They were three hours up the slope the next morning when Persephone’s shout pealed through the air. “Motion!”
“Motion!” bellowed the Major, repeating Persephone’s call.
“Motion!” came the answering chorus from the knights and squires, accompanied by a clatter of shields and weapons being drawn.
They caught us in the pass, Heather thought, measuring their surroundings. High, steep rocky slopes had cut them gradually in towards the stream bed they were following. Clear, cold water trickled and glinted in the rocks around them. Either they knew we were coming, or else someone figured it was the logical place for a trap.
Three white figures, old bone and sinew, leapt over the northwestern ridge and sprinted down the rocky slope at the party. A fourth shambling corpse, still flush with putrid flesh, was hobbling over the rocky ground.
Heather measured the distance between the leading pony and the ridge. Seventy yards, she thought. The Major’s pistol gave an almighty crack, punching a neat hole through the skull of the lead skeleton. It kept coming.
“Missed the rune,” Weathers grunted. “Knights! Formation!”
It wasn’t a well-oiled machine, but it was a formation all the same. Helga readied her shield and hammer, and the Major immediately retreated behind the stout dwarf. Persephone unslung her spear and stepped behind Heather.
Heather’s mace itched in her hand, glimmering fire erupting around each point of the weapon. She readied her shield, her eyes locked on target. Fifty yards. Forty. They’re fast.
They were fast. The skeletons, unencumbered by the weight of flesh and the fear of pain, charged without hesitation. It didn’t matter now if they chipped the bones of their feet on stone, or broke an ankle. The bones leapt forward from the rocks at a dead run, twice as fast as any man could hope to match.
Helga’s helm served obligingly as the armrest for the Major’s next shot. The loud retort cracked off the stone walls, and the bullet severed the third vertebrae of the lead skeleton. This time it faltered as neck bones shattered. The head came free, and tumbled into the rocks, its jaw still chattering. Cut off from the runes empowering it, the rest of the bones dropped with a lifeless clatter.
The remaining two skeletons converged on Heather. They sprang at her, wild and animalistic in their leap. A cold prickle enveloped them, as Lieutenant Persephone’s voice rose behind her. The air seemed to gel and thicken in a bubble around the knights.
When the skeletons struck the border of the bubble, they slowed, hanging in the air as if sinking through thick syrup. It wasn’t enough to remove the danger, but it was enough to let Heather line up her swing. The silver mace glittered in the sun, and struck true to the skeleton on her right. She smashed down through skull and neck, her weapon trailing white fire. Shards of bone stung her as they bounced off of her face. Carved on the inner side of the skull fragments were thin curling lines, black as soot.
Persephone’s spear expertly fouled the ribcage of the other skeleton. The long spear bore down against the rocks, pinning the skeleton against the ground. The mindless bones clawed at the haft of the spear, unaware of the futility of its struggle.
That left the grounded skeleton an easy target, and Ramdas didn’t miss. He charged in from the left, and neatly set a hoof down on the skull of the skeleton as he passed. The old, brittle bone broke like eggshell beneath the centaur’s weight.
“Helga, throw your hammer, girl!” shouted Weathers.
It felt as if a fist had gathered somewhere behind Heather’s breastbone, and shot forward as Helga threw. She swayed involuntarily on her feet, as her senses caught themselves up in the Dwarf’s magic. Heather could close her eyes and trace the path of the hammer, if she’d wanted to. Earth, to lend mass to the hammer head. Hints of time magic, accelerating the swing of the hammer, lending it speed. Good throw, she thought.
The hammer flew from Helga’s hand like a missile, catching the approaching corpse in the chest with a sound like a pumpkin being crushed. The corpse went down, and Ramdas cantered up and stuck his rapier in its left eye. He barked a curse, and a flash of light blew the back of its head out across the rocks. The corpse went still.
All was quiet. Nothing else came over the ridge, and the echoing report of Weather’s gunshots faded into the open air.
The Major took careful aim, and punched another shot through the chattering skull. This time the bullet blew the bone and jaw apart, and it too went still.
Twenty seconds since contact, Heather noted automatically. Squires kept the ponies from bolting. No injuries. Better than practice. Why are they all up here, if they’re so competent in the field?
