They were on the march to die.
The fog blustered around them like dancing specters. Some wondered if they would join the fog after the battle. It blanketed the army that stretched down the ruddy road where warriors and warrioresses pushed carts that squealed like dying hogs.
One woman walked through the ranks wearing the ghost of a smile. She’d heard tell that there would be a battle soon. She would have her chance to fight. She cradled the thought like a precious bauble. She had grown up on stories of her father’s various battles against the monstrous Orcs long ago in the Great Conflict.
When she was little, 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 was not speckled with rust like old man’s liver spots; her halfhelm was free of dents; and her cloak had not yet been weathered to gray. She would put her enemies to the sword the same way her father told her he had. And, she imagined, Garth the Great beside her. He would lead his Warward against the Orcs and into the far north; leading an assault on the Great Enemy himself and meeting him in single combat.
When it had come time for her to leave, her father had not shared her enthusiasm. He had been watching his flocks graze, and did not part to look at her when she told him of her ambitions. But she had played this moment out in her head, and his rebuke left her cold. “Will you not see me off?” she had asked.
He’d coiled 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. Wanted or not.” 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—”
“You’ve done more than that—”
“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 mere Orcs.” It was his final tale he’d left to tell. But it wasn’t like the others. Her father had grown old since he first returned from the Great Conflict. He’d become a man taken to embellishments, she had decided.
He had left his sword and mail out for her, elsewise.
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; like a mouser looking for its mouse.
“I’m not telling you to believe me,” the Mountain said. “All I’m telling you is that I saw the Orcs’ fires last night. We’ll be upon them by nightfall.”
“Do you think you’re suddenly a seer?” asked the Mouser. “Someone else would have spotted them by now. The Warward is not without scouts.”
The Mountain turned to face the Mouser, 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 with spiderwebbing cracks.
“I’ve seen many things, boy,” he told the Mouser. “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 turned to Casreyn and frowned apologetically. “He can be a touch dramatic.” He shrugged.
“I want to talk to him.
“That’s really not a good idea, warioress.”
“I know what I’m doing!” Casreyn snapped, and the Mouser raised his hands in surrender.
“If you insist…” he muttered.
Casreyn started after the Mountain of a man, hailing: “You think there’s a battle dawning, warrior?” She had to take long strides to match his pace.
“Didn’t you hear me back there?”
“Then what do you think?”
“I think there’s more to what you say. How big will the battle be?”
The Mountain exhaled through his teeth. “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, but Casreyn jogged up to match him.
“How will we fare?” she asked.
He pivoted, turned. Casreyn slammed into him and fell into the mud. The Mountain had not budged. “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. She hardly agreed with him, but his voice was coercive.
“You want to know what my details are?”
She nodded again. Or rather, she hadn’t stopped nodding to begin with.
So the Mountain 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 stood and offered Casreyn his hand, nearly tearing her arm out of its socket as he hauled her to her feet. She thanked him for the explanation. She extended 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.
“It makes things easier,” he explained. “For me, at least.”