Prologue : The Meadow Door
“How late now?” Darras asked as Tsvaryn checked his pocketclock again. Instead of answering, the old captain scratched at his silver beard with a brown, gnarled finger — a finger that had seen more years of war than Darras had seen years in general.
Watching the box was driving the boy mad. He didn't know what lay beyond iron skin and triple locks, but that wasn't what drove him dotty. He didn’t know much about plenty and that had never bothered him. It was that he wasn’t allowed to know. As it stood, he might very well die for this damned something, and do so completely ignorant of what his life was worth. Even more vexing was the fact that he was the only one who seemed to give a damn. The brigade was late — a whole hour off docket — and all Captain Tsvaryn did was check his clock like clockwork as if he was a cog himself and his clock checking was a vital part of making the clockwork work. Worse, though, was Bristletoe, who seemed miles off as he played single tiles and only spoke in curses whenever the game didn’t go his way. As far as Darras was concerned, an hour off docket was very off docket and well worth fretting over. So why was he the only one fretting?
Tsvaryn sighed. “What, Darras?”
“How late now?”
“You just asked me that.”
“I know, but you didn’t answer.”
The old sentry kept his old eyes set on his old pocketclock, “You think I didn’t answer because I didn’t hear you?”
“I don’t know why you didn’t answer.”
“I didn’t answer because it doesn’t matter.”
Darras scoffed and rutted his brow, “I’d say it matters quite a bit, their being late.”
Tsvaryn grumbled and looked at Darras like a strict granddad might look at the dimwitted grandson that he doesn’t much care for. “Their being late matters, yes, but you already know that bit, don’t you? So the exact amount of late doesn’t much matter at all, far as I’m concerned, and is therefore not something you need knowing of. Wouldn’t you say, Darras?”
Well, nothing ends a conversation like syrup-thick condescension, so Darras frowned and looked back to the box and Tsvaryn looked back to his clock and Bristletoe cursed at his tiles and the mood was shit, entirely. The only sounds in the underground cellar were the tapping of tiles on table and the ticking of seconds that sprung out from the old sentry's pocketclock. The taps and ticks and box secrets all started to drive Darras mad again. He groaned and stood and surveyed a room that he’d surveyed a hundred times already. He smelled the dirt and vines and shoddy wood supports that passed for walls. He held his hand over the gas lamp, relishing in its oily heat. He ran his warmed fingertips over the wood grain of the table, stopping just short of touching the lockbox. He watched over Bristletoe’s shoulder as another game of single tiles was lost. Bristletoe cursed and stood sharply.
“Whud’you want, boy? Damn hard to focus while you’s mouth breathing heavy at the back o’ my ear.”
Darras raised his hands in mock surrender, “So sorry! The fool I am, didn’t realize that the thing what needs our silent attention now is not the troubling absence of the whole damned brigade, but, rather, your stupid fucking game of fucking tiles!”
Bristletoe grabbed Darras by the collar and pulled him within breath’s distance. The broad-shouldered dragoon was a half-foot taller than Darras, at least. His bald crown made him look a good many summers past his thirty, but there was youth and vigor to be found in his deep, brown eyes. Eyes, which at the moment, bore holes well past Darras’s face and rattled around the back of his skull.
“Actually am sorry, though…” Darras gulped and made a face that was half smile, half pout. “Really, very sorry.”
Bristletoe let loose a raucous laugh, brash as the man it came from. He gave Darras a playful slap on the cheek, “Relax, boy. We all get a bit touchy down here.” Then, finally seeming to take stock of the situation, he turned to Tsvaryn, “Spit’n my hand, though, they are late, eh?” The old soldier responded with the slightest of nods. Bristletoe smiled, wry as drunk courage, and looked back to Darras, “Don’t talk much, that one.” The broad dragoon gave another hearty laugh, but it was cut short by one, loud thump of something heavy against wood.
The three soldiers faced the crooked wooden stairway, their eyes following each step up to the thick ironwood door.
Darras’ knuckles tightened white around his poleaxe as Tsvaryn slowly rose from his chair. The old soldier’s eyes didn’t leave the stairway as he spoke his orders.
“Hold ground here, weapons at ready.”
“Goin’ somewhere, then?” Bristletoe spoke with a laugh that did little to hide his unease. Tsvaryn didn’t betray his taciturn nature as he stepped cautiously up each creaking stair. Once he reached the door, he pressed his ear against it and listened.
