Short story selected for the 2014 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology
He stood atop the lonely mountain amidst the snow and howling wind. Cold as ice, the emptiness in him made him feel so shallow that he could not even remember if he was brought back to life from the dead or if he were a walking form of his previous self. He felt as if he were disturbed from a numb hopeless prayer devoid of any hope and redemption, from which he didn’t want to be disturbed. He continued rambling his numb hopeless prayer.
He was in the midst of a cruel storm, where snow laden winds took away everything in its path. The cold was so unbearable that it bit into the wanderer’s pale, athletic physique, no amount of bearskin and fur could shield him from the freezing sub-zero temperature and howling wind that tried to bend him to its will with each step he took to progress ahead.
He became part of all the snow had to offer, the icy mist, the cold cutting icy wind that indeed cut his flesh in small measures with hail particles in the snow, sharp in formation. The man however, did not feel any of it for he was devoid of any sensation whatsoever.
The snow and mist covered all of nature displaying nothing but its plain white finality. The hailstorm getting stronger and gathering momentum along with the snow, and they were just part of the bitter storm that could break any defiant castle made of stone, for even if stone sheltered those living in it ,it would nonetheless in such circumstances cause the inhabitants to die from lack of hope or live as lifeless corpses. The justice offered to man at the edge of the world, with a choice of either accepting death or live lifeless.
Also part of the storm was the strong cold icy wind that came from the north. No one at that time in history knew from which cold hell came such a force. The stormy sound of a loud whistle blowing to thwart anything in its way. They pushed man at every step, and if a living being were to accept defeat to such power and strength then that would mean that it would freeze that being right to the marrow of the bone .Then to add to the sheer rage of the cold, the icy mist clouded one’s vision as if one weren’t allowed to witness a battle.
Still, he stood high atop the mountain at its peak, staring at what lay ahead. There wasn’t any clear view of the pathways along the mountain pass but there did not seem to be any such path, only treacherous slopes and edges amidst the Mountain range. The snow and mist that only blinded the man’s vision added to the deception, the sharp hail particles cutting into the man’s eyes and skin having its intended effect now. Then he could see them, the mountains overhead, mighty as if God himself was reaching up all the way up to the heavens. One of the steep and treacherous paths seemed to lead to them. A faint sense of joy despite of all the senseless pain seemed to come from within. Clouds and mist encircled those mountains at its upper portion from what he saw, as if the king of kings got to wear a crown of clouds instead of thorns.
He thought to himself “I have stood the test of time, I do not remember ….but a civilisation has passed away, yet I go on.” His mind clouded by emptiness like all that was around him. However, he carried on. His destination not being anyplace he could think of but still he continued and onwards he went.
He walked along the pathways amid the pass, up into the skies he travelled, and the cold wind so strong that it tore him; at least he felt that it did since he was pale when those winds pounded onto his face. The clouds were at his level now and those along with the mist blinded him to whatever he needed to see as to what was in front of him. And that was when the wanderer came across a narrow opening along the stony path. A sort of a cave. He forced himself inside it but could not see due to pitch darkness this time. But he could feel some space inside at last. Nothing but sharp icicles and frozen rocks and stone was found here, but the storm did not trouble him here. He could find solace even though the large icicles top and bottom represented the mouth of a beast , but he knew that once rested he may as well have lied there forever. He did not want a grave sealed in ice, anything but that would be a warmer way, but not this way. Then he comforted himself knowing the storm would pass in a few hours. But here there was no time; time froze like everything in the cave that he was sheltered in.
It was dark when he looked out next. Even though he came out of the cave nothing seemed much different except the darkness where nothing could be seen, only the distant howling of the wind could be felt and heard. Everything now turned to a black and dark void. He could still feel the sharp icy hail striking at him, without much force however, and the chilly breeze in the night on his face was a relief as compared to what was felt during the storm.
Then he heard a faint cry, a howl to be fairer. Was that of another wanderer? Another nomad? An animal? The difference was now negligible.
