How can this be? Such beauty. Among such despair.
Red, black, red.
The fibers jutting out from its core rose and fell, rose and fell. It crawled indifferent to what laid beneath its feet.
Does it know?
Moving from the moist soil, the caterpillar ascended onto a pale finger. Had the soldier been alive, the fibers on the insect would have tickled him. Alas, the soldier was not tickled. His finger did not move, nor would it ever again.
Eyes, as though set in glass, stared up at him. They dared not move, lest they betray the Hand of Death about to visit. The black center remained in place, neither expanding nor contracting. The color around the black, a soft hue of glacial blue, shifted not. The whites of the eyes stayed fixed in their place. The whole of them unmoved, suspended in time, capturing the full effect of the soldier’s last act.
Symon studied the rest of the soldier’s face. His whiskers had drops of dew, remnants of the fog that was slowly escaping the forest. His auburn hair glowed in the soft light of morning, even though it had been rough cut recently. Perhaps as he sat around a campfire or at a hearth, enjoying a good meal, Symon wished. Such a soldier, one who died for my land, deserved such a memory.
Symon’s concentration broke. He looked up to find his Right Captain approaching.
“Our scouts have returned,” Sir Everitt said. “They bring news of the Lewmarian camp.”
Symon gave the auburn-haired corpse a furtive glance. He did not die for nothing.
“Take me to them,” he commanded.
With a nod and a turn, Sir Everitt led the way. Symon followed in his wake, his strides long and strong. For they had to be. Every step he took was fraught with the remnants of a battle lost. The corpses, of both men and horses, were but half of the refuse that littered the scarred ground. Splintered arrow shafts, burnt brush and broken shields, in pieces large and small, laid all about. As did fecal matter, accompanied by the stench of urine. No doubt from the greener soldiers, Symon concluded as he struggled to ignore the foul smells.
Such was battle. As was the effort to clean the land of the fallen. Or at least those who fell in defense of Marland, that they may be honored by their brethren-in-arms. Sir Everitt had ordered the pole-men and pavisers to dig shallow graves for the Marlish slain, while the light cavalry was charged with transporting the dead from where they fell to their final resting places.
Sir Everitt paused as a horse strapped with a travois crossed his path, transporting a departed soldier with a mop of golden hair. The lad could not have been more than twenty. Sir Everitt bowed his head, made a fist with his right hand, and placed it over his heart. As did Symon.
“Do we have a count?” Symon asked as they waited.
“Fifty-three of our own. From Har-Kins Hamage, Giscard and Mallory, judging from their coat of arms. All deceased. They left no survivors. Bloody bastards.”
“And the enemy?”
“Forty-seven dead. Our brave lads took as many as they could with them to the grave.”
Symon watched as the travois headed in the direction of a row of graves, where his soldiers continued to dig. Unlike the auburn-haired soldier earlier, this one laid with his eyes closed.
With that, Symon strode ahead of Everitt. His steps, more determined and with additional haste, put him before his scouts within moments.
Both men, strapping young riders around Symon’s age and build, bowed their heads.
“Report,” Symon ordered, his mood for pleasantries dissipated.
“We counted two-hundred strong,” answered the one on the right. “On the banks of the Chesa, west of the Burnwood.”
“A mile, I suppose, if you went straight through,” replied the other, nodding. “A little more if you wanted to hide your tracks.”
“Which we did,” the one to the right confirmed.
Symon scratched the stubble on the underside of his chin. “Very good,” he replied. “The way you took. Show me.”
The camp was just as Symon expected. Pitched tents and lean-tos lined the meadow along the Chesa, as longships rested on the beachhead, their keels wedged into the sand. A few stumps and felled trees spoke of the camp being fresh, for not much in the way of wood had been harvested. The men, Symon noted, appeared alert and well-rested. Nary have seen much in the way of battle. Their last skirmish with my countrymen troubled them little. I will need to change that.
Like all the Lewmarians he had seen in engagements of the past, these men were brutish, reared from youth to row and fight. Their bodies testified to their time at oars. Coils of their strength stretched from their forearms up to the base of their necks. Muscle atop muscle made their shoulders massive, as though a layer of armor laid underneath them. Unkempt beards and lengths of hair hung from all of them, adding to the allure that these warriors were more bear than man.
Symon looked to his men. The two scouts - though this was their second time viewing the camp - appeared on edge. One laid on his belly beside them, having trekked up the hillock that overlooked the bank. The other, a way down yet still in view, stayed by the horses. Their fear was subtle. But it was there. In the way they glanced over their shoulders. By how they shifted their eyes at every motion or sound. They strained to remain quiet and move with a sense of caution that was unnecessary, even in scouting. Even Everitt, to his right, was too pensive in his movements.
