The horses walked slowly over the cracked ground. Carts creaked as they followed the line of soldiers toward the battlefront. A white mist trailed around their legs and obscured Keenin’s vision of what lay ahead, only affording him a view of Harris’s broad back as his friend easily led his horse ahead, a mace strapped to his belt. Keenin had pondered over the more brutal weapon as he and Aron had kept to swords.
He could not see Aron who rode ahead of the blacksmith. Keenin’s proud and privileged friend had become more silent, almost in the way that Faber had, but at Rumin’s orders he had worked the magic that surrounded them in a damp fog; perhaps reflecting the state of his friend’s mind.
Rumin had said that the ice dragon was targeting the creation of zombies so now they were forced to cart more in and make slow progress forward. The fog may not have deterred a dragon, but somehow their leader understood that Clide was not just that. Clide was a creature of strong morals that would wait to see what was in the crouching mist that lay at his feet, and Keenin knew he would be searching for a friend, for him. There had been days where he had looked up to the birds, wondering if Clide would be up there, but maybe the dragon didn’t want him.
While pressing forward across the land whispers of anticipation for the battle, talk of drawing the blood of enemies and achieving their goal went around, dampened only by the passing of protective talismans and mutterings of the danger of stray ghosts. Keenin felt much like a specter himself, moving beyond a sense of time in a place that he no longer knew. He passed much of the time watching the ground for dry shrubs and the occasional lost belonging, such as an empty sack, a bit of jewelry, sometimes brittle flesh and bone.
He wondered if the dragon was holding back from hurting living people, but what did he really know. Keenin no longer deserved an easy way out.
“A few more days,” Aron mumbled to himself from up ahead.
Keenin was relieved that Aron still spoke his mind, if only in cryptic messages to himself. It would have been nice in Keenin’s short, unlucky life to see the unfortunate people around him find a happy place. It wasn’t fair looking up to people who had so much more and were miserable. It was like an insult. It was like stating to the life givers ‘what was the point’, but damn did he ever want to see those people happy. That alone would have been something.
Aware that he was shut inside his own thoughts again, Keenin lifted his head. The mist brushing up against them was forming itself into eerie shapes that likely came from the designer’s thoughts. It was surprising that one of the horses had not turned an ankle or been spooked. Perhaps he should say something to Aron after all. The only small problem was that he didn’t know how to turn his horse around. He had never learned to ride and had just managed to stay seated this long.
“Harris,” Keenin quietly called the boy ahead of him.
Harris looked back at him, but with a steady gaze that didn’t see the turning emotions of the soldiers around them.
“Sorry,” Keenin found himself saying.
Harris’s silence seemed acceptance enough, but it didn’t ease Keenin’s feelings of guilt. The more that Keenin chose this, the more he left the two of them behind. The life he had was being whittled down, but maybe he could still get to her, to Dia. He fixed her image in his mind: the loose curl of her blond hair, the mossy green of her eyes, the cool paleness of her skin, and the tilted smile. Then he went further to think about the ghostly older girl he had glimpsed of her and how she was now in the shape of her sister. He had sensed her unease with him and treasured the moments when she had forgotten herself, and not treated herself as borrowed. Dia was much more than that.
He was so lost in thought again that Keenin didn’t hear the soft growl to his left. Harris shouted as a gryphon broke through the line of riders, sinking its claws into the horse of the rider beside Keenin. His own horse screamed in terror. It took a minute to realize that it must have been a stray beast before his horse bolted out of the line. Keenin terrifyingly threw his hands around the horse’s neck before he could be thrown off and the scared animal continued through the fog in a direction he didn’t know. They quickly broke out of the mist onto a flat plane of cracked earth, but Keenin didn’t raise his head to see the direction. It was a most unexpected way of deserting.
“Keenin!” he heard Aron call his name.
It was exactly the sound as when the zombie was going to chop off his head.
“Keenin, grab the reigns! You idiot!”
He heard a second set of thundering hooves behind him and remembered how angry Aron had been the last time. He slowly relaxed the grip of his right arm and reached into the seemingly empty air ahead to feel for the leather strap. He felt it brush past his fingertips and managed to grab hold before a sudden turn from his horse caused him to lose all grip. Keenin flew off the horse’s back, thrown into empty air, the strap of the reigns painfully ripped from his hand, and he landed and rolled over the dusty ground.