“What do you hear?” Darras whispered.
Tsvaryn listened more and said nothing. Darras whispered, loud as he could while still withholding voice, “What do you—”
“Quiet, now!” Tsvaryn was as serious as Darras had ever seen him. His bistre brown skin looked wax and bloodless. Whether he’d heard something or he hadn’t, Darras couldn’t tell, but either way it bothered the old man. He thought for a long moment, looking through the beams of sunlight that bled through the cracks in the door. Then, with a shaking hand, he slid open the viewing slot and peered out.
The meadow outside was pale green and beautiful. The tall grass danced with wind in ripples. Tsvaryn’s eyes combed the scant footpath that led away from the door, looking for any hint of a visitor. Nothing seemed amiss as he peered back to where the trail met the woods. Nothing seemed amiss as the dirt kicked up slightly and cut in to waltz with the breeze. Nothing seemed amiss at all. There was no sign of whomever knocked.
“Who's there? Step forth!” he shouted through the slot with the bravado of a man half his age and double his size, “By sanction of the Praetic Legion and Her lawful Crowned Dynast, I demand you step forth!”
Despite his authoritative tone, the meadow remained empty. The knocker at the door had run quickly, vanished entirely, or held absolutely no respect for law and land. After a deep and shaky breath, he thummed back the hammer of his long-barreled handgun, unbolted the ironwood door, and unsheathed his falchion. He called down the steps, “Bristletoe, secure the door behind me.”
“Oh this is a very bad idea.” Darras said, as if his opinion mattered any.
“You’re gonna go out there?” Bristletoe asked, baffled, “You mad? Why would you go out there?”
“Ordering, not asking, dragoon.”
Bristletoe sighed and shook his head as he walked up the stairs to meet Tsvaryn.
“Let it be known that I think this is a very bad idea.” Darras repeated from the bottom of the steps.
Ignoring all of his underlings’ discontent, the old captain opened the door and stepped out into the open meadow and heard the deadbolt fasten behind him. Looking back over his shoulder, his eyes met Bristletoe’s through the viewing slot.
“I’ll do my best.” Tsvaryn responded, more truth in the jest than he was comfortable with. He narrowed his gaze and carefully parsed the meadow. Even after four years of overseeing it, the strangeness of this secret place was not lost on him. A person could wander astray for a dozen miles without any trace of man or building, and then stumble upon this: a simple, heavy door in the middle of an open field. Two triangular walls and a slanted roof propped up the door itself, but even those were skinned with slabs of grass and moss to look like a sharp mound. You’d never know the cellar was here unless you came at it from the right direction, journeying out from the Heart, and no one ever journeyed out from the Heart. The Pact settled that years ago, and the Monks of Noosphere saw that the Pact was upheld, fervently and without question. The holy Heart would remain sacred land, granting sanctuary to both sides of a continent at war, while never permitting passage from one to the other.
“See anything?” asked the muffled voice from behind the door.
Nothing. From across the stretch of tall grass to where it met the surrounding forest, he saw nothing. He should have found comfort in that, but the knots in his gut only pulled tighter. As the horizon began to bleed and the sun dipped behind the mountains, the feeling that something was very wrong grew and grew.
“What’s there?” The quick, baleful timbre of Bristletoe’s question made Tsvaryn’s arms flush with goosebumps. He swung around, finger tense on the trigger.
“You saw something?”
“A shadow.” The dragoon’s words were laden with quivering unease, “Back in the treeline, there. A shadow or such, shifting.”
Tsvaryn took two steps away from the door, but come the third, he couldn’t lift his foot. His stomach forbade it. The knots within churned and screamed, danger! He'd survived much longer than he had any right to by trusting in that feeling, so he wasn’t about to abandon that now. He strained his eyes to see something, anything to give him a reason to fight or flee back inside. Maybe it was the failing light, or maybe Bristletoe’s anxious mind was getting the best of him, but Tsvaryn saw nil, "Where?"
“I—I lost it...” Bristletoe’s fear bled embarrassment, “Just come back in, there’s nothing to be done out there.”
