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 Khalee and Albarran. 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 is hell,” Khalee said, “What did they do to this food?”
“Might be the seasoning,” you suggested.
Albarran giggled, sending pinkish corn-juice dribbling down his chin. “You think they have the coin to season this, boy?”
“Might be someone thought to use a heap of soil,” Khalee suggested. Yellow filled the gaps between her teeth. “Perhaps they needed a light garnish.”
Before you or Albarran 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.
Khalee shouted at him; and then kept shouting until the boy hopped over to you. She tried to teach him the name of her pike, but the one-legged boy only held out cupped hands, saying the same word over and over, as if he couldn’t hear Khalee. The word was foreign, it’s meaning discernible. “Food,” he was saying. “Food, food.”
So Khalee laughed and dribbled some corn into the boy’s tiny hands. Albarran 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.
You asked Albarran what she said, ignoring Khalee’s rhythmic chanting of, “One leg…one leg…one leg…” as she stared blankly into space.
“I told him to be careful—made sure he knew not to let anyone see his food—” Albarran stopped to smack the back of Khalee’s head. “Stop staring!”
“By the Nailed God, that’s a boy with one leg!” Khalee said. She turned you then, grinning. “Some poor soul forgot to sharpen their blade.
You decided you’d had enough of Khalee, and went off to forget her. But she and Albarran followed you, reasoning it was dangerous to leave you alone for very long.
I happen to agree, now that I have thought about it.
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 Albarran and Khalee. You thought they had been as brother and sister 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. Nailed Gods? Fate? Comforts. Do you know if your gods are even real? These thunder lords and gods that turn into cows? Maybe I’ve just made him up so that you have something to strive for. Do you honestly think this is happening for a reason?
You didn’t have much time to contemplate any of these revelations. Just as you finished reading my account to you, you heard Albarran shouting and Khalee rising to her feet. You three rushed back to the city.
“The House of Em’s army is here! Musa has arrived!” Khalee said. You followed her 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 Khalee 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 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 Albarran said. The riders came dashing through the streets, all with the same ink-black skin as your friend.
There were scattered shouts in a language that you didn’t know. Albarran 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. Albarran pivoted to face you and Khalee, “House of Em’s forces are coming upon the city. They’ve taken to arming their damned peasants.”
Khalee hefted her spear. “Draw your sword, Carth,” she urged. “Ready your weapons,” Khalee was shouting. “Riders will be attacking the flanks. Men-at-arms, with me! Form phalanx!”
You saw King Crom standing atop the city walls looking like some great statue. He held a massive 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 their lines! Do not shoot the flanks!”
Khalee shoved you forward. “Move, Carth!” she said. “Let’s go!”
I know you won’t remember much from the 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 Musa’s men, shelled in steel.
The leaders of Crom’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 spears 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 Musa was on your doorstep.
Commanding Housemen under King Crom 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 Albarran 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 of Em’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.
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 Musa’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 Musa the King ’s forces.
“We’re bringing the Housemen back to the city?” you cried.
“Have you forgotten the archers we left off the road?” said Left.
As it happens, you did.
“They were told to shoot anyone!” said Right. You had, in fact, forgotten. Are you surprised.
“Have faith that the Marshals have a plan.” Front shouted.
The Housemen under the King Musa’s command followed you down the road, nipping at your army’s heels. From off the path, arrows whispered into Musa’s flanks. You heard yelps and shrieks like wounded dogs.
Upon a General’s command, the army turned to face the Housemen opposing you and pushed back.
From beyond the rival King’s army, you heard horses whinnying and bright swords shining through the fog. There were commanders leading the riders, sloping down, down, and toward the Musa’s rearguard.
The King’s army dwindled. Men were scalped and cut down. You saw it from over a sea of shoulders and shields and helmeted heads. It was now the King Musa’s Housemen who snarled for mother, mercy, and quarter as the archers spat and the army closed its fist.
You took to the grim work, Carth. You had won the day, with but a few of Musa’s men escaping–including Musa himself. Time will tell if he can muster a greater force in the future. But you had won the day. But even when you knew victory was yours, it took hours to see to the slaughter.
The boom-doom, boom-doom, boom-doom of the Ser’s drums faded, and with it left the fog. The sun was shining, but there were only dead littered on the field.
The only dead were Housemen and steel-shelled men lying limp as discarded tunics, with cloven halfhelms, hornhelms, or heads.
You climbed the hill outside the city, thankful for the ability to stretch and brace your hands against the steep slope. Beyond the hill were little fields girdled by the threshold of a forest. Other survivors floundered up the hill, or walked among the fields. There were green hedges, grass, and trees. The dew sparkled in the sunlight. There were pebbled paths and briar patches. The place seemed to you altogether the wrong sort of place for a battlefield.
You looked back and saw the litter of bodies strewn about the hillside. One soldier lay dead at the foot of the hill—a Ser who looked a few years your junior. His ruined face stared at the sky, looking like something resembling crumpled parchment. You wondered if he had died instantly, or if it were the trampling that had done him in. And if it was the latter, had you…?
On second thought, it’s best not to ask such questions. “What happens now?” you asked aloud.
“Now, Carth?” came the voice of Albarran. He and the Khalee were standing behind you atop the hill. “Red Nails,” he cursed, “We defend this fucking city. Convince the Five it isn’t worth trying to retake.”
“Don’t grow overbold, Carth,” the man cautioned. “Don’t make Musa’s mistake. King Crom will make his next move in time enough.
Ser Khalee must have seen the shock on your face, because she said, “What’s wrong? Isn’t this what you had in mind when you decided to save the world from evil Kings?”
Lord Crom was all curses after the battle, lamenting that some of his Housemen had lost to Musa the King . 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.