Half-plate, named for the type of armor he wears, has been a skeleton warrior fighting in the Necromancer’s army longer than he has ever been human. He remembers very little of being human. He doesn't remember what other humans had thought of him, what he had liked and disliked, how he had died or if anyone had mourned him when he did. This was true for most of the legion, though it seemed only Half-plate has any curiosity about the past.
Brother, a veteran skeleton soldier in the Necromancer’s army, had been the one to name him Half-plate. Brother named every skeleton the Necromancer raised. Half-plate would have preferred to use his human name, but the Necromancer had taken it when he’d raised him from the dead. "You can’t have what isn’t yours anymore," the Necromancer had said. So, he had taken what Brother could offer, which was Half-plate. A name isn’t everything, after all. Over the last forty-nine years, Half-plate has scraped together precious details of his human self.
By reading his own bones, he knows he’d been close to the age of thirty when he died. Thanks to Brother, he knows there is a large spiderweb crack on the back of his skull, the cause of his death. Perhaps he fell, or maybe he was pushed. The bones don’t say. Once, a village had refused to allow the Necromancer to use the bones in their cemetery. It was his first time burning down a village, but he still remembers how it felt to be surrounded by fire on all sides. As he watched the buildings collapse, he had felt a rabid sort of fear. One that did and did not belong to him. Fear of fire borne of an event he couldn’t remember, revived to his soul by present circumstances. Then, later that same day, while helping to bury the dead villagers (because of course unburied bones can’t be raised to be undead soldiers – there are rules to sorcery, the Necromancer had said), he’d found he was quite good with a shovel. So easily it came to him, that he amused himself during the burials by imagining himself as a human gravedigger, toiling away.
This is why when Ear-piercer, who always made the announcements, reads from his scroll that the camp would be allowed a rest day in honour of the Necromancer’s three-hundredth birthday, Half-plate knows what to expect. He knows it as an instinct, as easy as picking up a shovel, that a birthday should involve rest.
Only during the day, Half-plate thinks, but at nightfall –
“At nightfall there shall be a large celebration,” Ear-piercer cries. “Revelry and cake are mandatory.”
“And gifts,” Half-plate adds, the words slipping past his teeth.
“What?” Ear-piercer turns to him. “What did you say?”
“Gifts,” Half-plate says again. “Birthdays have birthday gifts.”
Ear-piercer consults the scroll, re-reading the careful scrawl of the Necromancer. He would scowl, if he could, but bones don’t bend that way. “The scroll doesn’t say that.”
“Well, it’s rude to ask for gifts. We’re supposed to bring one anyway.”
A pause. The soldiers shift in place, waiting for a decision. Ear-piercer reads the scroll for a third time. The words do not change. If it’s rude to ask for gifts, then is it equally rude to show up without? Ear-piercer doesn’t know. He shrugs.
“Gifts are optional,” Ear-piercer cries.
Later that night, Half-plate situates himself right behind Brother, who is sitting at a makeshift table by the fire, beside a very tall birthday cake. He cradles the small cloth sack containing the Necromancer’s birthday gift close to his chest. Half-plate doesn’t know the Necromancer well, which makes gift-giving difficult, but you can never go wrong with a set of well-preserved, perfectly aged bones. A gift can be a sweet offering, if the presentation is just right.
“Did you bring a gift?” he asks Brother, who’s working on shaping a bit of candle wax into a large three.
Brother often forgets, Half-plate knows. When you are risen from the dead, remembering your old life is an exercise in futility. Brother is the first of the undead, around three hundred years old himself, and his human memories are mere fragments. He forgets more with each passing year, recklessly throwing his memories into the wind, hoping they scatter like dust. Brother is not like Half-plate who likes to read their comrades’ bones - to know the cracks, the scars, and let his imagination fill in the gaps. Brother prefers not to remember anything at all. The past is half-known at best, he would say, so why burden the present?
When Ear-piercer announces the arrival of the Necromancer, the crowd by the fire begins to part so that he may come and cut the cake.
“He’s here,” Brother mutters. Half-plates watches as he finishes the candle-wax zeroes and, in his bones, reads satisfaction. Half-plate pulls Brother up and places the bag of bones in his hands.
“Here. You can say it's from all of us.”
“It isn’t,” he says, but doesn’t let go of the bones. “It's from you.”
“It’s better if it’s coming from you.”
Brother stills, his bones shift. “Why? Why would that be better?”
“I- well,” Half-plate falters. “You’re the first. You can represent us all.”
“Oh. Yes. Yes, that’s true.”
Half-plate watches as Brother skirts around the table to greet the Necromancer. He watches him gift the bones to the Necromancer, who beams under the attention, his smile as eternally youthful as his body.
“Brother!” the Necromancer shouts and sounds delighted. “You shouldn’t have, really.”
He watches the Necromancer give the first cut of cake to Brother, and his gaze never strays too far from the back of Brother’s skull, where a large gash has split the bone. Where, Half-plate thinks, the blade of an axe could fit neatly. There’s never a good time to burden the present, it's true. Never a good time to allow his imagination to overstep into reality.
Instead, the possibilities ache behind his teeth, begging to slip past.