As Tsvaryn nodded and turned back, a light caught his eye from beyond the door. Had he been able to speak, the old man would have sounded his age now. Jutting up from grass was a pole, upon which was the mounted skull of a buck. Ominous antlers jutted out like widespread claws, six points apiece, and in the empty eye sockets burned two small fires. The flames flickered and licked up and out and blackened the clean white bone. He watched the orange tendrils writhe, and became entranced. Despite every instinct begging him to stop, pleading from deep within his core, he stepped, one foot after the other.
Bristletoe asked, then called, then screamed after his captain, but as was ever his way, Tsvaryn said nothing as he walked toward the skeletal torch.
How long had it been since the old man left? An hour? Three? Darras wracked his mind trying to sort out the answer, but the passage of time had become an abstract concept. He could hardly count seconds, let alone minutes and hours. Instead, he sat unblinking with his back against the dirt wall. He had become the embodiment of stillness, while Bristletoe was restlessness incarnate, pacing chaotically and mumbling curses under his breath. The two stayed like this for who knows how long, until Bristletoe stopped abruptly at Darras’ feet.
“Because sittin’ there like a dross ain’t gettin’ us any which way.” The broad man stretched out one broad hand and grabbed Darras by the shirt, yanking, “Now gittup, boy!”
His knees didn’t give out from beneath him like he thought they might, so Darras notched that as a win. It was a small victory, but right now he needed any victory he could take to settle his bones.
“He wont come back.” Darras said.
“He wont! Whatever’s out there got him! Killed him! Ate him for all we know! Cut his throat or took his head or ripped him apart piece by piece by piece by p—”
A flash of red pain flushed the left side of Darras’ face. The slap hit hard, but the boy stayed standing.
“That shit won’t save us none. You’re a soldier, best start actin' like one.”
The slap hurt plenty, but the young footman was thankful for it.
“Got another for yeh, whenever you need it,” Bristletoe said, holding up his other hand as he started up the steps. Darras grabbed the big man’s arm.
"Hold your spine straight, now, I’m not going out there or nothin'. Just a look.” Bristletoe stepped up and slid open the viewing slot. It was full night now. He called once more, half-heartedly, for their missing captain and was less than surprised to be greeted by the same, familiar silence. There was nothing they could do now but hunker down and wait for daylight. He slammed shut the viewing slot and strode back down the steps. Laying out his cloak in the corner of the cellar, he spoke to Darras, “Lay here and take a rest. You need it.”
“No way I’m sleeping. No way.”
Bristletoe put a hand on Darras’s shoulder. The young soldier looked at him, eyes big and glimmering as midnight pools.
“Once morning comes, we’ll sort out our state. We’ve a bit of grace in that that’s one heavy door. Ain’t no one gettin’ in here less we unlock it, and we sure as shit ain’t unlockin’ it. Eh?”
“Right.” Darras swallowed and nodded.
“Get some rest then. Think we’ll have quite a day ahead of us.”
Darras curled up in a ball atop the cloak. When he first tried to close his eyes, he couldn’t keep them shut. His fears projected themselves on the backsides of his eyelids in terrible tableaus, but as his body relaxed so did his mind. Quicker than he’d expected, he drifted off into a dreamless dark.
* * *
The knock shook off the dust of sleep, but it was Bristletoe’s hand that woke him.
“Someone’s at the door.”
Darras was up and armed in a flash as the two spoke in sharp whispers, “What do we do?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?!”
“Well that doesn’t help!”
“No shit!” Bristletoe threatened with a pointing finger, “Shut it and let me think, now!”
Just then came another noise, less abrupt than the knock, but no less troubling. It was the faint, slow grind of metal on metal. Both men crept toward the stairway. Darras felt the blood pounding in his temples. He’d never been so afraid. So afraid, he couldn’t speak, what for his voice caught deep in his throat. So afraid, he couldn’t hear beyond the heartbeats flooding his ears. Once they reached the base of the steps and looked up at the door, that fear only grew. The viewing slot had been opened from the outside, and in glowed the lambent orange of flickering torchlight.
Both men stood in a long, tense silence until Bristletoe finally broke it. “Go ahead, then.”
“Fuck you, you go!”
The two looked at each other, both equally stubborn and afraid.
“We go the both of us, 'gether.”
