CHRISTOPHER SCOTT SHELTON
The valley was cold, but the soldiers had fire.
They had battled all spring and summer. The spring rain, then the summer melt of mountain ice, had by turns rendered the plain into stinking mire, and the contribution of blood and rotting men was not insignificant.
Late summer dried the earth, late fall firmed it, and the fighting had at last thinned to nothing.
The valley was cold, but the men welcomed the firmness of the earth, the way it did not invade every inch of their clothing, bearing leeches, fleas, and maggots.
The valley was cold because the hot blood of men was no longer spilled upon it. So great had been the summer slaughter that the barricades and trenches were fortified with bone and dried flesh as much as earth.
And yet soldiers still lived there, with fire to warm them, hiding in a pit, feeding on rats and wild birds. The war had forgotten them, and they loved it. They missed bread but would not dare to give voice to complaint, lest they be heard by heralds and scouts and generals, sent to where flesh was still split for territory and ideology, for monarchy and for its enemies.
They quietly ate their rats and birds and contented themselves, until the day when a hussar appeared on a shining white horse with filthy black and grey hooves, his lance low and swinging as if to spear any dogs or beggars that he should chance upon.
The hussar wore a hat like the iron-plated prow of a warship, tall and narrow. His livery was drab green with faded silver buttons and braids layered thick as chain armor, his high boots a strange ivory suede besotted with the same grime as his steed’s hooves. They had both walked earth more pliant than the frozen pack of the soldiers’ shelter, of their wasted battlefield. He sneered through an orange moustache and rode by the men. They cringed away from that lance.
“Cowards, traitors, hiding in holes.” Was he Prussian? Belgian? None recognized his accent or uniform, but all sensed his authority.
“Nonesuch,” said the sergeant. “We were ordered to hold this field, and that is what we are doing.”
The hussar pivoted his mount expertly, and it pranced past the men again. “I suppose the war here is won, and the prize of that struggle is the peace you now enjoy? Yet elsewhere, men still try their valor. Elsewhere, men still suffer and die for what is right.”
“We answer to an officer of greater station within our army. Send one to us, if it pleases you.”
At the end, the horse stamped, turning in place but not walking their line again. Her master was stone in his saddle, unmoving despite her agitation, demonically resolute.
“Far be it from me to question their command. If you are to hold this field, then hold it.”
The hussar spurred his steed into a jump, traversing the trench in one motion. As he passed over the men, he split a saddle bag and something terrible splashed loose. They quailed away, and the foul substance splattered at their feet.
He rode away, and they beheld his strange offering. The bag had been filled with bilious vomit. What bizarre sort of man would have such a thing? The soldiers quickly buried it in whatever soil they could dislodge from the frozen firmament.
They had quickly buried it, yet the miasma somehow escaped that soil, tendrils creeping into men’s bodies in the night and day that followed. None were spared. Each in turn became vomitously ill, a few nigh unto death.
Throughout the ordeal, thoughts that had been carefully secreted away in their survivor reverie were at last given voice. Should they try to go home? Find another place to hide? To truly desert, where heretofore they had merely allowed themselves to be deserted?
The sergeant saw that the first men to fall ill were soon to recover, and with bitter scorn for the mad hussar, dismissed the idea he’d pose any further risk to them. He ordered the infantrymen to stay with him in the trench.
In truth, none were so hale as to seek an unnecessary march at that time, and they were relieved to have the decision of apathy made for them.
Anon, the hussar returned with a yet wealthier cavalier—a dragoon in deeply black wool with white silk appointments, riding a brilliantly red stallion. The high iron pot of his helmet was lacquered black, gleaming like a river under a crescent moon, topped with an outlandish silver crest. He was so heavily laden with swords that it would no doubt be more hindrance than help in combat—blades of every size and description—but his chief weapon was a long, heavy, and intricately carved cannon.
This dragoon spoke with a yet different foreign accent—was he Aragonese? Alsatian? “My brother spoke true. There are worms here, where once warriors drew arms. Sickening.” He was olive skinned with oiled black moustache and blood-red lips.
