Yet when I went to mount my beast I found that though I wanted to believe Jerem Cozak, Marcus was undoubtedly correct about my martial aptitude. For if I hadn’t felt my mastodon’s joy to be reunited with me, I would not have even known my own squad while it stood amongst the others, though we were only four squads of eight men each. All looked the same to me.
I mounted, and Marcus called out again, and we trotted away. The mastodons protested leaving the larger herd, but soon calmed to be returned to their close kin. For these, of course, were the first group we had encountered, minus the matriarch who now led our army. Just as we approached a small descent, I turned and saw Julius, rising to hear the reports of another pair of messengers as though he had not just fallen to exhaustion.
I wondered how long it would be until each of us was spent. Cutting grass and foraging, I had healed in the valley of the mastodons. I had realized that weeks on the march had hardened my muscles and toughened my resolve. Seeing my reflection in the lake, I did not yet look like the Never-born, but I no longer resembled a merchant. And I had thought that with the help of the White Swarm, I now could physically do anything. Then, climbing out of the valley, Jerem Cozak had doubled and then tripled our pace, and all my will had broken. Once again, I went forward like one of the dead.
Now we rode as quickly as we dared. In the wake of the column, the snow had begun filling in behind the ridge again. Though its depth did not bother the mastodons, such powder could conceal ice and cause any beast to fall. It occurred to me, for the first time, that perhaps another route may have been available. Did Jerem Cozak argue with Marcus about these things, too? Or the scouts? Training with the Never-born, I was seldom by his side. But for now I could leave such thoughts behind, and lose myself in the senses of the herd, following the beast before me, heart and body full of the task of going ahead.
I lost track of intervening time. But it was mid-morning when we left, and mid-day when we neared the base of the ridge and turned abruptly left, down a small ravine which must have, in the strange light of early dawn, seemed like an already broken path to weary Never-born.