“Everyone good?” called the Major.
A chorus of ‘Aye!’. There wasn’t a scratch to show among them. Heather walked forward, crouching by the skull of the skeleton that Ramdas’s hoof had crushed. The runes she expected to see were there: thin, clean lines of black burned into the inside of the skull. She let out a low whistle.
“Major, you seeing this?” called Heather.
Weathers walked over to crouch beside her. “That’s no amateur’s work.”
Heather’s mouth tightened, her grimace spreading wide and pained. She pointed to the runes that looped over the inside of the shattered bone. The runes were broken, but she could make out enough of the individual designs within. Basic bindings, vision and auditory processing, movement, rudimentary language comprehension, she noted.
“No sir. Clean lines. Thin burn. Fire magic from the outside. Whoever wrote these, wrote the runes on the inside of this skull blind and backwards. No rush to the runes. They were lazy, there’s more runes they could have built in here; more intelligence, better judgement, that kind of thing. So it’s lazy work, but it’s not novice work.”
“Half-assed,” said Weathers, and spat in disgust.
“Pretty much, sir,” said Heather. “They came at us dumb and basic. Dead-on charge, no attempts to defend or dodge. Ignored the horses, came straight at us.”
Straight at me, she thought. Hope that’s coincidence.
The rest of the knights gathered around in a tight huddle to study the intricate, curving loops. They looked as if they had been rendered in a calligrapher’s pen, the thin black lines clean and precise throughout the runes.
Heather held a larger chunk of skull up. “See how these were carved in place, on the inside of the skull? Keeps the markings dry and safe. Rain can’t get in and smudge or wash the runes away, and there’s no easy target from the outside. Look at the hand, over there. The finger bones are scraped sharp and chipped. They made this one dig itself out of its cairn, at least partially. Makes for nastier weapons when they claw you, too.”
“Gather up all the bones and the bodies. Use your shields and weapons. Don’t trust they’re dead until we’ve powdered and burned the bones,” said the Major.
“Bone ball method?” offered Heather. “We’ve got the water and the stone. Safest choice. Won’t take too long.”
“Good,” said Weathers. “Do it.”
It didn’t take long to gather the three skeletons and the corpse together. Helga and Ramdas volunteered to do the heavy lifting, and gathered up bones and their pieces and piled them together in front of the knight-detective and major. Persephone hung back, eyes scanning the ridgeline around them constantly with her back to Weathers, who was doing the same.
Good, Heather thought. They’re watching on all sides. I don’t want the smoke drawing any more trouble. But if it draws more, we’ll want our heads up.
Heather opened the process with a prayer over her mace. Anger and disgust fed in to the flames, now that the initial rush of adrenaline from the battle had fled. “Saint Aysha, of fifty faithful thrice-cleansed, we call on your name. Let the fettered bonds be broken, that bind the dead to dance. Let the fettered bonds be broken, and this journey be their last. Let the fettered bonds be broken, and let the hallowed dead rest. Three times we call, three times we ask, three times blessed, in your name, Saint Aysha.”
Her burning mace touched bone and putrid flesh, and white fire spread like oil, seeping and enveloping the bones. Here and there, limbs twitched in the flames, as runes and their bindings were broken, dissolved by the steady stream of her sorrow and anger. Only when she was sure the only magic she could feel was her own, and the bones and flesh had been reduced to ash, did she let the flames evaporate.
“Stengrav, grind us a stone?” Heather asked.
Helga nodded. “I’ll do you one better, dearie,” she said softly. She selected a large stone from the stream-bed, a water-rounded stone twice as big as her head. Her hand laid itself to rest on the rock.
Heather’s shoulders itched, as she felt the flow of Helga’s own sickened anger at what had been done to the dead reaching into the stone. Ripping it apart, bond by bond, cracking crystal, weakening it until it was like chalk, and then talc, and then finer than silt inside.
A very gentle tap of Helga’s hammer reduced the entire mass to rock flour and fine dust. “That’ll do?” she asked softly.
“That’ll do,” murmured Heather. “Anyone here any good with water?”
