Originally published on thereader.in
The soldier was waiting on top of the mountain. The wind was howling like he had never heard it howl before.
Where are the others, he thought. Why haven’t they reached! Run ahead, they had told him. We will meet you at the temple. He had sprinted up till his legs were slow-burning embers. He was sure he had made the distance before the clock screamed three. There used to be a time when he could do it in two, but those were younger days, fitter days.
The wind was loud today. It seemed distressed. There was a sinister, dark tone to its screaming. Their unit of 50 men had been slowly reduced to seven. War had been going on for countless years. He had been reduced to a skeletal ruin of bone and the odd muscle after six sun rounds of blood battle. His father had died when he was six. His uncle when he was nine. He did not know how old he was, but was quite certain how old he would be when he too, would wave his farewell to the world that had given him so little.
They had all grown up near the mountain, but never climbed it at night. He knew each inch of the rocky mud like a part of himself, but it looked so different in the darkness. It was beautiful in the rains, but would scorch one’s eyes out in the heat of the summer. He loved the sun; the sun was a warm orb. He found the moon scary. It would hang lifelessly, with a glow that looked almost stolen from somewhere. He walked to the peepul tree opposite the casav‘s pond. It was rumoured that the dead came back to reclaim their debts at night. His father used to tell him that man is scared of the night because he cannot see what lies before him. The soldier would always smile at this memory. He was scared of the night because he did not know who could see him.
The howling stopped his chain of thought. The wind slapped his face coldly. He wondered how the wind it would be if it turned into a person. A man or a woman? He thought of a man with long hair and a cold voice. He thought of someone who would coldly cut through flesh without emotion, without a war cry. Maybe even someone who would enjoy it. He walked up to the edge of the fort. He sat on the rusty cannon that had been sabotaged by the Janaasa tribe. It was a fine weapon when it was working. One could hear its roar leagues away. It had once torn a hole through the gut of an elephant.
He thought of his brothers who should have been sitting next to him by now. He had trained with them, fought with them, lived with them. He often wondered whether he would have been this close with any of them if it hadn’t been for the war. Men often grow common roots out of circumstance.
He had seen the fisherman take a last sip of water before he drew the final breath from the hands of the florist. He had seen the butcher lay at rest the passion of the priest using his hands and mouth several times after the priest lost his wife.
The wind had changed its tone. It sounded like the last few cries of the first woman who he had taken by force. He had slit her throat after she started screaming beyond his patience. He had finished spraying her just as her body violently shook to death. But the wind seemed to enjoy it. The woman had not.
His brothers were stronger than he was. He was a stealth fighter. He was used to the dart, the arrow, the crossbow. He preferred the touch of poison, not steel. He would aim to finish the strongest enemies at a distance, making the fight would be easier for the rest. He was weak in his hands. Age was slowly winning against him though his eyes were just as sharp as they used to be. He could still strike out a crow with a blow dart just by hearing the sound of its scavenging.
He wondered if there would ever be a time when he would see a sunrise at the beginning of a day where spilling blood wouldn’t be a necessity. He often questioned if his children would be free to roam around the towns regardless of their loyalty. That was where he cut himself short. He would never have children. The odds of him surviving the war and raising a family were against him. He looked at women now as a bed to end a bad day.
He suddenly noticed a small fire break out in the valley below. What were they playing at! Who was the idiot who considered giving away their location? Why didn’t the others stop him! The wind made the fire burn a darker shade. It was deep crimson. It was definitely not wood. In the darkness of the night, he could not make out what it was. Perhaps they were setting up camp for the night and had caught a hare to roast.
A second fire started blazing alongside the firstborn. He could not believe his eyes. Something absolutely serious had to have happened for a second fire to be lit. He set a bolt to his crossbow. His heart started beating faster. His hackles rose. A third, fourth, fifth and sixth glow joined the company. Six separate fires could be distinctly seen in the valley. The howling wind soothed them, made them glow redder.
He wanted to ask the wind what his brothers were doing. The wind howled back, in a language he could not comprehend. The sky was beginning to lighten. He strained to see what was happening. Any moment now, he would see the distinctive blue cloth of his company in the distance. The sun always rose fast at this time of the year.
The fires had not died, they seemed to burn brighter with the passing moment.
The mountain began to move.
He was obviously hallucinating. The mountain could not have sparked life. He looked eastwards and saw juvenile streaks of light falling from an unseen sun in the horizon.
It was then that he realized that his brothers were being burnt.
They were all being burnt at the stake, after being impaled through the cut. The blue cloth that adorned them was charring along with their blistering skin.
He could see the blacksmith impaled on a spike. His eyes had been pushed inside before they bled him to death. He could see the butcher, who had fought till the last minute, his left arm being cut clean by the longsword. He saw the general prominently branded, his face a burnt, corroded mess.
The soldier remembered their last meal together. Flashes of memories seemed to strangle his urge to cry out loud. He remembered the time they had found a giant trout which had almost bitten his finger off. He remembered how they had castrated the captain of the first battalion they had conquered. He remembered the faces of the men who had left him and gone, the turncoats, the traitors and the lost. They would flash and leave before flashing and leaving again.
Now, they were coming for him.
He wondered how it would be to die. How would that one moment be, where life exits the physical form. He wondered what he had done to see his closest companions die with such perverted brutality just before his own life was going to be taken away. He wondered if all the tales he had heard of heaven were a big lie.
He could see the saffron robes of the climbing enemy get darker and brighter by the minute. They were a hundred foot-lengths away. The wind howled in his ear.
He pointed the crossbow at himself. He knew not what to do. Should he spend his last few moments on a battle that was futile and defend his honour? Or should he end his life on his own terms?
Helplessly, he looked towards the wind and felt it a last time as it continued to slap the outline of his face. It was a slap of duty, not loyalty.
Perhaps the howling wind would tell him what to do, he thought…
Artwork credit – Rohan Kapoor
Website Partners – Lipi Mehta and Rohan Kapoor