Darras nodded and, shoulder-to-shoulder, they filled the cramped stairway up to the door. Peering outside they saw the mounted deer skull torch; it’s eyes burning like small wells, full of fury and hell. It was the body, though, that sucked all air from both men’s lungs. Slumped and crumpled, sitting at the base of the post, it looked less like a man and more like a heap of lax limbs and glimmering hair. The night made it hard to make anything out too clearly, but that silver hair was all they needed. All they needed and all they had — there was nothing but a dripping mess of blood and sinew where Captain Tsvaryn's face should have been.
Both men felt assured that there was no need to open the door. It was as clear a lure as clear lures go. Whoever had killed Tsvaryn had propped him up against an unsettling and heavy-handedly ominous torch in hopes that the guards would open up and fetch the old captain’s body. But rank be damned, a body is a body whether it’s fetched or not. Death is no dog’s stick, and indoors or out, a dead man lays cold. Besides, they agreed, it’s not as though he’ll take offense.
Then Tsvaryn wheezed. That gods-be-damned wheeze. The first time he did, both guards pretended not to hear. With the second, they exchanged a look. With the third, Bristletoe cursed and punched the door while Darras took a large, swirling step toward total hysteria, pulling at his hair.
“It doesn’t change anything…” Darras rationalized in a pleading tone.
“‘Course it does!”
"What'ya mean, so?!"
“So the bait is slightly better! It’s still clearly bait!”
Bristletoe lowered his voice, “You proposing we let him die out there?”
“The man has no face! That's no way to live!"
“The man is our captain!”
He could hardly fathom Bristletoe’s enduring sense of duty. The dragoon was a soldier as much as he was anything else, and Darras both hated and respected him immensely for it. As the lock was unfastened, Darras clenched his teeth down so tightly he thought his molars might crumble. As the door creaked open, he shut his eyes and whispered some prayer he never knew he knew. When the door slammed back shut and the lock latched, he opened his eyes again, surprised to see Bristletoe’s face, intact and ugly as ever, and Tsvaryn, wheezing away in the big man’s arms.
“Help me get him downstairs.”
Darras grabbed his captain’s feet and the two guards hoisted the old soldier down. In a dash, they swiped clear the table, sending the lockbox clattering to the earthen floor, and laid Tsvaryn across it. In the lamplight, they could see that it wasn’t the old man’s entire face that had been taken. It had been bisected and peeled back; cut from his hairline, down between his eyebrows, then diagonally across both cheeks. The skin around his eyes had been pinned back with rusted nails at his temples. As for his eyes themselves, those had been plucked out completely and in their sockets were smooth, black stones. Bristletoe drew his knife, cut away a swath of his shirt and thrust the dagger in the table beside the old man. As he tried to clear away the torrent of blood with the makeshift cloth, Tsvaryn was motionless save his wheezing chest.
While Bristletoe fought an impossible battle against blood, Darras noticed something carved into Tsvaryn’s exposed skull: a marking totally unfamiliar to him. Darras couldn’t read a bit, same as most everyone else, so for all he knew it was a letter or a word.
“Look at that…” his finger hovered above the etching.
Bristletoe eyed the crude mark. “Sick bastards, what did this.”
“What’s it mean, you think?”
“Don’t care to know, don’t give a damn.” The dragoon looked at his dripping hands, his expression lost and tortured. He threw the sopping wet patch of shirt and screamed at nothing in particular, “I haven’t a clue what the hell I’m doin’ here!”
Then the knocking began again. This time, it was not one, loud thump, but a monotonic series with a few seconds between each clang. When the two guards turned to the stairway now, they were no longer terrified. They were too exhausted to be terrified. The last several hours had sucked from them every feeling, dried up every tap into their human souls, and left behind a dull, resigned anguish.
When Tsvaryn’s wheezing stopped, Bristletoe didn’t look back right away. Darras didn’t look back at all, so when the dragoon started chuckling in a strange, humorless laugh, he just assumed it was at the overall futile attempt to save the old soldier. How could he have known what had really happened, just behind him? It was so absurd, Bristletoe didn’t even try to describe it. How could he explain something that his eyes saw, but his head couldn’t make sense of?
And so Bristletoe laughed, because it seemed all he could do. He laughed at the defaced figure of Tsvaryn, sitting upright on the table, head slightly cocked. He laughed when the captain stood, prying the dagger free from the table beside it. He laughed when it grabbed a handful of Darras’ hair and he laughed as the blade slipped through the back of the boy's neck. He laughed and he laughed and he laughed and he laughed.
And then he was silent.