In the field, the bodies waited. All down the line, the brown-uniformed soldiers trembled with need, Tam among them, until they vibrated like a vast cord plucked over and over. Their funerary stoles hung limp and hot around their necks; even with the sun setting, there was a strange heat in the air.
“I hate this,” Tam muttered. Beside her Davey nodded, his forehead glistening with sweat. It was their rote exchange after every victory. Everyone hated it; there was no point in saying so aloud. But Tam said it every time, just as she vowed after every victory that she wouldn’t go into the field again. Every time, lying. She rubbed her lips, dry with anticipation.
Behind her and Davey, a knot of children was forming. Tam glanced at them, then did a double take. There had been children among them since the war’s beginning: first the children of camp followers, then orphans looking for safety. Usually, they wore castoff uniforms or scavenged clothing, but now three of the oldest were wearing a clumsy approximation of a high witch’s funeral robes: black sacks tied around the waist, embroidered with nonsensical squiggles, rather than the symbols of passing.
“What are you wearing?” Tam asked, frowning at them.
“Leave it, Tam,” Davey said. His hand was white knuckled around his amulet. Three weeks since their last victory. That his need was so plainly visible only irritated Tam more.
“Those robes mean something back home. You shouldn’t wear them, especially not for this.” Though if she were honest, the stoles were just as bad. They were ordered to wear them, in case of observers. But the custom no longer had any purpose in the fields.
“They don’t know any better. How many years has it been? They probably don’t even remember home.”
“But they have to know,” Tam insisted. “Can you imagine if they did this there? Arrest would be the least of their worries.” She didn’t add what might happen if it came out about the fields. What might happen to them all.
The children ignored her, one placidly sucking at the gap of a missing tooth. Already their gazes were hollow, seeing only the corpses. No home save the army, no society save the war and its unwritten agreement: that after each battle, the winner took the field and everything in it. For three weeks, it was the enemy who had drunk the bodies’ essences, while Tam and her battalion tossed and turned on their sweat-drenched pallets, lapping at the tasteless air. Tonight, it would be the enemy who slept poorly, dreaming of the taste of the divine.
And what if it came out, about the fields? They would be hung perhaps, or burned in their respective capitals for desecrating the dead. No one back home would understand how it felt: to taste a person’s essence, not a few times in life but monthly, weekly, sometimes even daily, and how that taste could become a need…
Next time, Tam vowed, she would go back to camp before they took the field. She would sweat it out; she would learn to live with the pangs. She had survived these three weeks, hadn’t she? She could stop next time for good. She wouldn’t even participate in funerals when she returned home, lest the taste prove too much.
“I hate this,” she muttered again. Her stomach cramping as if in emphasis.
A whistle went up, high and long, echoing over the field. Across the twilit grasses, the shadowy curves of hillocks and irrigation ditches, the enemy line rippled and began to withdraw, their deep blue uniforms sliding away like water. From Tam’s left, the battalion’s black-robed high witches began chanting, a single rite for the entire field rather than one for each fallen soldier, the whole abbreviated and rushed. Keeping up appearances. Drinking, Tam would be drinking soon; they would all be drinking. She wiped her forehead with her stole, her hands trembling. The children wiggled in front of her, more than a dozen now, not quite crossing the line. She frowned at Davey. “Someone needs to teach them,” she said, raising her voice. “Someone needs to show them the proper ritual.”
“Tam, what does it matter?” He couldn’t meet her gaze. “They’re never going home. We’re never going home.”
Tam recoiled. “What are you talking about? We’re winning! They say we’ll be home by spring now.”
“They say that every year.” He was grinding the words out, his hands tucked in his armpits to quell his tremors. “Look at us, Tam. Look at their people the next time we fight. Not a one of us can live without it, on either side. This war could’ve ended two years ago but then they’d have to send us home. They’d have to explain us, they’d have to explain how we got like this. Instead, they’ll keep us fighting until we’re all dead, or they can write off the last survivors as mad.”
The speech seemed to exhaust him; he slumped onto the ground, shuddering and licking his lips. Tam stared at him, astonished. “That’s absurd,” she managed. “No one would deliberately—”
The whistle blew again, and she was away, running while her mouth was still moving, running before she could think run. Flying over the lumpish ground she had been fighting on only that morning. Davey forgotten; the children forgotten. Pockets of corpse-smells passed over her like warm water in an ocean. In the twilight, she glimpsed figures dropping to their knees, the first gasps of pleasure as they bent over the corpses and began to drink. Still Tam ran, instinct steering her to the edge of the field. There would be less competition.
And then she skidded to a halt; she had nearly overshot it. An intact corpse, pristine save for the red stain on his mud-drenched uniform. Neither the ground meat of an ammunition barrage, nor the perverse contortions of a spell cascade. Tucked into a hollow in the ground, as if placed there just for her. The need shifted, becoming a high-pitched squealing need need need. She turned him over and pressed a hand to his sternum, feeling for his essence, her lips parting—
The corpse’s eyes flew open. “Please,” he whispered.
Tam jerked backwards, scuttling in her haste. She could not think, for the need. Her whole body shaking. Grey. His eyes were grey.
“Send me…home,” he whispered. Blood bubbled on his lips. “My mother…”
Unbidden, unwanted, the image filled Tam’s mind: his family sitting around his body while the local witch murmured the rites of passing, their hands layered on his sternum as they wept. Each one kissing him goodbye, a single taste of his essence to carry within themselves, the rest released to the heavens. As if a taste did anything, as if a taste mattered. While Tam had fought and marched and fought again, while she ate shit and slept rough and hadn’t been home for years, while she had waited three whole weeks—
She started to rise, queasy with need. There would be another corpse nearby; there had to be another nearby. Anything to get away from his staring eyes. But when she turned to go, she saw the children.
They seemed to coalesce from the misty gloom, their faces expressionless. Small hands laid themselves on Tam’s arms, holding her in place, while the others surrounded the soldier whose eyes flitted from one child to another in a wary hope. Tam was bathed in sweat; she couldn’t think; she could only watch with sickened fascination as the girl at the soldier’s head unwound the dirty cloth from her neck—an approximation of a funeral stole, Tam realized—and pressed it against his nose and mouth. The others leaned in, placing their hands over hers and climbing onto his chest as he began to jerk and moan. They whispered nonsense syllables in rhythmic unison until the light left the soldier’s terrified eyes.
As one, they looked at Tam and beckoned to her.
The hands holding her now steered her forward to kneel beside the corpse. One by one, the children dropped to their knees, encircling the body. A robe-wearing boy laid his hands on the sternum; the others raised theirs heavenward, chanting the nonsense syllables, and Tam found herself raising her hands with them, reaching towards the night sky, reaching towards memories of a home now as far from her as the stars.
One by one, they kissed the corpse and drank in rapturous delight. When it was Tam’s turn, she fought the urge to gulp the remaining essence down; it felt wrong, in a way she had not felt since her first days at the front. But oh, his essence. Like drinking starlight, light without light, warmth without fire. It was all flavors and none, it had substance and texture, it was the first gasp of air after nearly drowning. It set all her nerves alight and when she rolled back on her hips she was feeling, she was nothing more than a body wonderfully alive. A second round, a second swallow, and she was humming along to their chanting, their need made song; by the third round, she was singing outright, mimicking the sounds as best she could. Here was their ritual, born of the war, of the starlit field and the blood-soaked soil and the nameless body between them. No one was going home.