PORTENT FOR A SOLDIER
Cold impersonal moonlight quavers. Breath mist rises in rhythmic puffs from forms strewn over the chill ground. A low death-rattling sigh ruffles through the shadowy treetops — all else is quiet. Ashes from fading campfires stir in the soft breeze and sink down again sprinkling warm grey snowflakes onto sleep-pale cheeks and eyelids that flinch, as if in pain. The breeze strengthens and opaque scudding clouds blink past the moon in quick succession. None of the figures move, except here and there to roll over or hug a rough blanket closer. Occasionally, a muted moan floats among the men and I pause and wait – stillness is all.
Against a scarred oak, the watch leans, slumber-heavy at his post, a rifle over his knees and his cap low over his forehead his worn blue uniform mud-hardened and black in the moon shade. Horses still bridled and saddled and edged with silver, step and snort and settle once more, their honest, weary sweat-scent heavy in the calm. The night is so bright each stalk of bedewed hay crushed beneath their hooves is distinct, while letters on blankets stand out clearly.
I’m not of their world and its ways. But they are not supposed to be here, the forest doesn’t forgive their iron and blood and pain. Taking a step forward and then another, around the strangely contorted slumbering soldiers, I guess at bandages dried hard on soft young limbs and necks, and others ghostly sick and a few uninjured. Even in sleep, their faces are cheerless and lost and yet, even in such innocent sleep I can see there is no peace in them. There’s nothing I can do and they’ll be looked after soon enough. They’ll not get far.
The wind picks up, and branches of trees wave brokenly, creaking like old ships settling. In the clearing, I see fresh hewn saplings in piles for their fires, and the air fills with the scent of the dying. Crouching down, the loamy soil and grass is intoxicating; I pluck a stem to keep as something tangible. An old soldier groans in his nightmare. As the blade tears in my fingers as it all vanishes: the horses, all trace of fire and all trace of wounded life.
It’s before dawn and mist wallows in damp, shallow troughs. Soldiers wake shivering and fearful. Some lumber off to feed and water the horses while others attempt to rekindle fires. Eventually, small groups of soldiers rub their chapped hands over the smoky flames, as a simple breakfast is prepared. All is hushed.
‘‘Ad tha’ strangest dream,’ whispers old Geraghty. Over 50, Geraghty seems like some ancient monument to survival to the newer recruits, and they call him Pa. ‘I swear on me Ma’s grave, last night, we ‘ad a visitor.’ The younger soldiers open their eyes wide – wild deer ready to flee.
‘You don’t reckon twas a scout; from t’other side? Do you Pa?’ asks one.
‘Nay, son. Twas a visitation one of the Fay Folk. Didn’t reckon I’d see one, not out ‘ere,’ the old man’s eyes gleam in the watery rays of the rising sun, ‘me Grandad, he had the sight of ‘em, but tha’ twas in the Ol’ Country an’ a whiles ago.’ He shakes his head. ‘I’ll be.’
The young soldiers wait for further elaboration, nudging each other, but Geraghty is lost in thoughts of a distant home long gone. Eventually the talkative one speaks up:
‘Tha’ Fay Folk? A ghost ya mean?’ He lowers his voice, ‘or tha’ devil?’
‘Nay, not th’ like, twas ye know, fairies. Th’ Folk, wha’ they called the Sidhe from tha’ Ol’ Days.’ Pa shakes his grey head in wonderment and keeps chewing. The other soldiers nod seriously, not comprehending, while one or two smirk and a couple cross themselves. The same impatient soldier speaks again.
‘So Pa, what does it mean, though?’ Old Geraghty looks up at the expectant boys.
‘Mean? Well. Could be we’re saved. Sight of th’ Folk can be lucky, ‘tis said,’ old Geraghty pauses, ‘but mebbe ‘tis a bad thing, to see ‘em ‘afore fights loomin’ an’ tha’ war isun over yet’. The old man glances up and around at the trees and kicks fitfully at the edge of a smoking log, shifting the embers of the fire, which sparks up, before he continues, ‘and the woods, folk o’ the woods mebbe, tha’ could be troublesome – I jes’ dunno.’ Geraghty goes back to chewing his bread. The recruits shrug and eye each other as they wipe their gunpowder-blackened fingers over their mouths.
‘I jes’ dunno,’ says Pa Geraghty again.
Through the forest, a shout goes up from the watch. Geraghty reaches for his rifle and lays it over his knees and closes his eyes. A minute later a trumpet echoes and clumps of breakfasting soldiers scatter as bedraggled and bloody columns of troops wind through. For all the men, it seems quieter and old Pa Geraghty, mops his hands, waves his boys down, stands slowly and surveys the marching figures. Too few, too few, he thinks, before he hails one.
‘Hey there! What news o’ tha front?’ A limping corporal stops and looks Geraghty up and down, and eventually, offers a sluggish salute.
‘Battle’s over, but, th’ news, Sergeant, aint so good. We was beat in th’ foothills an retreated’. The corporal slumps, ‘they was like animals and twas ‘ard, real ‘ard, but harf me men got clear. So if yer was ‘opin’ to go ‘ome, keep on ‘opin’. Nobody’s goin’ ‘ome. Not from ‘ere, I’m bettin’. Least ways, you’ll find ou’ soon enuff you’sel’es. They can’t be far behin’ us. Old Geraghty scratches his head, as the soldier goes on his way, the rest of his sad column tramping through the trees, trailing the odour of sweat and defeat. Geraghty, meanwhile, squares his shoulders, grasps his rifle a little closer and looks up at the trees and down at the soldiers, mere boys, huddled close and coughing into the smoke around their fires.
‘Well I’ll be.’
Rebecca Dempsey is a Melbourne based award winning short story writer and published reviewer. She can’t remember when she first found Danse Macabre, but remains a steadfast friend on Facebook. Her work has recently appeared in Ricochet Magazine and Capsule Fiction. Rebecca is studying an MA in Writing and Literature and can be followed @becadroit or at http://writingbec.wordpress.com