Nobody spoke up. Heather grunted. “The simple way, then.”
She opened a water skin, and poured it over the hot ashes, using her boot to push in the rock flour. Her father’s mace stirred the mud and bone ash together into a rough clay. From there, it was a tedious, but necessary task to roll the clay around on the head of her mace. Little glimpses of light and heat flickered between cracks in the clay.
“She does this, why?” Ramdas asked of the Major.
“No dust, no ash, no bones,” Weathers replied, his eyes never leaving the ridgeline. “Gives them nothing more to work with if they ever come back. Keeps them from raising the dead again, or worse.”
Heather bowed her head over her father’s mace, gritting her teeth. A mantra played in her head, as her anger poured through the weapon, baking the clay: The bastards, the bastards, those grave-robbing bastards!
Flows of Fire joined hers, with Ramdas carefully leaning in to assist. Together, they began drawing the moisture out of the clay.
“Slowly,” Heather said, voice stern. “Or the clay will crumble. Work from the inside out, or the steam will crack it everywhere.”
“Si,” said Ramdas, frowning at the ball. “Why not hotter, to melt it all?”
“It would make a lot of ash, and it’s more work than the clay, more time heating it,” said Heather. “It’s not a bad idea, just more work and time than we want to spend. And some necromancers can use ash against us.”
The centaur returned his focus to drawing out the water, baking the bone-ash clay into a tight ball around her mace. When the work was done, Heather lifted her weapon, and tapped it gently against a nearby rock. The clay around it broke in three pieces, leaving her silvered mace clean.
“Let’s move on then, Blackthorne. On your horses, everyone.”
“You think they saw us coming, and set this ambush dearie?” asked Helga. She was looking Heather’s way as she stowed her shield across her pony’s back.
“No,” said Heather and Weathers at the same time, before they shared a glance. Heather continued:
“We’ve been keeping to the south lee of the slopes. And these runes weren’t made in a hurry. I think this is the rear guard, to discourage the native hunters from following the trail. Also…”
She trailed off as her gorge rose. Swallow it down. Do the job. Don’t think of them. Don’t think of Anthony. “These were the wrong age for the grave. It was all young men and women, these bones. No younger than fifteen, no older than early twenties. All the wisdom teeth were still there, but all the child teeth were gone. That grave we were brought to, I don’t think it was the first one they robbed.”
“If it was, it would be too many to commit to a rear guard,” agreed Weathers, following her reasoning. “They only pulled five from the family cairn we combed over. They wouldn’t leave most of that behind as a rear guard, not now.”
“Do we go back for support, Major?” Persephone asked, a tremor escaping under the brusque clip of her voice.
“From who? We’re it, Lieutenant,” Weathers replied. “The rest of the townsfolk aren’t trained or ready to fight these horrors. That’s what they look to us for. They’re not likely to send us reinforcements through the Sending gate without crushing need.”
“But if they left this many behind-” Persephone began, but was cut off.
“Then that’s that many fewer they’ve got when they get to where they’re going, Lieutenant Matthewson!” the Major snapped. “People are relying on us to respond to this, Lieutenant. You’ve had nothing to do in over a year’s service here. Well now you have your duty, Matthewson. Get on your horse.”
He turned to bark at Heather, but she was already mounting up. She stowed her shield once more, put her mace in its loop, and set her eyes to the northbound trail. “Are there any towns further north, Major?”
“Yes,” said Weathers, eyes flashing anxious concern. “One. Saint-Cielle. About forty people there. Maybe one or two fighting men in the village, at best. They’re there for trading and religious outreach to the natives.”
He reached habitually for his flask, and found it empty. Weathers gave it a shake, grimaced, and shoved it back into his coat.
Heather’s eyes widened. “So what you’re saying, Major,” she began, her voice quiet and hard, “is that between us and a village of about forty – with kids in, let’s don’t forget – is maybe a few, maybe a couple dozen walking corpses. And the motherless necromancer bastards that spawned them. And they’ve only got one or two fighting men?”
“So we’d better get a move on,” said the Major, as he mounted up.
