Some men are born soldiers.
The blood, the killing, the violence. All the idle hours between.
Some men can spend their nights stationed on a stony battlement at the edge of the known lands, guarding against an imaginary horde, against creatures not seen since their grandfathers’ boyhoods. The dragon that rose from the waters on the other side of the kingdom, destroyed all the boats at the port. The giantess in her cave on the mountain, sharpening tree trunks into spears.
Stories to get the boys our grandfathers were home before darkfall.
Now their grandchildren guard against those stories.
Some men can stand up on that battlement night after night, pissing into a warm clay jar, and not feel that their best years are being drained from them. Some men can stand up there and not feel the darkness is going to swallow them whole.
And some men, they fling their halberd out into the river, and then they climb down, walk away from their duty with their hands clenched into fists.
Me, I ran.
Two days out, I buried my helmet deep in a creek bank.
On the fourth night, spying for hours on the flickering lights of a lonely inn, I sifted my faded military raiments over a packrat nest. The rats took my offering.
Skulking up to the inn, working on my story, my excuse for having no horse, no blanket, four soldiers rode up in a swirl of dust and beating hooves.
They had a fifth horse trailing on a rope, for me. There was no saddle. The dead need no saddles.
I made quietly for the stables, stepped into a sleeping mass of the children that always haunt these kinds of places. They stirred, moaned, and I wanted to lie down there with them, start over, choose a different path. Instead I folded myself out a back window and kept moving south, my heart pounding in my throat.
The sixth night, I peeled the dry bark from a tree I didn’t recognize, to eat the moist inner bark.
It wasn’t enough.
As deep as I was in the forest, now, the trees were tangled and ancient, too far from the road to ever have lost their branches and deadfalls to campfires.
It was like stepping back in time. To when swords had names.
At night there were wolves, and then there were things that cut the wolves off short.
The morning of the eighth day, I collapsed.
At least my bones wouldn’t be hung from the cage that swings off the battlement, I told myself.
Death would be worth never seeing the blinding surface of that accursed river again.
But I was spared.
An hour or a day into my slow dying, hooves stabbed down into the ground before my face and thick hands hauled me up, and up, and I was held such that all I could see was the horse’s tail, flicking at flies.
I wanted to eat them, but just as I mustered the strength to raise a pinned arm, the forest opened its black mouth, swallowed us.
It could have been days later when I woke, except if it had been days, I’d have not woke.
I was rolled in a blanket by a campfire. It was nighttime, cold.
There was meat thick on the air.
I sat up as best I could, and the men stopped their low discussion, studied me.
“St—starving,” I coughed out, nearly vomiting though I was empty.
One of them chuckled, looked to the others for confirmation.
The meat on the spit was thin and marbled, dripping blood, the individual drops hissing in the fire.
Their horses stamped back in the trees, blowing like a big cat was close.
The men were unconcerned.
“Food,” I said, suddenly sure they didn’t know my language. Or that it was me who had forgotten it.
“There’s not enough,” one of the men said gruffly, not looking at me when he said it.
“Just us,” another said.
“If not for him, though,” a third said, staring right at me.
“It’s been too long,” the one I judged the leader said.
“It would have been longer,” the third said. “We’ve been hunting them like deer. But we should have been hunting them like you hunt a bear.”
“Ayuh,” the man farthest away said. “Traps, bait. Dogs.”
“They’re too smart,” the leader said.
“Evidently not,” the third man said.
“From your portion, then?” a man who hadn’t spoken up to that point said.
The third man didn’t answer. “I’m just saying,” he said instead. “It was like he knew. Like he had been placed there.”
“Where?” I said, sitting up more.
“He doesn’t even know,” the leader said, dismissing the idea. “It was chance.”
“So then we shouldn’t be grateful?” the third man said, standing. “Is that how it is with honorable men and their gods?”
The leader stood as well, flinging the contents of his cup into the fire.
I studied the hands I could see, for who had scooped me up, but these men’s hands were white, unscarred, their fingers almost delicate.
Trying to stand, I found one side of my body caked with dried blood.
“It’s not yours,” the quiet man in back told me.
The third man stepped closer to the leader, said, “You’re asking for this—for it all to be over, aren’t you? If we don’t observe custom, then we don’t deserve—”
At which point the first speaker drove a thin sword up through the third man’s side. It splashed out at his collarbone, nicking his jaw. He fell with the sword lodged in him, his eyes locked on mine, the blacks of his eyes widening like spilled lamp oil.
