The night’s first black is grey,
As darkness conquers day…
It started in the war. Not at the start of the war, nor anywhere near any sort of resolution. It was that part of a war that always seems to slip through the cracks of history to be lost in the void where all days go to die.
I was assigned as captain of a company of true men—not men of exceptional brawn or high birth, but of as noble hearts as God has ever given to man. While other men who claimed our cause defiled the dead and living alike, these remembered their high call, protecting whomever they could and even standing against their brethren when necessary.
I do not speak of these men’s extraordinary righteousness to claim any amount of credit for it: they were men of purity by their own design. Thus, it is with sorrow and a sense of confusion that lingers even now, when I have come to understand and accept our horrible fate, that I relate it now to you.
It was after a long march on a cold evening in late September when we came across the Wood, a forest that, by all accounts, should not have existed at all on our route from Spain to the Holy Land. The trees seemed at first familiar, but upon closer examination, no man among us could identify their sort or origin. Some claimed by their grey-green bark that they were an exotic variety found primarily in the East, yet they bore the familiar needles of the great pines back home. These needles, though, were sharp as knives and clung stubbornly to their branches. Neither steel nor aught of our design could loose them. The wood of their branches proved too stubborn for our blades, such that our finest steel made only the slightest interruption in the pattern of their bark. Their trunks, too, were divergent in design: tall, yet bent nearly to the ground, as one stooping to reach for something fallen.
These trees stood in close clusters, some in nearly straight rows, others scattered about with only two or three companions, far from their other kin. Within each cluster, their branches always reached toward each other, twisting like grapevines to grasp each other. The roots did this, too, reaching above the ground to the height of a man in some places, intertwining to render many sections of the Wood impassible. These were the clusters deepest within the Wood, which the men avoided, considering them evil omens.
In spite of these superstitions, our commanders recognized these woods as a sanctuary of sorts, free from the prying eyes of the enemy, who we were told could be watching from anywhere along our route to the Holy Land. So we set up camp for the night in a hollow far from the outer boundaries of the Wood. Though the trees could not be cut, I ordered men to search for kindling and deadwood that we might use for a cook fire, assuming the trees would hide the light from our enemies, and sent a few men to scout out a stream or spring from which we might drink.
Less than ten minutes later, the scouts returned without water, but with worry in their eyes. “We’ve found water, sir,” their leader, Arias, began, “but we cannot drink from it.” I asked for explanation, but they insisted that I see for myself. Arias was always a man of few words—honest all, though few—so I obliged and let him lead me to a shallow stream flowing eastward out of the center of the Wood. It flowed clear and seemed pure enough, but they then led me west to its source, where lay the decaying mass of a deer with gnarled and knotted antlers. The water of the stream flowed not from the ground beneath the beast, but from within its rotting core.
Arias explained, “When Nicolas saw the stream, we cupped our hands to drink. Coram urged us to caution, but we drank before seeking out the source, thinking that surely such a clear stream could be nothing but pure—” he paused from his hurried words to take a deep breath, “I am sorry, sir.” He cast his eyes down, and I could not help but smile at his sincerity.
“Return to camp and relay to the men that we are to drink only from our stores tonight. Then report to Alvaro for a purgative.” The men saluted and rushed to obey, leaving me alone to ponder this omen a moment longer before turning toward camp myself.
I’d hardly made it halfway when I heard a disturbance ahead of me, voices raised in both anger and desperation. I quickened my step to investigate, only to find Arias with his sword raised over Nicolas, blood dripping down the length of the blade. Coram was hunched over a fourth man who I didn’t recognize. The man sat with his back against a tree, his head drooping forward as he groaned weakly. With a start, I realized he was wounded; blood seeped from a wide gash in his side to flow down the bark of the tree and across its roots to puddle on the dry earth.
Before Arias could let the sword fall, I called out, “Arias, stand down!” and drew my own sword, approaching at a run.
Arias turned his head toward me, confused and afraid. “But, sir,” he replied, blinking as if against a bright light, “I was only… following orders… I… told him to drink from the stores, but…he…” he grasped at his head with his free hand, “Oh! My head!” He fell to his knees and dropped the sword.
I knelt beside him, motioning for Nicolas to take the sword away, and wrapped my free arm around him. Even through his clothes, I could tell that he was burning up, and a hand to his forehead only confirmed it. “We need to get him back to camp. Nicolas, fetch—”
Nicolas had picked up the sword and was staring at it, nervously licking his lips, blinking only when a droplet of blood fell to the earth. At mention of his name, he looked up at me, then back to the blade, then raised the sword to his neck and slit his own throat. As if in response, Arias growled and turned, sinking his teeth into the flesh of my arm. I cried out and drove my pommel into his skull hard enough to knock a normal man unconscious, but Arias just growled through clenched teeth, and—was that laughter?
As I struck at Arias again, the sound of rumbling earth and an agonized shriek came from my right, where Coram and the other man had been. Now, a thick root protruded from the ground, a sharply pointed end sticking up into the air. Near to its point was Coram, impaled through the middle, his blood spraying down on us in a crimson mist.
Arias’s skull cracked loudly beneath my next frantic blow, and he finally fell away from my arm, but his laughter continued, ringing now loud and clear, echoing, even, in the close confines of the Wood.
I leapt to my feet—a mistake. The world lurched as I struggled against the dizzying sensation that followed me up, and I stumbled toward the dying stranger at the base of the tree. I’m still unsure whether it was truth or fancy, but in that moment, it seemed that the man, propped ignominiously against a tree, was already a hundred years dead, his flesh grey and tight against his bones. The stench was real enough, and it awakened me to my surroundings. I straightened to go, but a tree branch stretched out to bar my way, then pierced me through the shoulder with the vicious needles of another branch.
I screamed to match poor Coram, clawing at the wooden limb, trying to push myself free. But it was to no avail: my fingers bled from the nails, yet the tree was unmarred. The more I pushed away, the deeper the needles dug. In my desperation, I cried out to God to deliver me.
A light shone somewhere through the trees, warm as the thought of home. Home? Was that right? Could I hope for home, for Heaven, after damning such a man as Arias to hell for his unrepented sins? Or how could I be found blameless for Coram, an innocent soul in every degree, doomed to die because of my negligence?
These fevered thoughts tormented me as I drifted off into a dreamless sleep. I felt as if I was falling from a great height, but the earth heeded not my passage. Only when I felt the heat of flame did I truly accept my fate—my fall.