The man glassed the road, watching the long procession slump south across the valley, armed and ragged like a band of crusaders for some dark creed. The rain caught them earlier, somewhere further north, and now they were wet to the bone, all of them, their eyes all downcast save a pair who looked like the guards, janissaries still young and with enough energy to lift their heads to watch the tree-line and all the darkness that lay beyond it.
The years had brought many swart beliefs to the land and the man had seen blood cults and bridge trolls, men driven mad with hunger and terror and loss. But this group was different. Each wore something that was once brightly colored but now ratted to the color of the ground and the slate sky. One man wore a scarf, once red, another wore a shiny green hat gone the color of oil on pavement.
This group had their own queens, two women, thin and frail as birds, slumped on car seats attached to a metal litter and carried by a team of slaves, four on each side. The women wore on their heads some sort of stuffed regalia – one woman, who looked asleep or dead, wore a red bird with wary eyes and the other wore something porcine in appearance, with a dull grin. The green pig covered the woman’s body as well and her arms stuck out like straws. Some of the stuffing had left it and it had been hastily taped shut but now the pig was deflated, like a Jack o’lantern left too long in the cool night. A yellow crown, carefully washed to the point of bleaching, lay perched on the pig’s lopsided head.
What these headdresses meant the man did not know, and how these two women so bedecked assuaged this band’s fear was also a mystery. The land threw up strange prophets these days and one man’s sunken-eyed woman was another man’s celestial bride. The band clattered on, the litter groaning and their worn shoes flapping on the broken pavement like the slap of a branch on an abandoned barn. The man lay back, waiting for their passage, hoping none of them saw him high in the brush. They did not, and soon he was alone again, the sound of the rain gathering around him and an afterimage flare of the red bird (when was the last time he saw a live bird? Ten years? Twenty? Time was impossible here) still maddening him in the dead dark.