Nobody bothered to tell Casreyn just how much of her time with the Warward would be spent marching.
They had marched through marshes and bogs; ruddy roads and rain; through freezing cold and baking heat. Her boots had worn thin as parchment. She was long past footsore. But after her confrontation with the Mountain and the Mouser, she decided she had a reason to march. She had her Father to protect, sure enough, but he was leagues away, and her last memories with him left her bitter.
But the Mountain and the Mouser…she had to keep marching with them. She had to protect them.
One day, as they were marching through a rainstorm, the Mouser told her, “We need to reach Silverhill before the Orcs. We don’t want an uphill battle.” He had to shout to make himself heard over the din as thunder rolled across the sky.
“Mayhaps your Garth the Great has returned!” the Mountain shouted, a smile playing across what was left of his lips. “Mayhaps this isn’t thunder at all, but some final battle, eh?”
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 warrioresses 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 the prediction of battle he’d given him the day before. As the day went on, his response, “Today’s not over” soon became, “Didn’t I tell you I’m not a fucking seer?”
Casreyn had 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 I decided to follow them sooner, she thought. It was the unknown 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. Every flash of lightning sent her bolting upright, expecting to see an Orc axe glowing pale-blue in the flash.
She found herself retreating into her mind and into her father’s stories. She would compare her experience what he’d told her of Great Conflict and the legends of Garth the Great.
If Orcs were coming down from the north, then the Great Enemy must have returned, she surmised. Which would mean that Garth the Great had to return to, at the Nailed Gods’ discretion.
And the Nailed God would send him. She was sure of it. So sure, in fact, that when they passed through a small town, she went looking for an artisan who could paint Sacred Hammer onto her shield that had driven the Bloody Nails through her cross into her shield.
They had come to the town a few hours beyond a fork in the road. One path through the wild, tangled brush and the other through an orderly pass. A section of the army split off through the wild with orders to round Silverhill. Cut the enemy off, if possible. If not, they could always envelope them.
Casreyn and the rest were led on a trudge head-on for Silverhill. The Mountain and the Mouser were squabbling over this, as usual. She smiled as the Mountain tried to find ways to justify his incorrect prediction as she busied herself helping an artisan paint her shield.
They were conducting this business when boy wandered into the town.
The Orc-summoned fog filtered around him, making him look half a wraith. Not a wraith, Casreyn thought as he lurched closer. 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, Casreyn 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 Mouser cursed. “Red Nails,” he said, “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. The warriors and warrioresses filled their time with talk of the Nailed God or the Lightning Lord. Their speech was littered with curses. Casreyn wasn’t sure what good it did to curse masters and creators of storms and stones.
She wondered 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 took it, looked it over and saw pink patches beneath the burn. 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 littered themselves in and around the town’s timbered walls. Casreyn, the Mountain and the Mouser all sat by a tree. Silence lay as thick as the fog that blanketed them. Then Casreyn spoke again. “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.
“What do you imagine Garth the Great was short for?” he chuckled.
Casreyn chewed her lip, pondering. “Do you think, then, that we might’ve picked the wrong side?”
The Mountain rolled over so that his gigantic back was facing her. “No.”
The trio did not share another word until Casreyn and the Mouser were certain the Mountain was snoring.
It was the Mouser who spoke first, as he used a dagger to trim his nails. “My Mother was one of Garth’s personal warrioresses, you know.”
Casreyn had been planning on mentioning her Father’s service to impress him, but knowing this about the Mouser’s mother, she decided against it. Instead, she asked, “Did she have any stories?”
“No.” One word. A flat denial. No room for discussion. “She preferred to tell me stories of what I would do. She always said that I was destined to join the Warward.” He wrapped his hand around his bicep, thumb and pointer finger touching. “Clearly, this is the life I was built for. She told me 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 a fingernail 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.” He sawed off another fingernail.
“Should you be doing that?” Casreyn asked.“The fog’s getting thicker.”
She could discern the Mouser’s shrug, just so.“Would you like to know why the song of my war-glory will be so boring? It’s 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 don’t with?”
The Mouser finally looked up, scowling. “What do I look like to you? A coward?”