|NO MAN’S LAND by Rab Foster
For hours the lieutenant sat on a bench and watched the soldiers come up the road from the hollow where the morning’s battle had taken place. He felt no urge to get off the bench and move himself. Nonetheless, he dreaded the moment when a retreating soldier might draw level with him, stop, point a finger and scream: “Coward!”
The worst possibility was that his company captain, who’d looked after him like a father, would limp into view. He’d be limping because the last time the lieutenant had seen him, a piece of flak had ripped open his leg. He’d have every right to stop in front of the bench and scream: “Coward!”
The bench was next to a gateway opening into the grounds of an abandoned chateau, in which the surgeons had set up a field hospital that morning. At some point a gunner wearing only boots, trousers and braces had wandered out through the gateway and sat beside him on the bench. The gunner’s torso and face were blackened with powder and above his eyebrows his head was covered with a red-stained bandage.
Though it’d been decades since the chateau was last occupied, the gunner had found a wooden puppet belonging to a child who’d lived there. The puppet was a representation of a soldier dressed in a hussar’s helmet and jacket, and was still marked with shreds of scarlet paint. The gunner bent forward, worked its strings and made it march to and fro in front of his boots. At the same time pained, croaking sounds came out of him.
Eventually the lieutenant recognised these as words and he realised the gunner was doing a strangled imitation of a parade-ground sergeant. “Left right… Left right… Attention… About turn… Left right…”
None of the soldiers coming up the road moved like they were on a parade ground. Indeed, as more of them passed the chateau gates during the afternoon, their movements degenerated. The first soldiers ran. Later ones limped and stumbled. The final ones crawled. By the end of the afternoon the lieutenant was watching the last of the crawlers. A soldier dragged himself to a point on the roadside opposite their bench, succumbed to exhaustion and lay against the ground with his head turned towards them. By now the road was so bloody that its dirt had become a burgundy-coloured mud and the soldier’s face sank into it. Despite the mud, the lieutenant recognised the soldier as a private in his platoon. Here finally was someone who could point a finger and scream at him: “Coward!”
But even if the dying private recognised him, he wasn’t going to scream anything. Something, perhaps a spray of grapeshot, had caught the soldier’s jawbone and torn it from the bottom of his face. His jaw and the tongue within it were lying behind on the battlefield.
The lieutenant was still watching the private’s face and the crazed gunner was still playing with the puppet-soldier when solid shot began to smash down near the chateau. The surgeons had already fled from the building, in a fleet of medical wagons that’d gone rolling along the road in the same direction as the retreating army. They’d taken with them any injured soldiers whom they’d considered save-able. Now the only people remaining in the chateau were the mortally wounded, who’d been abandoned in its makeshift wards.
Accordingly, a few despairing cries would go up inside the building every time a distant bang and a shriek in the air announced that another projectile was coming down.
The lieutenant ignored the sounds. He paid attention only to the wrecked face of his platoon-soldier in the mud across the road. Again and again he relived that moment when he’d turned and run and left his men to fend for themselves in the hollow, the moment that ensured he was still alive while the others in the platoon, including the soldier across the road, were dead.
It was only the sound of two horses galloping up and stopping in front of the gateway that disturbed the lieutenant’s meditations and made him raise his head. The horses weren’t heading out of the hollow but towards it. The first one bore a rider while the second had bags and cases strapped to its flanks. To the lieutenant’s surprise, the rider was a civilian, a young, slim man in a frock coat, breeches and mud-smeared boots. His face was shaded by a tricorne, around whose brim a huge red feather curled like a serpent.
“Your battle today,” said the rider, “is lost.”
The lieutenant ignored him and fixed his gaze again on the dead soldier across the road. The rider turned in his saddle, took in the grotesque condition of the soldier’s face and then turned back to the lieutenant.
“Very pretty,” he said. “But if you’re still looking for excitement… after the excitement you’ve already had today… I need a porter to help me.”
“A porter,” repeated the lieutenant. There was a flicker of feeling inside him that he recognised as surprise.
“My horses are exhausted. They can’t continue any further. Not that they’d want to continue, with the day drawing to a close.” The rider leaned forward and added: “You went in there this morning to fight your battle, didn’t you? Well, things would’ve been different if you’d tried to enter during the night. You wouldn’t have been able to enter at all. Your animals would’ve refused to go.”
