What happens next is a blur of preparation. Clarissant and Gormund as picking through the corpses. I wonder if there’s anyone left inside Strathbury. I try to trace the battle in the footprints of the ashfall. But they’re well-trodden to make much out.
At one point, one of them helps me into a rusted ringmail shirt, and straps a dinted iron halfhelm with peeling, sweat-smothered padding over my head.
“It gets cold in the tunnels of Strathbury-below,” one of them tells me, as an ash-colored, ash-smeared cloak is broached over one shoulder.
A sword is belted around my waist. The weight of it is familiar enough. To my mind, leastways.
As for my body:
My thighs feels red and raw from every step and every step that sends the sword-sheath slapping against it. The pommel prods my upper ribs. I were built for this, once. Maybe I will be again.
But today, I am a small and awkward seventeen year old boy, gangly and angled and scrawny, with a fog-shrouded mind addled with the commandment of great armies and large forces and pitched battle. I can remember this. I can even imagine myself performing those old maneuvers my body doesn’t remember remembers.
I realize, at some point, that a tunnel has swallowed me, and that my footsteps echo down, down, down, into the dark, dark tunnels. The town swallowed up by the churned ash and dirt conjured by the gray wolf–the Harrower’s Resolute Nothing. I do not remember Gormund and Clarissant leading me to these tunnels. Neither of them accompany me. Distantly, I think one of them had said something about defending the town.
I’m going to save Gormund’s daughter, I realize. I’m going to be a hero again. Defeat Harrowers and Great Evils and reclaim my place in this land and. And. And?
And then what?
Mist filters through the air. I wonder if they’re ghosts. Does the Realm have ghosts? Is that Toric dancing around my ankles? Or are they mere clouds, like the ones in my mind?
Then something wails, loud and bloody and almost inhuman. More like rusted hinges than a voice.
The silence that follows is suffocating. “H-hail and well met,” I call into the darkness. I’m not sure why I giggle at this. Some part of me must understand how stupid I seem. Just an ill-equipped boy, in over his dented helm.
A battering ram of smoke and ash and thick, gray curls screams toward me. Maybe this is Toric, I think, and smile at the thought. A twisted suggestion of a face opens its maw inside the oncoming cloud.
I go to rip the longsword from its sheath. But when I free it from its scabbard, I angle it too early, and the last of its length tangles in the sheath and it clatters to the floor.
The cloud billows into me, with the same bloody wail as before, writhing about me as I stumble, swiping at it until it dissipates.
Some part of me remembers this trap from my first-ever visit to Strathbury, five years ago. I wish I had remembered it before it came barreling down an underground hall, screaming bloody murder.
Cursing, I pick up my sword, slam it into the scabbard, and try again to unsheathe it. It’s easier this time, though it takes me longer than I’d like to clear the blade from its sheath. Not to mention the embarrassment of trying to align it for re-sheathing.
The moment the suggestion of I can’t do this tickles the back of my mind, my knees buckle and I fall, ass-first, to the ground. My helmet saves my head from being bashed against the cave wall. My head is spinning. I’m dizzy. I’m crying.
I’m glad no one can see me.