When his world again became still and the distinct pain of his bruised shoulder and rope-burned hand pestered his senses, Keenin raised his head. He had never felt so dirt covered in his life and he tried not to think about the sandy crunch of it in his mouth. The sun was rather blinding after all their time in the fog. Across the field Keenin saw a line of beige tents flying black banners with the army’s heart and bird symbol. Far off near the horizon flashed the glint of gold banners. The sight of them sent his heart beating in nervous anticipation. He felt the power of being able to cut his own path, each enemy a mere physical obstacle in his way to something much greater.
“It’s so close,” Keenin breathed.
He sat back on his knees just to watch the free movement of the clouds across the sky that connected everything he knew. Aron’s horse had come to stand quietly beside him, with the rider himself looking down. The scratch over Aron’s eye was lightly scabbed over, standing out like a red mark as distinct as the painted heartless crow of his army.
“I want to be there Aron,” he explained. “I want to stand at the top of the world and hold onto it. You won’t regret this.”
Keenin would have anything taken away anymore. He could protect the people he cared for.
“Keenin,” Aron spoke his name quietly.
Aron seemed like he might speak of something important and yet his friend seemed to think better of what he was going to say.
“Let me help you up,” Aron told him. “Until you learn to hold onto your horse, you’ll have to ride with me.”
“Whatever you say leader,” Keenin responded, and stood to brush the dust from his leather pants. “Just know that I’m not going to be any more coordinated in my armor.”
Aron held out a hand and Keenin tightly gripped his friend’s arm.
“We will talk about that.”
Keenin was ready for Aron to pull him up when he heard a crunch in the dirt behind him. His eyes fixated on the scabbard at Aron’s belt. Not wanting to be wrong Keenin drew the sword with his left hand, and while his right hand was still held by Aron he turned and held the blade high. An opposing blade crashed against it and send a vibration though his unsteady left arm. He felt how lucky his was that this foe had not made a straight jab and that he had let caution win.
Even now Keenin couldn’t see anyone standing there. Before he could think of a next move Aron had in turn drew the sword at Keenin’s side and thrust it straight into the air. There was a grunt, blood bloomed around the edges of the blade where it had stuck into flesh, the man materialized before he fell dead in front of Keenin. They both stared. He wore armor with the crest of the sun. Keenin knew that he should not have felt betrayed and yet he had kept to the sliver of hope that someone on the other side would know them as the kidnapped children and care.
“Hey!” Harris called out.
Keenin turned his head to locate the cloud of fog and saw Harris leading his horse over. He noticed blood dripping from the end of the mace and remembered how he had come to be left out in the dirt. The gryphon must have been dead then.
“What are you talking about? We’re getting behind,” he called out to them.
Harris got closer and saw the body.
“What happened to him?”
Keenin remember the blade he held and sheathed it back at Aron’s side. Aron pulled out a cloth to wipe the blood from Keenin’s blade, respectfully not mentioning that Keenin forgot to do the same.
“Do you have to ask?” Keenin said.
“Making amends then,” Harris said.
Aron handed the clean blade to Keenin who sheathed it.
“Thanks. Aron can we go up the line? I want to talk to Rumin.”
“We should go together,” Harris suggested.
Keenin was finally lifted to the back of Aron’s horse and he led them back to the patch of fog and up the line to find Rumin. They found the weapons trainer riding behind the row of carts.
“You do know that you were given your line position for defensive reasons,” he said absently as they rode up.
“Are you aware that a gryphon nearly ate us?” Keenin questioned him.
“Keenin, I’m not sure that’s fair,” Harris told him.
“Well, I am aware that some of the riderless gryphons have gone feral, but we don’t have time to waste on simple casualties. It’s not like I asked danger to approach you.”
“What about invisible killers?”
“They’ve been sending assassins for months. Their little magic order spells them invisible and sends them out with no hope of return. Not the sort of people I would want to work with.”
“Then they are making desperate attempts,” Aron said. “Meladona might lose.”
“That is the intention,” Rumin said. “Don’t think that you magic users were the only thing keeping this fight together. Think of this as practical experience.”
“Anything else that you forgot to mention.”
“There is an ice dragon freezing my men. Keenin I realize that you feel slightly cheated, that maybe you didn’t have time to prepare for fighting in a war, but Iscara knows that too. You will have defensive positions until you learn more. Any other problems?”
Chapter 40: One Ghost Too Many