“A porter?” said the lieutenant again. “Carrying things like a servant?”
The rider climbed down, the slimness of his figure showing amid his flapping, oversized frock coat. “Don’t take it as an affront to your dignity. I passed your surviving comrades while I rode along the road, and from the look of them I wouldn’t say your regiment has much dignity left. From being an officer in that rabble to being a servant with me isn’t a great step down in the world.”
The lieutenant gestured towards the hollow. “You propose we go back there?”
“Back? I haven’t been there yet.” The rider began to un-strap his bags from the sides of the second horse, as if the lieutenant had agreed already to carry them for him. “Are you fit to go back?”
The lieutenant thought about it for a moment. “I am,” he said.
Suddenly there was a distant clap and then a whistling noise. Another shot streaked down above their heads and again cries came from the dying soldiers in the chateau. The enemy gunners scored their best hit yet. The shot struck the front wall and brought some of it down in a cascade of bricks and dust. In the gap left by the fallen wall the whole of a first-storey room was exposed to the daylight. The chateau suddenly resembled a doll’s house with part of its façade removed.
The rider stared past the broken wall into the room. “The nursery,” he murmured. “It was an agreeable old room. Such a pity.”
When they started down the road, the lieutenant assumed that the vapour filling the sunken region ahead was an accumulation of the day’s cannon and rifle-smoke. Only when they entered the vapour did he realise that it was natural. A mist had formed over the ground. Smoke was present within it, however, soiling it with filthy streaks and swirls.
The road and slope gave way to a flat expanse. Though the mist limited visibility to a circle, the lieutenant recognised this as the site in the hollow where his regiment had assembled early in the morning. Here it’d divided into its constituent companies, which had then fanned out across the hollow’s floor.
The site looked squalid. Strewn over the muddy ground was a profusion of debris, discarded, dropped or trampled down by fleeing men—tents, flags, blankets, knapsacks, canteens, rifles with broken stocks and bent barrels, hats, waist-belts, bayonets, bugles, cartridge boxes, rations of biscuits and sardines, a scattered set of playing cards. Beneath the debris the mud was endlessly imprinted with men’s footprints and horses’ hoof prints. Some pointed forward into the hollow, others pointed back towards the road. They were the crisscrossing signatures of an army advancing and an army retreating.
The bodies of men and horses were too many to count. Along one misty edge of the scene the lieutenant even saw four dead mules, wiped out by a single blast of grapeshot. The wagon they’d been pulling had been overturned too. Now, lying in the sea of mud, the toppled wagon and the humped mules resembled a boat being towed by four black porpoises.
Because the young man had dismounted and left his horses behind, the lieutenant couldn’t think of him as ‘the rider’ anymore. He thought of him as ‘the stranger’ instead. After taking everything in, the stranger demanded, “Where are your opponents? What were you fighting? Ghosts?”
“Their infantry and cavalry are already on the march again. They’re moving north, where in a few days they’ll meet our main force under Archduke Brennen. But they still have guns on the heights in front of us, firing after the soldiers they’ve routed.” In fact, one of those guns sounded then and its bang was accompanied by a brief yellowy glimmer of light high in the mist.
“So what happened today was only a rehearsal for a bigger event?”
“A costly rehearsal.”
The stranger knelt and produced a map and compass from a satchel. While he unfolded part of the map over his knee and set the compass down as levelly as possible on the mud, the lieutenant glanced fearfully into the smoke-smudged mist. He wondered if his claim was correct. Had the enemy soldiers begun their northward march? Could there still be some in the hollow, with orders to dispose of any survivors who hadn’t retreated?
And even as he asked himself those questions, he heard a voice issuing orders in the mist behind them. The lieutenant turned in time to see a lone figure come hobbling into view. It was the gunner with the blackened skin and the red-stained bandage on his head. From one of his hands hung the strings connected to the puppet-soldier, which floated a few inches above the ground. The gunner’s hand jerked so that the puppet’s limbs cranked back and forth, and he barked at it, “Left right… Left right… Attention… About turn… Left right…”
Untroubled by the gunner’s appearance, the stranger folded the map again and rose from the ground. “So,” he said, “there’s three of us now.” Then he removed the compass from the mud, pocketed it and pointed into an area of the mist. “We have to go that way.”