They scrambled the ponies up the rocky slope, eyes scanning the barren plateau stretching before them. They fanned out, eyes checking for mark against the rock. The trail wasn’t difficult to follow. Bone marks, disturbed rocks, and scraped lichens were left in the wake of their quarry’s passage.
Ramdas fell back beside Persephone, who trailed in the group’s wake with downcast eyes.
“Lieutenant,” he said gently.
“What?” said Persephone, her eyes not climbing from the stones in front of her horse.
“You did well, to fight so bravely. Your wards, Persephone, summoned before my blade found my hand. I did not find my wits, until I saw you plant your spear,” He said, and smiled gently.
Persephone opened her mouth, her momentary glare softening at the sincerity on the centaur’s face; and she turned her eyes back to the stones before the feet of her horse. “I don’t feel very brave,” she whispered. “I haven’t fought them before, either. Helga has. She always knows what to do.”
“You struck without hesitation,” Ramdas said. “And held fast the abomination to the earth without flinching.”
“I was ang-” she started to say, face tight. Her eyes came up to Pramath’s, and she pursed her lips. “I was angry,” she said again.
“Si,” Ramdas said. “But you did the right thing, angry and scared.”
Heather couldn’t make out the rest of the quiet discussion, but it ended with the centaur’s hand squeezing the woman’s shoulder. Matthewson gave Ramdas a weak smile. It didn’t look convincing.
Matthewson is terrified, Heather realized. She didn’t break and run, and she fights well. But even a little dust-up like this has her shaking inside. That porcelain face of hers isn’t as good as she thinks.
The clop of Ramdas’s hooves grew louder, as the centaur fell into step beside Heather’s pony. “Caballero Blackthorne,” he said, somewhere between warm and officious. “Your eye and your mind, she is as steady as your arm. You have fought these before?”
Heather nodded. “Yeah. Hunting the ones who make their ilk, back in Empire lands. Venicia has their own problems with undead too, doesn’t it? You said you haven’t fought them?”
The centaur shook his head. “Venicia has many, I am told. But I have not fought them before today. They fight without grace, I think. They take no skill to strike down. Mindless horrors, best cleansed.”
“They don’t need grace to take someone down, Lieutenant,” said Heather waspishly, and immediately regretted her tone as Pramath’s face hardened.
“Si. So I understand. To be surrounded, to be overwhelmed, is to die terribly by their kind, no?” His tone was bristling.
Trying to control his temper. Damn, but he’s prickly, she thought.
“That’s right, sir,” she said, making a conscious effort to soften her tone. Her fist clenched hard around the handle of her mace. “Hold the line, or hit and run. Guess that latter part is your talent, sir.”
He gave her a measuring look. “I suppose it is. Why are you here, Caballero? Why the north for you?”
But it was Weathers who cleared his throat roughly, from the lead. “That’s none of your damned business, Pramath. Just as it isn’t nobody’s damned business why you’re here, even if you wear it on your sleeve. Fall in.”
Heather shot the Major a grateful look, and forced her hands to clench on her reins instead of her mace. Meanwhile, the zebra-striped centaur had a look of genuine contrition on his face. He trotted to the Major’s side.
All that temper gone, each time the Major calls him out on it, she thought to herself.Helga and Persephone averted their eyes, avoiding the hanging questions, and kept their attention on scanning the rocks and horizon.
Nobody wants their dirty laundry aired, here.
They rode until the ponies were exhausted, and then walked, picking their way carefully along the rocky plateau. Ramdas didn’t complain, but it was clear that he wasn’t faring any better than the ponies were on the rough plain. By the second hour of their journey, they’d all become reasonably adept at finding bone-sign on the stone. By the tenth hour in pursuit, they followed the trail automatically, urgency writ large across their faces.
“We’ll stop here for the night,” the Major said. The campsite he indicated was a patch of smoother stone about forty yards across, swept clean of rocks by some glacier or another long ago. There wasn’t any shelter in sight to be found, so it would have to do. Horizon to horizon, there was nothing but rocks, lichens, and sky.
“You want a fire tonight, sir?” asked Heather, as she unloaded her weary pony. Not much I can do but stew some pemmican into some oats, but at least it would be some hot food, she thought.
