Darius concentrated on the babble of the nearby stream and the scuttling of insects beneath his ear, but in the distance he could still hear muffled screams. He pressed the left side of his body deep into the log’s soft, warm vegetation, as though to disappear entirely. The man to his right died when he hit the ground, and his skin was cold and wet, his arm stiff against Darius’s pliable flesh. As for the old tree, it fell decades ago, during the greatest storm the village had known. It was once a towering elm, taller and thicker than any left in the forest today. The rotting wood was now completely covered with new life—moss and fungus—as the humidity from the stream had spread like an infection.
Lodged between different kinds of dead, Darius struggled to breathe and his muscles cried out against the weight atop him. The man above, however, was still alive and breathing loudly, a raspy, whistling sound that reminded Darius of the noise the wind sometimes made when it swirled in the empty fireplace. Those were cold nights, with wood too wet to light and his family’s bony cow serving as their only source of heat. But the dying man, Cade, was hot. He had been fighting alongside Darius when the Yellow-Eyed man’s arrows pierced him. Three through the chest, like knives in soft butter. Cade stood still and gasped, then slowly, in no hurry to die, he stepped backward until he tripped over the corpse of a comrade. Cade collapsed onto Darius, an underfed youth with the stature of a mere child. They both went down with a bone-breaking crash, Darius’s old butcher’s knife firmly clutched in his hand.
The battle raged and Darius, so conveniently yet uncomfortably hidden, went unseen. The Yellow-Eyed men come the hour before dawn, bearing torches in the dim light, yellow flames dancing in their eyes. They vanish by sunrise, leaving villages empty of life, but otherwise intact. They trade in people, not coin.
It was mostly over, Darius knew, because the high-pitched wails told him they had found the women and children. His mother and sisters, including seventeen-year-old Audrey. His big sister cared for him when he was sick, ruffled his hair playfully, and always kissed him goodnight.
Darius should be terrified, “trembling like a leaf,” his father would say. His heart beat fast, but he remained listlessly calm, almost sleepy, as each minute stretched out. He found himself thinking of odd things, like how much he hated Cade. Brave and handsome Cade, whose family came from the town over the mountain range, where now only the Yellow-Eyed men reign. The village had welcomed the Overholtzers and their brawny son and their sack of golden chalices, candlesticks, and candelabras. Refugees, bringing strong arms and gold—who would turn them away? The village girls became silly and wore bows in their hair, even sweet, down-to-earth Audrey. It quickly became obvious that Cade had eyes only for her, with her shiny red hair, sturdy frame, and straight teeth.
“Good hips for bearing sons,” agreed Darius’s father when Cade requested her hand. Cade had blushed and mumbled something about “love.”
Darius did not want his sister to stop being his sister. If Audrey married Cade, she would move to his house and have babies, and would have no more time for him, like his own mother, always with a newborn at her teat. Now Cade’s blood dripped onto his forehead, and that seemed like a fine thing.
Darius’s fingers ached, locked around the knife he had yet to use against the enemy. The fighting was quick and intense, the onslaught aimed at the strong. Within what seemed like the first ten seconds of battle he saw his father struck by a blow to the head, finished by one thrust of a blade. His father had given him the old butcher’s knife, and Darius had oiled the rusty blade until it gleamed as well as it could. He remembered the time, years past, when his father used the same knife to outline a square in the pink flesh of a large hog, lifting the skin, a window onto its slimy innards. Darius had wrinkled his nose and stared. His father pointed towards the liver, then poked Darius’s own belly.
“You mean I have one of those?” Darius said in mild disgust, hands on his abdomen.
“That and everything else. We’re not so different from the pigs, and that’s good to know in battle.”
“What about the Yellow-Eyed ones? I thought they were demons.”
“They have the devil in their heads, but their bodies are just like ours.”
From that day, Darius observed the pigs his father butchered and often wished he himself could kill one. But his father always slit their throats, bleeding them while they squealed to their death. No part was wasted. Instead, when the honey melons growing in the garden were ripe, Darius offered to slice them, stabbing them wildly and pretending the hard, slick thud was that of the enemy’s chest cavity. Here, with the earthy smell of decaying wood doing little to cover Cade’s sweat and acrid breath, the thought of cutting the enemy’s flesh repulsed him. And it seemed a shame to sully his blade when there was so little left to save.
Darius tried shifting his position, to catch a glimpse of the events. Sprawled on his back, with Cade’s face nestled against his shoulder, his only option was to tilt his head backwards, hoping the movement wouldn’t draw attention. It was hard to make out what was happening, with people looking as though walking on their heads. With the light of day almost upon them, the tall men dressed in black appeared less sinister, their eyes dull. Some wiped their blades on the grass while others rounded up the last of the weeping women. Darius saw a flash of red, and wondered if it was Audrey with her fiery hair, or just more blood. He felt a pang of regret, but continued to stare, immobile as his kinsfolk were marched away, easterly, toward the mountains. Besides, he knew they would survive, and he would have lost Audrey, anyhow. She could still have babies, on the other side of the mountain range. It was all the same to him.
The sun was high and flies were buzzing by the time Darius extricated himself. Cade was long dead, as were all the other men, young and old. He headed directly to the small wooden structure that served as church and council hall. He bagged the chalices, candelabras, and all objects shiny and marched west. As he passed through the village gate, he smiled. Perhaps in the next village he would be greeted as the new “Cade,” by eager parents and girls wearing pretty bows.
This story first appeared in “The Watermark”, Spring 2013