“Northeast,” said the lieutenant.
“Your sense of direction is excellent.”
“My company was sent that way this morning.”
“Indeed? Did you come across the ruins of a chapel? Roofless? Walls partly fallen?”
“Yes. My captain told me to secure those ruins with my platoon.”
“Ah, a happy coincidence! And did you notice anything of interest there?”
The lieutenant shook his head. “We were fighting a battle, not making a tour of the local landmarks.”
The ground changed soon after they resumed walking. No longer was there only mud, churned by galloping hooves and running feet. Now clumps of grass and weeds gave way beneath them, retreating treacherously into the earth with an oozing and gurgling that showed the presence of subterranean water. Because of the weight of the bags on their shoulders, their feet sank even further than they should have done.
There was surface water too, filling the depressions in the hollow’s floor. These ranged from nicks and pocks a few feet long or wide to channels that meandered and ponds that stretched for many yards. The water was dark, oily and still and the depressions containing it looked like wounds that’d festered and turned rotten.
As they waded across the viscous black water of a channel, the lieutenant said to the stranger, “I hope your map prepared you better for this than our maps did. We came here expecting dry ground. The cartographers of this region said nothing about a marsh.”
The stranger replied, “That’s because there wasn’t a marsh here before. Not until twenty years ago. Then the owner of the chateau back along the road started an engineering project. He diverted two local streams and sent them down into this hollow, to join a third stream that flowed through the middle of it. And he built a dam to the south. His plan was to turn the hollow into a lake. Unfortunately, instead of getting a lake, he got the morass that we’re crossing now.”
“Twenty years ago? I thought the chateau had been abandoned earlier.”
“It looks like it’s stood empty for a long time, doesn’t it? But that’s typical here. What’s new soon becomes old. What’s youthful gets consumed. Everything quickly ends up corrupt and decayed.”
Before the lieutenant had time to ask what he meant by this, the stranger added, “It’s said his attempt to create a lake here was the ruin of the chateau’s master. The marsh he ended up with cost him and his family their lives. They died from fevers that they’d contracted from its foul waters.” His tone had become rueful. “Well, that’s what they say.”
They scrambled up the far side of the channel, its black, muddy bank shifting and sliding beneath them so that they almost fell back into the water. At the same time the gunner limped from the mist nearby, still working the puppet and drilling it with orders. He must have found a way around the channel because he hadn’t a patch of wetness on him. Despite his madness, the gunner was the most adept of them at traversing the marsh.
In the battle’s aftermath, bodies lay amid the grass and weeds and blood latticed the slimy banks as it worked its way down to the pools and channels. Also, bodies bobbed in the water, their faces, hands, uniforms and haversacks already looking as black and putrid as it did.
Near to them now, a field gun lay overturned at the edge of a pool. One side of its carriage and one pair of its wheels were sunk into the bank, while the end of its barrel rested in the grass at the top. Two horses’ carcasses, still tethered to the gun by lengths of chain, floated in the water below. The bodies of the gun’s crew were strewn on the ground, in the water and down the mud forming the boundary between them. The scene told a story that’d happened many times that morning. Teams of men had been moving the field guns through the marsh and had become stuck. While they struggled to free their guns, the enemy got into positions to rake the hollow with cannon-shot and bullets. Then they were slaughtered.
The lieutenant saw one corpse lying alongside the stricken gun, its feet pointing up the bank and its head… He wondered for a moment if the dead soldier had been decapitated because he could see no head, but then realised that the corpse’s shoulders were at the very bottom of the bank and the head was submerged in the rancid water. And then the lieutenant saw something flutter in the water under the dead soldier’s shoulders, around where his head would be. Something pale and fan-like…
The body slid down the bank and disappeared piece by piece into the water, shoulders, torso, legs and feet. The water rippled over the ends of its boots and became still again. The lieutenant stared at the pool. Could he see a red stain now, spreading on the surface?
Suddenly he realised that he was being left behind. The stranger hadn’t stopped walking and the gunner hobbled behind him, and both were fading into the mist. Not wanting to be alone, the lieutenant hurried after them. He thought about the pale fan-shaped thing he’d seen by the submerged head and the only thing he could equate it to was a hand.
