The only rule in order to stay alive was to never stop walking.
The snow had stopped pouring down from the rag colored sky but the wind continued to blow relentlessly – howling from morning to night. Its cold fangs pierced through our thick clothing, into our skin, and dug deep into our bones. It drained away what little strength we had left. But we continued on walking. To stop was death.
We dragged ourselves through snow that reached up to our knees. Everything was a blinding white and the vastness and emptiness of the landscape did little to improve how we felt.
Our army of three thousand was reduced to a mere twenty survivors. Battle-worn, starving, broken, we shuffled along in a straight line. Survivors from a battle we knew to be doomed from the start. Still, we fought. We charged with swords raised high even though we were outnumbered ten to one. We fought and we lost. Was it wrong of us to flee? Was it wrong to not stay and die for the sake of what we believed?
The captain, Marcus, led the group. I was positioned in the middle. All of us had only one destination in mind: Home. That’s where we were all headed. The feel of a warm hearth, the taste of good ale, the sound of the sweet, sweet laughter of our children. For these reasons we put one foot in front of the other. By the end of the fourth day, we lost two. One from the wounds he had received another from the cold. They were near the front. I passed by their bodies, crumpled on the ground. Stains in the pristine snow. I offered no second glance, nor a prayer, nor a farewell. I feared if I gave them recognition that Death would set his sights on me.
We rested huddled together in a tight circle, a small fire burned in the center. Our water came from melted snow and we ate in our dreams.
We encountered the wolves upon reaching Crichton Woods. Towering redwoods clothed with snow loomed over us. When night fell, we heard a different sort of howling. We first only saw one. Stark, red eyes which hovered in the darkness of the night. Then came another pair, and another, and another. We were surrounded by a pack of twelve. Howling. Growling. Snarling. It took only one of us to panic to set the wolves into a frenzy. Madness ensued. Swords were drawn. Some men reached for swords that were no longer there – long lost in the battle or left in the snow to lighten weight. Some reached for rocks. I saw one or two men running deep into the woods. Others didn’t have any time to react as their throats were torn open by yellowed fangs. In the chaos that broke out, I managed to kill two of the beasts. With a dagger tucked in my left boot, I stabbed one in the eye while another in the belly.
Six of us died. Three went missing. Not one of us mourned. Marcus wordlessly, with heavy breaths, started a fire. We knew what needed to be done. We began skinning the dead animals.
Our bellies were filled that night.
On the third day, after getting through Crichton Woods, we were faced with a decision: To continue following the road or to take a detour through a mountain pass, Deadman’s Path. The road would take us another twenty days as it snaked around the mountain while the latter would not cost us more than a week. Many were reluctant. We’ve all heard of the stories. Tales told in pubs. Tales of malignant spirits that guarded the mountains. People took sides. Our group was split. I chose to go through the pass.
I discovered that the tales were true on the second night in the pass.
They were there. Lurking at the edge of our senses.
Never stop walking.
To stop was death.
To stop was to be with the wraiths.
They were the faint voices that whispered to us at the edge of our hearing, they were the stench on each passing of the winter wind, they were the shadows that we saw on the periphery of our vision. They took on many forms. Sometimes they looked like a friend from home, other times they looked like one of our dead brethren, then there were the rare times when they looked like themselves—demons of the mountain.
We decided to turn back. To follow the road instead. But the wraiths…they had not the opportunity of a meal for quite a long time. They did not allow us an escape. Darkness swallowed up the path behind us. One of us, Garth his name was, looked at us with eyes filled with terror and suddenly ran down the dark path. It didn’t take long for us to hear his shrill screams. They echoed off the dark walls of the pass. They were screams pregnant with fear and death. The captain ordered us to continue on marching forward. We followed warily.
I placed one foot forward, followed by the other one. Each step seemed to be my last, but I pushed on. I pushed on. Then I heard her voice. We all did. It was faint at first but it grew louder with each step I took.
“Keep moving! Do not look at them!” Marcus shouted.
We moved on. Still, she continued to call me to come to her. She beckoned me to come home. She begged me to finally rest. Tears slid down my cheeks and they froze on my skin from the wind. My heart wanted to go to my wife but my mind knew it was a lie of the wraiths. I felt so tired. I wanted nothing more than to stop, for everything to be over.
I closed my eyes.
“I am sorry, Captain! It was an honor to fight alongside you.” I raised my voice loud enough to be heard over the howling of the wind.
“Keep on walking, boy!” Marcus replied. “Your wife’s dead! It is not her!”
I stopped. The men behind me passed me by, their faces hidden by thick hoods. I looked to the side and there she was – Nissa, my wife. She smiled at me and beckoned me to come closer. I did. I ran towards her grabbed her in my arms. She smelled of summer and home. I was home.
From some far off place, I heard someone shouting. Screams of pain and agony tangled with the winter wind. He sounded very much like me. He shouted for help. I did not look to see who it was. I was home.
Made for and originally posted at The Short Stories Club. April 2015. Soldier.