It’s the scent that I’ve mastered.
For most, the iron catch of blood in the back of the throat, the excrement stench of spilled entrails, and later, the choking clouds of burning meat on pyres, any of this sends the recruits to retching. After these last years, I find it merely sharpens the mind.
The wounded, a tangle of systems—breathing, bleeding, pumping, connected, conscious—and with hands and ritual I evaluate which systems are intact, and which are not. And each conclusion is met with an action—this satchel, this vial, this root. Some for pain. Some to stop the bleeding. Some, mercifully, to stop the heart.
The woman I’m kneeling over has a crossbow bolt embedded under her collar bone. It’s cut the strings holding the lung in place, and bubbles form around the quarrel, her rasping sharper breath by breath. She is one of my own, a member of the Grey Legion, drowning in her own blood over some squabble between obstreperous Barons, and whatever untested, undertrained beholden they could ship out to die here at her hand.
I could cut the bolt to move her—pulling it out would empty her of blood in seconds, and the length of the shaft unimpeded would act as a kind of lever, stirring her already crushed tissues into porridge. If she were the only one here, if she were somewhere clean, she might live. I mark her place mentally, and move on.
My eyes sting with smoke. The air is grey, the steel of armour grey, the flesh of the fallen grey. The black of the crows are punctuation here, little marks I can use to slice the field up into grids, looking for movement.
One soldier is sitting still. Unmoving, spittle on his lips. His eyes too far off for recovery. There are others though. Those alive, staring, standing. Standing is a good sign.
“You there!” I shout. Nothing. No curiosity, no warning can reach them in this place beyond orders.
“Now!” I try again. He turns to me, dazed. There was a time I did not know what he had seen, but I’ve long since seen it myself. “Here, help me.”
The soldier nods, takes a step towards me, halts. His eyes widen, go blank as he pitches forward. Fallen, a crossbow bolt jutting from his spine like a victorious flag. The death rattle I hear is not from him, but from the enemy whose dying act was this pointless tally to the body count.
I sigh. Look for another. Anyone of any banner upright and breathing.
A boy, there. Water bearer or message runner, it doesn’t matter. I call to him, and he’s not as far gone as the others.
“You there. Find any others still standing and bring them here. Search the dead for water. We will clear a space there.” I point behind this last stand of trees, an open field, large enough to lay perhaps two dozen or more bodies. There’s smoke and at least three mangled horses back there, so I don’t know how much work it will be, but it will give them something to do, and eventually somewhere for me to work, at least while the light lasts.
The boy is effective. Within minutes I have deputized a half-dozen men working in the clearing, and another half dozen to function as orderlies. Theses sort through piles of bodies, find the living, kneel and raise a fist until I can get to them.
The wounded are identified mainly through sound: keening, whimpering, sobbing. Some, curiously, singing. Drinking songs echoed from the night before battle, alongside friends or bastards who now litter the field with shattered limbs or bloody mouths or merely immolated bone. Magic leaves wounds, and corpses, I have no business with.
My next subject is fortunate. Nothing punctured, and the broken ribs, collarbone, and arm seem to have cooperatively failed to sever anything internal or external. A small miracle. Two orderlies drag him out from under a knot of comrades, and patting him down, his leg is at an unholy angle. But it can be reset. Later.
I look back through the screen of trees towards what will be my infirmary—one of the men is clever enough to use the cart harness as tackle, and with rope and a tree is hauling the fallen horses out of the way. There might be meat later, if it comes to it. If the wagons don’t come for the wounded, or a column for the rest of us. Unless the enemy decides this palmful of scrub and forest is worthy of dying some more for. It’s not as if the land itself cares, slaked as it is with blood already. I scan the tree line for threat or movement or both, but if there is a threat, it isn’t moving.
I can see a carving or something among the trees, wide as a tree itself. Totemic. I don’t know the local culture, but I don’t know this land either. Faces, possibly animal, or gods, formed into a wood not of the surrounding forest. I don’t have time to examine it.
My next subject is fine. Completely. He can speak, breathe, there is no blood loss. He seems almost cheerful, even as his head rests unnaturally beside his neck, severed internally. Not a drop of blood, just the horror of the elasticity of skin, the vertebrae beside each other. He says he needs to relieve himself, but cannot stand, or move his arms. Or his fingers.
I tell him he will be fine, and rummage quickly through a pouch in one of the four satchels I have slung around my arms. One vial, one stopper, steel pincers, and a single Veran thorn-leaf placed on his tongue. “You’ll be fine,” I assure him as he dies.
I clap my orderly on the pauldron. He nods and comes with me to the next kneeling soldier, this one accompanying an archer with a shattered forearm, her helm dented menacingly. That arm will have to come off, even before I can move her out of the filth. I reach for a satchel of short, rough-toothed blades.
But it’s odd, I think. Everything. The dead haven’t moved, mercifully—though I’ve heard stories—but the dying won’t remain still. I’ve come from behind the battle, and most fell forward. I’ve been coming up on boots, but now they’ve turned around to greet me with helmets, caps, and an impressive variety of head wounds.
Some are crawling. To me?