When he caught up with his two companions, the mist ahead was puzzlingly bright. The brightness couldn’t be sunlight because it was evening-time now and the sun was departing the sky. Nor could the lieutenant attribute it to the enemy’s artillery. It was continual rather than flashing and there were no bangs accompanying it. Besides, he assumed that by now all the enemy’s forces were heading north, for their confrontation with the Archduke.
The mist began to glow in hues of yellow and orange, and it shimmered too as if those hues were moving. The stranger looked at him for an explanation and he sifted through his memories of the morning, incoherent though those memories were.
Finally, he said, “My company reached a less marshy area. Where there were trees, ferns, brambles, dry grass… But the bastards were waiting for us. They hammered us. Hit us with such a bombardment it was like hellfire raining down. No wonder the undergrowth ignited and burned.”
“Was that where the ruined chapel was?”
The lieutenant struggled to remember. “Not quite. But it was close.”
“I wonder if I’ve wasted my time coming today. Maybe the fire’s done the job for me. Maybe it’s consumed them.” Slowly the stranger turned around, surveying the landscape of mist, marsh and carnage. He seemed to listen for something and so the lieutenant listened too. After a few moments he heard movement beyond the small circle of visibility imposed by the mist. He heard water slapping and mud oozing as things passed through them. And there were other sounds, soft mewing ones made by animals of some type. Their mewing had a note in it that suggested pleasure and the lieutenant asked himself what would make animals feel happy.
Food, obviously. In the mist, creatures that’d been hungry before were feeding.
“No,” said the stranger, “they aren’t hiding around that old chapel, in danger of going up in flames with it because they’re waiting for the sun to set. The mist’s shielded them from the sunlight and they’ve ventured out already. And there’s a feast for them today, a glorious banquet laid on by providence!” The stranger started walking again, towards the flames. “Still, that chapel’s where we have to go.”
A little later they found the chapel and the lieutenant’s recollections proved to be correct. It was close to, but not on, the drier ground that was ablaze. The marsh’s pools, channels and saturated turf had held the fire back from it. However, just beyond its furthest walls, leaping flames and swirling smoke gave the ruins an infernal backdrop.
The broken walls of the chapel’s nave, transept and ambulatory still traced the shape of a cross. They entered it and walked on flagstones that were carpeted with weeds, moss and black marsh-ooze. Above, the glow from the fire etched the jagged tops of the walls in yellow and orange. Attracted by this, the gunner went to an almost-fallen section of wall, scrambled on top of it and climbed up a ridge that rose gradually to a peak about fifteen feet high. There he stopped, crouched, dangled the puppet in the air before him and worked its strings to make it dance grotesquely. His outline became etched in the fiery colours too and he suddenly resembled a stone gargoyle mounted on the wall.
Meanwhile, the stranger led the lieutenant to a block of stone that’d once formed the base of a baptismal font. He removed the bags from the lieutenant’s shoulders and his own shoulders and placed them on the block. Then he took out their contents, which included a lantern, a crowbar with a curved, barbed end, a bundle of iron stakes, a hammer and a crossbow. The wood of the crossbow’s tiller was smooth and gleamed with varnish, showing that it wasn’t an antique but a recent product of a weapons workshop.
“Thank you,” said the stranger. “I wouldn’t have got here so quickly if I’d had to carry this on my own. You may leave now.” But then, ominously, he added, “You may not get very far.”
The lieutenant noted the delicacy of the stranger’s face. He was used to the rough pugnacious countenances of soldiers and this gentle face didn’t belong to someone who’d enter a battlefield armed with a crossbow. “Who are you?” he demanded. “What’s this mission of yours?”
“I assume you know the history of this place, this scrap of land that so many of your comrades died fighting for today. How many times has it changed hands over the centuries?”
“Well, before we marched in here, our commanders told us a dozen different armies had seized it at different times.”
“A dozen at least. Maybe more. My father distinguished himself fighting under Archduke Brennen’s father on the second-last occasion that it changed hands. And because that campaign was a success, my father was given an estate in the region as a reward. At the heart of the estate was the chateau where I met you this afternoon.” Again his tone became rueful. “Some reward. More like a curse. It wasn’t long after my father took up residence in the chateau that the visits began. Nocturnal visits made by his new neighbours, who lived down in this hollow. Visits that invariably ended in deaths… Our guards and servants first… Their bodies emptied of blood…”
The stranger sighed and for the first time the lieutenant sensed desperation in him. “I’ve heard plenty of lore about how to fight these creatures. The trouble is, I don’t know what to believe.” He lifted the bundle of stakes. “These, for instance. Some say that if you hammer them into their hearts… But my father was told they could be destroyed by water. That’s why he tried to turn this place into a lake, to drown them. Well, he didn’t make a lake. He made a marsh, but a marsh still contains water and that doesn’t seem to have stopped them at all.” He paused. Mewing sounds could be heard over the crackling flames. “Listen to them feasting. I think they like this watery hellhole that my father created.
