Swamp of Phantoms (Part Thirteen)

(If you are new to this story you can find Part One here!)

‘Did you hear that?’ Halka turned to face in the direction that she thought the sound had come from but it was impossible to find her bearings in the cloud. Something about it seemed to distort sound, making it appear to come from several directions at once.

‘I didn’t hear anything,’ said Lev.

Both soldiers were on horseback riding in the second row of the formation. Halka had grumbled that she felt very exposed, positioned as she was right at the edge, but she had to admit it didn’t really matter where she was, the danger they faced was such that it could reach her wherever she was.

‘Of course you didn’t,’ she chided, ‘you’ve been too busy babysitting Dachaski.’

‘Yakov is my friend,’ said Lev. ‘I would not expect a false woman to understand anything about the importance of friendship between men.’

‘A false woman?’ Halka bit back a laugh, realising it might well expose her to the effects of the gas. ‘And what exactly does that entail? Afraid I might learn how to piss without sitting down?’

‘You know exactly what I mean,’ grumbled the young soldier. ‘No true woman chooses to live as a soldier. It’s something you can never fully understand.’

‘Have you known many real women?’ scoffed Halka. ‘Oh Lev of House Koschin, my fine and noble lord, who sleeps on satin sheets and never ever roams the streets, please tell this poor and ignorant “false woman” how I may go about becoming real. I am humbled by your very presence, oh worldly and knowledgeable man of men.’

The young soldier’s reaction caught Halka off guard. Instead of shouting a rebuttal as she had expected his face turned red with shame. She looked at the man and suddenly felt a tightening in her gut that almost bordered on guilt. Lev was one of those rare soldiers who possessed the build of a fighter but clearly lacked the stomach, a combination that did not sit right with her. Yet in spite of everything she felt sorry for the man that was neither soldier nor noble. There was no world in which he belonged, and that at least was something she could relate to.

‘That was too much, I’m sorry,’ said Halka, trying to adopt the detached and masculine voice she often used to deal with situations like this. ‘Yakov’s your comrade, I understand. He’s my comrade too, and so are you.’

‘I am sorry too,’ said Lev, though Halka could tell with a small hint of satisfaction that there was a bitterness behind the words. ‘I do not interact well with women, blame my upbringing for that. Yakov is far more practiced at it than I am.’

‘Man’s a dog,’ grunted Halka.

‘He is at that,’ laughed Lev, stopping himself abruptly as he remembered where he was.

After that they rode in silence, once more distracted by the thick fumes swirling all around them. The whole place was uncomfortable, claustrophobic even. It was good to talk, but doing so had left the two soldiers glancing over their shoulders more so than before. Each uttered breath could well bring them closer to the same fate that befell the scouts. Neither one of them had any wish to experience the horrors that their fallen comrade had described so vividly.

Halka held her breath and tied her scarf more tightly around her mouth. The material was now cutting into her skin but the pain was a sacrifice she made willingly so long as it meant her mind was her own. Next she checked her horse, its pace was steady, but its ears had remained pricked up since the moment they entered the cloud. She wondered if it sensed something that she could not. All the horses had been fitted with muzzles and where muzzles were not available they were crafted makeshift from any supplies that would not go amiss. Both Halka and Lev’s horses had been fitted with the proper muzzles, no doubt because of their professed loyalty to their lord and commander. Halka wondered what would happen if that loyalty ever needed to be tested. She was not overly fond of her comrades, but all the same the thought that she might have to fight them was not something she looked forward to.

She allowed her hands to move gently to the wooden crossbow that lay across her lap. It was not a delicate thing, splinters frayed from wood that had been jammed together rather than ornately fashioned. The clumsiness with which it had been crafted meant that she had to hold the weapon close to her and compensate for its tendency to fire just right of centre but she did not mind that. It had saved her life on numerous occasions.

Embedded into the side of the frame was a small silver engraving of the flame-headed death god, Mortis. By its side she had crudely carved the words: In His name. She found the symbolism fitting, after all the weapon was designed with death in mind. She had scrimped and saved to buy the engraving, confident in the knowledge that as long as she held her weapon with all the veneration one might bestow upon a holy relic, death would pass her by.

‘Back row is gone,’ said Lev bluntly, his voice barely more than a whisper.

‘What?’ said Halka. ‘Gone where?’

Lev shook his head. ‘I noticed a number of soldiers break off from the main formation but I didn’t catch their direction. That was about an hour ago, they still haven’t returned.’

‘Why haven’t you informed Lord Drovalak?’ asked Halka.

‘Because I’m pretty sure he ordered them to,’ said Lev, struggling to piece together what he had seen. ‘I think they were a search party. There were only three of them where there were six before. Now they’re all gone.’

Halka gripped her crossbow tightly. ‘What do you think’s happening?’

‘The Night Locust is coming.’ The answer didn’t come from Lev; instead it came from his passenger whose eyes had begun fluttering as he returned to consciousness. Lev had not thought to give Yakov a scarf, he was too afraid that it might suffocate him in his sleep. Instead he had left him unprotected, hoping that he would be immune to the effects of the cloud while sleep had overtaken him.

‘What?’ said Halka again. ‘What are you talking about?’

‘I… don’t know,’ said Yakov creasing his brow. ‘Where are we?’

‘We’re in the cloud, comrade,’ said Lev, his hand resting reassuringly on his friend’s shoulder.

‘No,’ said Yakov, his eyes widening. ‘No we have to turn around, we can’t stay here!’

‘It’s too late for that,’ said Halka. ‘We must be close to the end now.’

Yakov turned his torso wildly, shaking off Lev’s touch and staring down into the murk below. He stared as the yellow smoke was blown aside, but there was only mud and pools of foul water.

‘But where are the bodies?’ he asked weakly.

‘It was all in your head, my friend,’ said Lev. ‘The gas made you see things that weren’t there.’

‘Then the scouts,’ said Yakov slowly. ‘They’re not dead?’

‘We don’t know,’ shrugged Halka. ‘You were the only one that returned.’

‘I…,’ Yakov’s brow creased harder as he worked hard to remember what had happened. There were holes in his memory, vast empty chasms that he somehow could not fill. Even trying to remember only made his head hurt, so instead he skipped to the last thing he could recall. He was lying flat on the mud staring up at the advancing form of his commander. ‘Lord Drovalak… he was going to kill me.’

‘No,’ said Lev a bit more quickly than he had intended, ‘he wanted to snap you out of your delusion.’

‘He was going to kill me…’ gasped Yakov, ignoring his friend’s words, ‘and you would have let him!’

Lev made to answer, then turned his back on his friend. His expression one of shame once more. ‘Tie your scarf,’ he said finally.

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About A. R. Whitehead

I'm an aspiring author, with a degree in English and Creative Writing. I love books, comics, games and film. My favourite genres are Science Fiction and Fantasy.
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