The hussar replied, “I would have said no such thing. The appearance of knavery is merely an appearance. Their sergeant spoke of a purpose in their repose.”
“Ah yes,” said the dragoon. “To hold the field. Can you hold this field, sergeant?”
In his anger, the sergeant gained some courage, but not so much as to stand up, expose his body to attack. His furious head peered from the trench like a badger backed into its burrow.
“I’ll not waste time in parlay with vagabonds in shiny suits. To precisely which army do you belong?”
A ball tore his head apart, having passed through the shoulder of another soldier on the way to its mark. Scraps of his face flapped in the air momentarily like a discarded orange peel, then his body slipped away. The dragoon had fired with perfect accuracy, despite taking no effort whatsoever in aiming. It had been truly fired from the hip.
The officer’s men all scrambled to load their fallow rifles, and end this terror before it could take them. But the dragoon stopped them with a single hand clapped on his own great cannon. They understood his meaning. The weapon had two barrels, and at least one of the soldiers would die in the effort.
Fear and fatigue broke their courage, and they let their arms rest. Nobody dared to speak—to take the place of their leader. The soldier with the wounded shoulder frantically tried to dress it, with no aid.
The dragoon calmly reloaded his spent barrel and still the soldiers did not try the same. “Good, good. That is discipline. It takes more courage to follow orders than it does to resist. For in resistance you risk some pain, a quick death, and in following your leaders, that pain need be endured a thousandfold.”
As he spoke, the hussar removed a saber from one of the many scabbards on the dragoon’s horse, and ran the blade through the stale vomit in his slashed saddlebag. He tossed the sword down where the soldiers could reach it, then drew another and did the same.
“I’d like each of you to take up one of my swords. They are all quite strong and sharp, I assure you.” They still hesitated. “Take them up.”
He slapped his gun and the soldiers complied, each taking up a poisoned blade as soon as the hussar laid it down.
They were all so armed, emptying the dragoon’s supply. The trench was wide enough for two men to stand abreast, and as they looked at each other, they had a good idea of what was coming next.
“Without that mouthy sergeant, you count off a nice, even number. Face your nearest fellow and raise your guard.”
The wounded soldier had to drop his hasty self-repair and raise his borrowed cutlass. Disadvantage had him desperate enough to speak.
“Surely you don’t intend..?”
“For you to halve your number this day? Of course not. I merely wish to see you demonstrate your readiness. After all, this field must be held. On my command, each of you should try to land one blow on your fellow. Cut skin and the contest will end. Such a small thing, but it is necessary. Are we ready? Ready to hold this field?”
The soldiers mumbled feeble assents and crossed blades, waiting.
Most of the men were cut, inexpert at fencing and too slow in the limbs to stop short their own strikes when they felt their fellow’s land. They dropped or tossed away the filthy weapons and gripped their wounds.
“Smart work. Now clean my swords and return them to me. The least of them has more value than the greatest of you. Take your time. I’ll wait.”
Utterly humiliated, the soldiers obeyed the foreigner. The wounded soldier helped return the cleaned swords to their scabbards while the cruel horsemen relaxed and drank from flasks. At last, the devils rode away, leaving the men to consider their fate.
“We must flee,” said some. “But what if he lies in wait to shoot us?” said others. “A strategy then,” said one. “He will kill at least one, maybe two of us as we go, but we cannot let that deter us. If they keep on like this, we will all die.” Yet cooler heads prevailed to wait it out. In night or in fog, the dragoon’s aim could not be so sharp.
A night descended, and with it a fog. With discipline, they timed their charge and escaped the encampment, running all separate ways out onto the field. As expected, shots were fired, but none dared look to see who fell. Each soldier knew survival depended upon speed, and upon running as far from each other as possible. Spread thin, the devils could not hope to hunt them all down.
A terrible hour passed and more than a dozen men returned to the camp, wheezing and retching from the sickening duel early that day. Had the others escaped? No. Each of those unaccounted for had a witness present to their demise—shot, cut down, bodies twisted or melted with acids and poison mists.
