What happens next is a blur of preparation. Clarissant and Gormund as picking through the corpses. You wonder if there’s anyone left inside Strathbury. You 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 you into a rusted ringmail shirt, and straps a dinted iron halfhelm with peeling, sweat-smothered padding over your head.
“It gets cold in the Snothringham tunnels,” one of them tells you, as an ash-colored, ash-smeared cloak is broached over one shoulder.
A sword is belted around your waist. The weight of it is familiar enough to your mind.
As for your body:
Your thigh feels red and raw from every step that slaps it against your thigh. The pommel prods your upper ribs. You were built for this, once. Maybe you will be again.
But today, you are 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. You can remember this. You can even imagine yourself performing those old maneuvers your body remembers.
(You realize, at some point, that a tunnel has swallowed you, and that your footsteps echo down, down, down, into the Snothringham tunnels below Strathbury. The town swallowed up by the churned ash and dirt conjured by the gray wolf–the Harrower’s Resolute Nothing. You do not remember Gormund and Clarissant leading you to these tunnels. Neither of them accompany you. Distantly, you think one of them had said something about defending the town.)
You’re going to save Gormund’s daughter, you realize. You’re going to be a hero again. Defeat Harrowers and Great Evils and reclaim your place in this land and. And. And?
And then what?
(Distantly, you understand that you’re a fool. Distantly. For now.)
Mist weaves about you like dancing specters. You wonder if they’re ghosts. Does the Realm have ghosts? Is that Toric dancing around your ankles? Or are they mere clouds, like the ones in your 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,” you call into the darkness. You’re not sure why you giggle at this. Some part of you must understand how stupid you seem. Just an ill-equipped boy, in over his dented helm.
A battering ram of smoke and ash and thick, gray curls screams toward you. Maybe this is Toric, you think, and smile at the thought. A twisted suggestion of a face opens its maw inside the oncoming cloud.
You go to rip the longsword from its sheath. But when you go to free it from its scabbard, you angle it too early, and the last of its length tangles in the sheath and it clatters to the floor.
The cloud billows into you, with the same bloody wail as before, writhing about you as you stumble, swiping at it until it dissipates.
Some part of you remembers this trap from your first-ever visit to Snothringham. You wish you had remembered it before it came barreling down an underground hall, screaming bloody murder.
Cursing, you pick up your sword try again to unsheath it. It’s easier this time, though it takes you longer than you’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 your mind, your knees buckle and you fall, ass-first,to the ground. You helmet saves your head from being bashed against the cave wall. Your head is spinning. You’re dizzy. You’re crying.
You’re glad no one can see you.
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