are some things that are best left forgotten.