The following is a short story written for a creative writing subject I took in the second half of 2020. It is a stand-alone piece, and has been edited since it’s original submission based on feedback.
The sight of it felt like a mockery. The lyre was sat in the glass case, as pristine and undisturbed, like no time had passed at all. It, like the war museum it sat within, felt to me like it had no right to exist. The people around me looked on at the lyre in respect and admiration. It disgusted me, this was not something to be admired, but denounced. It should have been destroyed years ago, they were playing with fire allowing it to exist, let alone putting it on display in a public building.
Our involvement in the war had begun as innocently as it could have. I have long forgotten the reasoning as to why the Fetans declared war on us, but what was important was that we all knew it was merely an excuse to capture our land, expand their empire. Conscription wasn’t necessary for people to join, the patriotic idea of defending our land from tyrannical foreigners had been enough. We felt justified in our need to fight, and the world hadn’t seen such a large scale war in generations, and the first it had seen that used guns. For eight years the borders between our two nations shifted and morphed beyond recognition. For eight years, our morale was sanded down, and our resolve crumbled. For eight years, our commanders slowly lost their way, and began to become more and more desperate to end the war, by any means necessary. For eight years, my fellow men and I had the growing desire to finally return home.
The first I had heard of the fairy, was a rumour from one of the officers who had been given the duty of watching No Man’s Land during the night. Apparently, one of the fairies of the nearby forest had been seen flying overhead, and had successfully managed to avoid the gunfire aimed at her. The sergeant looked into it, asking all the soldiers in the trenches if they had noticed anything odd in the hours prior to her appearance. Everyone reported that nothing had been seen, and that the fairy’s business in No Man’s Land was a mystery. The only unusual aspect of that night was that an officer, Fergus, had not been in his bed when his fellow bunkmate had awoken to the gunfire. Nor, was he on duty. I know not what the sergeant did or said to Fergus; I know only that when we saw him leave the sergeant’s command post, he had done so in shackles and bruises. We were told he had been liaising between the local fairies from our territories and the Fetans. The last we saw of him was when he was forced to go over the top, with no weapon, alongside that morning’s group of attackers. It was then that the sergeant had requested my help, and had arranged for me to crawl to one of the craters in No Man’s Land, in Fergus’ place.
As I stood in a dead Fetan man’s uniform, I felt my fellow officer’s eyes on me, invisible as they lay prone around the edge of the crater. Even though the crater’s magical aspects were long dead, I still felt wary at the sight of the bodies around me. The way the Fetans had fought the war in recent months was brutal. They had utilised weaponised potions; which would burst upon impact and create craters such as these. Those who were not killed by the force of the blast, were quickly wiped out by whatever magic they conjured. After waiting for what felt like an hour, the woodland fairy appeared. I watched her glide quickly down from the sky from behind a passing cloud, before she slowed to halt, and lightly placed her feet on the ground. A woman, dressed in black fatigues, with large transparent wings that reflected the moonlight along it’s plastic, film-like texture.
“…you’re not my usual contact.” She said, coldly.
“He was killed in battle today- went over the top.” I resisted the urge to shiver as she looked over my uniform.
“Well, what’s the difference between a Fetan soldier and another anyway?” As she spoke, she produced the wooden lyre from behind her back, it’s black strings barely visible in the moonlight. “Remember, it will command the dead until-”
“-until the sun shines upon them. Fergus told me already.” It was a half-truth.
The fairy gripped the lyre tightly, her body tense. “He told you?”
“Before he went over the top for your enemy’s army?”
I internally panicked for a moment, but found my footing in a split second. “We received intelligence they were planning an attack in the early hours of this morning. We weren’t sure if Fergus would be forced to participate or not, so I was prepared as a contingency plan.”
She looked over at me, her tense muscles relaxing a little, but still visibly cautious. When she seemed confident in her assessment, she outstretched the lyre toward me. I took it, and slowly retracted my arms. “The Fetan government will remember your contribution to this war, and you will be compensa-”
A bullet whizzed through one of the fairy’s wings. I dived to the floor, hearing nothing but the banging of rifles. It was when I heard the smashing of glass, that I rolled over to look up out of the crater.
