The next day was much the same, only now they marched through a rainstorm, further muddying the roads. “We’d better hope to get to Silverhill before the Orcs,” the Mouser told Casreyn. “We don’t want an uphill battle.”
A Marshal came riding through later that day, instructing anyone with a cart to abandon it so that they could hasten their travels.
And so the squealing carts were replaced with squealing pigs and goats when a few shieldmaidens freed the livestock. Casreyn wondered if she should protest. She looked to the Mountain and the Mouser for a clue.
“Why leave behind food that walks itself?” the Mountain shrugged. But the thought of looming battle overtook any thoughts of food, and much of the livestock was allowed to abandon the road with impunity. Few saw much use in wasting their energy trying to herd them onto the path.
The Mouser gave the Mountain no shortage of torment for his incorrect prediction, but his only response was, “Today’s not over.”
Casreyn hoped that his prediction was true. The prolonged march before battle only served to increase the new fears that came to her every day. What if she was just another corpse? How would her father know if she died? Would that she decided to follow them sooner, she thought bitterly. It was the unknown of battle itself that made Casreyn’s chest tighten; made it difficult to breathe.
And resting was nearly worse than marching. She rarely slept, if ever at all. The ground was as comfortable as a bed of knuckles, and in the dark she suspected every noise might belong to an Orc.
She found herself retreating into her mind and her father’s stories more often. She would compare her experience with his stories of the Great Conflict and the legends of Garth the Great.
If Orcs were coming down from the north, then the Great Enemy must have returned. Which would mean that Garth the Great had to return to, at the Nailed God’s discretion.
And the Nailed God would send him. She was sure of it. So sure, in fact, that she decided to paint the Sacred Hammer onto her shield, when they passed through a small town.
The road had forked: one path through the wild, the other through a town. A section of the army split off through the wild to take the Orcs from behind while the rest were led on a slow march head-on for Silverhill. The Mountain and the Mouser were squabbling over this, and his predictions, as a townsman helped Casreyn paint her shield. And it was while they were conducting this business when a boy wandered into the town.
The fog filtered around him, making him look half a wraith. Though as he came closer he seemed more 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 yellow 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 a makeshift wooden crutch that he used to hobble over to Casreyn, who had been eating honeyed porridge as she painted. “Food?” he asked. “Food? Food?”
She handed the boy her bowl and he grinned, tucking it under his arm and spooning its contents into his mouth with two fingers as he hopped away.
They all stared in silence for a time before the Mountain said, “I’m going to kill those Orc cunts.”
But the Mouser cursed, “Red Nails, that’s a boy with one leg. Some poor fucker must have miswung.”
That night, the town gave them a feast. There was little cheer. Swordsmen and shieldmaidens spoke of the Nailed God or the Lightning Lords or other gods in speech littered with curses. Casreyn wondered what good it did to curse masters and creators of storms and stones. And if they would be saying the same things during a thunderstorm.
The Mountain tossed her scraps of meat thick as bark. They were dribbling with pink juice and seared with patches of crisp burn. “Eat well,” he told her. “You earned it.”
“You can and you will,” he growled. “Don’t make me threaten you into eating a decent meal. You already gave up your lunch for that boy. You’ve got to get something in you if you want to keep up your strength.”
She wolfed it down and asked for more. The Mountain gave her his plate.
The town had no bedding to spare beyond what was saved for the Marshals, so the army that had passed east littered themselves in and around the town’s timbered walls. Casreyn, the Mountain and the Mouser all sat by a tree. The Mouser was using a dagger to clean his nails, which Casreyn deemed dangerous due to the fog, but his only response to her warning had been a shrug.
“When do you think Garth the Great will return?” she asked them.
“Fuck Garth,” the Mountain spat. “He was as much a malice as he Enemy he slew.”
“Does that mean Orcs called Garth the Great Enemy?” asked the Mouser.
“Most like he was,” the Mountain said.
Casreyn interjected. “Do you think then that we might’ve picked the wrong side?”
The Mountain rolled over so that his gigantic back was facing her and the Mouser. “No,” he said, and resolved to sleep.
The Mouser only spoke again after the Mountain was snoring. “My Mother was one of Garth’s personal shieldmaidens, you know.”
Casreyn had been planning on slipping her father’s service into conversation, but knowing this about the Mouser’s mother, she decided against it. Instead, she asked, “Did she have any stories?”
“No,” the Mouser said. It was a flat denial. “She preferred to tell me stories of what I would do. She always said the Nailed God would make a song of my war-glory and put my likeness in the stars. And you know what I want more than anything in the world?”
“That song—that promised song.” He finished shaving the nail off of one finger and turned to the next. “Because I’m sure that would be the most boring song in all of Creation. But at least Mother dearest would be satisfied.” A smile bled onto his face.
“What’d be so boring about it?”
“It’ll be short,” he said. “Mercifully so. Because one day my hand is going to slip with this dagger and I’ll lose a finger. Won’t be able to hold a sword proper after that. Won’t be able to fight.”
“Why not do it now?” she asked. “Get it over and done with?”
The Mouser finally looked up, scowling. “What do I look like to you? A coward?”
Casreyn could not have said when she woke the next day, for the Orc-summoned fog almost blotted out the sun. The phantom of a Marshal rode up astride a giant horse. “Form rank!” she called. “Form rank!”
Casreyn scrambled to her feet, pulled her shield off her back and unsheathed her sword. Generals and officers of higher rank crowded her, pushed her forward like she was caught in a surging mob. She was disoriented, reeling. The ground sloped suddenly downward and for a moment she worried that she’d been on a path directly to the Lord of Bones. Hills went up and down for hours. At some point the Marshals dismissed the archers and sent them scurrying off the path. “Shoot any stragglers,” a Marshal said. “Orc or not.”