Major Weathers grunted, eyes turned northward in thought. “Keep it small, keep it smokeless. Helga’s got the fat lamp in her bags. Stengrav, show her how to use it.”
“Nothing to it, dearie,” said Helga, as she pulled her saddlebags from her horse.
Njorn gave a content sigh, and laid down on a bare patch of sun-warmed rock, snorting and snuffling. Bjorn gave a few little nickers, and Heather hastened to unload her mount. As soon as she was free of her burdens, Bjorn trotted over to her sister to touch noses and lay down.
Horses won’t be going anywhere today. Nothing but rock around here, and the food and water is all in the bags.
Feeding and watering the horses came first, of course. By the time the squires and knights had that sorted out, Helga had produced a large, rancid-smelling soapstone lamp from one of her bags, and set it down in the middle of camp.
“Faugh, what’s in that?” asked Heather, thumbing at her nose as she crouched next to the dwarf.
“Whale or caribou fat,” Helga said. “Whatever rendered fat will burn.”
“There’s no wick. How do you light it?”
“A little flow of fire to the top of the fat. It will melt first, and then light. Right near the spout, there. It draws air here, and flame out the other side. Just enough to light a room, or heat a cookpot,” explained the dwarf. “Major keeps one. Says it’s what the natives use here.”
Heather frowned thoughtfully. “Then I’d trust it. They’d know better how to live out here, right?”
“Aye. Go ahead and light it, dearie. You can use a match if you need to. I usually do.”
I’d rather strike a match, Heather thought. I’m too numb right now, too tired to weave so much as a cantrip. She nodded weakly. “Pass me one then, would you Helga?”
The lamp lit under the struck match with a bit of effort. A thin puddle of melted fat caught the flame, and became a greasy little fire. A pale bit of yellow flame rose out of the spout of the lamp. The knights and squires erected tents, while Heather crumbled pemmican in with oatmeal.
It wasn’t much, but it was hot food; and with the squires on first watch, the rest of the knights gathered in a circle around the little lamp. The setting sun lingered on the horizon, as it would yet for hours.
Weathers brewed a small pot of tea. The sweet aroma rising from it was unfamiliar to Heather. She looked up from stirring the oats. “What sort of tea is that, sir?”
“The natives call it mamaittuqutik,” said the Major. “It’s a medicinal tea. Good for aches and colds,” he said.
“You know an awful lot about the native folks’ ways here, Major,” said Heather. “You’ve done much work with them?”
“Some,” said Weathers, staring into the little flame off the lamp. “Done my share of circuits up here. Friar Tomlin, he’s the priest up in Saint-Cielle, he knows as much as I. It’s easy to overlook the natives, in town. They come and go, trade furs. Don’t like making waves. But you’d be wise to pay attention to how they live, out here.”
He gestured between the teapot and the cookpot. “If we were in a northern camp right now,” he continued. “There’d be some liver in that pot, some meat, some fat, and tea. They cook it all together. Throw some juniper berries in. It’s rather good. Hearty, anyway.”
“Tea in a stew?” said Heather. “Not sure how I feel about that.”
“It works,” said Weathers simply. “They live off of it real well.”
Heather gave the oatmeal and pemmican a stir, and spooned it out into waiting bowls. Silence descended for a while around the tiny fire, and knights too tired to make conversation joined in staring at the little flame.
“This Friar Tomlin you mentioned, don’t suppose he’s one of the fighting men we can hope for up there?” Heather asked.
The Major shook his head. “No. He’s not the kindest of men, but he’d rally those around him at the first sign of trouble. He’s the stern shepherd sort.”
“Not a friend of yours?” Heather asked.
The Major gave his bowl a stir. “Colleague. I think I’m past the friend-making stage of my life.” Weathers said dryly.
Ramdas finished eating first, despite the lion’s share of the pot having gone his way to fuel his far larger body. He’d been too tired to even unsling the saddlebags, and it wasn’t until his belly was full that he could find the energy to pull the bags from his back. He laid his violin case carefully atop it.
Weathers gestured to the instrument. “Playing that tonight, Pramath?” he inquired.
“Si, with your permission, Major.”
