Winds of war : night's watch (interlude)

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[size=200]NIGHT’S WATCH[/size]

Nan Carter looked out across the dark moor and shivered despite the warmth. She was painfully aware that her armour - sized for her older sister - did not really fit her. She hated the smell of stale sweat that seemed baked into the gambeson. She hated the weight of the metal. She hated standing watch, truth be told. She understood why it was important but …

At least she wasn’t alone. Little Jim Thatcher was there too, and Old Gadge. Jim stood with her out under the night sky, while Old Gadge lounged under the rough slate of the open-topped watchtower smoking something foul smelling in his little clay pipe.

“Do you think it is true,” Asked Jim without warning. His voice broke slightly, and she could tell he was blushing. “That the barbarian orcs have gone away? That it’s over?”

Nan shook her head. Jim was two years younger than her, and for a moment that little gap felt like all the years in the world.

“I don’t think so,” she said, gently. “I heard from one of the orcs - one of our orcs you know? - that there were raids up and down the western borders up as far as Sermersuaq and down as far as Fort Braydon on the Brass Coast. If they’ve not been near us for a few months it’s because they’re busy. Elsewhere.”

She spoke with what she imagined was self-assured confidence, but the fact of the matter was that she had barely exchanged two words with the Imperial orc legionnaire when he was talking to her father about beating the dints out of his helmet. She had listened, wide eyed, as the soldier regaled the smithy with his stories of the war in Holberg; the battle with the Thule in distant Hercynia; and the slow raising of the tempo of war between the Empire and the Jotun.

Little Jim Thatcher started to cry then; he was young, and while he was no coward … he was young. Nan ignored it and looked straight ahead across the Mourn under the stars. After a few minutes her fellow guard snuffled into a handkerchief and stood up straight. They both pretended nothing had happened.

Presently, Jim spoke up again.

“But the Empire is going to win right? I mean … it’s just orcs isn’t it? We’ll give them a good hiding and they’ll go scurrying off back to where they come from with their tails between their legs.”

He broke off, thoughtful. Nan anticipated his next question.

“No Jim, orcs don’t have tails.”

He opened his mouth, probably to claim that was not what he was going to say, and then shut it again. Nan cast around for something encouraging to say, and then Old Gadge spoke up. He had moved silently from his position on the other side of the tower, and was now leaning between them, his arms folded on the parapet.

“It won’t be that easy,” he said bluntly. “It’s going to be a nasty war. It’s been brewing too long and it’s gotten all stewed. There will be a river of blood before anyone goes scurrying anywhere - and it might be us and not them.”

Jim started to snuffle again, and Old Gadge cut him off.

“And you can stop that right now, youngster. There’s no point pretending things are different to what they are. Wishes are for courting and falling stars and nothing more. If the Jotun haven’t been by in a few months it’s not because they’ve given up. It’s because the patrols and the garrison keep them out - that and the treaty they signed with the Senators in Anvil. Mark my words, they ha’nt forgotten about Overton. How could they?”

He gestured towards the nearby construction with his pipe, a ruby red ember illuminating the weatherbeaten skin of his half-hand, half the fingers of which he had left on a battlefield he never spoke of.

“They ha’nt forgotten the castle here, neither. Come Spring we’ll be arse deep in Jotun, mark my words. No general, not a human nor an orc, will rest easy while their enemy has a castle between them and what they want. And those raids you hear’d tell of Nan? They’re just the start of it all. They’re testing the waters, like, finding the right spot to cast their hook and catch a nice fat catfish. It’s when the raids stop altogether we’ll need to worry because that’ll mean they are coming. And when that happens …”

He tailed off, and sighed.

“… then you’ll have to make a choice Jim. And you too Nan. Fight, and maybe die, and see the ones you love die and be powerless to help them … or surrender, and maybe live like those spineless cowards I hear’d tell of up Alderley way who call themselves Yegarra now and fight against their blood.”

Nan had never heard Old Gadge say so many words all in one go. She looked at his face, a little astonished. He did not look at either of the young guards and stared off into the darkness. Into the past.

“Oh, children.” he said at least, his voice low. “And maybe you won’t get to make that choice after all, because someone else makes it for you. And you’ll have to live with the consequences of that through this life, and mebbes the next.”

He sucked on his pipe, and turned away, and under his breath said:

“and maybe, maybe if you are cursed beyond reckoning, you’ll have to make that choice for someone else, and it will haunt you to your grave and beyond.”

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Nothing is happening in Overton.

Imperial forces are supporting the garrison there, and continuing to keep a close eye on the Jotun occupation force.

The nastiest rumour to recently surface is that there are humans - who should be Marchers - who have grown up under the Jotun and prefer their rulership to membership of the Empire. It’s not clear how many there are but … when the storm finally breaks and the cold war heats up … there may be some very hard choices indeed to be made in the Marches.

That was a bit gloomy. Next one should be much more upbeat and … oh. It’s Reikos. Never mind.

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Tom Garnett photograph of Marchers marching moodily over moorlands.