She continued on like this, surrounded by a wall of people. She had begun naming those directly around her: Front, Back, Left, and Right. They marched in step, uphill and downhill until she thought she spied Silverhill through the fog—or its shadow, leastways, looming over her like the skull of a dead giant.
She had lost the Mountain and the Mouser, but she’d no time to ponder this or wonder where they were or if they were safe. She was on the march to her first battle.
Her heartbeat throbbed in her neck and her forearm burned from holding her shield up so long.
Beating drums boomed from the other side of Silverhill. Boom-doom, boom-doom, boom-doom. There were Orcs grunting and shrieking from atop the hill a thousand hulking silhouettes waiting for their uphill approach.
She thought of all her practice drills and all of her training in sword and shield. She recalled tales of Orcs: some said they were green skinned, others black as pitch. They either had great big tusks or small precise fangs. Great horns or slavering jaws.
She heard a thrum from atop the hill, as if a thousand birds had taken flight at once. There was a whistling from above, and she saw a thousand silhouetted arrows ready to rain down. She raised her shield and felt three heavy stabs pushing her forearm back. She heard scattered shouts muffled behind her shield from soldiers too late to raise theirs.
She hacked the shafts off as she rose, then the army surged forward, up the muddy hill. The fog whispered through the air almost taunting them.
Casreyn nearly tripped on her way up the hill, but she had neither the time nor the desire to see if it was only uneven ground she had tread upon. She was practically carried up from the sheer force of swordsmen and shieldmaidens charging. She felt as if she were moving in a box.
Then the army slammed to a halt. Ahead of her came the sound of wood on wood and steel on steel. She flexed her hand around her sword, sweat slick and worried that she might drop it.
She could hear folk pleading ahead of her; 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. Casreyn felt she was a lamb being led to the slaughter.
Then to her right she saw the shadow of an Orc skulking through the mist. Someone scalped the beast, horns and all. The Orc fell back, then leapt forward. It looked like it had regrown its skull.
Casreyn stabbed over two rows of shoulders, taking it through the neck before it could regrow its horns. The beast made a gurgling sound and then collapsed, staying dead.
Someone up front shouted, “Thanks!” as the Orc collapsed, but sinew and bone had trapped her blade in its neck and levered it from her hand.
“The sword! Grab the sword!” shouted the Thank You Man. There came a short, suckling sound as steel was pulled from flesh—like boots squelching through mud. Then the sword changed hands as the army was pushed back, and kept changing hands even as they gave ground.
Front seized her wrist in his gauntleted hand and fastened hers to the hilt of her sword. “Don’t wait to pull after you stab next time,” she shouted, as they were pushed back onto level ground.
“You’re welcome!” Casreyn said, shaking and frenzied as a sack of wet cats.
The Marshals thundered down the line, ordering a retreat. “Keep formation!” they shouted, “Stay in rank!”
Bodies were turning sharply, forcing Casreyn around and shoving her forward as they moved. “We’re bringing Orcs back to the town?” she cried.
“Have you forgotten the archers we left off the road?” said Left.
“They were told to shoot anyone!”
“Have faith that the Marshals have a plan.”
The Orcs followed them down the road, nipping at the army’s heels. Arrows whispered into the Orc flanks. There were yelps and shrieks like wounded dogs.
Upon a Marshal’s command, the army turned to face the Orcs and pushed back.
From beyond the Orc army, she heard horses whinnying and bright swords shining through the fog. There were Marshals leading the riders, sloping down, down, and toward the Orcs’ rear.
The Orc army dwindled. Horned heads were scalped, then killed again. Casreyn saw it from over a sea of shoulders and shields and helmeted heads. It was now the Orcs who snarled for mother, mercy, and quarter as the archers spat and the army closed its fist.
Casreyn took to the grim work. They had won the day, killing every last Orc, but even when they knew victory was theirs, it took hours to see to the slaughter.
The boom-doom, boom-doom, boom-doom of the Orc drums faded, and with it left the fog. The sun was shining, but the only dead on the field were men and women. No Orcs.
“The foul beasts hate the sunlight,” Casreyn heard Left say. “Turns them to dust right quick.” Left snapped her fingers to illustrate her point.
The only dead were swordsmen and shieldmaidens lying limp as discarded tunics, with cloven halfhelms, hornhelms, or heads.
Casreyn climbed Silverhill, thankful for the ability to stretch and brace her hands against the steep slope. Beyond the hill were little fields girdled by the threshold of a forest. Other survivors floundered up Silverhill, 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 her altogether the wrong sort of place for a battlefield.
She looked back and saw the litter of bodies strewn about the hillside. One soldier lay dead at the foot of the hill—a shieldmaiden who looked a few years her junior. Her ruined face stared at the sky, looking like something resembling crumpled parchment. Casreyn wondered if she had died instantly, or if it were the trampling that had done her in. And if it was the latter, had she—
—She cut that thought short before she could complete it. “What happens now?” she asked aloud.
“Now, shieldmaiden?” came the voice of the Mountain. He and the Mouser were standing behind her atop Silverhill. “Red Nails,” he cursed, “We defend this fucking hill. Convince the Orcs it isn’t worth trying to retake.”
“Don’t grow overbold, shieldmaiden,” the Mountain cautioned.
The Mouser must have seen the shock on her face, because he said, “What’s wrong? Isn’t this what you had in mind when you decided to save the world?”