The Major chewed on a pemmican ball, and glanced Heather’s way. She looked around at the horizon.
“Don’t think the sound would carry half as far as the sight of us would,” Heather said. “Pretty rare a necromancer to rune up something dead to hear farther than we can. I don’t see a problem.”
Feels weird, to have the Major look to me like that, thought Heather. Everyone’s looking to me about the undead, now.
Weathers nodded, and Ramdas slowly opened the case. The violin that emerged was beautiful, and he drew it free with a care that Heather hadn’t seen since Stephen first lifted Anthony from the family crib.
“Nothing like you play at the inn, Pramath,” teased Helga.
“Si, music for the peace of the dead, we lay to rest today,” he said, his voice somber.
“And tomorrow,” said Heather.
The centaur touched bow to string, and music poured out, a melody sweet and sad and slow. Persephone pulled her knees up and rested her chin atop her greaves like a child might, her eyes on the motion of Pramath’s hands along the strings. Even the Major closed his eyes, and Heather watched as motes slipped from fingertips and eyelashes of the knights around her. The motes bobbed gently around their owners, swelling and dwindling with the melody.
The sky darkened gradually, and Pramath played on until the sun was a molten ball of gold on the horizon. When his violin was put away, it was to lead them in gentle prayers, his voice fervent and warm as he prayed for the peace of the dead.
“Saint Manolo, peace-bringer, who spares the hearts of wives from the widow’s veil, keeper of your brothers and mine. Thrice I ask, and thrice I pray, guide these souls we could not keep. Fallen are many, and spared are few. Guide these souls we could not keep. Embrace their widows, make few their tears. Guide these souls we could not keep.”
Heather swallowed around a lump in her throat the size of her heart. The words wouldn’t come, except as a dry, raspy whisper that could scarcely escape her lips. She clenched her hands to keep the shaking at bay, and out of sight of her comrades. When the prayer was finished, she turned her back to the fire and her fellow knights, and turned her face toward the rising moon.
Feels like failure, she thought. Every bone ball we break. That’s someone I couldn’t save, someone I couldn’t protect.
Helga sat down next to Heather, and extinguished the lamp. “Fourth watch again, dearie?” she offered.
“Thanks,” said Heather, gratefully. Whatever keeps me from waking up screaming, she thought.
“I think you’ve fought a lot more of these bastards than I, Heather. You stove that one’s head clean in, today. Like a carpenter swinging for a nail,” Helga imitated a carpenter’s casual hammer-swing.
Heather gave up a pained smile. I wonder what happened with you, she thought. I can’t imagine what team would ever give you up, Helga. You could get anyone to smile. Even Matthewson seems to like you.
“Major said you’d fought some before,” she replied. “Don’t sell yourself short.”
“Aye. Only four or five engagements. Biggest was about eighteen skeletons. We opened up a little nest, once, and they came at us. Eighteen on five. Lost a good man that day from the service. Not dead, happily, but he lost an eye and most of a cheek.”
“Reason enough to take pension,” Heather agreed. “Ever run into anything exotic?”
“No, dearie. Breacher team is called, it’s usually to crush whatever’s been found. A ghoul, once. Not common, but hardly exotic. You?”
Heather grimaced. “A few times. Bone golem, once. Tough. Took the whole breacher team to break it up. But it wasn’t very strong. The worst injury the team took was some bruises through the armor. What else… A polter-ghast with a knife. That was pretty scary. First injury I took on the job. We were still looking for it, when it flung a kitchen knife from across the room, caught me just above my armor here, over my shoulder,” she tapped her back.
Her voice grew rueful and pained. “I’d run into ghasts before, but not the polter-kind. It’s the ones you miss, the ones you underestimate. Those are the ones that get you hurt.”
Or your family killed, that merciless voice inside reminded her.
“Well, I didn’t see too many hurt in the service, thank the saints,” said Helga. “More hurt by hard penance than any enemies of the church, truth be known.”
Heather grimaced. “They didn’t have much use for corporal penance in Bastia. Chores, service, prayers, mostly.”
