Day of the Coward
By Epidiah Ravachol
It took six steely-armed soldiers to hold the coward down and a seventh armed with a stout stick to shove the mash past the vanguard of his teeth. They held his jaw. They held his nose. A sour, pungent, metallic concoction of mushrooms, mold, and his own blood filled his mouth. Tears streaming down his face, he swallowed against his will and against his fears. A tingling heat crept through his mouth, throat, and guts. His muscles stiffened, but he no longer fought against those that held him. His world was melting into a vivid hell of bright, painful crimson and sharp paranoia. It would be a while yet before the drugs released his body and let his limbs follow the senseless will of his now-poisoned brain.
They wrapped his gnarled grip around the shaft of a spear. Then they briefly opened the shield wall and shoved him through, before closing it back up, separating the orderly ranks of sane soldiers from the coward and an army of a thousand other mushroom-addled berserkers.
The berserkers cheered when they saw him. They raised their spears or clashed their swords against their own shields and mailed chests. A salute to a new brother-in-arms. But more than that, a salute to the coming frenzy. For now that the initiates were fed and thrown among them, they were permitted to gnaw on their own rations of dried fungus and let their consciousness fly.
This was how he was expected to die. His mind in the throes of Lady-of-the-Copse, forced to rave among her adherents. He was a single, loose tooth in a monstrous, all-consuming maw made of addicts, criminals, and deserters. The coward’s only purpose now was to lose his wits and to rage senselessly. The ever-inching wall of towering shields behind him would see him and his growing bloodlust to the enemy’s front line.
The queen’s legions would march behind that wall and drive the berserkers forward. It was a display that struck most cold with fear long before spear ever met shield. Armies have fled before the froth, and as a river swollen over its banks, the berserkers would be loosed upon the open land. Left to exhaust themselves on their own blood-euphoria and carnage. Those that survived would wake in a fading agony, soon to find themselves craving the release only possible through ingesting more Lady-of-the-Copse.
The coward had once marched on the other side of the shields. He took his turns at the wall, shoulder against one of those eight-foot slabs of bronze, oak, and hide. Pushing against the shifting force of mindless thews as the human howling, weeping, and laughter rang through his helm, no matter how much cloth he stuffed in there. He had worn the armor of the legion, not this filthy tunic. He had held both sword and spear, though only twice had he need for them. He had seen three campaigns, each against mortal foe who broke swiftly under the queen’s might.
But this was the Vale of the Wizard. Behind them opened wasted plains, dry and lifeless. Before them, the valley walls were lush with gold and violet wildflowers. Only five warriors stood in defense of the valley. Their armor was strangely motley — brass greaves, leather jerkins, iron breastplate — clearly from different peoples, all in poor repair, as if scavenged from the many armies that had in ages past stood where the queen’s legions and her berserkers now did. The only thing that unified the warriors were their great, ornate helms, which cloaked each of their faces with that of a different beast: a warthog, a peregrine, an ape, a serpent, and a beetle.
The mortality of the beast warriors was a matter of some debate in the legion camps. The five had stood against countless armies over untold years. They left none to tell the tale. And though there were rumors that the peregrine and the ape had only recently joined their ranks — as reported by a highwaywoman who claimed to have snuck into the Vale of the Wizard on six different occasions over the past seven years — this did not diminish the awe.
None had survived. This was easy math. Two nights previous, the coward and three others were tasked with scouting the entrance to the valley. In the dark before the moonrise, they put sword to their commander’s throat and fled south, away from the Vale of the Wizard and away from the queen’s legions. By the next morning, they had been spotted by riders and they took to the rocks and scrub. But they could not hide. His companions fell to javelins and only the coward remained, tied as a boar from the hunt and paraded back to camp, an example for all future cowards.
And now the coward was screaming. He did not care why. It just felt good to scream. His muscles unwound and he felt his body move as a fluid poured forth. Poured into the valley with the rest of the berserkers. Sound was slow to his ears and strange, as if he could hear further things louder than nearer. The colors about him shifted red in front of him and orange to his periphery. He had dropped his spear, but it mattered not. There was strength enough in his arms to rip and he could think of no other desire.
His last prudent thought, his only hope of surviving, was to keep clear of the beast warriors. Of the many dooms awaiting him in this churning mass of viscera and colors, this was one that he could avoid. Succumb to Lady-of-the-Copse, yes. Let the mushroom seize his mind and drive him through. But do not let it steer him into those tireless warriors. Do not enter the valley!
He could not see beyond the berserkers and their chaos, but he could see the valley walls rising from the battlefield, glittering with flowers. A curious wave of swirling purples, blues, yellows, and reds crept out of the valley and along the sky above like a blanket of fire crawling across the ceiling of the world. It cast a dim shadow that swept down the valley.