“He thanks you,” the first speaker said, halfway grinning. “You can have his portion, since it’s so important.”
The leader stared at each man in turn, then nodded.
“Join us,” he said, lifting his arm to invite me into the circle. “We’ve eaten nought but bread and fruit for three weeks now, in preparation. But I warrant you’ve been even stricter.”
“As if he knew,” somebody mocked, raising his cup to me.
They all did, then.
I sat, and the leader removed the meat from the fire, carved it into portions, and for the first time in my life I understood what it was not to just eat, but to be consumed myself, by the food I chewed.
My privation was likely to blame, I told myself, but those twelve measured bites of meat, I would have put them on a scale against the whole prior span of my life.
And they would have outweighed me.
My last image of that night is the fire, growing and growing, and the men all cheering for one of their own. He was using his belt knife to saw at his beard where some of the meat had left the ghost of a stain. So he could tilt his head back, lower those few strands of hair into his mouth.
I woke to the sun in my face, this time.
The men had abandoned me, leaving me not even the bloody blanket.
The coals of the fire were still warm. I huddled over them, studied this black forest all around me.
Dragged just clear of what would have been last night’s fire light was the man who had saved my life. The sword still pierced him.
I removed it, cleaned it as well as I could in a pinch of my breeches, and then took his. In removing my boots, I found a peculiar steel arrowhead lodged in a heel.
So there had been a fight of some sort. One that doused me in blood.
And I was ravenous all over again.
I pawed through the man’s pack, came up with some of that bread they had mentioned.
It tasted as if it had been made from sawdust.
I spit out the dry mouthful, used my sleeve to clean my tongue, and stood in my outlander clothes, my new pack heavy with coin stamped with a sigil I didn’t know, that seemed to match the inscriptions on the flat of the arrowhead.
A guise is a guise.
The new boots were light, and oiled for stealth, and the sword was well-balanced.
The deserter I had been was no more. He had died in the woods. If anything had slipped past his battlement the night it was unmanned, then so be it.
Instead of climbing the slope the camp had been on, I followed it down, for the chance of water.
What I found was a dry creek bed.
As it was more likely to be wet upstream than down, I leaned up the hill with it, not sure if I wanted a drink worse, or the carriage road.
I found neither.
There was water, after a few hundred paces, but it had seeped up around the matted flanks of a dead horse. It was more than dead, though. It was headless.
My breath caught in my throat.
What dark ceremony would call for the head of a horse, and then leave the meat to spoil?
And what kind of saw could have done that?
Flies had already found the corpse, were traveling in and out, little ferrymen.
And then I heard a second mound of buzzing.
Farther up on the bank, in an oily bush . . . I knew it was going to be the horse’s head, that I was then going to have to imagine the beast that could have swiped it off like that.
Would that it would have been the horse’s head.
What I could see from the creek bed was a man’s naked chest and arms and face, his beard wild, hair long and tangled.
I whipped my eyes away lest he catch me with his.
I had picked the wrong creek to walk.
I turned away, my thirst forgotten, but, in not looking at this dead man’s torso, I looked deeper at the horse than I would have meant.
There was an arrow shaft buried up to its fletching in his side. It had gone deep enough for both lungs, apparently. A clean shot from a strong bow.
I shook my head no, told myself I knew better, that disturbing the dead is never good for either party, yet found myself planting one foot on the horse’s side all the same, the flies rising in a prickly blanket around my face.
The arrow came free, new ichor staining its entry point.
I slung the dark blood from it and stepped back, clearing the air before my face.
And then I saw what I had gambled and prayed and bargained I wouldn’t: the same peculiar arrowhead that had been buried in my former boot heel.
I flung it away, risked one last glance at the dead man.
His hands were thick, calloused.
I shook my head no, no, and felt it drumming in the tight skin at the back of my neck: hoofbeats.
I fell under the nearest cutbank, the root pan of a flood-tilted tree shrouding me just as the horse came right over the top of me, clearing the tree’s tangle of roots in a single leap, its back hooves flinging silt into my eyes.
And then the rider came into view, and at first I didn’t understand: what kind of saddle was this, that set him so far forward?
My face went cold when he cantered to the side.
There was no saddle. There was no horse head.
He was from the old stories—part man, part horse.
And his anguish was such to curdle milk. It heated my own eyes nearly to spilling. No sooner did I know his kind existed than I had to watch him fall apart.
