These were the “Her Majesty’s Finest”? A half-dozen old men poking around the mortar holes and dugouts amidst the mist and mud and stench of the dead, all in the name of a crone who’d been dead for nearly twenty years?
He didn’t think it possible, but Vladislav’s already abysmal opinion of the British had sunk even lower over the last hours as he watched them pick up the remains. These were Russian soldiers. What right did a bunch of old men and their underlings have to swoop down upon the battlefield, upon his own blood-stained homeland, and pick apart his countrymen like crows?
Crows. That was a good word for them. The underlings all wore long black coats and gas masks, even when they were unneeded. A red crown was stenciled on the sleeves, above the letters HMFSCP. The old men had no such coats, no such gas masks, no such crown, and as such none of them handled any of the bodies or weapons. They only watched, occasionally croaking out an order or inspecting what the crows had already gathered and sorted.
Drizzle tapped on the tarp above his head, and Vladislav wondered how much longer he and his comrades would have to be here, and how he even came to be in this position, and who had pulled what strings in both countries. They were here to guide and translate and guard, and precious little else.
The old man in the wheelchair licked his lips again. Vladislav shuffled his feet, inching away from the one other inhabitant of the tarp pavilion. The other old men, they were just foolish old men. This man though, he was simply unsettling.
The old man was ancient, well over ninety years old, if not a hundred: He appeared less of a man and more of a sack of bones wrapped in thin, clammy skin stretched tight over knobbly joints and thick blue veins. A thin white wisp on his lip showed where there had once been a bushy mustache. He was layered in coats and blankets to fight off the chill. The blanket across his lap was worn and faded, but at one point would have held a beautiful, intricate pattern. The man's half-blind eyes stared off into the distance, focused on things that were not there.
He had not spoken the entire time Vladislav had been standing there. Occasionally, he would mouth silent words or lick his lips, and that was all.
The crows seemed to have finished collecting the bodies and debris. Several of them had begun drawing circles in the mud around the battlefield, while others wheeled out barrels of powders and liquids and began to spread them in neat symbols. Vladislav had seen this sort of thing twice before: once as a child, and once as they taught him to kill men with a bit of lead. He had learned then that these events were of the kind that, even if one did see it, it was a good thing to say that you had not seen it, and a better thing to know that you did not see it.
Vladislav continued to not see the crows setting up their circles and stakes and symbols in the mud for several cold, rain-drizzled minutes.
“Ugly, isn’t it?” A cold, quiet voice croaked in accented Russian. Vladislav looked to the man in the wheelchair to see him licking his lips again. His imagination then, or perhaps it was something that he most certainly did not hear.
No, it was the old man who had spoken. It would be foolish to think otherwise.
“It is what it is,” Vladislav said back to the old man, continuing to not see the crows scrawling and chanting on the field.
“It’s very ugly.”
Drizzle. Drizzle. Drizzle.
“In Xanadu, did Kubla Khan, a stately pleasure dome decree…”
What was this gibberish? He was mad, then. Why bring an old madman to this forsaken stretch of forest?
“There was never a dome,” the old man continued. “Twice I went to Xanadu, and I never saw the dome. The Khans never took Xanadu. They broke upon its mountain walls over and over again, and they never entered.”
Vladislav didn’t respond. Let the madman ramble. He was too busy not watching the horrible images shimmering across the mortar-pocked mud and splintered trees.
“The men of Xanadu thought that they would bring peace to the world, that all the hordes of the world would break upon their walls until no man had strength for war and then all would share in their glory. Their peace died with them, slowly, by disease and inbreeding. But the idea remained: For peace, men must die.”
Vladislav still listened, but the words fell into uncaring ears. A wonderful story, old man. You were only late by twenty years and a world war for this soldier.
The old man continued.
“Certain legions of the Romans would bring with them great beasts, who consumed the corpses of the dead and turned them into food and water for the troops. In China, I saw a drug that would cause a man’s innards to combust when blood was drawn, spraying acid strong enough to melt flesh. The peoples near the South Pole fight wars with women who, each time they are unchained, will twist all creation around them into monsters by their very presence.
“In the jungles of Africa, I once met a tribe who worshiped a giant spider. On the night of the full moon they would feed one of their own to it. They stayed where they were, and kept feeding it, every full moon, despite the fact that the spider was so fat from its meals that it could not leave its pit.
“And here, I’ve seen dead men shuffling down in the blood and mud of the trenches as they rot without death, and I watch as we pick up what remains of Durand’s peace and plan for the next war. It’s ugly, and it never changes.”
The old man coughed. It was a horrible, phlegmy noise.
“At the very least I will not live until the next.”
He was quiet.
Drizzle. Drizzle. Drizzle.
Vladislav went back to not watching the nebulous visions of unfolding unfathomable cosmos and impossibilities and the margins of worlds worn thin. He didn’t feel like he had anything to say to the mad old man.
He looked to his left to see the old man reach a trembling skeletal hand for a little bell hanging on the arm of his wheelchair.
The bell hung in the air a moment, out of place, before Vladislav heard footsteps. A man rounded the corner and entered the pavilion. He was wearing a crow’s uniform, though he held his mask under his arm, revealing the face of a man about forty years old, with a little grey around the temples and a pencil-thin mustache. His posture was stiff, professional, that of a man ready to serve.
“I’ve seen enough, Deeds. Take me somewhere warm, please. It’s dreadfully cold."
“Of course, sir.”