My first sequel, a follow-up to A Hill to Die On. Another SFF World flash fiction contest, the theme was “a long walk,” and considering where the first story ended, it seemed obvious to check in and see what happened to those poor men I’d left stranded in the middle of that hostile swamp. It was the least I could do after putting them there in the first place.
It was a thick black thing, the fletching made of stiffened feathers from one of the foul carrion birds with which Garren had become all too familiar. It had caught Jeffers in the throat, the twang of the bowstring muted by the thick fog. He’d looked at Garren for a moment, then down at the arrow. Then he’d let the tattered and bloody banner fall from his hands, and soon followed it to the ground.
Seventeen days had passed since Captain Treller had died and Garren had taken command and the company had begun the long slow march out of the Markhon Swamp. Seventeen days, when it had taken only two for them to reach the small hill where Treller had met his end. Clearly, the Markhon had not been done with them.
And neither were the skoks. Every so often a single arrow pierced the fog, each met with the thud of armor and cloth and flesh being pierced, the plaintive cry of the next dead man, the crash of a body falling to the ground. Then there were days when no arrows came at all, just the constant hiss of angry tongues, and the drumming sound of spear clashing against shield. Those days, some men prayed for arrows.
When what meager sunlight there was made its way through the dense canopy of tree and fog, every step was an effort to free their feet from the sucking mire, every step forward a surrender to it once again. At night, they dared not light a fire, as much for fear of the stinging insects it would draw as for fear of providing a silhouette for a skok arrow. They huddled in the dark, nothing in their bellies but hunger, nothing on their tongues but whispered prayers.
Then came a morning when only Garren and Jeffers awoke. And now Jeffers lay dead at his feet, the banner half-covering him like a lazy shroud. It would be so easy to join him, Garren thought. It was just a matter of time now, whether from hunger, exhaustion, or a skok arrow. Why not just lay himself down and hope for a quick end?
“Because I am a man of the King’s Hand!” he shouted, angry at himself for his despair He shouldered his pack, picked up the dirty, bloody banner, and set about the task of taking the next step.
The hissing started again near what felt like mid-morning. There were long, slow hisses, short, sharp ones like a mummer’s pipes, and some that rose and fell in what could only be laughter. They came from every direction save the one in which he trudged. They’re herding me, he realized. “Damned if I go like some green recruit,” he muttered, drawing his sword. The hissing grew more frenzied, almost excited. “All right, you lizards, you’re not the only ones who can sing.” He cleared his throat and lifted his ragged voice..
Oh they say the sun will never set
Upon our shining land,
And that braver men will ne’er be met
Than those of the King’s Hand.
The laugh-like hissing grew louder now, and Garren sang louder..
Those men whose deeds will win the day
Whatever foes have planned,
And march home, banners on display.
Behold! ‘Tis the King’s Hand!
The skoks were beating their spears against their shields in cruel accompaniment, and their hissing roiled around him like a whirlwind, getting louder, getting closer.
And when there’s darkness all around,
And when there’s blood upon the ground,
And when the enemy trumpets sound,
We’ll fight for him whom fate has crowned!
Dark shapes darted around him, and ahead stood a large shadowy figure, clutching a great spear in its hand. It shook the spear in time with his song, the rattle of bones added to the din of shield and spear. Garren gritted his teeth and spat out the final verse in full-throated defiance.
So when you see our swords are drawn
And we make our final stand,
We may not live to see the dawn,
But we’ll die as the King’s Hand!
The figure raised its arms and the hissing stopped, so abruptly that the sudden silence made Garren’s head swim. He recognized the great skok warrior he’d seen what seemed like a lifetime ago on the hill. It looked no less fierce now, looming over him like some great gnarled tree. Garren held his sword before him, unwavering. “Well, come on you bastard. Let’s do our dance.”
With the barest effort, the skok swung his spear and sent Garren’s sword tumbling into the mist. Garren found himself laughing, dropping to his knees. “Be done with it then.”
Then a scaled hand was lifting him from the ground, and the skok looked down and barked, “Yuda enko gesh, dosh kren tura vesko!” As he spoke the final word, he moved his other open and closed, as if he played with some unseen puppet. Then he was dragging Garren through the swamp, and with a grunt of effort, threw him, sending Garren tumbling until he lost all sense of direction.
When he gathered himself, he could see light through the trees ahead, and the ground felt more solid beneath his feet. He crawled, and soon emerged into a field of high green grass, a tall tower standing in the hazy distance. He thought of the skok’s hand opening and closing, understanding slowly coming upon him. They killed my men and let me live just so I can tell the tale. I’m a messenger bearing letters written in blood. “But we’ll die as the King’s Hand,” he sang softly, and began the long walk to the tower.
In his grey later years, on nights when sleep once again eluded him, and his mind again filled with the faces of the men he should have died alongside, he would rise and stand before an open window, a lantern bright behind him. And as he listened, straining to hear a hiss, he would pray for an arrow.