“I was the youngest child and he sent me to live with my grandparents in the capital before I became another victim. And after I left, my family died too. My mother, my brothers, finally my father himself. Not from marsh fevers as some people have claimed. They were slain by the horrors that dwell here.
“Unfortunately, when I was old enough to understand what’d happened to my family, old enough to swear revenge, I couldn’t get back into this region. Our friends in the east had launched a counterattack and pushed the old Archduke’s forces west again, behind the line of the former border. This meant for years it was impossible for me to return to my old home, especially because my family name was bound up with the cause of the Archduke. If I’d set foot here and the occupiers discovered my identity, they’d have put a noose round my neck.
“But when the young Archduke embarked on this new crusade, to reclaim these eastern lands that’d belonged once to his father… I saw my opportunity. I’d ride in behind your army. It didn’t matter who the ultimate victor was. I knew the area would be in such confusion that I’d have time to get to this chapel and strike.”
“And what’s at this chapel?”
“A few members of my father’s household survived the onslaught. Once, I tracked down his old valet. He told me that just before my father died, he became convinced that the source of the evil was to be found here. Supposedly this chapel contains a crypt. Long ago, when this was a functioning place of worship, the crypt belonged to the family who originally built the chateau. But at some point, the crypt was commandeered.”
“By the chief of the brood. It’s beyond my powers to destroy all of them, but if I can destroy her…” The stranger moved away from the block of the font. He started probing at the ground with the crowbar, as if hunting for a loose flagstone that might be prised up like a trapdoor. His parting words were: “Maybe by knocking out the high command I can disable the army. I’m sure that’s what your military tacticians would advise.”
Left alone, the lieutenant looked around and began to see evidence that soldiers, members of his platoon, had been in the ruins that morning. The soiled flagstones were marked with imprints of boots. He saw debris too—a dropped hat, a discarded bayonet, an abandoned haversack whose pockets bulged because the army-ration biscuits in them were soaked and swollen with marsh-water. And on the ground at the far end of the ruins, in a section that might once have accommodated a chapel choir, he spotted a slash of flickering red. Something metallic lay there, reflecting the glow of the fire outside. He approached it and discovered a tasselled sword.
It resembled the sword he’d carried into battle that morning, which he’d lost at the same moment he’d lost his nerve. The lieutenant picked up the sword, wondering if it was his.
Meanwhile, the remnants of the wall forming the chapel’s eastern end rose no higher than his waist and the fire raged not far beyond it. A couple of trees stood amid the conflagration, their trunks and branches reduced to black spindles. His gaze shifted from the sword to the scene outside as he became aware that other figures were visible besides the skeletal ones of the trees.
Three or four of them squatted before the flames while at the same time edging backwards. Their skins were smeared with marsh-slime that glistened in the firelight. From their heads sprouted wreaths of hair that looked little different from the tangled clumps of grass and weeds that the lieutenant had trudged through earlier. Their angular bodies, gaunt limbs, splayed hands and tapering fingers suggested marsh creatures like lizards, frogs or wading birds that’d grown to impossible sizes. Now, as they crept back on their haunches, from the fire, towards the chapel, he could see that they were dragging things with them.
The lieutenant realised they were pulling soldiers’ corpses, whose blood they wished to feed on before the fire consumed them. Unable to stop himself, he exclaimed: “God!”
One of the figures turned its head. Its features were impossible to make out because of the riotous, Medusa-like tresses of hair surrounding them. Only the eyes were discernible, shining as two points of light. For a moment, their light was a bright yellow. Then, imitating the changing flame-colours in the background, it became orange. And then it took on other colours, red, blue, green and…
The light in the creature’s eyes became a glinting icy white and suddenly the lieutenant no longer felt afraid. His fear gave way to numbness and apathy.
