It had been raining for at two weeks straight, the water cold and relentless against the rows and rows of tents. Trenches formed by soldier's boots had grown and spread, making little square rivers that crossed the camp like a giant game grid, blocking each person off into their own wet world. The whole area was a dismal, muddy mess; a grey canvas splashed with one bright splotch of red that darted across the wet terrain, running though he was used to the damp weather.
He peeled open the tent flap and let it wetly suction itself closed. “You...you have a letter, Captain. The man said it was urgent.” The young man's face twisted into a gruesome expression, sickened and confused, as he held out a battered envelope for his superior to take. “He killed Jamison, sir, when I was going to relieve him from watch. Cut...cut his head off. Said he'd asked too many questions.”
William's head emerged slowly from behind the map he'd been examining, and he took the letter with one hand, setting down the map with the other.
“Cut his head off?” He said it the way most people commented on someone else’s choice in home decor.
The boy, Jamison, had only been with his unit for three weeks"enlisted for maybe six months. Stewart, the man standing before William, had served the Queen's Army for a little less than that and had yet to be in battle. William had been a captain for three years, enlisted for five under the name William Miller, and did not share the need to get accustomed to the violent realities of the life of a soldier. Around his men, at least, he could not afford to seem shocked or inexperienced. Watchmen were the most prone to death, and as there were no sounds of attack, there was no need to appear alarmed. “At least it was a clean death. Who was it gave this to you?” He questioned, raising one eyebrow at the gangly messenger before untying the grubby bit of string that held the few pages together. It was stained with greasy fingerprints and dark red blotches; presumably the late Jamison's parting mark. It was wet, but only a little; even in shock, Stewart had the foresight to keep the letter dry.
“Don't rightly know, sir.” Stewart's lip trembled, but he held together admirably well. “I didn't get a name. He was big though, like a bear, dressed in navy and black. A traveling cloak, dark hair and clean shaven. He was at the edge of the woods where we were foraging. All he said was, 'Give this to your Captain Miller. He needs it, now.' Spooky man.”
“Mmm,” William agreed, not spooked. “I'm sure he was. That is all, Stewart, thank you. Don't take Jamison's passing too badly. Have a drink or something at the mess hall, and tell Lieutenant Burrage to have the, eh, Jamison taken care of. See if he can’t find any clue about the murderer.” Blue eyes glanced up at Stewart and a quick, cold smile told the messenger he was dismissed. The boy took the suggestion to heart, stumbling a little on the way out as he tried to rid himself of the lingering chill of his friend's death.
William waited a few heartbeats to be sure Stewart wasn't coming back before he rose and fastened the tent flap shut. It was a simple enough enclosure: slightly larger than the personal space given to the troops, a right earned by rank. The same caramel color of worn, dirty canvas that all the tents surround him were. He had only a few personal effects littered about, most of them functional rather than sentimental, and aside from his cot, desk, three chairs, and small nightstand, it was mostly empty. He did have several less than functional letters, however, hidden away in a compartment on the underside of the desk. They reminded him he had a life outside of battle. It kept him grounded, let him know there was a purpose to all of this.
He pulled those out now as he returned to his seat, opening the new letter to see if its handwriting matched any of the others. After a moment of comparison he realized it was penned in a different hand and his heart flipped in his chest. He had no one to keep his guard up for now, no front to present, and comfortably let his mouth hang open in surprise. Mother had told him he would receive an unfamiliar letter when the time was right. That the guild would contact him when he met their requirements, teach him what she had been unable to pass along because she was not a man. What she had meant exactly by those cryptic, melodramatic words was beyond him, but it excited and frightened him nonetheless. Forgetting about matching handwriting, William put his other letters back, wondering absently why he had thought this was from her, and began to actually read it.
You have grown from infant to boy and, finally, what we deem a man. This means that your life is no longer your own and that you are ready to join our ranks. I will not put more information down in pen and ink"these things have a habit of ending up in the wrong dirty paws. You are to follow the map enclosed, on horseback, leaving tonight at quarter before midnight precisely, and meet up with an escort who will take you the rest of the way. On punishment of something far worse than death, take pains to be sure no one sees you leave or follows you; we will know if someone does. Should you choose to not leave at all, we also know where your sister sleeps. Make no attempt to talk to your superiors about the contents of this letter or anything of a related nature.
Do not be late.
William sat still, a man transfixed. They knew about his sister...no one here knew he had a sister. They all believed him an only child with two healthy, sane parents, and a rebellious and patriotic streak that led him to the army. Whoever had written this letter knew him. Knew his family. He could think of no possible way the author was not a member of the guild his mother had mentioned so many dusty years ago. It sounded like they had watched him for a very long time, and the thought made the Captain distinctly uncomfortable; he shifted in his seat. Trying to ignore his nerves, he flipped to the second of the three pages. It was a roughly drawn map, but he recognized the sketched landmarks. A bunch of clustered triangles for his encampment, a little British flag at their center. To the east, a clearing and the surrounding forest. Through it was a path in red ink that twisted for a considerable distance"maybe a two hour ride from where he now sat. At the end of the path was a very final looking 'x.' Where he was supposed to stop and, presumably, wait for his escort. Had it not been a serious situation, he would have laughed at the childish nature of the map and its markings.
The third page was blank. Both sides devoid of markings, save a little spattering of Jamison's blood. “Why empty?” William asked of the parchment, turning it this way and that as he held it before his candle as though hoping to glean some invisible truth from it. A corner almost caught fire and he snatched it away, but not before he'd seen a little flicker of what looked like ink.
“Heat, of course...” He should have guessed. It was a way to pass sensitive letters between camps, using ink that only showed once revealed by a heat source. Being careful not to set it aflame, he held it close to the candle, passing the whole page before the fire. Slowly spreading like a spidery watermark, William watched his family's coat of arms appear on the page"a lion rampant with forked tails, hissing devilishly. But scrawled beneath it, rather than the family motto (Tout pour l’églis; the irony of 'All for the church' was not lost on William, who had never set foot inside a chapel) was a single word:
It held no meaning to him, this 'berserker,' but it appeared to be written with such menace and anger that he couldn't repress a shiver. He let the paper unceremoniously fall to his desk He had no choice, it seemed, but to comply with this stranger's wishes. Since they knew about Claire he knew this was no joke; he believed, felt, that they could deliver the punishment they promised, and he had no desire to see it. It was the first time in many years that he could remember feeling helpless. It was not pleasant.
He rose from his chair, pacing the small walkway between his bed and the door with a feverish sort of determination, as though by the repeated walking he could undo the letter's existence and what it meant. The next two hours saw him exercising his legs in the same manner, his thoughts circuitous and unhelpful.
“Damnit,” he spat, sitting down heavily as he grabbed the third page, angry and incautious. It crumpled beneath his fingers and, slowly, he held it over the candle's flame. He didn't want to see it any longer, regardless of the fact he didn't know what it truly meant, and seeing it writhe and shimmer as it burned brought him only slight pleasure. His mind was made up. He would go.
Three hours left until midnight, and the rain showed no sign of easing.