A breath went through the pines. Uncounted millions of gold-green needles quavered, heaved; pressed by a mild and resinous sigh. The air thickened, yellowed with cloying dust shed from boughs' young cones. Great beards of hoary moss wavered, licked their trailing ends to the forest floor, stilled. The breath passed.
In the ensuing hush, not one beast dared more than whisper. Crickets put up a rarefied, hesitant sawing. Crows croaked only briefly, distant. The chewing of green caterpillars, long and fat as forearms, was louder than even they. No beast let their paws crackle the ember-needled mat of soil. No paws, but two sets of boots.
Black, soldiers' boots. Two soldiers, women in red uniform and cuirass. One hobbled, supported by her shieldmate under torn shoulders. Her head lolled. Dark specks dribbled from one ruined eye socket, rolled down her collar and dirty plastron.
"Lydie?" she mumbled, feet dragging. "How long've we been walking?"
Lyd grimaced, adjusted her burden. "Been a time. Can't really see the sun to tell."
"S'all yellow. Where are we?"
"In the woods, Suse."
"Can't hear the fighting."
"Haven't heard it for a while. You've been a spot out of it." Lyd looked to her friend. "How's your head?"
Suse took a moment to respond, slack-jawed. "Hot" she said, finally. "Shou… shouldnt'a pulled it out."
Lyd pressed a palm to her friend's forehead, felt the sweat and fever neath her palm. She frowned. "Yeah. Shite."
They stumbled on aways. Every now and again, a great rush would go through the pines. All would bend and sway. Needles would shake free and spiral down, uncounted. Gouts of yellow pollen choked the air, clung to sweated skin, stuck musty-sweet in the soldiers' lungs. They coughed up wads of the stuff.
Suse halted, stumbled, slid to her knees, hacking weakly. Lyd guided her down, proffered a warm canteen. "Drink up."
"Thanks" gasped Suse, dribbling.
"Lemme look at that eye." Lyd pulled sticky hair from her shieldmate's brow, revealed the wound. She stifled a yelp of horror.
"Aye, s'bad" commented Suse. She slumped back on the carpet of needles. Her good right eye fluttered sporadically, closed. She sighed. "Go scout ahead, yeah? Not much left in me."
"Don't wanna leave you."
Dismay wrinkled Lyd's lip. She surveyed Suse where she lay, cushioned by amber earth and tired breath.
"Alright" Lyd sniffled, backed up a few steps. "I'll be back soon, aye? Don't ye be dying."
"Get, y'silly tit."
Lyd grinned miserably, rubbed away polen and tears. She departed. Her black boots receded into amber.
Then, Suse was alone. She breathed deep tendrils of yellow air, sighed, blinked slow and heavily. Her good eye stilled, faded.
Before she succumbed, the soldier spied a flutter of wings midst the amber pines.
Suse awoke to a darkened wood. A murky place, scarcely lit by moonlight cracked by crooked boughs. Striped cream and gold moths flashed midst the pines, wide as bushels. Thick, gelid mist flowed over the dry needles, bit at Suse's nose and fingers. She shivered, rose from the wash of fog.
The soldier stretched, groaned, found her lips dried together. Twigs and needles shed from her stiff frame. Her red coat split, rotted, about the elbows. It carried the damp, cold smell of earth.
Suse brushed accreted needles and moss from her frame. She squinted, rubbed her eyes, abruptly stopped with a jolt of recognition. Tentatively, she probed the left socket with shaking fingers, felt naught but fused and mangled skin.
"Lydie?" she called, hoarse. Not a voice answered.
Suse turned about slow, peered through the grey spaces between black trunks. Thousands of pillars in a canopied hall of sticks and needles. Pillars, spotted with hollows and holes, wherein uncertain illusions of eyes crouched.
Suse startled: Round one bole, she spied something pale in the moonlight. She squinted, focused, cried out.
It was a face. Like a white heart pulled round the trunk by long, white fingers. With eyes like pots of ink, it fixed Suse with a look of pursed intent.
"Hello?" rasped Suse, loud with fright.
"Hello" said the face, quiet. It stepped round the tree, revealed a lissome frame clad in gossamer. It stood barefoot, near-inseparable from the crawling mist. "You slept for a long time."
Suse stammered, took a step back. "Y–yeah?" She pawed for her dagger, found it and her munitions cuirass were missing. * Her clothes, too, so sodden with rot, were sloughing from her frame. "What did you bloody do to me, älf?"
"We didn't do anything" said the älf, lilting amusedly. "They did." He indicated the moths overhead.
"M-moths?" said Suse, frowning, darted her gaze up and about. "Wait, what do you mean 'we?'"
Suse's eyes went wide. A dozen or more älves sprouted from the cold mist, lifted from their hidden repose. Pale as vapor, save for black pits of eyes.
"Listen" said Suse, shivering. "I just want to find my friend. She's a soldier like me. We were lost."
A tittering chorus of cruel, musical laughter momently sounded. "We're all lost, here."
"Where is she?" insisted Suse.
"I told you, you slept for a long time." The lead älf was abruptly serious. "She's far away."
"How bloody far away?"
One by one, the älves began to vanish, slip behind pines. Suse frowned, tried to keep them in her sight. They slipped away like so much dissolving mist. Only the first remained.
"How far?" said Suse, whispering.
"Two hundred years" said the heart-shaped face, soft. It, too, vanished.
Suse was alone.