The officer took first watch and sat with his torch angled out to the indeterminate dark. He knew not whether the encroaching sounds were snow dropping from the lofty boughs or quiet footsteps among the trees. He told his partner as much when he nudged him awake and took his turn in the tent. They would follow the men’s tracks further tomorrow.
A figure without a face but a voice that penetrated all crouched a mouth to his ear and in the officer’s slumber promised that death unknowable awaited. That he should eat his weapon to avoid a hideous fate and from this the officer awoke gasping. Out by the dormant fire in the slim morning light he shook his dozing partner by the shoulder.
“Get up, you fool,” he spoke facing the shrouded woodland. “We made camp near a shrine.” His partner trembled wordless on the bedroll and the officer strode a short way into the pines before he saw it.
He took the shape down from where it hung and tore apart the three robins stitched breast to breast. In the centre of blood-streaked feathers came the shape of an ear tattooed with an unknown and sacrilegious script and the whole thing’s weight obscene in his palm. Behind him snapped the discharge of a single pistol round. The officer exhaled and started to strip a dead tree for wood on which he would burn them both.