Strangest of all, those who had been driven back to the doomed company all shared stories of pallid beasts the color of the fog, appearing to nip at them, then disappearing without a sound. Wolves and goats and wild-eyed stags acting in concert, each pale grey in unnatural kinship to each other and to the mist. As they related the stories, one cried out in fear. “They are here!” Each man followed his gaze to the field nearby. Somehow, riders had approached without a sound. Walking hoofbeats must have been concealed by the sounds of their terrible stories.
This time, the cavalry numbered three. The hussar and dragoon were joined by an exotic lancer with bone-colored skin and swan wings at the back of his dull, leaden breastplate. His mare was the color of the dreadful animals, and his saddle bore a great scythe in place of a standard.
The soldiers all hushed and the new cavalier spoke, so quiet he would have been unheard but for that hush. His accent was Pomeranian or Slovene by turns. “All of these lands are our banquet. And what possessed you sweet cabbages to dream of escaping the pot?”
The hussar said, “Don’t be so dire, my friend. They may escape. They may all yet escape, but first they must play our games. Life is brief and should be lived for leisure.”
“You would throw the bones with these dogs?” asked the dragoon.
“I would feed their bones to my dogs,” said the lancer.
“No, no,” said the hussar. “There should be something left of them when our sister arrives.”
A man’s mind broke. He screamed, leapt up, and tried to flee. The dragoon gunned him down, and the other men all began loading their rifles in great haste.
“Look what you’ve done,” said the dragoon. “Now they won’t follow orders. All looking for that quick escape.”
He punctuated the sentence with another lethal shot. The cavaliers all broke into motion and rode away. Men fired wildly into the mist and gun smoke, at the riders, at pale beasts, at phantoms. Not a shot found flesh and blood.
At last, they convinced themselves to save their balls and laid the rifles down. Their hands were shaking. Blood and bile ran down their bodies. Their throats were too raw from disease to speak in anything but hoarse barks and broken whispers.
The fog receded and moonlight pierced the clouds. The trench and the field fell quiet, but for ragged breaths, random gabbling of desperate strategies, and bursts of fire at pale beasts testing their alertness, wearing them down. One man fell dead from the strain, body stiffened into a bow shape, a last voiding of dark fluid came from both of his ends.
With unnatural awareness, the animals grew bolder in their excursions right when the men ran out of ammunition. For all their ferocity, they were just animals; no match for men with short spears, shovels, and bayonets. But they circled and sortied and picked their way through.
Soon, through the troop of goats, stags, and wolves, came a new class of beasts. They looked like small dogs with strange burdens, but it became clear that they were trained monkeys. The little monsters carried the dragoon’s swords, wielding them singly or in groups of two or three, depending on size and strength. A two-monkey team with a heavy falchion severed a man’s arm, and the tide of the battle turned completely.
The soldiers were too focused on the beasts to notice the riders approaching again, and soon the demonic brothers circled the trench, mocking and lashing out with weapons and worse.
Some soldiers died from poisons and illness, some soldiers died from sharp swords and cannon fire, and some soldiers were bitten, impaled, crushed, or ripped asunder by the beasts of death.
The riders dismounted at last, to finish the few that remained, with bare hands and gleaming smiles. But they stopped when a trumpet sounded a single note, and looked up to the edge of the pit.
From a bony black steed, their sister gazed down at the tableau. She was as emaciated as her animal, older than her years for a lack of flesh. Her eyes threatened to droop from thin eyelids, and her lips could not close around her rattling teeth. Blonde hair was thinned to patchy baldness, strands too light to stay down, floating about her in a dismal halo. She let the trumpet fall to her side.
“Your feast is distasteful to me, brothers. End it, or I will.”
The dragoon smiled and reached again for one of the ruined soldiers, but she pointed at him and he stopped cold, holding his gut as if to keep it from exploding. His brothers stepped back. He glared up at her and muttered, “End it then.”
Slowly, the riders took again to their mounts, and slowly they rode away, the remaining beasts capering behind them. But seven soldiers remained, and they collapsed where they stood.
They lived, for a time. They were able to collect enough water to drink from rain, snow, and urine, but too weak to snare the birds and rats that had nourished them before.
No man can hold a field forever, and a field can hold many men. The world ended again and again.
All content © Joseph Kelly & respective authors