What happened next only worsened their anxiety. From the west, a hunting party hiked back into camp, bringing with them four caged hens, a dozen waterfowl, a cow and two young women. The women, bound but ungagged, wept as the Lewmarians holding the leashes of their bindings pulled them forward.
Seeing the looted prizes, several Lewmarians rose from their cook fires and cheered. Many eyed the women. Many more gazed at the cow.
They have not eaten, Symon realized. Not in a while.
A few ambitious Lewmarians worked to put an end to that. Three grabbed their battleaxes and approached the cow. The Lewmarian leading the bovine, a green warrior with a beard shorter than the rest, held out his hand to stop them. The one closest to him, twice his size with a beard three times longer, shoved him aside. In one fell motion, he raised his axe above his head, to swing it down into the cow’s neck. Blood splattered back onto his face as the beast wailed and fell. Bone and flesh protruded from its thick trunk but the cleave had not cut clean through. The next Lewmarian with an axe had his turn, nearly slicing all the way. The third, as determined as the others, finished the job, eliciting more cheers from his brethren and tears from the captive women.
The scout swallowed his breath. Very well, Symon told himself. That is enough of that.
Symon broke their concentration with a few gestures urging all of them back to the horses. Once gathered, he led them away from the hillock until he saw their breathing return to a respectable rhythm.
“How many did you count?” Symon asked. “At your first scouting and this time?”
The scout cleared his throat. “Nearly a hundred.”
“Soldier, your manners,” Everitt rebuked.
“My apologies, my Liege,” the soldier offered. He cleared his throat again before addressing Symon. “Your Highness, I counted nearly a hundred during the first scouting. This time, I counted over a hundred, perhaps up to fifty more.”
More? Symon thought. “Returned from hunting and foraging, you think?”
“No more ships came ashore. Right, soldier?”
“True,” he replied. “Same number of boats . . . my Liege.”
“Any sign of their warlord?” Symon asked.
The soldier stopped, considered. “None. Your Highness.”
The news disturbed Symon. How many more Lewmarians roamed the banks of the Chesa? Or the Upper East Waterlands? Or northern Marland herself? He pondered the possibilities. Are my men back at the battlefield safe? The four of us scouted the Lewmarian camp. But were we unseen? How do we know that we ourselves have not been scouted?
Such was battle, he reminded himself. The reality we live in; every day we are on the front. Until we are not.
Despite their detours – the backtracking, the sloshing through streams and creeks, over rock and stone, to cover their tracks – the four found themselves back at the scarred landscape of their brethren within the morning. By then, several of the fallen had been buried, with only a handful yet to be laid in the ground.
Symon scanned his surroundings. Any of his men would have thought he was surveying the landscape, in search of a new route by which to travel, or in consideration of dangers gone previously unseen.
Such assumptions would have proven untrue. For Symon’s gaze searched for no new threat or path. It sought and found the depression in the earth where the blue-eyed, auburn-haired had fallen. Where a caterpillar had traversed, leaving soil and corpse behind. Where trees and grass would rise.
Symon thought he located the spot. But he wasn’t sure.
Truthfully, what did it matter?
Symon did find, however, the armor that had been stripped from the soldiers. It rested on the ground beside the graves. Had the soldiers fell nearer to home, where their families could have attended to their bodies, then they would have had the choice of burying the dead in full armor or keeping it as a memento of their lives and service. This far north, though, did not allow for such pleasantries. Here, as in any other distant field of battle, soldiers were buried plainly and their armor saved from the earth; for it was either passed along to their fellow brothers-in-arms, that it may serve to try to save another, or carried back home with other warriors and presented to the grieving families, that they may have something to remember their loved ones. Or notwithstanding sentiment, such families may sell it for a bit of spare coin that they may live better.
“Highness . . .”
Symon broke his trance to turn his attention to Everitt, who nodded to the men.
Their posture, the curves of their mouths, their eyes. All of them reflected a range of emotions, the kind that could only come from the prospect of battle. They were eager. For news. For a plan. For any action that could lead to glory. They were vengeful. For some had known the fallen, whether as relatives, neighbors or brethren-in-arms. They were cautious. Of all the dangers that had taken their fellow soldiers, of the enemies that remained unseen, beyond the boundaries of the forest. Most of all, they were forlorn. For the sight and stench of death – whether it be their brothers or adversaries – is enough to lessen the spirits of the most hardened soldier.
Symon considered all of it. The men before him. Their swelling of emotions. The possibility of victory. And failure.
A heavy burden, he reminded himself. What could possibly amount to my largest battle to date. How did Father do it?
Symon turned his attention to the piles of armor that laid scattered by the men who had dug the graves. Yet to be scrubbed clean, the outerwear bore all the scars and stains of battle.
Yes, Symon told himself. “Yes,” he said, this time aloud, as a whisper.
“Pardon . . .” Everitt began.“A plan,” Symon replied. “I have a plan.”