When the color wave passed over the zenith and the shadow passed over the coward, he heard a long, low note as if sounded from a giant horn at a great distance. The note tugged at the coward’s consciousness and he felt himself black out and drop.
And yet he stood. No longer screaming, his mind was clear. It was as if the drug had run its course. The shadow dulled the piercing scarlet that had perturbed his vision in all ways but that of the sky, which was still covered by that shimmering wave of color. He turned and watched as the shield wall collapsed. And behind it, as the shadow rolled over them, the legions too fell as if in a slumber.
He fled. Away from the berserkers. Away from the beast-faced warriors. Away from the valley. Across the unconscious horde. Towards freedom.
He expected to be on all fours, scrambling over bodies, but his flight felt more like running through water, like a dream. He considered for a moment that this was another hallucination brought on by the mushroom paste he had been force-fed. His senses were not to be trusted. So he just ran.
For how long he ran, he could not tell. He had veered away from the legions at some point, and found swifter feet beneath him when he reached the open plain. Above him the sky broiled with color, but all about him was a duskiness that muted the landscape. He felt no fatigue but eventually curiosity forced him to stop and look back.
The legions lying in formation made a cascade of soldiers that spilled out from the mouth of the valley toward the horizon. They were unmoving. Free from the sway of Lady-of-the-Copse, the berserkers milled about among the prone legions.
Among that throng were the stores of the entire army. If he was swift and subtle enough, the coward could provision himself before setting out across that blasted plain. It was his best chance. Otherwise he was unarmed and bound to die of thirst or hunger. So he steeled himself and skulked back into the bivouac.
As he prowled through them, the coward noticed the soldiers breathing, even snoring, and occasionally rolling over. They were a herd of armored beasts sunning themselves beneath a prismatic sky. And they were also insubstantial to him. His hands and feet passed through them as easily as they would a puddle. The same held true for all the features of the camp — tents, trucks, slumbering oxen and horses. He could not pick up so much as a ladle from the water barrels. Again, he wondered if he was not still hallucinating.
“There is no slaking your thirst, coward.”
He twisted around to see a berserker standing over him. She was half a head taller than him and glowered at him down the flat of the sword she was limply pointing at his neck.
“We are revenants. Dead and doomed in our wandering,” she said, turning her sword over, but keeping it loosely level at him. “This is our price to pay. I do not even think you would bleed were I to pierce you.”
“So this is not Lady-of-the-Copse?” The coward cautiously stepped back.
“No. Her visions are never this dull. This calm. Or this clear.” The berserker sheathed her sword. “And I have seen your body. As I have my own. Strewn upon the battlefield.”
The coward fell to a knee.
“Come. I will show it to you.” The berserker offered her hand to him. With some relief, he found it tangible enough and she helped him back to his feet.
The two walked in silence through the slumbering legion. Beyond the shield wall, the perplexingly cogent berserkers wandered about their own fallen bodies. Some wept. Some cried out. Most just stared off.
The coward’s body was still very near the shield wall and easy to spot as he was the only unarmored one there. But once they were upon it, the coward found it difficult to look upon. His vision blurred and he was possessed with a falling sensation. He looked up and saw the colors fade from the sky and the dulling effect of the shadow slip away as red rage seeped back into his mind.
Then, as before, a long, low note swept over him and the sensation was gone. He looked down and saw his body roll over and drool into the dirt.
He cackled and grabbed the berserker by the arm. “Fool!” He flinched from her glare and let her arm go to point at his prone body. “We sleep! Nothing more! Watch as I breathe.”
The berserker cast him aside with her shield and kneeled down to look closer.
“And I have never been happier for it! We are not dead. We are dreaming.” The coward started to dance, but a glance to the sky held him.
Over the spearhead of the sleeping berserker army, a hole opened in the sky just long enough for a body to shoot through it. It closed. Then two more opened and swallowed up two more bodies before closing.
The berserker grabbed the coward’s arm and dragged him over and through the others, toward the front line.
At the mouth of the valley, the coward and the berserker found a handful of strangers bent over the slumbering front line. They were dressed in armor as mismatched as that of the beast-faced warriors that stood guard over the valley no more than a couple hundred yards away. The motley figures were slitting sleeping throats and stripping bodies of anything of worth. As each body bled out, its consciousness was sucked up through another hole in the billowing colors in the sky.
The berserkers, comprehending the danger, flung themselves at these scavengers, but their incorporeal assaults went unnoticed.
The coward looked to his new companion who had released her grip on his arm. “We are dreaming and we are dead,” she said. “You were right to flee, coward. This is not the death I wanted.”