Abandoning the corpses they were dragging, the creatures swivelled and came scrabbling towards the chapel on flat, wide hands and feet. Still inexplicably lethargic, the lieutenant stood and watched them approach.
Then, dimly, he heard a voice up on a wall behind him. “Left right…” raved the gunner as he played with the puppet. “About turn… Left right… Halt!”
Hearing those parade-ground orders reminded the lieutenant that he was a soldier, one who’d been in a battle. In turn, this reminded him that he was at the site of the battle again, which brought back his awareness of the horrors approaching now. His fear returned too. With the creatures only a few yards away, he turned and ran.
He fled along the length of the chapel and out of its far end, into the marshland that he’d crossed earlier. The evening had darkened and whatever visibility had existed in the daytime mist was gone. After a minute of running he careered into a pool that he hadn’t seen in the gloom. He ploughed through water and mud and somehow managed to get across the pool and out of it, but then lost his balance and fell flat.
As he lay on the ground, he realised that there was a body lying just in front of him. Its face was close to his. After a time, when the lieutenant’s eyes had adjusted better to the darkness, it occurred to him that the face’s mouth had opened and its eyelids had risen. The body was a living one rather than a corpse.
Then words emerged from it. “Who… Who’s there?”
He recognised the voice as that of his company’s captain and dull-wittedly he replied: “It’s me.”
“I’m injured, lieutenant, badly injured. Got it in the leg. Can’t feel a thing there. Don’t have any idea how long I’ve been lying here. What’s happening? I can’t hear any rifles or artillery. How has the day gone? Where do we stand?”
“We… We put them to flight, sir.” He thought for a moment and added, “Yes, we fought our way up those heights to the east and knocked out their field guns. After that it was simple. The scoundrels we didn’t kill or capture have already run halfway home.”
There was a note of satisfaction amid the pain in the captain’s voice. “That’s good to know, lieutenant… I think now I can die contented.”
From behind the captain came a splashing noise and a splayed shape pounced out of the darkness and landed on one of his legs. The captain began to slide away. Scrambling onto his feet, the lieutenant saw that another channel oozed past on the far side of where the captain was lying. From its torpid water stretched two arms that ended in long-fingered claws. These grabbed at the captain’s uniform, hopping from the legs of his blood-soaked breeches to his belt and then to his tunic. As the claws moved, they reeled him over the channel’s edge and into the water.
“No!” spluttered the lieutenant. He realised he still clutched the tasselled sword and he swung it at the arms. With his free hand he seized the collar of the captain’s tunic. By now only the older man’s head and shoulders remained above the channel’s oily surface.
A second pair of claws burst out of the water and grasped at the lieutenant’s legs and he hacked at them too. Meanwhile, one of the first claws fastened onto the captain’s hair, tore him free from the lieutenant and dragged him completely beneath the water.
A moment later the lieutenant’s sword struck the second attacker. He felt liquid spatter his face and the claws released him. In fact, one claw dropped from the end of its arm and rolled along the ground by the channel’s edge. Then, briefly, something thrashed in the water. When the thrashing subsided, the lieutenant saw two points of light glaring up at him from the channel, turning red, blue, yellow, finally white. He experienced the same strange lethargy that’d transfixed him in the chapel, but then the white points dimmed and melted away and he was free again.
He thought of the captain and moaned, “I couldn’t do things right this morning. I can’t do things right now!”
But then he remembered the stranger and realised he had one last opportunity to redeem himself. He ran back to the ruins.
As the lieutenant re-entered the chapel, he saw the gunner still perched on top of the wall, absorbed in making the puppet dance in mid-air before him. He was unaware of a figure that advanced towards him along the wall-ridge, moving on all its limbs like a huge spider.
“Look out!” yelled the lieutenant. “Look out!”
The gunner gave no sign of hearing and continued to play with the puppet. After another moment, the creature reached him. Gaunt arms enclosed him, a small black mouth puckered towards his throat and his face vanished amid tendrils of hair. Unable to watch, the lieutenant dropped his gaze from the wall to the ground. He saw a line of scarlet blotches appear across the flagstones as blood jetted out and fell from fifteen feet above. Then the puppet landed on the flagstones too. Its head and limbs snapped away from its torso so that the only things holding it together were its strings.
