Under the torchlight, the clearing is filled with an amber glow. The wind is still and all is quiet. Through the branches that arch across the sky, there are thousands of stars glinting in the night.
But he doesn’t notice these things.
He can’t see the moon ripening into a golden orb, or the snowy owl perched in a nearby tree. He doesn’t notice the fireflies darting between the blades of grass, or the silver flowers that only unfurl in the darkness.
All is drowned out by his heart hammering in his chest.
It fights against the heavy plates of bronze armour that keep his body captive. He can feel the sweat trickling down his back, and yet he shivers. Not with cold, but with the violent trembling of a fever.
The soldiers around him mutter quietly. There voices are low and their words are tightly strung together as they occupy themselves by tightening their armour and cleaning their swords.
He closes his eyes to the glare of firelight.
But he knows his eyelids won’t protect him from what lurks in the shadows. They’re out there somewhere, deep within the forest, waiting in the darkness. Waiting to pick off men from the outskirts. And when they appear, it’s as if they’ve materialised out of nowhere. Swift as shadows, they fight between the trees and then disappear again.
They had already lost a dozen men.
And each time they would find their severed heads hanging from the trees the next day, their eye sockets hollow and they mouths hanging open.
He opens his eyes and looks out at the thick black night.
His fingers automatically check over the leather straps which hold his armour in place. It’s the seventh time he’s tightened it since the sun vanished. The bronze breastplate reflects the orange flames. It’s a foolish set of armour for such circumstances; too heavy to manoeuvre quickly between the trees and an easy target under the moonlight.
He feels his lungs begin to shrink as his breathing grows ragged.
‘Any sign of them?’
His heart jolts behind his armour.
‘Nothing yet,’ he replies gravely.
‘They’re late tonight. Keep watching.’
The General moves away to the next sentry. He walks in the shadows because he knows what an easy target he would make in the light.
Leaves begin to rustle. The men are tense. They fall silent instantly and wait for them to make the first move, but a nightingale flies out of a branch and all is still once more.
Each breath he draws is now laboured and desperate, as if he’s trying to drink in the night. He checks the straps on his armour again. He can’t explain it, but he knows it will fail him tonight.
His palms are slippery with sweat.
What if he can’t grip his sword properly? The hilt might fly straight out of his hands. Anything might happen.
A breeze begins to stir the trees. It whispers something to the night. A warning. It whispers of death and a hidden enemy.
He looks back at the men, muttering to each other once more in the glaring firelight.
He takes a step towards the trees, his boots treading softly on the forest floor. No-one notices. He takes another careful step. The voices continue on as before, and he can hear the scrape of someone sharpening their sword. Another step and he’s out of the circle of light.
He removes his sword from its scabbard.
The heavy thing is only a hindrance in terrain like this. He has his dagger anyway.
Laying the sword down, he slips away into the trees and is quickly swallowed by the night.
The men don’t notice that he’s missing until the next morning.
They continue on through the forest, struggling up the steep slopes and trying to navigate sudden precipices. When they come to a particularly large tree, they discover his head hanging from one of its gnarled branches. His skin is cracked and glaringly white as his mouth gapes open.
Like loyal friends and honourable men, they mourn his death and bury the ghastly head beneath the forest floor. And not one soldier ever knew that he had deserted them without a second thought.