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Marching On

by Tyler Hill

part 1 of 2

Thick, black clouds reign over the earth, their billowing masses ruling the heavens. There are purple streaks throughout them, like flashes of lighting frozen in place, but the black dominates it all. Some might think that your eyes would be drawn to the deep, royal purple, the little color that has survived, and yet it is not so. Whenever we raise our eyes upwards, we are drawn to the black. From horizon to horizon the black stretches its arms, encompassing all we can see.

This black, this perpetual darkness is alive. It breathes and speaks, the blowing and hissing of its breath and voice continuously sweeps by our ears, as if to let us know that it is there, right above us, watching and waiting. It rages on above us, the rolling stacks never ending their steady trek across the sky.

A fierce wind shrieks past our ears in waves, the never-ending force accompanying the storm. It yells at us, its violence resounding throughout our bodies and minds. How long can we try to ignore it, to block it out and resist? No sun. No moon. No stars. No light. They have abandoned us.

Our feet pound the ground below, trampling the green grass into the dirt. Our march is our escape, our place of safety deep within, where the darkness cannot penetrate, not yet. We concentrate on each step, each perfectly timed lift of the foot and every flawless placement back to the ground, carrying us deeper and further.

Our march supplies the thunder for our storm, to accompany the rumbling. We lose ourselves in the pattern, in the routine. We find deafness from the screams and cries surrounding us, blindness from the terrifying darkness above. It is not a warm, satisfying comfort that we feel growing inside; it does not hold us in its outstretched arms, protecting us from what lies ahead. It is hollow, empty like a rotting log, discarded and fallen to its side, broken with holes and fading away under the constant onslaught of time, soon to be swallowed by moss and weeds. But it is there, and it is all we have and we cling to it like a child being torn away from its mother, digging with fingers and nails to hold on.

When we believe that it is night, when our bodies can’t take any more, when our legs no longer respond to the routine in our minds, when the thunder ceases to roll across the lifeless plains, we make our camp. Our white canopies stretch out across the plain, horizon to horizon, north, south, east and west, an inspiring force to resist the darkness above. Lanes of green cruise through the white; organized and efficient, clean... empty.

We eat in silence, our mouths move only to bite and chew our cold food, even though it has been thrust over the meager flames. Even the fires give us nothing. We pile on wood, grass, dung, but the flames do not grow to reach up towards the sky. They burn low, oppressed and controlled by the black above. It forces itself down on the red and yellow flames, pushing them lower and lower until they are finally erased. No fire can last the night.

Afterwards, we lie awake inside our tents, our unsatisfied stomachs on the hard ground, our open eyes filled with green. The thick white canvas above is whipped around violently, rippling and struggling to hold on.

If we were to roll over, if we were to lie on our backs with our eyes gazing up towards the canvas, towards the sky, we would be able to see it. The thick and strong canvas roped down and secured to the earth is helpless... hopeless.

The inspiring force becomes a cruel window to the black that we can see soaking through every fiber of the cloth, mercilessly spreading the infection. We know it is not just shadows or our imagination, but it is that horrifying darkness flooding our camp, our tents, our refuge. The surge is irresistible, no dam or dike can withstand it. All we can do is look away, hoping it doesn’t twist and turn itself through our clothes and soak through our skin and wash through our blood.

The horns blasting through the air wake us in the morning, somehow able to penetrate the overwhelming storm, but it is not the crisp, grand call that it was back home, but a deflated and hollow ringing running fleetingly through the howls.

We slowly roll our bodies over, our muscles tight and twisted like the cracking ropes of a catapult. We look up at our white tents and there is no warm sunlight trying to find its way in to greet us, but it is still a thin shield that lets us stand up on our aching feet and begin to strap on our armor before we walk out under it. We take our time putting it on.

Slowly, we slide our gambesons on, the thick, padded cloth resting comfortably over our bodies. Then we heft our heavy mail hauberks off the ground and set them down over our tingling and fatigued shoulders, but the weight is reassuring and we gladly accept the burden. It is our armor, our protection, and we wear it every day waiting for the moment when it is put to use.