So, ignoring the cry he continued on his path, the blind path. Suddenly as if a strong pulse within his nerves went all the way to his brains, a flash of memory hit him- “We were but a race, a small race that stood the test of time, one by one we were killed …but there was one”. Then emptiness again as his thoughts faded.
At an inclined plane, somewhere at the peak of the mountain he reached. Hearose, wary from his journey and tired, his face a pale mess. And then he fell. He opened his eyes to find a bush of large oak trees at a reachable distance, they were many of them snow laden but standing tall and defiant against the sharp wind. He pushed himself back up from the snow laden ground he was on, pushing against all the snow and he rose again. Untying and taking something from his fury overcoat , a tall iron rod with steel at its end , a spear sheathed in wooden Oakwood , the wanderer took its support to walk up to the bush of trees, where he collapsed again , falling underneath the snow laden leaves high up above him.
The trees were half destroyed by the storm, but still managed to serve as a shield from the anger of the north, the wind couldn’t penetrate such a fortress of tall structures with ancient foundations. After resting underneath them for a while, the man found the strength to hold his spear again and using its support stood up on his feet, much stronger now. He went to a bush of trees almost eaten away by the wind and held his weapon high, striking hard at its foundations, he managed to carve a significant impact by sheer strength on the wood. The steel was so wide that it was shaped and instrumented by such a race of men whoinvented weapons for meeting their instinctive requirements. He struck with all of his force again and again till the tall tower of icy wood bended to his mercy, and fell taking down a few branches from the surrounding trees as well. It was as if the iron nerves in him challenged and fought the strong cold snowy wind, proving even stronger.
A few hours passed.
Somewhere inside the dense forest of Oakwood and snow, in the dark emptiness, the dim light created by burning logs of wood could be seen, and a warmth could be felt. The sparks from the fire and charred wood rising high up above into the night sky, and the smoke blowing all directions changing course due to the dull blowing cold from outside from time to time. The small bonfire could be seen from any of the mighty towers of ice that surrounded the tiny forest near the peak of the mountain the wanderer was on. The hail fall faded away and stopped. The trees protected the small and warm haven from the surrounding environment, and he rested near the fire and finally felt warmth on his pale cold face. Feeling his face with the tips of his wounded fingers that he pulled out from the gloves he wore, he puffed out,breathing,his breath coming out in the form of mist.
A howl could be heard …again…much louder this time,succeeded by an echo of howls that sounded much similar to first one and could be heard against the backdrop of the whistling sound the cold wind’s made.
The man, now alert, waited , the only sounds that were audible now were that of the crackling of the logs of wood against the fire and that of the blowing wind that came from up above the trees. Then again, loud howl’s echoed, and he could feel them vibrating up his spine and across the humble solace he made for himself for seeking relief. He had black leather boots under his thick fur overcoat that reached all the way down to his feet. He pushed against the snowy ground and got up on his feet, stumbling on some burning logs of wood, sparks flying trailing the burning wood pieces that fell across that moment.
Beyond the trees, the night and its darkness sheltering all enemies unknown to man. Then it could be seen, from a distance there were glaring sets of eyes ,evil and dark, many in legion , as if a giant Cyclops monster that only existed in myths decided to walk down this steep path and glare down at the faint light caused by the bonfire.
The wanderer instinctively reached for his tattered leather belt and probed in urgency for something he was in dire want of. He felt the hilt, the wooden hilt made of crafted pinewood felt cold as ice and damp against the palm of his hands, sticking to them. Clutching that he pulled and out came the weapon, the long sword that was made of steel that rusted and cracked at its edges but if manned properly, despite having the cracks and rust along the edges still proved to be so sharp that its use could do greater damage than imagined. The fire gleamed and glittered along the rusted steel and reflected the staring eyes that seemed so near now.
