After the battle come the crones picking their way among fog and spears, stepping carefully through the tide of mud and flesh.
“No need to fear the dead,” old Nan tells Lori. “They've let go of life. What they've left behind is for us now. Look.” She bends and lifts a lifeless hand to pry something off a frozen finger. “Metal. If the ring's not valuable, the metal is always good for something.” She sniffs. The damp and cold makes every one sniff. “Go on girl.” She gestures towards the rest of the field, vaguely taking in the bodies of the soldiers and the other crones moving darkly between them in the fog. “Get to it.”
Lori gets to it. She doesn't want to. She fears the dead and doesn't want to touch them. She tells herself she is too big do what Nan says anymore, but it doesn't help. Nan has a voice. When Nan snaps like that her stomach clenches and she has to obey. She is walking already, just because Nan said.
There are hands on the field. Fingers with no rings. The smell. She doesn't want to smell it, doesn't want that to get inside her, and she tries to breathe without smelling
“That's not how you look,” Nan grumbles after her. “Look properly.”
Nan means, touch the bodies, move any armour, lift aside their shirts for necklaces, see if there are pockets inside their trousers and anything in the pockets. Lori can see the other crones like flapping, dark shapes in the mist. Nothing, she thinks, is going to make her look inside the mouths of the dead. She is not going to pry those jaws open.
There is a body still in one piece. Neither dogs nor crows have been at it, and the crones have not been near it, either. Lori has gone ahead to do her looking by herself. Bending, she sees a ring on one finger. He had been married. Nan won't care about that. She'll care about the gold.
Lori has lifted the arm, touching only a sleeve, and has her fingers on the metal, when a muddy hand grips her wrist.
She screams. She knows she did. She can hear the echo of it in her mind. The soldier's eyes are wide. Those eyes are open and gazing. She screams, but she cannot get free of his grasp. He has pulled her close to his face. She can feel his breath on her skin. He is breathing hoarsely.
She does not want to be held by a dead man. She doesn't want those eyes that are looking at hell to see her face. She wants to get away and not be on this field.
Struggling, she pulls back. It was because of the fear. When suddenly his grip breaks she is surprised and staggers back. Instinct won't let her fall. The night will be cold enough without being wet as well. Instinct keeps her on her feet in the mud, and she looks back.
He is dead now. Creeping, sidling back closer to him, she sees that the life really has gone out of him now. “I didn't mean it,” she thinks. “It was just the fear. You made me scared. I would have helped you, really, but you scared me.”
“He's got a good cloak there,” Nan says. Lori jumps. She hadn't realised that Nan had come to her. “We can get some good use out of a cloak like that. Go on. No use all of us winding up dead of cold. It's bad enough the soldiers took all the food. Go on.”
“What were they fighting for, anyway?” Lori asks. Nan looks sharply at her. It is the first time she has heard Lori ask why the world is the way it is.
“King stuff,” she answers. “Kill or be killed. It's the soldiers they send out to do the dying, though. Go on, get the cloak.”
* * *
"Becasue of the Fear" copyright by Morva Shepley 2008