One. Two. Three. Four. They sang their cadence as they marched. The snow remained deep, but the air was warmer in the days now. Or at least it chilled the bones less. They had been outside the city for three days now, marching to some towns that were supposed to lead them to the source of the bandits. When they were in the city, they had heard many stories about the growth of lawlessness around the city in the summer time. Most of the residents had abandoned the wider outskirts of the city and they had left it to the police, army, and bandits to fight over it. With the freeze of winter, the bandits had fled, hidden among the people of the city, or frozen to death in unheated buildings. Everyone talked about the problem solving itself, and the problem just going away as the snow blanketed the world and enforced a ceasefire. Frozen hands couldn’t pull triggers, and solid powder didn’t fire. Frostbitten fingers couldn’t grip knives, or throw stones. Kristina knew better.
It had been her idea to trek out to the towns. There were bound to be pockets of resistance, men huddled around barrel fires plotting revenge and singing songs of great plunder through chattering teeth. Alexander hadn’t argued with her – he’d seen them with his own eyes. There was no way they would simply give up. They fought like the men in Torvald’s tales. Men like Benson Polzin, who died firing at the enemy force after he created their beachhead. Torvald was not an open book, but the tale of Benson brought a tear even to his eye. Benson had fought for his country, with a ragged determination, at great cost to himself, but brought to his comrades a wealth of freedom and victory. The soldiers that fought with him fought with nothing in their stomachs but determination, and that’s what Alexander had seen on the canal. Hungry men, who were making the last push they had to survive.
The city had acted as a buffer. No one in their right mind would stray north of the end of the world if they had encountered a city ripe for the picking when they arrived. The snow was too deep to tell, but Alexi wondered if they were marching on top of the dead. The army presence in the city, if there had been any, was invisible. The police didn’t identify themselves either. It was the same as it had been back in the villages – there are no ranks, or offices, statutes, or leaderships in the dead of winter under a month of snow. And there were even less come three months of it.
They had marched for the better part of a day when snow capped rooflines had hoved into view across what seemed to be a perfectly flat snowy field. The lay of the land told Alexander that it was actually ice – this was the river they had been told about. They said the bandits came from south of the river.
“Crouch” Kristina said, checking her guns, and tucking magazines into her pockets.
Alexi and Alexander got as low as they could, and drew their weapons reflexively.
“What do you see?” Alexi asked, straining his vision.
He saw nothing, as his eyes flitted from structure to structure. No smoke issued, he saw no tracks nearby or at a distance, and the silence hung as heavy as the chill still air. You could have heard a flake of snow breathe its last before it melted back to the earth in their quiet pause.
“This is what they described. Buildings on the other side of the river. A former logging camp that had become a fishing village. The bandits overran it in the spring, as they came from the more sparsely populated farmland to the south. A farmer that can’t crop is only a few weeks away from a murderer, if the times are hard enough” she said.
Alexi winced. He’d seen it before. Through selfishness, desertion, or any other number of things, giant villages had failed in this way especially those in the far west. Alexi had travelled more widely than the rest of them, and seen more of the ugly side of people and giants. But he saw nothing in this village. Kristina had already taken off, punching her way softly through the frost capped snow. The men readied their rifles hastily and followed.
“How did she know all that?” Alexander whispered.
“She’s a vault. Every time you talk, she will remember, and that goes for anyone. They say Clarence got two tongues when they were in the womb. Must mean that she got four ears.”
Kristina had already flattened her ear to the wall of a building by the time they were halfway across the ice. She motioned for them to stay still, and look for movement. Alexander felt incredibly exposed, and wished for once that more snow was clinging to his coat, for it would hide him better. Every windows was frosted thickly, and the evening sun lit some of them in the dazzling hues of sunset. They had to spend the night here, in addition to searching for marauders. Alexander hoped that they wouldn’t find anyone, because he worried that if they did, they would never leave this place that didn’t even seem to have a name. She motioned them follow when she seemed satisfied. They crept along walls, they peaked around corners and tried to peek in windows and through cracks. They dared not cross a doorway for fear of hordes teeming out of it faster than their bullets could leave their guns. Alexi stopped, and looked puzzled at a window. He stood upright and looked right at it, examining the frost. The others froze in fear, and hissed for him to lower his head. With one slow swipe of his thick finger, he cut a line through the frost. Underneath it he couldn’t see through to the interior of the building.
“There’s frost on the inside. And on the outside. Both sides are equally cold. There isn’t even the heat of a single person or an animal inside. This place has been cold for weeks, if not months. We have nothing to fear” he said simply.
