The officers huddle in leaking tents, and the makeshift camp leans into the oncoming storm. The foot soldiers crowd around failing fires to warm their weary bones. Pharrigan, Lord of Rhyshire, stands outside his humble pavilion. His advisors scurry around him, offering him strategy and tactics, but few strategies can help a battalion of three hundred men defeat an army of almost two thousand. Lord Eddister’s camp lies a mile to the north, in the shelter of the valley, while Pharrigan’s men scrape out their meagre existence on the moor. The omens are ill-favoured.
A shout erupts from the edge of his camp, and he peers into the middle distance. Someone approaches, seated on horse back. The foot soldiers form a disorderly mob, but they fall back when the stranger reaches the edge of their defensive line.
Pharrigan stares in disbelief as he first sees the skeletal horse, with rags of flesh hanging from its bones, its hoofprints leaving black marks in the grass. Its rider hides beneath a tattered black hood, yet white hands grasp the reins of the gory charger. His soldiers cross themselves and lurch into one another in their haste to retreat.
The horse draws level with Pharrigan. He resolves to stand firm, but the scent of rotting meat sets his nerves on fire.
“You are the lord here?” The figure speaks with a woman’s voice, firm yet frozen.
“Good. I would discuss business with you.”
The woman dismounts. Pharrigan clears the tent of his advisors, and invites her inside. She crosses the threshold and throws back her hood. Dark eyes burn in a pale face the colour of candlewax, and oozing sores cluster around her chapped lips. Blood matts her mane of black hair. Pharrigan struggles to suppress the stench of pestilence that hangs about her cloak. He remembers the tales of the Lady Contagion, memorised at the knee of his grandmother, but he never thought he would encounter the one they believed had passed into legend.
“You know of me.” She does not ask a question, simply tells him the truth. He nods.
“The storm approaches, and it will not take prisoners among your men, so I shall be brief. You cannot win the coming battle, but you know of this.”
Pharrigan nods again.
“I could ride through your enemy’s camp and decimate its numbers.”
Pharrigan gulps. He knows the tales of her power, and the awesome toll it takes when she comes to feed.
“Why would you do that for me?”
“I do not do it for you. I do it for myself. The side makes no difference to me, but their army is many, and would be a banquet to me.”
“Why do you not do this then? Why do you seek my counsel?”
“I come to offer you a bargain. Reject my offer, and I will ride through your camp, feasting on your men until there is naught left but fodder for crows. Accept my offer, and I will ride thus through the camp of your enemy. Your men need not fight, and your battalion shall remain in tact.”
“What is your offer?”
“There is one among your number who will make a worthy addition to my own honour guard. You will give me this man, to do with as I please, and the bargain shall be complete. This man will be mine, and your men will be spared.”
Pharrigan winces. He does not wish to hand any of his men to the Lady Contagion, but if he does not, then he will hand all of them to her, if not to his enemy. What is the life of one man against the life of three hundred?
“Very well. Who is the man you seek?”
“Me? But why?”
“You will make a fine prize. Oh yes, I have heard tales of your valour, and your presence would be welcome among my guard. Do you accept my offer?”
Pharrigan hesitates. He does not wish to die, but he cannot leave three hundred good men to perish of plague if they need not do so.
He nods. The Lady Contagion smiles, and leans forward. She brushes her blue, chapped lips across his cheek, and bile rises in his throat. The sharp stench of death is intolerable at such close quarters, and the buzzing of flies fills his ears. She turns to leave, as if sensing his discomfort. The Lady raises her hood and leaves the tent. She is already mounted when Pharrigan recovers himself and rushes outside.
“You are leaving me?”
“Not for good. I will come for you when it is your time. I have marked you.”
The skeletal horse wheels around and breaks into a gallop. The Lady Contagion rides through the camp and out across the moor, flying through the gathering darkness towards the valley where his enemy lies. In his mind’s eye, Pharrigan sees her reach the camp. She rides among the sleeping soldiers, and stands by their roaring fire. She tears strips from her shadow, cast on the ground by the light of the flames. The Lady blows the tatters among the men, where small breezes carry her sickness through the air.
Pharrigan knows that the plague has reached their camp, as surely as he feels her poison gently take hold in his blood. He does not know if she has given him days, weeks, months, or even years – but he knows that Lord Eddister’s men will be dead by dawn.
Original image by Alan Lewis. Edits by me.