This was for a SFF World contest where we were given the first line of the story: “It wasn’t as if anyone got hurt.” We were free to go in any direction we wished, provided we started with those seven words. It was both restrictive and liberating, because while we had to use those words, the beginning had been written for us. With that out of the way, I wrote a tale of lost men using bits of a long-stewing fantasy setting that’s existed on paper and in my head for almost thirty years now (one which also featured in my story “Tetched”). I’ll get the whole thing out there one day, even if I have to do it a thousand words at a time.
“It wasn’t as if anyone got hurt. Don’t look so glum.”
Lieutenant Garren stared numbly, barely hearing his captain’s words. The flies were here already, buzzing, crawling, oblivious to the blood. “The skoks would probably say differently, sir,” he said.
“Not doing much speaking, are they?” And there was that harsh, hacking laugh that had grated in Garren’s ears since he’d joined Captain Treller’s command. He glanced over to the company’s standard bearer, who rolled his eyes sympathetically. The three of them stood upon a small hill, a mossy oasis of solid ground in the otherwise soggy swamp, eerily clear of the mist that clung to most of the rest of the Markhon like a sorcerer’s cloak. Treller had come to admire his handiwork.
Garren couldn’t bring himself to call it a campaign. Campaigns meant strategy and planning and battles between armies. Not sweeping down onto villages in the dead of night, burning and slashing anything that moved. Not riding down frightened creatures simply trying to run away. “It just doesn’t seem like proper soldiering, sir.”
Treller spat. “As if skoks are proper anything, except dead. Scaly vermin, all of them. Our swords are better than they deserve.”
Garren gazed at the twisted bodies at his feet, limbs and tails tangled together like gnarled roots. The painted symbols on the skoks’ neck frills were spattered with blood, but Garren could still make out the clans they represented: Marshclaw, Tidewater and Nighthunt, with members of some of the smaller clans scattered here and there. Forced together by Treller’s rampage through the Markhon. And, like it had been with every one of these massacres, at the center of the bodies was the vine-draped body of a Glowbringer, his arms still reaching skyward, pleading for help from Sko that never came. Smaller bodies, hatchlings, had been pushed closer to the Glowbringer, the last dying act of their mothers and fathers.
Of course, Treller saw none of this. To him, there were two kinds of skoks: dead ones, and ones he hadn’t killed yet.
The men despised him. Even the ones who held the skoks in as little regard as Treller did had grown tired of the relentless slaughter. They’d joined the King’s Hand to defend the Southern Kingdoms, hoping for glorious battle in the north. Instead, they trudged endlessly through the swamps and mires of the Markhon, killing an enemy that had done them no harm in battles that had no glory. Nearly a dozen men had already deserted, preferring to take their chances alone in the Markhon than take another step under Treller’s banner. And as his second, Garren heard every gripe and complaint and tirade, and had to force himself to remind the men who commanded the company, even if in his heart he agreed with them.
Treller motioned the standard-bearer forward. “Well, let’s send the message then,” he said. The standard-bearer handed the long pole to Treller, the red banner fluttering atop it marked with a stylized black gauntlet holding a white dagger. A white star marked the center of the gauntlet, and gave the company its name: Night’s Fist. Treller cleared his throat, thrust the end of the pole firmly into the ground, then spoke in his loudest voice, “So shall it be for all enemies of the Southern Kingdoms!”
The spear appeared in Treller’s chest as if summoned by magic, so fast was its flight. Treller stared down at the shaft, his face a mask of pale surprise. He tumbled to the ground, dragging the standard with him.
Then the mist around the hill came alive with a sinister hissing, like water sizzling onto a campfire. Garren and the standard-bearer drew their swords, casting about for an attack, but the hissing simply grew louder, filling their ears until they felt they would go mad with the sound of it.
Then the hissing abruptly stopped and a shadow appeared at the edge of the mist. Garren recognized the tell-tale silhouette of a skok, but larger and broader than any he had seen before. It wore some sort of headdress, either large feathers or fronds that sprang up from its frill, waving gently as the figure strode forward. It clutched a huge spear in its hands, and Garren could see bones dangling from it, and hear their rattle as the figure walked. It emerged from the mist as if a curtain parted, and Garren gasped. This skok was massive, its chest woven with scars, its enormous frill notched and cracked, its eyes filled with nothing but hatred.
“Children of Thanni, what is that?” the standard-bearer whispered.
“I have no idea,” Garren replied. It was the first skok warrior he’d seen; it was the first skok he’d ever seen carrying a weapon, for that matter. It walked towards the foot of the hill, clawed feet gouging the earth, its tail straight back to give balance to the hunched-forward gait skoks preferred. Garren could now see the bones on the great spear more clearly, and with a growing sickness knew the fate of the deserters.
The skok stopped and raised itself to its full height, easily half again as tall as Garren. It held the spear before it, then, with a sharp bark, plunged it into the earth before it. The mists echoed with hundreds of approving hisses. Then the skok fixed its eyes on Garren.
“Nuk yuda hag ke wurr ko yuda attada!”
The roar from the mist was deafening; barks, hisses, spears beating on shields, tails slapping the ground. The skok turned and walked back into the mist, the tumult fading as it strode away.
White-faced, the standard-bearer swallowed, then asked, “What did all that mean?”
Garren stared into the mist. “So shall it be for all enemies of the Skoks, I suppose. Gods damn Treller for not being here to see it.” He turned to walk back to camp, to tell the men he now commanded how very unlikely it was they would ever see home again.