He fell to his front knees, leaned forward, the muscles of his back rippling, and ran his hands over the smooth flanks he had evidently once known.
And when he looked up, saw the slack, dead face staring back at him from the bush, he made a noise all too human, and fought his way over, hugging the torso to his as if to bring it back to life.
A noise escaped my throat, at this.
The horse-man turned his head around, slashed his eyes from tree to tree, bank to bank.
But his grief was too large.
He tore at the bushes, he kicked his hind legs out again and again, and, finally, and with great heaviness—how many of his kind can there be, at this late age?—he inserted his fifth finger, the smallest, into his mouth, then extracted it, wet and shiny.
I hadn’t noticed, and the old stories hadn’t prepared me, but the nail there was grown into a claw of sorts.
Turning his head away from the act, he reached back onto his hindquarters as far as he could, and dragged that nail through the supple horseflesh.
Alongside the new cut were the scars of four more cuts. Four more dead.
When he had composed himself again, he held the torso of his brother, his lover, his father to his chest and he clambered up clumsily, nearly tilting over at one point but choosing to fall on his great side rather than release his hold on the dead. In trying to gain his balance, find his feet, the murdered torso’s back was to me, and I thought it safe to finally look, as the eyes were hidden.
It was a mistake.
Low on the torso’s back, two long strips had been removed from each side of the spine. Of a size and I shape I distinctly remembered.
I felt my gorge rise, felt that distinctive hot splash on the back of my throat, and tried to swallow the burn, knew it was only temporary.
Dragging the tops of his hooves through the dirt with each step, then, the horse-man turned around to leave, and it was only then that I saw the rusted metal pin driven through the meat to either side of his spine, on his lower back.
To poison the meat.
To stay alive.
He was no farther than I could have thrown my sword when I vomited through my fingers.
On my battlement those two long years I stood it, Cedric the watchman would ride through on his rounds twice weekly.
He was either a great storyteller or a great liar.
It was him I called back to, reeling under that root pan, my fingers stringing the contents of my stomach from my lips.
My second or third season, Cedric had ridden through with a smoked fish of some sort. His pack was stacked with them, head to tail; I was early in his rounds. He had one for each battlement, he said. It was an old tradition from the fishing village he had grown up in, a way of guaranteeing his own fortune for the coming year.
If his fortune meant me eating something not from my supplies, I was more than willing to play along.
We sat on the twin boulders near the shore of the river that, according to legend, had supported a bridge back when the world had magic in it.
Or they were just rocks.
When I cut into the flaky red meat, Cedric had me close my eyes. I did so only after seating my plate on the flat part of the rock, in case this was one his jokes, and I was about to get another of the dunkings he was known for.
“Slow, now, slow,” he said, after I’d swallowed the first bite nearly whole.
As I chewed, Cedric told me how what I was eating, it was special meat. The lilt of his voice as he fell into his story made me suspect this had long been handed-down, was a story he’d had told to him in his childhood. And the story, the suggestion he finally got around to, was that this meat, it was from one of the ladies of the sea, as his village called them. The ladies that you would think were just the village women swimming nude in the surf, until they saw you and flipped their scaled tails, went under for the rest of the afternoon.
According to Cedric, the meat from those tails was tough and unforgiving, not flaky and light, and any meat carved from the upper body, that would be cannibalism, and leave you and your family vulnerable to all kinds of terrors.
But there was a sweet spot, too, if you had the nerve.
Every few years, one of these ladies would get trapped in a net, kill themselves trying to get away.
Once in the dim past, their ship foundering, a crew had found one of these ladies, dead, and hauled her aboard, their own provisions long exhausted. They did what they had to in order to see their families again, what any honest crew would have done, and they cried while they were doing it, and some of them cut themselves in trade.
However, the two men who had taken their rough portions from what on a red deer would have been the backstrap, right where the woman became fish—fighting over what was left on their plates, they killed each other right there on the deck.
And so was the third meat discovered. Not human, not animal. Something in-between. Unnatural and divine at once.
Sitting on the bridge supports of the ancient road, eating that salted red flesh, so unlike the dried mutton delivered every fifth week, I thought I could taste this third meat on my tongue, in my throat.
I was wrong.
I would have to wait a year or more. Until last night.
Not horse, not man. Just twelve inches of flesh, cut thin, cut carefully.
I looked at my stomach’s thin remains of it, coating my fingers.
And in the darkness of the root pan, in the shadow of the cutbank, I licked it back in.