He waited, breathing heavily and stared back at them. More eyes appeared and he felt his heart beat like a drum so hard against his flesh that it begged to tear out of it and fall down a bloody mess on the snow laden ground, as if in defeat to avert any further advances made by the giant with many eyes.
The wolf, the prime, cavernous and monstrous glared in rage, the black furry beast camouflaged well with the night. Its eyes blood red and jaws salivating with the echoes of its deep silent growl. It then flung and pounced, with the jaws projecting the razor sharp teeth of the cannibalistic creature that it was, on him.
The wanderer sidestepped the furry beast, his sword cleaving its belly as it flung and missed him by a bit, so that the entrails and insides of the animal fell on the fire, half extinguishing it , but burning in it.Sounds of howling so loud rose in retaliation, in anger, and reverberated everywhere across the forest .The desperate roaring of the wolves from the cold made the man shiver, nor from cold, but out of fear. Half the fire now extinguished by wolf blood, out of the dark pounced another as if in manic instinctive rage from a caged beast desperate for revenge and flesh.
This one did not miss, and sunk its teeth into the man’s shoulder taking him down but only to be cut open belly to heart as it made the grave mistake of pouncing onto the tip of the sword and it was thrown into the fire. It seemed weaker than the first, but faster.As the next wolf flung from behind the fire, it seemed to pounce with all it’s might on the wanderer but only to be cut open by the long sword that swung so fast that only the blood that spilled across was testimony to the sudden action that the man took with his weapon as he jumped back up from where he fell. The howling, now louder went to the point of being deafening. But it suddenly grew faint, as the set of eyes, many of which vanished into the dark, few took their time in doing so. Only the foot thumping sounds of that of animal’s running away, as if from fire could be heard.
The man looked behind to find that the fire had completely consumed one of the corpses and burnt it causing a huge fire. The scattered fur in flames flying around with the smoke and flaming sparks surrounded it and engulfed the man. Soon they would reach the woods and cause them to burn with it. His silent haven, the humble solace amid the unforgivable environment now turned to a flaming, red tango of fire and wood turned red.
He fought them for a moment which seemed an eternity and jumped away to survive and dragged himself to a distance away from the scene watching his temporary hearth burn away from a distance. But the fire couldn’t survive long enough, just as it fought against the freezing temperature and snow icy wind that blew like a Gail amid the trees from time to time, it took its time to stand and dance defiantly.
He stood still. Assessing his shoulder which bore a wound made from one of the wolves, the tear cut too deep with blood gushing out and spilling onto the ground, …….onto darkness, ….nothingness, …..emptiness, he could not feel himself standing. He fell down onto that dark nothingness which only seemed white and strange, cold as everything was. The sound of clatter, which when metal falls on rock, could be heard faintly by him.
His long silver hair spread across the snow laden ground.
Consciousness came to him after a while, which couldn’t be measured when there are no gaps to fill in a strange void of white. He rested till he regained a greater sense of himself, the rush sent a series of impulses racing across his body and he arose from the numbness. And so he was able to think clearer now.
He thought, “Here on this peak, I still survive the test of time. Because my time and the men with me tested the might of ages. My race plagued beyond hope, one by one. We…withered. Only I survived last…as I wither with the cold, I remember my story, as I stare into nothingness, a cold void ,…a black cold void,…is it my eyes ? I don’t know….we were but a small race …slaughtered by those makers of time….One by one…until there came one man….who killed the monsters before us. But he too was taken away from us before the end …Because we needed a hero…who could smite the cold with his own gazing eyes which only radiated the fire that burnt in him. He matured before the end to become our king, but that was only when his bare feet would not feel the cold.”
He stared at the void beyond the oak trees that rose high as he lay on the ground looking upwards.
“Rome ….they called it, a city of false prophets, treachery, violence and slaves. We sacked it, we pillaged, plundered, and vandalised everything to the very last pillar. We entered their homes, their fake ritualistic hall’s and gathered all of their treasures.