I glance back, and the last of the dead horses have been dragged free of the clearing. The pole, or carving, or whatever it was is no longer there. It must be there. I’m exhausted, and I’ve lost my bearings. Or lost its alignment, and it’s just behind that tree. I have the wounded to treat.
There are fewer than I would like, though enough to overwhelm, mercifully. There were seven of us, chiurgeons of the Grey Legion, at the start of battle. Perhaps some of them are under that tangle of smoke and flesh and steel, blood given to this grim and uncanny land.
That’s it, I think, when I allow myself the distraction. It’s a phantasm of a normal wood, a painting or tapestry of somewhere pleasant. But wrenched into a pantomime of horror, either by battle, or something before it. The place is wrong, now or always. I recite to myself that the dead are not here, not anymore, as though it would comfort some recruit. The recruit I was some thousand stitches ago. A hundred amputations ago. A hundred leaves on the tongue ago.
The place is wrong.
* * *
An hour later, and I have thirty-seven on the ground, most medicated at least as I continue to clean and bind wounds. I have another forty or so mobile enough to sleep with their backs to trees. Some, experience tells me, will never wake up. Wounds to organs that will cause them to fail in the next few hours, crushed tissue deep where I have no magics to see.
I’ve ordered fires lit. The survivors I’ve commandeered have no real reason to follow me, but there’s no orders beyond not dying, and they can see that I have something to do with that. So they kneel and put pressure here, as instructed, or carry water, or tend the small fires to keep the wounded warm. Some have discovered a flask of something, and find comfort in the routine of soldiers.
The firelight glints off something in the forest. Perhaps those dismissed as dead have awakened, drawn to firelight. It is not the rush of forest animals. Slow, like the swaying of branches. As I peer into the wood, I can see nothing.
My shoulders and back ache from bending, and I haven’t felt my knees in hours, pressed as they are into the cooling blood of wet earth. I shuffle from wounded to wounded, counting breaths, listening to heartbeats, packing wounds. It is only when I get to the last row that I realize…they have turned around.
They were all facing the same way before. Boots to field. In a soldierly line, with most too unconscious to interfere with the order of it. But now here’s a dozen bodies, some still arrow-struck, who’ve situated themselves to face back towards the battlefield, as if intent upon dying there.
That’s when I see it. The carving. The row of animal heads. I see it clearly now. The topmost a diamond, either some kind of stylized fox head, or perhaps something…serpentine? I’d swear it hadn’t been so close to the clearing before. Yet here are the wounded, oriented towards the thing in their delirium.
I’m more annoyed than curious. Crawling or even moving around with an arrow in the wound will tear what I’ve spent hours stitching or packing or medicating. Where is that water boy?
Where is anyone?
I turn towards my field of wounded…all of whom now, conscious or otherwise, have rotated themselves facing me.
And all the walking wounded are gone, along with my orderlies. There is myself, a dozen small and dying fires, and the mangled, all spun like a leaf in a stream towards the totem. Except for the pale dead, now. Some have had the sense to stay put.
I have no salve or tincture for this. I place a hand on the woman sprawled out before me. She’s cold. Pale, paler than she should be, even in death, given that I made the rounds of her area not more than fifteen minutes ago. I press a thumb into a pale cheekbone, the print remaining there as if in clay.
Exsanguinated. Bled out straight down to the organs. Must have been a liver puncture I failed to catch, or—no.
Not that. Something else.
Three things in the light of gloaming dusk and dying fire.
The first is that those still alive are all moving, all crawling, shuffling through a susurrus of grass.
The second is that they are singing, softly. Through bloody lips, with their last, gasping, choking breaths, they are singing.
The third is that the carved pole or whatever it is has somehow moved again when I glanced away. Somehow, it is now well into the clearing, moved without having moved, not ten paces from me. From me and the dead, for that is what is left as the singing fades. Each one, I turn and check with a weary grunt, drained of blood like the woman here.
Glancing up, it has moved yet again. This unnatural thing, this bizarre forest god. And that is when the last of the sputtering fires makes clear the glint in the evening air.
Blood rises like a mist from the bodies, floating on currents, leisurely, toward the carving, which simply stands, unmoving, accepting this offering. Droplets like a cloud flies. Impossible. Grotesque. As inconceivable as it is undeniable.
I should have smelled the blood. But of course, I’ve become accustomed to the scent. I close my eyes, count to eight, and open them.
The thing is five paces from me now, looming over me—over us, I think, even though all are dead now. It moves at last, which my brain finds satisfying, as four arachnid arms extend from the thing, each the span of myself. Courteous for the thing to be at least in this aspect explicitly animal. Something to categorize in the midst of all this dark, ungraspable magic. And I marvel that even as the singers are silenced, the song itself is still discernible.
Then I find myself singing it. My cheeks are flushed and my arms are warm with the sweetest of fevers as my own blood reaches the surface of my skin and forms tiny beads, like the bites of flies, before rising into a pink mist and slowly, gently, soft as a lullaby, meandering towards the patient animal-faced forest-god.
I should be able to make out the sound of the gentle clicking of mandibles or slaked fangs, but of course, like everyone else here, I too am dead now.
Story by Jordan Stratford.
Art by William Liu. Will is a freelance artist from Toronto, Canada who is passionate about designing and illustrating creatures and approaches life with a calm, curious demeanour.