For two nights, then, I starved.
Not physically, but deeper.
I had tasted heaven, and now nothing else would do.
With the dead man’s bread, I managed to catch a fat bird that I think had been more content to hide than take flight.
I roasted the breast meat of that hen on a green spit. There were times on my battlement when I would have cried to have such a meal. Now, it was tasteless.
I gagged it out, flung it into the trees.
A pair of jaws snapped it up, and there was a scuffle out there that compelled me to bank my fire higher.
I had escaped duty, thinking to find freedom, but now my world was even smaller than it had been before. I had to eat, but there was only one meat that would sustain me anymore. And it came from the body of a beast I’d heretofore thought legendary. A beast not seen in my lifetime. A beast only preyed on, apparently, by wealthy outlanders. Outlanders who perhaps tracked the herd, or even maintained it after some fashion.
In order to dine, once a season.
Could I wait that long myself?
By next season, my sides would surely be touching in the middle. Each bite of anything else I ate, I would have to close my eyes to swallow it down. I would be a walking skeleton, just eyes and a mouth.
How did those hunters pass their time away from these meals?
They’re rich, I told myself.
No shepherd’s pie from the inns from them. It wouldn’t be the same, carving their steaks from the backs of slaves and prisoners, but it might just sustain. Especially with the certain knowledge that the herd was out there, ducking their heads to walk under trees. Filching metal from the coach road, to skewer through their hated backstraps.
It made a good cut even more rare. And who cares about a little rust, right?
I shook my head back and forth, in disgust at myself.
My plan upon leaving the battlement, it had been to rejoin the world of men. To walk the markets, running the pads of my fingers across exotic fabrics, over fruit I’d never seen.
No stall would have the meat I needed, though.
I had escaped one great loneliness for another.
I shouldered the dead man’s pack and, with morning’s light, ran deeper into the forest. Going nowhere specific, just taking each turn that seemed wilder than the last.
Never mind that I would need arrows or a pike to bring one of the great beasts down.
First, I would have to find one.
On the fourth day, in the mud of a clear pool, I did.
Horse tracks. Unshod, larger across than my hand.
Two meadows over from the pool, I came upon a camp. A human camp.
I toed through the cold ashes.
It was them. The wealthy outlanders. The hunters. The dukes and shipping merchants of some other kingdom, come to dine in ours.
They’d stuffed their extra packs into the hollow of a deadfall. Because speed had become more important than possessions. You can replace possessions, after all. You only spend your life once, though.
This told me they were the prey, now.
The tracks by the pool hadn’t been the herd, it had been a hunting party.
That’s why they were more out in the open than usual. One of their own had fallen, and there weren’t enough of them left anymore for them to allow the men who did it to live, possibly visit this upon the herd again.
My heart beat in my throat. My mouth watered.
For two days I ran. Following the tracks was child’s play. To anyone else, it would just be a mounted party pursuing a party on foot.
To me, it was the dinner bell.
What I was already promising myself was that this was going to be the last time. That this lifestyle, it would be unsustainable, should I choose it.
You learn to lie to yourself, standing alone on a stone column for two years.
I knew what I would find at the end of this trail, though: meat. My hope was that the hunters’ enchanted arrows would just match the bloodlust of the horse-men. My hope was that the centaurs would ride into the hunters’ camp, oblivious to the arrows sprouting from their hairless stomachs, from the bright blazes of their chests, and massacre the outlanders, only to die of their wounds moments later, trying again and again to step out of the pools of blood dripping from their fetlocks and pasterns.
So long as the flesh of their withers was protected. I would even eat it hair-on. Without cooking it.
I ran harder, not bothering to sleep, slipping out of my own pack as well, scooping water from the great gouges the hooves were leaving.
That at the end of it I was stumbling with weakness and fatigue was the only thing that preserved my life. Had I not fallen over an animal den hidden in the tall grass, I would have crashed into the aftermath of the massacre myself, and become victim to it.
The glorious beasts had run their hunters down, as had to happen in a forest that went this long.
Two of the hunters had died, one cleaved from neck to hip, so that he folded over, the other’s own short sword driven up under his jaw, the weight of his body fallen forward on it in case his arm lost resolve.
As for the other three—
I looked away, bit onto my tongue to force myself to look back.
The horse-men—to call them anything else would be to reduce them to stories told to children—they’d collected logs, driven them deep into the ground and tied them in the middle where they crossed.
It made four limbs.
