10: The Mother Who Never Sings

They lay in numbers beyond counting.

Pikes, swords, flagstaffs and spears bearing sigils swayed over the mounds of torn uniforms and armor ripped asunder. Charcoal marked where powder ignitions had sparked against the cheeks of marksmen while other, greater flames perfumed the stench of smoldered flesh into the air.

As Sedrick stepped over the bodies along the sodden field, he felt no other outcome suited the dawn so well. They looked peaceful with so few left standing. No matter the agony still fading from some of their silent expressions; all of it was over. And those who were standing—silhouettes too hollow to cast shadows. These thoughts surprised Sedrick. But ‘surprise' struggles to convey the numbness of his mind—just how gently these considerations swept through it. Perhaps he should have been weeping or screaming. Mostly, he began to wonder if, perhaps, it didn't matter at all.

This was all nonsense, he'd long since understood. They were only chaotic thoughts to distract him from collapsing amongst them, from crying hysterically until the despair consumed what madness kept him walking.

The soldier dropped his shield, a battered scrap by then. "Hello, old friend," Sedrick said to the shadow standing just behind him.

He sensed her. An almost maternal presence which came with the cold, cleansing winds now that everything had settled. She passed through him on mornings like this. It was a greeting, a promise to return. She was a gust of quiet observation that preferred the sable skies just before dawn. Sometimes, if his head was clear enough, she even shared words with him.

“Not today, I'm afraid," he said to her. "Just don't forget me when the time comes."

Then the soldier left her to her work. He never enjoyed watching her. It was something private and not meant for him, even if she seemed lonely while she did it. As he walked away, he could hear her hands sifting through the murk, the smooth caress of soul beside soul. He wandered up over the piles and mounds to the knoll at the center of the aftermath. Atop it was a shrine bearing a statue.

Sedrick placed his hand on the shrine's idol, smearing a stark pigment along its pale, marble curves.

He sat against the landmark.

The commanders would come second. The lower ranking authority, third. They would purvey the scene and, finally, send word back to the royals observing it through a spyglass from a castle turret. Joyous news of victory. Then the streets of Moram would erupt in celebration, and Sedrick would return home the same shadow that left.

But first ... first was a curious display. Consistent as migratory flocks or vultures after a skirmish. These were the merchants, the window sellers and street-side charm vendors, swaying down the road in a caravan of carts. “Little crows," Sedrick called them, because they always picked the bodies clean.

“This amulet will protect you," they'll say to passersby. "An old warrior brought this to battle countless times."

“This ring will safeguard you from all harm," they'll push.

“Something to watch over you when you are afraid."

“It wards off sickness and blades."

Their work was executed with an enviable swiftness. Some of them even whistled while they went about it.

With a vacant awe and disbelief, Sedrick watched how the silver and gold trinkets were tossed into satchels and pouches. The occasional, odd, worthless object whose specific sentiment had long since gone cold on the ground with its owner. A broken handle of a mirror. A thick, silk ribbon from a promise.

Then the merchants piled onto their carts and left. They would advertise their collections as talismans from the dutiful, the noble, the decent. What they peddled were relics from nightmares. Heirlooms of the damned.

“Little crows," Sedrick murmured, “snatching up anything glittering."

Then he was alone. That presence he’d felt earlier had finished; her work was done. A still, slow-bleeding dawn without song.