The Earth Would Not Thaw For Us ©
By Benjamin T. Lambright
We hadn’t yet conceived a number for how many died in the battle. The flies were many. The crows were many. The dead were many.
Their feet mashed, rhythmless, into the ground as the snow gathered. All around them the bare branches bowed and snapped in the wind. They had gathered on both sides of the stream that ran beside our walls. The herds used to drink there, but they had followed the stream south as it froze.
The wanderers had little to hunt, less to gather. Only, we, the Keepers of Plants, had enough to survive. And so they gathered, first one tribe, then another, then another. Hunger brought the wanderers together. I knew they would come and I had prayed and sacrificed to Mullum asking her to break the cold and let the trees be reborn so the horde would eat and leave, but it was not yet time.
Weary, I looked through the fear-stained eyes of my people and saw the enemy for monsters. Ash, dirt, and blood warped faces dripping with disease. Snow, caking to frozen leather made their chests and thighs bulbous, demonic. Their arms stretched out with icy-spears and long, stone fingers.
They ambled forward from the forest into the field between us. I ordered the stones rolled behind our gate. It started small, just a few of the beasts, but a growl came up from them and spread from throat to throat until it swallowed the horde.
They rushed forward.
Our people had never seen a foe so numerous. That morning I had stood before them at the shrine to Mullum and spoke the truth. They come for what gives us life. A people who will not kill to eat will die. There will be many, but we have walls. We will fight and we will live. I took my sharpest edge and split a live goat for the goddess. The liver was warm as I bit into it and smeared hot blood across my eyes. I shouted that the goddess had shown me the path to victory, but that is not her way.
Half starved, crazed and whipped to a frenzy, they crashed endlessly against our walls. We threw rocks and spears, piercing flesh and breaking bone, sending the dead into the ice and snow. They kept coming.
Our gates fell.
The boulders funnelled them into our waiting clubs, stones, and fists. Beneath the ash and blood on their faces, their bones poked through thin flesh and their eyes bulged with madness. They were weakened and should have attacked months ago, but there were so many.
We fought them close enough to steal their breath, to cover each other in entrails. Awash in dirt, sweat, and viscera it became impossible to tell our warriors from theirs and their monsters from ours. But we battled through the night and the morning and the night again. By dawn on the third day we were climbing the dead to fight the living. It wasn’t until the third morning that the fighting stopped. I believed we had won.
As the sun rose on the fourth day, those wanderers who were unable to fight began to stumble and crawl over the corpse field to ask for our mercy.
Children, the old, the sick, and pregnant women all came crying out. Mullum makes the pregnant sacred, so they were taken. The rest, we turned away. Many of the mothers abandoned their offspring so they could hunt. We grabbed babes by both little feet and swung them, bashing their heads against the wall. The blood ran down, until it melted snow, and stained the earth. The Keepers cannot feed the world.
Writhing and wriggling through the maze of severed and smashed humanity piled almost as high as a hut, rats began to gnaw and nest in the freezing flesh. More bodies waited outside the walls.
If they were left outside it would bring a siege of wolves, bears, and evil spirits gnashing in the night. A pyre big enough to burn the fallen would call down all the mountain brutes, which would mean another battle and more bodies. The grave had to be dug.
But it had been cold for so long… We were strong and many, with stone and stick, but the ground was frozen and the digging was slow and hard. More work and more workers, meant more eating. By the third day I knew that the balance had tipped. Some of my people would starve because of this grave work. By the seventh day, I knew that many would starve. I had no choice but to send out hunting parties after dangerous prey. Some of them would be killed either by wolves or wanderers. The battle was over, but the dying was not.
As the dirt covered the grave, anguish buried me. How many of the wounded would die? How many would starve? How many would die on the hunt? Instead of a monument to our victory, the burial mound, the largest any had seen, became a symbol of my failure.
My body grew more numb as I climbed the mound. My people watched, expecting a speech, a celebration of their victory. Surely, a place such as this, would be a place to speak not just to man, but to the goddess. But, the numbness had reached my spirit. I drew my edge and split my throat like a slaughtered goat.
As the light fled from my eyes I asked the goddess to make me an offering so that life might come from death.
She whispered warmth and wisdom. The goddess had been reborn when the world learned how to make the plants return, but she was alone. I would be reborn now, also, joining her as her opposite, and completing the cycle.
The mound grew into a monument, the monument, into a temple, the temple, an idea. For ages and eons thereafter villagers, shamans, politicians, priests, warriors, kings, and cultists all have come to me with prayers and sacrifices. But I bestow no blessings. What victory could I give? No, all who come to me are naught but acolytes of sacrifice.