“It is not the death I feared, but I have no taste for this one, either.”
Unwilling to watch the scavengers make their bloody work, carving through the sea of soldiers that lay between here and his own slumbering body, the coward turned to the beast-faced warriors and the Vale of the Wizard. “Come then, let us see what we have died for.”
A tangle of ropy plants and the occasional broad, purple leaf stretched from the valley mouth into the dead plain. Upon this carpet of vines stood the five beast-faced warriors, staring towards the sleeping army. Apart from loose strands or straps of armor swaying in the breeze, they were so still that some tentative vines had begun to grow up their legs. With sick irony, the coward and the berserker came to realize that the warriors were scarecrows. Hollow bits of armor draped upon wooden crosses to keep invaders at bay.
The berserker laughed, “From this you fled! Oh coward, would that we could live to tell this tale.”
“That the tale will never be told perhaps justifies my flight.”
The berserker shoved past the coward and continued into the valley. As she walked off, the sky above her faded and hot red poured into the coward’s vision. And again a vertiginous sensation possessed him, as if he were at once waking and falling asleep. His thoughts focused on a desire to tear at the berserker, but he felt as if he were being dragged from her, from the valley, and back to his waking body.
A horn sounded again, color filled the sky, and clarity returned to mind and vision. “We must find the horn!”
If there had not been enough cause to doubt their senses before, the alien landscape of the Vale of the Wizard held enough wonders to fatigue the mind: strangely colored plants covered in thorns that dripped a sweet-smelling ichor, brachiating octopi that spun pink silk through the treetops, wild cats with human faces, flowers that bloomed like flickering candle flames. All of which the coward and the berserker passed through unseen and unimpeded, just as they had passed through the sleeping legion.
All but one. It was as if some delirious god has stretched the skin of a toad over the massive frame of a gorilla, but its fingers were too long and bent the wrong way upon its hands. It had no head, but a long neck that ended in a great up-curved beak that it used to tease the flesh off the goat carcass on the ground before it. A ring of mismatched eyes hung around its throat like a necklace. Several of these focused on the coward and the berserker. The creature stood upon its hind legs and trumpeted a warning from its gory beak.
They fled and it gave chase, its great bulk weaving through the dense vegetation with practiced ease. But they had the advantage, being unhindered by corporeality and soon the creature broke off the pursuit with a feigned disinterest.
The two stood now at the edge of a thicket of silvery trees on the slope of a small hill. A light fog clung to their trunks and did not spill into the rest of the valley floor. Great shelves of purple-and-white mushrooms grew along the trunks in this fog.
“Lady-of-the-Copse,” the berserker whispered reverently as she walked among them. “Is this why we are here?”
“Oh to burn it all to ash.”
The berserker shook her head, but said nothing. The coward gave her space and climbed to the hilltop. He was perched above the foliage and could see more of the valley, especially the opposite wall. There he saw scaffolding built to support a horn from the skull of a massive beast. It was as long as a dozen oxen.
As the berserker joined the coward atop the hill, the swirling colors that blanketed the sky parted, giving them a momentary portal through which they could see familiar stars and the comforting blackness of night. Then, as a stone from a sling, the berserker was flung from the ground over the valley walls and up into the dark cosmos beyond. The colors spilled back into place, and within the span of a breath, the coward was left alone under that cruel, prismatic sky.
He would not wait for the scavengers to draw from the well of his throat. Riding the crest of his panic, the coward sought out the goat-eater and taunted it. He lured the misshapen creature all the way across the valley in stages. It would frequently quit the chase and wander off, but the coward eventually found that the sound of his sobbing enraged it. He wept and he ran to that horn.
Twice more during the chase he felt himself slipping awake and back into the crimson embrace of Lady-of-the-Copse, only to have the horn sound and draw his body back into slumber.
Upon reaching the horn, he found a sole musician on the scaffolding, dressed as the other scavengers in a mismatched collection of clothes, but this one was adorned in the golden ceremonial armors of generals and commanders.
The coward hid as the goat-eater approached. He watched as it scaled the makeshift tower and as the scavenger general jumped from the tower and cried out in pain upon landing. Then the coward fled once more.
The time would come when the horn failed to sound and the sleeping legions awoke. Those in the thrall of Lady-of-the-Copse who yet had whole throats were the first to their feet. The knife-sharp scarlet light spilled into coward’s mind, carving out the memory of all that transpired. He held one last thought: Do not enter the valley!
Lusting for blood, the berserkers followed his flight and overran the fallen shield wall, tearing into the groggy soldiers beyond. They soaked the barren plain in red before the queen’s legions rallied and turned the tide. Every last one had to be slain before the queen could finally conquer the Vale of the Wizard.