The lieutenant struggled to control himself. He ignored the blood and the broken puppet, looked around and saw how several of the creatures were also moving at ground level, scrabbling towards him from the eastern end of the ruins. And he could hear many more of them. Their mewing sounds came from all sides. In another minute, he imagined, tides of them would invade the chapel from west, north and south as well.
Across the nave he saw a new light, not glimmering and extensive like the firelight but bright and compact. He also heard a voice call, “Lieutenant!” He realised the stranger was waving a lantern and hailing him from a corner where an arm of the transept jutted northwards. The stranger gestured to the wall beside him. A screen of leaves and creepers that’d hung there had been ripped down and dumped in a pile. In the newly exposed stonework was a semi-circular opening about five feet high. The lieutenant ran over. By now, from the eastern part of the chapel at least, the creatures had come so close that he could hear the points of their claws scraping across the flagstones.
The stranger bundled him through the opening and ducked through it himself. Inside, he thumped his lantern on the ground, wrestled a curved wooden door around against the opening and propped his shoulder against it. At the same time, he produced the hammer and an iron stake from his frockcoat. Then he banged the stake into the surface immediately behind the door’s edge, into a line of mortar between two blocks, to ensure that the closed door stayed closed.
While the stranger worked, the lieutenant looked through the lantern-light and found himself in a grotto with walls that, like the opening and the door, were curved. The walls arched up on either side and came together in a low, hemispherical ceiling. Long beards of cobwebs, dust and dirt trailed from them. On one side, a hole in the floor revealed the head of a stone staircase that spiralled steeply into the earth, thousands more cobwebs forming a gross fur down the sides of its shaft.
Behind him, the stranger knocked a second stake into the old, crumbling mortar. The crossbow was now strapped across his back.
“Down there?” asked the lieutenant.
“It has to be down there.”
After the stranger had secured the door with a third stake, he picked up the lantern and the pair of them descended. They followed the stairs down for five or six revolutions of the staircase but then encountered an expanse of black water that filled the space below them. Slowly, the stranger lowered himself into the water. He stopped when it was as high as his thighs.
“No more stairs,” he said. “Floor.”
He raised the lantern from the water’s surface and they discovered that they were no longer in a stairwell. Rather, the staircase had arrived at the corner of a chamber whose dimensions looked similar to those of the nave above, between the transept and the chapel’s western wall. The stranger waded forward and the rays from his lantern reached deeper into the chamber.
Rancid fleeces of dirt and cobwebs covered the ceiling and the upper parts of the walls. The floor and the bottoms of the walls were concealed by water that’d presumably flooded in during the ill-fated project to turn the hollow into a lake. The water had the same repellent oiliness as that lying outside in the marsh. Here, however, the stench that the water exuded was unable to escape and it infected the remaining air. As the lieutenant breathed, he felt he was inhaling poison.
They soon noticed that the water had another unappealing feature. “What’s this?” the stranger asked and picked something out of it. The lieutenant, who’d waded into the water behind him, saw that he was holding a glistening black cord. On either side of his fingers, it sloped down into the water again.
The lieutenant looked about in the lantern-light and realised that these cords covered the flood in the chamber. They lay across it like an unravelling carpet. “Maybe it’s marsh-weed?”
The stranger rubbed the cord between his thumb and forefinger and the lieutenant saw it break into many thinner fibres. “This isn’t weed we’re moving through,” he said. Then he dropped the cord and motioned for the lieutenant to take the lantern from him. When both his hands were free, the stranger removed the crossbow from his back and turned its crank, drawing the bowstring along its tiller.
While the stranger worked at the crossbow, the lieutenant noticed that in the chamber’s centre a patch of water had begun to glow. He pushed towards it, gripping his sword-hilt in one hand and the lantern in the other. He realised he was approaching a submerged light and, though it was obscured by the water, the light had colours. One colour would dominate for a moment and then give way to another, red, green, yellow…
Still priming the crossbow, the stranger barked behind him: “Don’t go any further!”
But already the lieutenant had reached the light. Looking down, he saw there were in fact two lights, radiating from the eyes of a pallid face that was suspended a few inches beneath the water. Then, suddenly, the face rose and broke through the surface. Under the face a body emerged too. At the same time the lieutenant felt things writhing around him. As the figure ascended, the black cords slithered up from the water. They snaked up the figure’s sides, enclosing its body like a stringy cloak and finally crowding together on top of its head, where their ends were rooted in its scalp…
Her body, her head, her scalp, for he realised he was looking at a woman. Floating on the floodwater had been countless tresses of this woman’s hair.
