The fog blustered like dancing specters, blanketing the army that stretched down the ruddy road where shieldmaidens and swordsmen pushed carts that squealed like panic hogs.
One such shieldmaiden walked through the ranks in astonishment. There would be a battle soon, she knew. A battle that she would be fighting in. She cradled the thought like a precious bauble. She had grown up on stories of her father’s various battles against the Orc people long ago in the Great Conflict.
She liked to imagine herself in his place. She had found lately that her imagination was a glorious place to be.
It was a place where her mail had no rust like an old man with liver spots, her halfhelm was free of dents, and her cloak was full green, not weathered to gray. She would put her old enemies to the sword in this place, with Garth the Great beside her.
Garth the Great had been chosen to lead Men in repelling the Orcs into the far north; chosen to defeat the Great Enemy in single combat and end the Conflict. not been reborn since he was last seen during the Great conflict, but she hoped to meet him before the war was over. He would be reborn, she knew. For all was as the Nailed God willed it.
She remembered that this hope in the Nailed God was the only sentiment her father gave her when she went off to war.
He had been watching his flocks graze, and did not part to look at her when she said told him of her ambitions. But she had built up the scene in her head, and his rebuke left her cold. “Will you not see me off?”
He seemed to coil at the suggestion. “No,” he said, and then: I never should have told you those stories, Casreyn.”
“I would follow in your footsteps, Father. Orcs are swarming down from the north, unchecked and unchallenged.”
“If the Nailed God wills you to follow in my footsteps, then I suspect you will.” Silence and knowing passed between them. “You’re all I have left, Casreyn. Those stories—they were half-truths. If that. I only meant to entertain—”
“And now you’ve inspired—” but her father would not be interrupted.
“Would you like to know the life you’ve chosen? Truly? You have chosen a life of lost limbs, and hordes of gray husks—and in this I speak of more than Orcs.” It seemed to her his final tale he’d left to tell. And it contradicted all others. But her father was also an old man, taken to embellishments. She could hardly trust such a story.
But he had left his sword and mail out for her all the same. She’d only briefly glimpsed him as she left. He had come out to watch her leave when he thought she was too far away to see. She remembered how he exhaled, seeming to deflate.
Casreyn was pulled from her own thoughts when a mountain of a man shouldered past her, followed by a smaller man who moved with catlike grace and a wary eye, as though he were a mouser always on the lookout for his prey.
“I’m not telling you to believe me,” the Mountain said. “All I’m saying is that I saw the Orcs’ fires last night. We’ll be upon them by nightfall.”
“What are you, a seer?” asked the Mouser.
The Mountain turned, and Casreyn saw the horror of his face. Burned, melted fleshed had sealed left eye shut, and she could see the eye moving beneath the lid, just so. Part of his left cheek had sloughed off, revealing yellow teeth and dry pink gums. “I’ve seen many things, boy,” he said. “I don’t predict a battle lightly. You don’t need to be a seer to smell blood on the horizon.” The Mountain marched off, and the Mouser looked at Casreyn. “He can be a touch dramatic.” He shrugged.
Casreyn started after him, ignoring the Mouser’s protests. She hailed him. “You think there’s a battle dawning, swordsman?” She had to take long strides to match his pace.
“Did you hear me back there?”
“Then what do you think.”
“How big do you think the battle will be?”
“The Orcs want more than a skirmish, elsewise they wouldn’t be calling down this fog.”
Casreyn reached out to touch the mist. “This is Orc work?”
“You see any clouds in the sky these past few days?”
“There you go.” He quickened his pace in an attempt to be rid of Casreyn, but she jogged up to him.
“How will we fare?”
He pivoted, turned. Casreyn slammed into him and fell into the mud. When she oriented herself, she saw the Mountain hadn’t moved. “I already told you I’m not a fucking seer.” He crouched to be at eye level with her. “You ask too many questions, you know that?”
Casreyn nodded, mutely.
“You want to know what my details are?”
She nodded again, and the man drilled his finger into the mud. “This is us,” he said. Then he scooped up a handful and, holding it in his fist, walked his fingers three paces north from his original depression and spattered it down there. “This is Silverhill. We want it. It’s works as a good defensive position to spy and repel invasion from the north.” He walked his fingers three paces further north and made another impression with his finger. “These are the Orcs. They want Silverhill. It’s works as a good defensive position to spy and repel invasion from the south. If we keep going north as we are now, we’ll be at Silverhill in a day. That’s why I say we’ll be fighting.”
He and Casreyn rose. She thanked him for the explanation and offered him her hand. “My names Cas—”
“Don’t,” the Mountain growled, spewing spittle onto her face, “tell me your name.”
She lowered her hand an inch. “Why?”
“Because I’d prefer to see you as just another corpse once all this is over.”
Casreyn’s throat tightened at the word.
“It makes things easier,” he explained. “For me, at least.”