“Oh, we had all that too,” said Helga with a gentle, sad laugh. “But a little extra from the strap or the lash kept us sharp. Can’t say I miss it.”
“What about you, Major?” asked Heather. “Where’d you serve before Frostmoor?”
Weathers ran a rag down one of his guns, checking the barrel and giving it a wipe-through with the cleaning rod in his hand. “Little bit of everywhere,” he said. “Been here ten years, I think.”
“That’s a long time,” said Heather. She looked around the fire, weighing her thoughts and observations.
“Not long enough, sometimes.” said Weathers.
Everyone here is good at what they do. Everyone here’s screwed up, somehow. Nobody wants to talk about it, and the Major doesn’t like us talking about it to each other. So we’re all here to keep us from screwing up anywhere else important. Except now the Major’s stuck with a team like us, hunting the trail of abominations headed for a defenseless town.
Persephone rose, and touched Ramdas on the shoulder. “Thank you for the music, Pramath,” she said softly. She turned, and retired to her tent, pitched once more alongside Helga’s.
“Guess that’s your cue,” said Heather to Helga.
“She sleeps better if she knows I’m next door,” Helga murmured. “Keeps the nightmares down.”
Heather bit her lip, and turned her eyes away as they threatened to water. “Thanks, Helga. For saving me last watch.”
The dwarf gave her a sad smile of understanding. “You’re welcome, dearie. Go get some rest.”
The camp was quiet. The sky was an orange and purple hue that left the stars to the imagination. The moon hung low and cadaverous in the southern sky. The moonlight reflecting off of the hard angles of rock made everything look like bones, over the barrel of Weathers’ gun. Weathers sat in absolute silence; the air was still, and Stengrav’s snoring had gone quiet. Pramath had crawled awkwardly into a tent, and Blackthorne wouldn’t get around to screaming until shortly before she woke. The squires slept, huddled against their horses, like the Major had taught them.
Weathers didn’t trust people to wake up when there was danger. He trusted horses. He watched their eyes, and their ears, trusting to better senses in the dark than his own. Now and then, dutifully, he swept his eyes along the horizon line, comparing the contours to the map he held in his head. Constantly sighting down his gun, from point to point, using the iron sights to measure the arcseconds of gap between each peak on the southern horizon.
There. A hill, kilometers in the distance. It had moved in the last ten minutes, receding south. Twice, the Major knocked on the stone beneath him. The hill, he knew, would be gone from sight within the hour. Weathers pursed his lips, measuring the withdrawal of the hill with a pained stare.
“You’re a good boy for trying anyway,” he murmured.
The negotiations between Gaimen had concluded, and the hill would not advance. The local Gaimen owed Saint-Cielle nothing, after all. And they owed the dead even less.
He scanned the horizon again, straining his ears for sound. None came. His shaking hand wrapped around his empty flask again, and he let his eyes linger on Heather’s tent.
“Saints help you, woman,” he whispered. It was the closest thing to prayer the Major had said alone in years.
He cupped a hand around the barrel of one of his revolvers, and lit a cigarette with a thin trickle of his fear. The tiny stream of blue fire danced on the tip of the barrel of the gun. His hand jealously guarded against the glow, denying it to any eyes that might be watching. Or worse, any empty, bony sockets.
Methodically and without rest, his eyes and gun-sights slid, scanned, and measured. Counting the arcseconds, aiming by degrees. Numbering them in his head, measuring everything against his memories. Making sure that the slow horrors, the patient creepers, the quiet nightmares, couldn’t reach them undetected.
Because he knew, better than any, better even than Heather, what the costs of failure were. What every shadow of every rock might be hiding. So he watched, and he listened, waiting for the first telltale clack, the first rattle or creak. He’d wake a squire for the next watch soon. But for now, it felt right to shake in silence, and stare down his sights.
Nothing but liquor would make the bones go away. Nothing but liquor would reveal the ribs awash in moonlight to be only washboard rock. Whiskey would convince the leering skulls around him to settle back into the frost-cracked stones that they were. Cracks in rock hid hands just outside of the reach of any moonlight, reaching out for mercy that would never come, or the unwary they could pull in.
Tonight, over the barrel of his gun, everything looked like bones.