How Heavy, This Night

The wind cut at our faces - sharp as our blades' edges. It had been two months on the moors and our furs had been saturated with ice and snow. They weighed heavily on our shoulders.

We marched against the whipping wind and biting rain. The sun only showed itself nearly an hour a day during the Long Winter - a darkness that seems complete. It never showed its face long enough to warm our bones. Cold. Endless cold.

Camp was built when we could walk no more. Our numbers were half of what they had been when we left. At first we picked up our brethren, carried them on horses, and when most of the horses died, on our backs. Too many stopped moving or died too fast. So we left them in the snow. 

The hardiest of men felled several trees to build a giant blaze for warmth. For so long we had marched in secrecy, hiding ourselves from our enemies. The blaze burns bright - it keeps us from death, but not much else. The last horse is slaughtered - we eat well tonight.

We awake in the darkness. Yellow, hungry eyes dart in the firelight. Growls. Painful bellows. Savage axe strikes. Yelps. For every man they take, we claim three wolves. We repel them - for today. Take their furs, roast their meats. Our eyes grow redder with exhaustion. 

Through the snow we trudge. Some drag their axes; the chieftain stumbles. We leave him - a new one will be named. In the day's darkness, we see twinkling lights on the horizon. It is nearly a day's journey away, but we see our destination. A small fishing town sits on the shore of a black river, surrounded by black fields of white. The buildings are peaked in white like distant snowcaps on distant mountains. A keep rests on an island in the river, a stone bridge connects it to the mainland.

A fireless night. On the plains, we find nothing to burn for warmth. We hide like mongrels - they must know we're coming for them, but we lie to ourselves and sleep in the encompassing darkness. Many men stay awake, awaiting the attacks of the wolves again. We see them pace around us, dogging us since we left. Tonight they do not attack. 

We march again. This is the last day. Many of us are too tired to move, let alone swing our axes and swords. We leave a trail of exhausted bodies behind us. They succumb to the cold long before they are out of sight. Leaning forward against the wind, we keep moving. There is nowhere else to go but forward.

The hour of sunlight is masked by heavy clouds carrying freezing rain. We move faster, the shelter of the town draws nearer; we see the outlines of people and fires ablaze in windows. We shoulder our shields and lift our axes. We can't feel our legs - haven't for days - but we, all together, shuffle, then run. Each step feels like a thousand stab wounds lancing every inch of our bodies; we still run. 

Many men had lost ears from the cold, so they did not hear the whistle of arrows in the air. They only felt the frozen points plunge into them. On the frozen plains, they didn't feel the cold of death - all life is cold here. Their frozen blood pooled and crystallized; in life misery, in death release. We ran on, leaving them behind.

We were nearly there, nearly to the walls we hadn't seen before. Men had dropped their shields and their weapons. They ran recklessly, only trying to break in, to find warmth, to find life. They were struck down next. 

At the gate, we pounded and pushed. Arrows pierced and bodies mounted higher. Our numbers dwindled, but the gate did not budge. And there it was - the final release. 

Scalding pitch fell from above. The tar burned our eyes and singed our noses. We were coated. We slipped. Our furs stuck fast to our backs. Torches dropped. For the first time in weeks, we felt warmth. Our fire climbed to the heavens and the burden of frigid night was lifted.