“I still don’t feel right about it,” Munder said, “leaving him under a pile of rocks like that.”
Ran had picked up a thin stick somewhere, and swung it at a the head of a thistle as he passed it. “I’ve got plenty of ancestors buried under a lot of rocks, and Stony Hill seems not to have been abandoned by their spirits.”
“Fair,” Kellan said, giving the cart’s arm a little extra pull to get it up over a rock, “but being buried intentionally and being killed in a cave-in aren’t exactly the same thing.”
“Not much difference to the one being buried,” Ran said. “At least, I’ve never heard any complaints.”
I suppressed a little chuckle, feeling guilty for laughing at the dead, and tried to refocus my attention on pulling the cart. It’d been a little more than a week since we’d buried Gil Carver at the top of that nameless scree, and it’d been a week of hard marching. We’d gone up rough and rocky valleys and down difficult passes, traveling south and east, but we’d met nothing as difficult as that first slope, and gradually the downhill sections had started to outnumber the uphill ones.
Going downhill was easier than going uphill, to be sure, but it carried its own set of challenges. My calves no longer burned with aching pain each morning and every time we mounted a new slope, but my knees more than made up the difference; I felt my legs shudder with every step down the sloping path, and on each downward section I found myself longing to climb upward again. Also, after the accident we’d all been especially careful to keep the wagons well-controlled, but it was still a frightening prospect to have half a ton of gear pushing you forward down a hill even if you hadn’t seen what we’d seen.
The Highlands had been unforgiving in other ways, too. Almost nobody lived up this far, so we had no larders to scavenge from, and beyond grasses and the occasional berry bush nothing particularly edible grew here. For six days we’d eaten only what Sir Irby’s men had given us to pack with us: strips of cold-smoked salted pork or dried goats-meat, hard-aged cheeses, and twice-baked flat bread only marginally softer than our teeth.
Our final ascent, a shallow slope between the saddle of two small peaks, was completed on our fourth day in the Highlands, and the next day we found the headwaters of the Grey River and began following along side it, down toward the sea. The river wasn’t much more than a creek all the way up here, but it provided us with fresh, clear water to drink from. With less need to conserve our drink Sir Henney expanded our ration to include an extra mug of ale each night, which helped to ease some of our aching muscles and brought us some cheer, and after only a few more days the course of the ever-growing stream brought us down out of the highlands and onto Shaledown Plain.
The Plain seemed to stretch out before us nearly without end, a sweeping green grassland only occasionally broken by a low hill or small outcropping of light-colored striped stone. The soft grass was a mercy on my feet after the rocky passes and stone-filled meadows of the Highlands, and our first night out of the mountains I slept better than I had since leaving Cantlay. Our scouts had come back last night with reports of a nearby farm, where we’d made camp, and Sir Irby paid the farmer handsomely for nearly half his flock of goats; after day after day of salted pork, the taste of fresh meat was one worth savoring.
We’d left the farm only a few hours ago, down a well-cut road that wandered its way southward along the banks of the Grey. I felt tired, yes, but better than I had in weeks, even if that good feeling was tinged with sadness about Gil and guilt about feeling good when he no longer could. I felt like I’d hardly known him, and almost never spoken to him. At the same time, though, I’d known him just about my whole life, hadn’t I? Hadn’t I run into him often, said hello to him around town more days than I hadn’t? Ancestors curse me, he’d been right behind me and Kellan in the line to sign up for this, hadn’t he?
Bryce tapped me on the shoulder, and gestured for me to let him have the arm of the cart. “Not to be indelicate,” he said, “but in the end it doesn’t matter much where he ends up, does it?”
“What do you mean?” asked Munder, taking the other arm of the cart from Kellan for his turn pulling.
“Well,” Bryce said, “if he’d died in town, he’d have been cremated and placed with his family under the Barrow, but none of the offerings would really be for him, would they? He’s too young to have had kids, so he’s never going to be anybody’s ancestor, not really.”