There were many with us; a force so united even legion couldn’t stop us, but my brothers would never trust the remaining of them. So we chose to enter from the last of the unmanned sieged and demolished gates to the east, while all of them entered from the north”
“Their garrisons and legionaries as they so meekly in their panic called themselves were slain. We shared the loot and carriages that were driven to escape amidst the fire and pillaging that we brought upon them were ravaged and looted, the onslaught continued for days till the very last foundation was unearthed by our hands to defy their so called sacred mausoleums.”
“Nothing remained, only ashes cinders, fire dust and bodies everywhere, but it still continued on for days. We shared the loot, but greed, jealousy and envy did not allow such equal partition of loot between us vandals and the Hun’s,Goth’s,Gaul’s, Visigoth’s and many more of them whom we never saw before. Their blades were sharp and envy never caressed our lust for more, they started a carnage, we carried it on, we fought among ourselves for the greater share of glory for there was nothing remaining but that.”
“Then he came forward, our leader, who led us here, and stopped the ensuing kins laughter. There was an era of peace, joy and our hunger’s satiated. Now we just loitered and assessed our spoils amid all the smoke and ruins. ”While my brothers were feasting in the old ancient halls now turned to ruins and upturned stone. I wavered away to find myself facing one of the carriages that tried to take off during our plunder, assessing the spoils it contained , I came across something I had and would never had laid my eyes upon even if I searched all of this forsaken city.”
The wanderer put hands inside his furry overcoat to pull out coins, chains of gold, silver and metallic alloys that were unfamiliar at the time. That he threw away with all of his wrath. Then he took out something more.
A chain , rusted made of silver and gold that hung so lightly from the palm of his hands that it shook slightly as the breeze passed by , to the end of the chain was a circular plate dangling and embedded with rubies of red that still shone despite all the rust and snow they were covered in. From the miniature dangling plate that supported three similar looking chains, the jewellery seemed to end and finally hold something else. They held a chalice made of severely rusted and dented gold .At its opening were three rubies carved into it which seemed to shine bright and blinded ones vision due to a sharp shine of red emanating from it.
“It was quite strange that this carriage also housed a naked woman covered only by the thin garb she wore and a severely wounded man along with all the other riches and treasures, they bore the marks of slave’s, but all slave’s freed joined our cause. This one wanted to travel eastwards and wore a tunic of strange symbols. Also present inside was a replica of my finding, the chalice with blinding rubies. .Unable to tend to his wound’s and having had my share of all my spoils I however allowed them to escape this ransacked place in hell”
“After leaving, we ate, feasted and enjoyed for what we fantasized for. We separated from the others and broke ranks, returning us to become the disordered bunch of wayward and unorderly men that we were before the siege began. We boarded ship to return home and sail with the fresh cold winds before it could turn worse or before winter came. However a plague started taking us, one by one. we never noticed it at first taking it as a small consequence for the frightening joys we had the honour to partake in the last few months .When it finally took the man we respected and whom many hated the most, we lost our minds and never seemed to notice it. Some said they dreamed of a large black beast entering the ships from the frozen depths of the ocean, and the after the next night they were found dead. It made no sense to us for we were only a bunch of merry men.”
“We lost our way and anchored ship at the place that did not seem to earth any living being alive or dead and then we wandered for days, which turned to months and then we separated. In the unforgiving snow we walked on……..”
“For days and until we lost sense of how much time passed by ……..we encountered our fears , for what we feared materialised in front of us to take us away from each other , we never did notice our brethren slain to the unseen force due to the damned mist. And so we walked and continued our forsaken journey, on we went and further …we walked…on and on to the depths of cold and to a destination we wandered towards….and so we went”
The wandering nomad closed his eyes for a long time and finally felt at peace. White noise could be heard and a faint white light could be seen from between his closed eyelids.
Siddharth Varma is an aspiring chartered accountant and has worked as a professional analyst at a leading audit firm in India. He is currently on a sabbatical from work.
Illustration by Alan Van Every (Featured image on the front page)