The forest breathes silence and mist, cloaks itself in stygian robes. Time has all but stopped, exists only in the moments between stillness and movement. Lucian and his men lie in a line, shrouded by dewy undergrowth. Gaze unblinking into the darkness pooled between trees, straining to see, to differentiate. What is shadow and what is Sleathe? Only the dread glare of red eyes can tell it, but Sleathes are not so foolish as to betray their location with a thoughtless glance.
Since Alex sighted the Sleathes late afternoon slunk grudgingly to evening, then evening passed, ungracious and fleeting, to interminable night. The moon’s light filtered at first through a thick canopy of leaves, left silver coins of light upon the forest floor. Then that comfort, pitiful as it was, disappeared, and the Queen’s men were left to drown in endless pitch. Left desperate for the dawn. It has yet to come.
There’s been a stand off of sorts. Gathered out there in impossible numbers the Sleathes have remained at a distance, hiding in their own darkness. And Lucian’s men have laid here, noses close to the pungent loam of the forest floor, waiting for the right moment to attack. The safest moment. The coming of dawn.
They prayed at first the Sleathes might wait to attack, have been left wondering why they do not. They’re cold, weary, eager to begin the battle. Nervous. Plagued with agitation. Why do the Sleathes not press their advantage? Why this unnerving patience?
Irritation gnawing at tense flesh, Lucian leans toward the shape that must still be Alex, despite the sight-stealing blanket of night. Tries to murmur, though he fears his voice will travel through the trees loud as pistol fire in this dark tranquillity. ‘Do you still see them?’
Alex’s response lilts direct into his ear, makes him jump. ‘They’re out there all right, rolling over one another like snakes.’
‘What do they wait for?’
‘They wait for us to sleep.’
‘Why? We are outnumbered. They can overcome us at will.’
Alex turns to Lucian, his blue eyes bright as coins of moonlight. ‘They’d rather eat us than fight us,’ he says.
‘Why is it I can’t see?’ Frustration grips Lucian without mercy.
‘Be at ease, Lucian. You’ve not faced these before. I’ve fought small numbers at the campaigns in Moldav. I’ve learnt to see them. I had to. You’ll have to. But you won’t begin to understand how until we fight.’
‘Can’t you tell me?’
‘No. This skill can only be learnt by doing.’
Lucian’s lips thin to a line. ‘So, then,’ he murmurs defiantly, ‘let us be doing it.’
‘The dawn is still too distant for safety,’ Alex responds.
‘And how safe are we in the dawn?’
‘Truthfully? Not a great deal more. We’ll just be able to see better.’
‘Then enough of this waiting. Lead us to the enemy.’
Alex sighs; the sound is affection riding on the heels of exasperation. He slithers away, ahead, soundless and fluid. Lucian strains to see Alex as hungry darkness envelopes his stealthy form, signals his men to follow nevertheless. They crawl, sightless and freezing, until Alex’s palm flashes a pale semaphore to halt, fan out.
He returns to Lucian’s side silent as a Sleathe.
‘Fifty metres, dead ahead,’ he murmurs. ‘They await behind that stand of lime and oak.’
Lucian stares into the trees. Perhaps he sees a substance to the shadow that was not present before. But is it Sleathe or is it imagination? It matters not. He rises to his feet. His men, the Queen’s men, follow suit and the pale, flickering blue of thirty AM blades slices the night’s shroud. Atoms sputter into implosions swift and bright as fireflies.
Lucian raises his arm to cry the charge, but before he can speak, the blackness residing between the trees ahead boils forth, alive with the malevolent, unblinking glare of nigh on a thousand pairs of eyes.
The Queen’s men stand ground, brace for impact. There‘s a moment within which Lucian looks to his left, to his right, and sees the stoic certainty of death upon the faces on his men, illuminated by blue anti-matter formed to blades, by the flashing suicide of atoms. And then death is upon them.
The Sleathes come as snakes of shadow. Gordian knots of silken, slithering ebon rope studded with sucker-toothed maws chomping on the air. Great black tongues whip to and fro, slathering a tar of drool. Vicious, clawed extrusions form and reform. Rapid as the whip of tongues they sweep the air and retreat. There’s no telling where one Sleathe ends and the next begins. No telling if they’ve but one mouth each, or ten, or more.
Savage war cries split the air. Blades rise and fall. Sleathes claws and teeth fly out to rend, tear, main, to consume, and thirty men stand ground against a multitude. Voice locked in his throat, Lucian fights on and on, not knowing if any of these blows do more than stave off his inevitable death. He hears impossible, high shrieking. Is it one his men, eaten alive? Or is it a Sleathe falling?
He’s driven back, back, until he’s braced against the knotted bark of some ancient tree, his feet tangled amongst gnarled roots. Sweat soaked, beyond exhaustion, he lifts his sword by instinct alone. Each swipe of the blade burns fires across the muscles of his back, his side, down the length of arms and thighs.
He blinks away sweat, stares for a moment into the demented red blaze of Sleathe eyes, the entangled, impossible revolutions of their coils. He screams. Slices his sword upwards in one manic sweep, artless and desperate.
Screeching erupts by his ear, a symphonic trebled note of suffering. Emboldened, he scythes down through the ebony mass before him in one savage movement. The screech sharpens to a blade and shatters upon the air. Darkness dissolves before his eyes, red sputtering out like the dousing of flaming torches in storm-driven torrent. Lucian all but cries relief, moans instead as more darkness surges forth.
Then there is warmth beside him, solid flesh. Sword rising and falling, despite the roar of muscle pain, the cry of total bodily exhaustion, he looks to his left. Alex. Blue eyes flaring bright as his blade he cuts methodically at the Sleathes, reducing them to tatters and faint red memories upon the air. As though he senses Lucian’s eyes, he grins as he fights on, focused and savage.
‘Ten dead,’ he says, breathless but filled with purpose. ‘Only ten. And they’ve lost close on seven hundred. Don’t give up, Lucian. Don’t even think about it. Remember what I said to you. There’s but three hundred Sleathes between us and our unfinished business.’ Alex lances a fierce, molten glance, ripe with promise, in Lucian’s direction.
And then he’s gone, yelling cold-blooded rebuttals against the screams of Sleathe fury, refusing to back down, to give in. Refusing to die. Fighting with unrelenting fury and power. Left on automatic pilot, barely holding his own, Lucian takes a moment to grasp that the reason Alex fights is because of him.
When the realisation hits, it rejuvenates. His muscles quit their fire; relax to easy, graceful movement. Tendons unwind, release, and a wave of adrenalin brings needle-fine focus. Lucian braces his feet, his back, sets stubborn will against the weariness of his tired body. The swing of his sword regains brutal purpose, becomes a weapon of knowing destruction wielded with deadly intent.
‘Three hundred to go before he’s mine.’ Lucian repeats it like a charm, a mantra, and then like a battle cry. ‘Only three hundred.’
© Ren Warom 2012