Poles heaved and sweat poured from his body. I half-felt we’d come to an agreement, even a brotherhood. He appreciated the water from my canteen with a gentle headbutt and a huff.
I knew this for a lie. His murderous urge would return if I let myself lax. I determined I’d be master over him, if over nothing else.
When no threat came upon us for some time, I dared to lead him a while. The two moons overlapped, and the strange constellations which had confounded me before seemed to shimmer in many colors. Every bush and stone made its shape strange. I paused to take aim at a shadow for many minutes, but it was only dirt.
I could recognize no landmark besides the road, but it seemed to me that it must be the highway from Cairo to Palestine on which I’d traveled and camped. If this were so, then by my calculation, we had traveled well beyond the enemy’s line. I would have to pass at least one camp or checkpoint before returning to friendlier dirt.
Poles heard another horse on the road ahead before I did. Understanding the danger but not Semira’s warning, he tried to make a break for the ditch, and it was all I could manage to reign him in.
If it was a German on the road or a Turk, then I was determined to prove myself the better. I mounted, drew my sword, and rode hard at them. Indistinct double-shapes under the double moon proved to be horse and rider paused to peer my way, but unbelicose and unready. I rose up in the stirrups and readied my swing. At no more than two yards the rider shouted: “Hiy!” and threw up his hands.
It was Ashburry. My blade and the weight of the charge were already aligned to kill him. I had an instant to turn the weapon away from its mark, and so I threw the cut at at the moon. I could not tell if I clipped him until Poles came up and turned about. Even then, he and the mare looked unnatural with their twin shadows. The mare’s sweat seemed to shine. They came beside me and Ashburry said: “Steady on.” They were the first two words he’d spoken.
We walked together without a word. He, hatless, weaponless, and stinking with sweat, could not keep his eyes still. I, with Poles a pace behind, felt my nerves begin to calm.
The road was straight as an arrow and silver under the moon. There seemed only one moon now, and the stars swam in and out of clouds but seemed sane. From time to time, voices called from off the road, sometimes in pain, sometimes in joy. A light beckoned as from an open door, then a little later we came upon it again this time accompanied by a strange music that was not at all welcoming; like a lyre and a hissing kind of flute. It smelled of food, but Semira’s command and our own terror inured us against any fatal curiosity we might have indulged. As we rode away, the music turned mournful. It sounded to me a funeral dirge. I thought it might have been for us.
Nothing came upon us or reached from the shadows, though there often seemed to be movement. I began to wonder if we should make it home or come afoul of the more ordinary enemies. Men and guns, pitiful things, but deadly enough to me. I could not imagine the buzzing airplanes above Kantara could offer us any advantage against the host we’d witnessed, against the great striding beasts and their hellish horns.
The dunes by the side of the road stood strange and ancient. I thought of the dead snake.
At last, desperate for a glimpse of sanity, I said to Ashburry, “Listen, chap, you can’t come home without your gun. They’ll bust you for it. We’ll have to say you took a spill in the sea and lost it that way. I’ll attest to it.”
He did not seem to find this pressing, but he grunted anyway.
Presently it seemed to my estimation that we must soon come upon the enemy line. There wasn’t anything to do but make a rush for it, and with any luck, we’d be past before they had a chance to shoot.
Ashburry found the order to his liking, and Poles and the mare didn’t protest when we mounted. The way went on, and so did we. Then, without warning or reason, I kicked Poles to a run. Not an instant too soon! Within the first stride we saw a wire across the road. Two men leapt up from smoking on the side of their dugout. Poles cleared the wire at a leap, and the mare just behind. A shout to halt and a single shot chased us, but nothing more.
We’d done it. We were away. Yet Poles did not calm. He seemed even more anxious, and I felt his nerves like wires. Exhaustion crept upon me to mingle with fear and sweat into a plodding and relentless fugue. My thoughts turned to Semira and John, but especially little Marcus. I questioned my memory of those last fleeting moments. Had I really seen Marcus changing, or was it just the contortion of terror? I felt a coward, and I didn’t care for that feeling at all.
Ashburry reigned in, and I had to turn a half circle to see why.
Beside the road stood three men, or the shadows of men, taller than me and my mount together. Poles panicked and bucked me. I landed so hard I thought my back broken and couldn’t breathe. I fumbled for my guns but could not find them.
The mare bolted too, leaving Ashburry in the dust beside me.
Over-long skulls and too stretched fingers moved in ways that warped the night. Their oblong faces were concealed by the shadows of the moon behind them, but what might have been a scalp was hairless, pitted like the desert, and rippling. The pockmarked fingers and vaulted robes held angles which attracted me. They lent the figures an air significant and vital, as if no other thing mattered. In the oozing puss on their eyeless skulls, I saw the shape of the night reflected. They gestured us close and spoke whispered promises.
I tried to, but my legs were numb and would not move.
They turned away. Ashburry offered me a last pitying look and followed into the dark.
I lay and wept a long while. At first it was a sweet shame that I had not risen to the bidding, then slowly, horror poisoned the shame.
Poles returned for me with the mare behind. He sniffed at my ear, stepped on my back to tell me I was a fool, and then waited for me to rise.
I managed. My back ached badly. As I ran my hand as far as I could up my spine, I found a finger bone pressed into the clip of my suspenders. It had broken in two.
“What happened?” asked the colonel with slanted brow while the captain smirked.
I finished my twelfth cigarette of the hour and started the next. The tent smelled of bully beef and crackers. An airplane crashed into the dunes, and a fly crashed into my tea.
We all winced. The captain went to the flap to have a look. While his back was turned, the colonel leaned conspiratorially toward me to say: “Listen, whatever you say, I’ll believe you. The spanking strangest things happen on these desert patrols. When I was in your shoes there was one night I saw three different kinds of eagle and then fell down an abandoned well. Spanking strange that was.”
“Spanking,” I agreed.
“Right, so I’ve got your report. What do you say? Should we give John a go for the assault?”
I gave my recommendation. The colonel called me names and threatened my rank and posting. I left in full retreat, but my captain caught me at the gate with an odd gleam in his eye.
The next evening found me at the cantina where I begged and bartered an unseemly fortune for a fine pack of American cigarettes and a pint of thin bitter. Both tasted of longing.
None of the Bonepickers asked about the patrol, but I saw on one a necklace of stones chipped from a familiar shale, and on them the strange dancing glyphs. He raised me a wordless toast.
When the Bonepickers had all but dispersed and the last few pilots sang a last patriotic dirge, I turned from the contemplation of my cigarette smoke to find little Marcus standing before me, watching through his too serious eyes.
His mother and father came beside him in the dark between the rustle of canvas and flicker of lamp-shadow. “We’re trying again tonight,” said John. “Took a wrong turn just after the fort. Might catch that sorcerer yet.”
Semira grinned: “Your captain has told me that you are ours until we do, or the war ends.”
I put out my cigarette.
End Part One
An Earnest Affair