We put our helmets on before we exit our tents. All the same, all cylinders of steel with a fierce spike jutting out from the top. Inside them, inside the dry and musty air, we feel stronger and fiercer. We need our enemy to arrive and see our faces of steel and column upon column of blazing spikes and bristling spears. But they do not come and there is no sun to gleam off our steel, instead it is battered every day by the raging storm of darkness above.

With our masks on, we step outside. There is no greeting on the horizon. We can’t remember the last time we stepped out to the warmth caressing our weary bodies into life. It couldn’t be that long ago, the crusade was declared a matter of weeks ago, a small handful against the sea of time, and yet now that handful looks like the terrifying mass of the ocean, crashing on endlessly.

We would have thought that with no sun, time would come to a stop, a definite, solid stop; and yet it is not so. With no sun, time draws on, unmeasured and unchecked; there is no halt, no rest, just a continuous march. How can we know how many days it has truly been since we set out among those glorious banners and cheers under the magnificent orb of flames burning in the sky?

There is some idea, some internal feeling that makes us believe something, believe that we can fool ourselves into knowing the path of time and how far it has managed to crawl, but it is weak and fleeting. How can we last without the ability to watch the progress above us, without knowing that there is something above and around us that we can depend on, that we can believe in, that we can have faith in?

It is all dead to us now, perhaps forever. We were told it would be a few weeks of marching, fourteen sunrises and sunsets, those invisible miracles. How much longer do we have? How much time is left in our grasp?

Outside our empty shelters, we begin to tear them down. We pack up our white and place it on our backs. After we finish and the green field is restored, we strap our shields over our shoulders and place them across our backs, over our white canvasses.

The burnished steel of our shields sits dull, yet the flames emblazoned on them stay bright, they stay strong; though who can say for how much longer? For now, the pure beams shooting forth from the tips of those flames still shine and light the little bit of world around them. Brilliant yellow, fierce blue and blazing orange and courageous red refuse to yield, like the steel that they rest on that has refused to ever yield to our enemy on countless fields, plains and mountains. They alone resist the darkness above that bears down on us.

We keep the shields on our backs as we march, protecting us as we lean forward under the weight of our armor and packs. We still feel it, we cannot escape it, but we have the light in between. It protects us, it holds us up, it sustains us and without it we would fail.

Before we begin the endless march once more, he rides through our broken-down camp, making sure that we all see him. He was the one who started it all and led us here, and it will be he that leads us through it or dies in the attempt. His armor is different from ours, from any other in the army. It is not the armor of a common soldier, though no soldier of the Empire is common. It is not even the armor of a noble, of an officer or marshal. His armor glows red, even in the surrounding darkness. It burns like the flames on our shields, hot and unyielding.

The darkness does not press down on him; he sits high in the saddle, his legs almost locked straight, raising himself up so that all can see his long, golden hair flowing in the wind behind him, as if the black storm above did not exist. In his left hand he holds his reins, his fingers wrapped securely around the brown leather.

In his right hand, locked in his fierce grip every day since the storm broke the horizon in a tempest and crumbled down the sky all around us, he holds a stout lance. Up above, at the top of the lance just below the metal shaft leads to the sharp point, a banner flies in the wind, our banner.

This banner does not just bear flames, the life-giving light; it holds the source of that light. In the center of the pure white banner burns the ferociously beautiful orb of life, our savior that has been taken away from us. Every morning he rides through the camp with it held high up above him, for all to see, to feed us its light and warmth before we begin.

We watch him gallop past us, dirt and grass kicked up by the hooves of his strong and thick courser. A broad smile sits across his face, a blow of disdain and contempt for the darkness above. We watch him ride through and past all the forming columns, past every single soldier that has gathered in his mighty host to march into hell on his crusade.

Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2010 by Tyler Hill

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