The leader was strapped to it now.
The horse-men were using that long claw on their fifth finger to inscribe letters into his skin, and then, with a brand from the fire they had blazing, they would burn those letters away, start over on a different patch of skin.
This is how you bind a soul to its body, so that the soul is trapped there as long as the body remains.
In caves lost high in the mountains, you’re supposed to be able to find these mummified bodies. These prisons. And you’re supposed to leave them alone, because they surely deserve it.
There wasn’t a single fallen horse-man, either.
When I could control my breathing—to be so close, yet so far away—I backed through the grass.
One of their kind had scooped me up when I was starving, perhaps to nurse me back to health. Or perhaps for this. To guard their own borders.
Either way, my meagre body had slowed him too much.
Better he hadn’t stopped at all.
I made the pool by nightfall, and scooped water up to my mouth.
Had I a spade, I could dig a trap, stage a fall.
If I knew their habits, their paths.
But they’re not just horses, either. The same way I would see a trap, they would too. And perhaps better, sooner, from their elevated vantage point.
I cried. I smeared mud on my face. I ground it between my teeth.
I threw up and it was thin and yellow.
Their fire was the only thing in the night. It was punctuated by screams.
I stood, to fill my eyes with them, if not my stomach.
One of them was cantering closer, brandishing a torch that probably still sizzled with fat.
To light his way to the pool, for a drink? To wash his hands?
For the meadow.
From his great beard he liberated a small mirror on a string, held it up by the torch, flashing the flame’s reflection up the mountain.
Five breaths later, another flash responded, and then they carried on some kind of discussion I could never be privy to.
It didn’t matter.
By the first light of morning, I had made my way up the slope of that mountain, to the point of origin of the second flash.
It was no village, not even a camp.
More like—like plants and trees woven together. To the casual eye, they would seem natural, a thing of chance.
There were places to bed down, though.
There was cover from the rain.
They were creatures of the forest. The forest was their home.
And their home was empty.
Halfway up the mountain, a pounding of hooves had passed me in the darkness. I had ducked, thankful for the mud on my face.
My plan was to await their return, perhaps ambush the last one up the trail—drop onto its back from a tree, press a dagger to its throat, steer it quietly to some dark glade.
Hunger makes you foolish, yes.
Until they came back, though, there was the heady scent of them, at least.
I walked through it, trying to catalogue the distinctive characteristics, so I could perhaps find other camps.
And then, rounding back through, careful of the droppings that weren’t anywhere—they would tell me diet, would tell me where to wait—something stirred behind a copse of trees.
A bird, a squirrel, a deer.
When it didn’t repeat, I kept on my path.
Until a flash of white drew my eyes back to those trees.
I crept over, parting the tall grass with my fingers.
The growth was thicker here, nearly a wall.
Finally I had to step over it. And again, and again.
It would be easy for the horse-people, the cultivated growth just brushing their chests and bellies, their legs not sweeping forward like usual but lifting and stabbing, but for me it was a struggle.
One that delivered me to the center of existence. To the only thing left that mattered.
The reason the growth was only up to my hip was that this was the nursery.
In the clearing I wouldn’t have guessed at were two . . . two of their young.
They turned their large eyes up to me. One of them had snow white flanks. The other’s raven hair matched its tail.
I stepped in, my chest heaving.
The raven-haired one trotted closer, his knees coming up higher than they needed to—he was proud—and he wasn’t looking at my face, but at . . .
“The sword,” I said, reaching up to touch it.
Its sheath crossed my back. Its handle was always in my side-vision.
I drew it gently, held it before me, loose in my hands.
“We’re not supposed to talk to—to your kind,” the skittish one said from the back of the pen.
I was sweating, breathing unevenly.
“What’s its name?” the raven-haired one asked from closer, about my sword.
“Name?” I said.
“They have names,” he said, insisting on it. “My brother told me.”
Slowly at first but then with more resolve, I nodded yes, yes, swords do have names, and looked behind me one more time, for torch light. For faces. For anything to stop me.
“Your brother wanted me to show you,” I told the raven-haired one, stepping closer, holding the handle in my right hand, the flat of the blade along my left. “Do you want to see it?”
“Swords don’t have names anymore,” the skittish one said.
“This one does,” I said to him, my face so pleasant, so inviting, “here,” and I lowered myself to their level as gently as I could, drawing even him in, my knees kissing the matted grass so lightly, and in this way the age of magic was born again, inside me.