Jena Grimes wasn’t anyone important. She’d been born in Greenest, she’d grown up in Greenest, and now, at far too early an age, she was pretty sure she was going to die in Greenest.
“This is my fault,” she said. “When I signed up for the guard, I remember joking with the Castellan if we’d get a bonus for fighting a dragon.”
“What did he say?” Markguth asked.
“He said nope. Keeping the peace is keeping the peace, no matter who the law breakers are.” Her impression of the Castellan was terrible but it conjured the image of his gruffness anyways.
“Well, if we make it out of this, I’m going to be sure to I win you all a nice cask of something fancy at the next big tourney we hold,” Markguth said.
They moved down the Old Tunnel, poking the holes in its crumbling surface with their swords as they passed. No one wanted a repeat of the rat swarm problem the Sergeant had told them about.
“Us regular folk gonna be able to get in on it that?” Gurd Wasserman asked.
Along with the half dozen regular guards was another half dozen brave (or possibly suicidal) townsfolk who’d agreed to come along and help reinforce the mill once Governor Nighthill’s strike team had secured it.
“There ain’t nothing regular about you, Wasserman,” Gurd’s best friend Ikano said and the rest burst into a subdued chuckle.
Jena was glad for the distraction because she wasn’t sure how to answer the question. The townsfolk were going well above and beyond what was expected of them – manning the walls, helping reinforce the gate, and tending to the wounded. There wouldn’t be anything Greenest could do to recompense them. Not with the losses they were suffering to the raiders. It would be a miracle if the town didn’t collapse in a matter of weeks, and if they lost the mill it would be even sooner than that.
A destroyed mill wouldn’t mean instant starvation. The keep had stores laid in to handle a few weeks at least. Losing a cornerstone of the town though would shatter what little confidence remained though. Or at least Jena feared it would.
The people of Greenest were simple, practical folk, but they weren’t stupid. They would be able to see the result of a burned harvest, and be able to count the cost of taking what they could scavenger on to Dry Creek, or Bagman’s Run for milling.
Towns had been destroyed before, by plague, by monsters, and by ill-weather. Greenest had always seemed too well settled to fall prey to those things, but the omnipresent smoke in the air left no doubt that the tranquility they’d enjoyed had not been built on solid foundations.
“When we get out there, you’ll need to keep everyone together and calm,” Markguth said. “There are definitely raiders still about but they won’t be looking for us, and it’s dark enough that they might mistake who we are if they do catch sight of us.”
Or they might not, Jena thought, knowing how badly things could do if they got into a pitched battle before they reached the mill.
In either case though, she had no idea how she was going to handle keeping both her fellow troops and the townsfolk under control. One blast of dragon fire, or whatever the giant monster breathed, and their entire force would be fleeing in every direction. Jena wasn’t leader enough to prevent that from happening. Or at least she didn’t feel like she was.
The trip through the darkened town did nothing to reassure her on that point either. She’d expected the townsfolk to be her main problem, but it turned out to be her fellow guards who just wouldn’t shut up.
“Right. Enough,” she said, stopping at turning to them all. “No more words. No more noises. Don’t call out any warnings. Don’t try to share what you’re hearing, or smelling, or thought you saw.”
“But…” Gurd began.
“No speaking!” Jena said. “From here out, we are ghosts. All your talking has already killed us and our spirits linger on, struggling to fulfill our final task. We have nothing more to fear, because we are no longer among the living. We are a ghost squad.”
Part of her listened to herself speaking and waited for the mockery and derision to begin. Another part of her was sure she had pushed things too far and that someone would break down.
The men and women following her though did neither.
With solemn and silent faces they all nodded and began following Jena again.
It was a fiction, her ghost squad, but as they walked, Jena saw the fiction gain weight and substance. The guards and the townsfolk. The distinction between them was largely a fiction too, so they discarded it. Instead they adopted the new roles she’d given them. It was a belief that would be tested if they saw real battle, but all it would take would be a single win to start making her cobbled together, made-up fiction of a unit into something real.