A shiver went down my spine. It was said that spirits that went hungry, spirits that never received offerings or prayers, eventually either faded away or became beings of pure hunger, consuming other spirits or the souls of those who ventured too near their unmarked graves. I’d heard rumors of a secret chamber deep beneath the barrow where the cantor kept the ashes of those whose family line had died out entirely, kept safely away from the ashes of our ancestors. I’d never really believed it, but I’d never asked anyone who would’ve known the truth of the matter, either.
Kellan seemed to be thinking along the same lines as I was. “Probably for the best he’s out in the middle of nowhere, then. Less chance of anything bad happening.”
Munder considered this, and then nodded thoughtfully. “I guess I hadn’t thought of it like that.” He frowned. “Still doesn’t seem right, though.”
I sighed, and Kellan shook his head. “No, it doesn’t.”
It was another five days journey from the north edge of Shaledown Plain to the sea. The road, a narrow stripe of pale gray cutting down across the green of the plain, was dry and firm and free of rocks, and it made our going easier than at any other point during the trip.
Twice during the trip, we passed over roads that crossed the one we traveled. Each lead to a ford across the river to our right, and off across the grasslands to the left. As we crossed the second, I overheard Bat say that the King’s army would be just a few miles down the road, across the river. We never actually got close enough to see even the smoke from their fires, though, so I’ve no idea whether that was true or not.
As we traveled downstream the River Grey grew ever wider, joined by small streams and large brooks, until it was a dozen paces across, and the wider it grew the deeper it seemed to sink into the ground, the shallow banks becoming taller and steeper with each mile. The last day it became difficult even to climb down to fetch water for ourselves, and it might have become a hardship if we hadn’t reached Shalecliff Bridge late that afternoon.
I heard the sound of the ocean before I saw the bridge, but I had never seen anything quite so amazing. The steep banks of the river parted and swept outward, forming a wide bowl five-score paces across and perhaps fifty feet deep, and into that space the Gray itself plunged downward, falling through open air for almost thirty feet before landing in the pool below. Across the bowl from us, the bare gray rock stood in a thick, solid wall, pierced only by a single archway, and there the sea spilled in, filling the bottom of the bowl. Waves rolled in through the arch and into the cove, throwing up spray as they crashed into the rocks and creating a roar that grew softer and louder but never entirely ceased.
The far edge of the natural wall merged with the cliffs at either end, and across the top, the ground had been smoothed, carved away in some places and built up with blocks of stone in others, so that the top formed a solid stretch of stone road some fifteen paces across, meeting the road we traveled down as it split, running north-west and south-east along the coast.
Even as marvelous as the sight of the bridge was and s relatively easy as the few days had been, I was too tired to gawk. The marching column turned southward along the coast road, and I kept with the column, not even pausing to really take in the view. Less than a mile from the bridge, there was an old roadside inn, abandoned since the end of the Happ invasion. If the place had a name, none of us knew it; there was a post for a sign, but the hooks where the sign would have hung were empty. There, we set about putting up our camp, while Sir Irby and his men set about setting fires in the inn’s ovens, sweeping leaves and debris from the floor of the common room, and setting up trestle tables and benches to supplement what furniture was in good enough condition to be of use.
Sir Henney approached us as we set up our tents, and congratulated us on the successful march. “We’ve arrived two days earlier than it was expected we would,” he said, one foot planted on a crate, “and already we’ve sent messengers to the King informing him of our position, allowing his army and that of Lord Keays to march forward and make contact with the enemy. Well done, lads.” He put his foot back down on the grass, and gestured toward the inn. “Finish getting set up, and there’ll be ale for all of you in the common room. We’ll set watches then.” At this, there was a little cheer, and we set about our work with as much haste as we could muster.
That night, I fell asleep before sunset, and I woke late the next day. In this, I was not alone; we were all of us exhausted, and welcoming of a little respite. Sir Hagan still seemed somewhat tense, as did the other knights, but it did little to damp our high spirits. Our hard march was over for now. Now, all we had to do is wait for the enemy.