He raised his sword but suddenly the colour burning in the woman’s eyes became icily white. The apathy that’d afflicted him earlier took hold again. His arm dropped and the sword-blade dipped into the water. He heard the stranger shout, “Don’t look at her eyes! She can suck out our souls as well as your blood!” But by then it was too late.
Too late, reflected the lieutenant. The thought was like a weary sigh.
White light still seeping from her eyes, the woman turned her head towards where the stranger was standing. She spoke. “You too! Look at me!” Just as her eyes contained many colours, so her voice seemed to be a dozen voices combined. It sounded male and female, young and old, high pitched and deep, musical and guttural. At the voice’s core, however, was something that suggested the coldness of an Arctic wind. “Look at me! You must look!”
The lieutenant heard the bolt hiss free from the crossbow, but it missed the woman by several feet and flew uselessly into a distant corner. At the last moment, evidently, the stranger had looked into the icy light and fallen captive as well. “Good,” said the woman. “Good! Now, my dear, come here. Come to me!”
The stranger waded into the edge of the lieutenant’s vision. He still held the crossbow but his arms hung limp and it trailed through the water beside him. “That’s it, my dear, come closer,” the woman urged. “I think I’ll deal with you first.”
She reached out and knocked away the stranger’s tricorne so that for the first time the head of hair underneath was revealed. Then her hand began to caress the stranger’s face. Her own features changed. Her mouth puckered forward, her lips forming an O-shape. Needle-like fangs slid into view all around the O’s circumference. And a long, thin tongue, hollow like the proboscis of an insect, flicked out from between the fangs and swished about the circled lips.
Yet it wasn’t this grotesque transformation that startled the lieutenant from his trance. It was the sight of the stranger’s long blonde hair spilling out from under the tricorne that allowed him to escape the creature’s spell. Suddenly he understood why the stranger’s clothes had seemed so oversized, the stranger’s figure had seemed so slim and the stranger’s face had seemed so un-masculine. He lifted his sword out of the water. Seeing this, the creature shifted her gaze back to him, wanting to transfix him again with the polar light. But by then the lieutenant had raised his sword in front of his face, across his eyes.
He saw the white light flare along the blade’s edges and then the creature gave a pained cry.
As he drew the sword back behind his head, he saw how the creature’s eyes had become grey and dim. Perhaps the steel blade had acted like a mirror and channelled the freezing light back to its source. Not hesitating, he swung the sword in a massive arc. When it struck the creature’s neck, it sheared through hair, skin, tissue and bone almost as effortlessly as it’d sheared through the chamber’s foul air.
Later, when he inspected his sword, he found that several tresses of hair were snagged on its blade. The head dangled under the blade at the ends of those tresses. He thought of the gunner’s puppet and suddenly he murmured: “Left right… Left right… Attention… About turn… Left right…”
They returned to the grotto at the top of the stairwell. The stranger produced the crowbar with the curved barbs. By positioning the barbs around the heads of the three stakes that she’d hammered into the wall to secure the door, and levering the crowbar back, she could prise them out again.
“We could wait,” she said, “till the morning. When daylight’s come and they’ve retreated to their hiding places. They’ll be easier to kill when they’re asleep.”
“And where are their hiding places? Are you sure they’re inside these ruins and not outside, amid all that water and mud? How will we ever find them when they’re nesting across a whole marsh?”
“So you’re willing to go out now?”
The lieutenant raised his bloody sword. “They’re monsters but they’re not indestructible. I could kill some of them at least. Probably more than we could hope to kill during the daytime.”
The stranger contemplated him. “You ran away from the battle this morning, didn’t you? You didn’t want to run but running was what happened. Am I right?”
He didn’t answer.
“I sensed it. The first time I saw you, I knew you were someone who’d suffered the way I had. Everyone around me, everyone dear to me died, and yet I escaped. Not that I’d wanted to escape. I’d rather have died with them. And the guilt of not dying has tortured me every day since.”
It was a long time before the lieutenant said anything, and then he spoke briefly: “I’d better go out now.”
“Yes. We’d better go out.”
They began to remove the stakes.