Kristina and Alexander failed to get up quickly enough to stop him walking normally to the front of the building and opening the door. He had to shove to break the line of ice that sealed it shut. He was right, and he was wrong. There was no person inside, but they had much to fear. He turned away from the door and vomited promptly. Kristina shoved her guns into the doorway before she turned the corner, but was unable to stay facing the room. Alexander saw the true horrors. The beds had been stripped of their covers and sheets of wood had been placed on top. On top of the sheets lay assortments of bones, frozen entrails, congealed buckets of viscera, sharp tools caked with blood. And human bones full of saw and blade marks. No civilized people would have done this. What remained of the bodies here were those of outsiders, unfamiliar with the harshness of surviving winters this far north without a lifetime of knowledge. Whatever bandits had come here, and not retreated had taken to eating their dead. Alexander hoped against hope they had only eaten their dead. Not that that would have been a more honourable way to survive.
“We cannot stay here” Alexi said, “We can not stay here.”
“It’s already sunset, there’s no way we can make it back to the city before the winds freeze us. This was their butchery. There is bound to be another building for refuge” Alexander said, his eyes glazed with shock and tears.
They searched from building to building, and found most to be filled with death. And then Kristina was stopped in her tracks as something made her blood run cold. There was a single basement window, unwrapped by frost. There was warm life hiding down there. Blood still moved in veins here. She raised her guns with trembling hands, but could not speak. The men moved to either side of her, and they walked to a cellar door that lay closed, latched, and unchained. Alexi raised the door and Alexander trained his rifle on the dark chasm. Almost all the light had faded, and the moon was not due for a few hours. They had not lit their lamps out of fear of others. This was the only window they had yet found that showed signs of life behind it.
“Walk out. Hands raised. No fast movements.” Alexi bellowed down the hole, hard enough to rattle the windows in their frames.
A brief scurrying sounds followed his order, and then trudging footsteps. They stepped back and waited, as they saw a head emerge from the dark into the dim. An emaciated skeletal shape followed this lolling head that seemed vastly oversized. This thing looked like a corpse made walk upright, and draped in the rags that remained of a burial suit. Upon stepping outside it dropped to its knees and began eating snow. They had no idea what to say. After a moment Alexander drew his lamp from his pack and lit it. He placed it on the ground in front of him, so as to not spoil his shot if he had to take one. He was suddenly filled with rage. Rage for the dishonored dead he had seen on the northern edge of town.
“You ate them. Your comrades, your men, your brothers, whoever they were. You cut their flesh from them and used it to sustain your wicked form. And all because you wished to steal from us, for your southern crops failed? Have you no honor, no solidarity, no love for your fellow man?!”
Kristina and Alexi were taken aback by his reaction, but did not take their guns off the figure. He looked up from grey eye sockets. In fevered tones, he managed to strangle out some words. It seemed as if he had not talked in an eternity.
“The town was empty… the city wouldn’t let us in… we stole supplies from them to survive… they started killing us, we tried to flee but the winter… the winter… the winter… they went raiding east, but we said we had to stay, that we’d freeze in the winter… staying put was right… i hid from the winter… and now I’m alive… the last alive… the winter…”
He trailed off as he noticed who he was talking to. Or who he thought he was talking to. He saw the gleam of gunsteel extending from his sight, and upwards to the shoulder of a colossus, a giant made flesh. A great old curse from far beyond his understanding. Michael, the man that ended the war, the giant that came from the north with a great army to unite the country. The giant that told them they would be exterminated if they failed to protect the Soviet Union again.
“Do not kill me Michael” he whispered.
Kristina fired two rounds as the figure raised his hands above his head, while still kneeling. Her shots drove his frail form into the snow and expelled the last clinging remains of life from him. The darkness of night started to lift slightly, as the moon cracked the edge of the horizon and became visible, spiderwebbed by naked tree branches.
“You shot him. He knew what happened here, and he was trying to tell us, and you shot him!” Alexi yelled in disbelief.
“You already know exactly what happened here. We need no map to understand the road that led them here, or the path that they chose. The winter starved them, and then they killed each other to stay alive. It’s all very very clear. He crossed lines between human and carrion beast. There are no bandits here now, there are no men here now, and presently there are no vermin either” she said, placing two new rounds in her magazine.
“He said others went east. Michael, you saw the others at the canal, to the south of our village? We are east of there still, so there is further danger to the east? That is our next port of call?” she said, with cold resolve.
Alexander was shocked.
“I’m not Michael” he said.
Kristina hadn’t realized her mistake.
“Who said you were? Vote. We return to the city, or we stay here?”
No one raised a hand. Alexi looked around.
“This is unholy ground no. To sleep here is to be cursed. I don’t know if I’m taking my chances walking back to the city, but I’ll sleep in a lean-to on the other side of the river before I even take the weight off my feet in this place” he said, as he started walking.
Alexander threw his hand up and followed quickly, trying to stay away from all the buildings they had passed. There was nothing more here that they could learn. And Kristina had already made up her mind. To find out what was going on, they had to pursue those that had travelled east. For if they lived, they would have answers. And there were plenty more responsible for the atrocity that had happened here than the grey skinned shell of a human that she had exterminated. No honour among thieves, they said. There didn’t seem to be any among doomed men either. And each and every raider that had come into her home, and yet drew breath was certainly doomed.