The fairy was flying high in the air, struggling to balance herself with her injured wing. She drew various vials and bottles from her person, and threw them to the ground. New craters were pounded into the earth, and the magic of the fairy spurred into action. I got up, and quickly climbed out of the crater. I could see the fairy had been lucky in her aiming; A new crater housed a series of vines which had grabbed a hold of an officer, his body slowly becoming visible as an arm, that had evidently worn the invisibility ring he had been given, was ripped out of it’s socket. Another crater had trapped an officer inside a pool of water, I barely saw the outline of his face and hands trying to push through the surface, as it kept him from breaking it’s surface. Similar scenes were unfolding around me as I began to make my escape. As I started to run, my foot slipped on the mud, and I slid feet first into the crater full of water. I quickly hooked my arms over the piece of land between me and the safe crater I had just left. Thinking quickly, I strummed on the lyre, whilst cradling it in the arm that had previously held it.
All of the dead in No Man’s Land suddenly stood up in unison. As the fairy whirled around, looking at the scene below her, I continued strumming the lyre, and felt the hands of the now dead soldier in the water pushing up on my feet, allowing me to get free of the water’s grasp, and resume running towards the trenches. By now, the fairy had noticed me running towards the trenches she knew not to be Fetan and turned her attention to me. In my struggle to put it on I dropped the invisibility ring I had been given. Knowing I couldn’t stop to grab it, I ran. I knew however, that if I did nothing but run, that the fairy would eventually hit her mark. As I heard craters pummel themselves in the ground behind me, I began to strum at the lyre again. There was a deafening roar of gun fire, as every corpse picked up nearby rifles, and fired it in the fairy’s direction. I stopped, and held my hands to my ears, ceasing to play the lyre. When I noticed I had stood still, without being hit with a horrifying spell, I looked at where I had last seen the fairy. Her body fell to the mud with a wet thump, punctuating the eerie sudden silence. Her wings were no more than a series of ribbons and shreds, and her body had lost almost all composure. As I looked around, I saw the bodies all standing idle, wavering in the night air. They did not speak. They did not move. None of them showed the grace of agency in any limb or bone, as they waited for the cursed music to continue.
From there I had returned to the sergeant, given him the lyre and my report of what happened. By the sergeant’s eagerness to use the lyre himself, we would cross No Man’s Land within an hour, decimating the Fetan forces, and adding them to our undead infantry. Not a single living soldier on our side even raised their gun. The power of the lyre had shook me to my core as we traveled through their trenches and territory- the Fetan soldier’s bodies were ferried with wheel-barrows during the day, walking and crawling with us in the night. I always wondered if they were they conscious of the actions they were being forced to take. Fairy magic was known to be needlessly cruel in that way. I had only used the lyre out of necessity to escape death. The sergeant had used it for widespread genocide and desecration. “The ends justify the means” he had said to me as I had questioned our actions in his earshot. I thought of what he said, and still I could not ignore that I felt sick to my core every day. Our goal had been to defend our home from imperial invaders, not to commit genocide on a neighbouring country and rid that same population of eternal rest. I felt the fault was at its root, mine. It had been me who had brought it to him. It had been me who first used it to animate the dead. It was me who had first used it to kill another. Within a week, the entirety of the Fetan nation was captured, and annexed.
We had returned home heroes. Our commanding officers painted the sudden end to the war as a victory that had long been seen. They revealed the lyre, explained it had been made by a woodland fairy, and what they had used it for. I had thought when the people heard about the massacre of the Fetans, that they would object. But the vast majority of people had welcomed the end to the war with open arms. Too many people had just wanted the war over, the same as us in the trenches. Most didn’t care how it was achieved, just that it had been. Some had objected and protested, deeply disturbed by the implications of it’s magic, but the propaganda of our government made sure it was seen as the saviour of our country. Those who tried to question the ethics of raising the dead, were drowned out by the rejoicing of reunited families, and a country celebrating the end of the longest war in living memory. Despite my despair and desire for an end to the war for the last eight years, I sat out of every celebration and party I was invited to. We had become what my past patriotic self wanted to fight. In a war that had been about defending our homeland, we had won by annihilating an entire country with it’s own dead people.
I gazed at the lyre. The fact it sat here intact after sixty years confirmed it to me- either I was to destroy it, or no-one would. It would inevitably be used again. It was a ticking time bomb, a matter of time before someone found an excuse. It was impossible to fight and win against the magic it wrought. I took a small enchanted sack from my pocket, and carefully opened it. Inside, seven small stones sat inside, perpetually alight with bright blue magical flames. “One for each string on the lyre’s bridge”, I hold told myself when I had bought them. After looking around and confirming that nobody was watching, I emptied the sack over the lyre.
Featured Image Source: Photograph of my own study supplies and work.