Casreyn could not have said when she woke, for the Orc-summoned fog had blotted out the sun. The phantom of a Marshal rode up astride a great grey palfrey. “Form rank!” she called. “Form rank!”
Casreyn scrambled to her feet, pulled her shield onto her forearm and unsheathed her sword. Generals and officers crowded her, pushed her forward 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 sent the archers off the path. She overheard snatches of their commands. “You know your positions,” a Marshal said. The rest was garbled by the clash of clanking armor, shield scraping shield and the mayhem of marching.
She only just discerned that the final three words of his command: “Orc or not.”
Casreyn continued on like this, surrounded by a wall of Warward. She had long since lost the Mountain and the Mouser. She could not discern anyone in the box of Warward around her. Their heads were smothered in steel and thick, padded cloth, with only a noseguard to shield their face.
She named the strangers: Front, Back, Left, and Right. They marched in step, uphill and downhill until she spied Silverhill through the fog—or its shadow, leastways, looming over her like the skull of a dead, buried giant.
Her heartbeat throbbed in her neck while her forearm burned with the exertion of holding her shield up for so long.
Beating drums boomed from the other side of Silverhill. Boom-doom, boom-doom, boom-doom. There were Orcs grunting and shrieking in a thousand different tongues from atop Silverhill; a thousand hulking silhouettes, awaiting the Warward’s uphill approach.
She tries to reign in the memories of all her practice drills and all of her training in the use of sword and shield. But when she reached inwardly for them, they hammer of her heart shattered them to shards.
Instead, without warning, she recalled tales of Orcs: some said they were either green-skinned or black as pitch. Either great big tusks or small, precise fangs. Great horns or smooth, helmeted heads.
She heard a garbled, short, sharp shout. Then a thrum from atop the hill as if a thousand birds had taken flight at once. The thrum turned into a whistling above, and when she followed the noise a thousand silhouetted arrows were raining down.
Casreyn raised her shield and felt three heavy blows punching her forearm back. She heard scattered shouts from the Warward who were too late to raise their shields.
She hacked the arrow-shafts off as she rose, then the army surged forward, up the slick, muddy hill. The fog danced through the air. A taunt. Casreyn tripped over something beneath her. A loose root, mayhaps? She wondered as she recovered and continued to press ever upward. She was practically carried up from the sheer force of the Warward charging. She felt as if she were moving in a box.
Was it a loose that caught me? she asked herself. Or something…no. I can’t think of that. Not now. Her rations roiled in her stomach.
Then the box of Warward slammed to a halt. Ahead of her came the sound of wood on wood and steel on steel, small splatters of mud, then some heavier. She flexed her hand around her sweat-slick sword. Even her breath was failing her.
She could hear folk pleading at the front of the line; for mothers; for mercy; for quarter. All were silenced with wet sounds—like a buckets falling into wells.
The army moved forward after every line lost. I am a lamb being led to the slaughter.
Then, to her right, she saw the shadow of an Orc skulking through the mist. They do have horns, she marveled, as someone scalped the beast. The Orc staggered back, then leapt forward. Perhaps not, she thought when she saw it shadow-smooth skull.
Casreyn stabbed over two rows of shoulders, taking the beast through the neck before it could regrow its horns. Is that what Orcs do? I can’t quite remember. Almost all thoughts had left her by then. The beast made a gurgling sound. She heard blood trickling down its chest.
Someone up front shouted, “Thanks!”
But as he spoke Orc’s sinew and bone trapped her blade in its neck and levered it from her hand as it fell.
“The sword! Grab the sword!” shouted the Thank You Man. There came a short, suckling sound as the steel escaped flesh—like boots squelching through mud. Then the sword changed hands as the army was pushed back, and kept changing hands 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,” Front shouted, as they fell back onto level ground.
“You’re welcome!” Casreyn said, and then realized she hadn’t made sense. My mind is as frenzied as a sackful 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.” said Right. „For all our sake.“
The Orcs followed them down the road, nipping at the Warward’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 patched. 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?”