The Last Watchman
by Thomas Cooper
Nicholas woke to the cold yet again. The stillness in his hut was absolute, as though the air itself had no energy to move. He stared at the ceiling, watching his breath. It made bold attempts to break out into the still air only to grow limp and condense on the many fur blankets wrapped around him.
Nicholas grumbled, forcing his weary body out from beneath the heavy deer skins. The air woke. It attacked, needling every unprotected patch of skin. He pulled on his furs as fast as he could and began jogging on the spot. He pushed the fur flap door of his hut only to find it jammed by the night's snowfall.
"Wretched Earth Mother wants me back in bed!"
Nicholas forced the flap open. The cold air rushed in, whipping against his face and searing his lungs.
"Morning Watchman!" Nicholas squinted in the glare of the snow-reflected sunlight. A hulking fur clad figure marched toward him through the deep drifts.
"The Earth Mother may want you back in bed but the rest of us want you out finding dinner!"
With an emphatic slap the figure thrust a bow and quiver into Nicholas' hands.
"Morning Daff, what did I do for the spirits to take all the energy from me and give it to you?"
Daff 's deep laugh echoed off the snow covered huts of the village.
"Well whatever it was you're not having it back, Watchman. If this winter lasts much longer I'll be needing it!"
Daff strode off, chuckling to himself. Nicholas made his way to a hut near the centre of the village. He would wait for the hunting party there and set off into the Spire forest, to search for game amongst the ruins. From the edge of the forest their village had a sweeping view of the snow covered plains. Nicholas could barely remember when they were last green, when the trees last had leaves. This winter was the worst yet. The Seer could be right: it could be their last.
Nicholas and his hunting party struggled through the dense ice-encrusted bushes at the edge of the forest, with a single emaciated deer. It was all they had found amongst the Spires. The animals knew this land was doomed. Only the stubborn humans were clinging on. They entered the main hall of the settlement and slung their meagre spoils next to the fire. Rona, Daff's wife, approached them with a troubled look on her face.
"Is that all Watchman?"
"Sure enough. The Spire forest is bare. The snow is a man deep in places. Nothing can live there. Even the dog packs have left."
Rona bent down to examine the pitiful animal.
"Well I'll skin the beast and see what can be made of it."
"Feed the children first." Nicholas said in a hushed voice.
"And what will you eat, Watchman?" she replied. There was a pause as Nicholas looked around the hall.
"The hunters ate yesterday."
"And when you grow too weak to hunt?" Rona looked up at him, concerned.
"We'll deal with that when it comes." Nicholas turned unable to bear Rona's worried expression. He made his way towards the fire at the centre, to a huddle of men who were talking in hushed tones.
"Watchman, I hear the pickings were slim?" An old man shuffled over to him. Pendred had been the Watchman before Nicholas, a tough old stag.
"Yes, Seer. The land is dying."
"As I have told you. Do you regret staying?"
"Someone had to, Seer. Despite your portents we are still here. The scouts may yet return with news of the northern settlements."
"The other Watchmen thought you a fool for staying."
"And what do you think, old man?"
"Oh you are a fool, but a brave one."
Nicholas forced a smile as Pendred drew a laboured breath and continued.
"It has been forty days, Watchman. The scouts should have been back by now. I know they are your sons, but we can't wait. You know that. The people know that."
"A few more days Seer. A few more days."
Nicholas sat down by the fire. He tried to lose himself in the flames. There were children playing in the dirt nearby, oblivious to the world around and to his envy of them.
Nicholas was sprinting through the snow, kicking up great clouds of freshly laid flakes, fighting to get to the figures that were now clearly visible on the road from the Spire forest.
As he drew closer Nicholas saw that there were only four, with a single pack of dogs. Twenty had set out in two groups, each led by one of his sons. They had gone to the northern settlements, to tell those who remained that the people of Watchmen Kingdom were leaving, heading south to warmer lands.
Twenty had departed, yet before him there were only four. As he got close enough to see their eyes, Nicholas tried not to think of the other sixteen.
Nathen's face was more shadow now than flesh. The three others with him had faired no better. One lay unsettlingly still, strapped to the dog sled.
Nathen hung his head as his father approached. There were tears clearly frozen on his exposed cheeks. Nicholas did not stop. He strode up to his son and embraced him. It was a long hard embrace, loaded with untold relief. When he finally looked into his sons eyes he knew what he had suspected was true.
"What news son?"
"David didn't make it back, father. We met on the stone river north of the Spire forest, as planned. We waited for days but only Oren and Mordred returned."
Mordred spoke up from where he stood at the back of the sled.
"Your son died in an avalanche Watchman. Trying to save two men who were trapped in its path." Nicholas looked to Oren, white and unmoving on the sled.
"This can wait, we must get you inside."
He led them back to the village. Ahead they saw the imposing frame of Daff wading through the deep snow. When he reached them he looked at Nicholas who simply shook his head. Neither of Daff's sons had returned.
In the warmth of the hall Nathen recounted their journey.
"Every settlement was lifeless. Some villagers had fled south, but in most the people lay frozen in their beds. Too stubborn or too scared to leave. We got as far north as the Mancunian Spire forest, and that's where we saw it."
Nathen paused, fighting to steady the warm cup cradled in his shaking hands.
"Saw what, son?"
"The wall of ice, father. Just like the Seer predicted. Nothing north of the Kingdom of the Lakes could have survived."
"Earth mother, save us." Rona whimpered from over Nicolas' shoulder.
"She is the one who threatens us Rona. Don't forget that."
"We should not have stayed. My sons would still be here if we had fled with the rest of the Kingdom."
Nicholas stood, sensing that others were gathering around to listen. He addressed them with as much authority as he could muster.
"We all made the choice to stay, to watch for any survivors from the north. We now know that there are none. Our job is done."
There was a moment of silence. A man, William, broke rank with the surrounding crowd.
“I told you Watchman. I told you all. This was a mistake. Now my son is dead and for what?” William had always been critical of Nicholas' decision to stay, he would have left with the rest of the Kingdom were it not for his son, whose sense of honour far outweighed that of his father.
“You have a lot to answer for Watchman. We have wasted away here for nothing!”
Nicholas heard mutterings amongst the crowd.
“We did what was right. Someone had to stay.” He was pleading now.
“So you decide to stay and we loose our children!” William almost swaggered as he spoke. Nicholas snapped. Years of pent up rage at the world channelled into his limbs. He lunged forward towards William ready to tear him apart. A bear-like arm stopped him dead. Daff had stepped between them. He had clearly been crying. A striking image on his hardened features.
"William, you are not the only one to have lost. We all have. The Watchman more than any. We all chose to stay and our sons chose to go north. No one forced them. Without their sacrifice we would have rotted here until the ice consumed us. It is done now." Nicholas slumped against Daff's arm. He felt drained. Daff released him and they exchanged a glance, both knowing what the other would have said.
Over the rapid whispers of the crowd Pendred spoke up. The old seers voice was deep and calm.
"Daff is right. Their sacrifice will not be in vain, we must prepare to leave. We will head to the southern lands and rejoin our kin."
Either by virtue of his authority or because they had no energy to argue, the crowd dispersed. William, clearly shaken by the Watchman's uncharacteristic loss of control left the hall. Nicholas gathered himself as Pendred hobbled over to him.
"The time has come Watchman, you must make your preparations."
Nicholas nodded, and then addressed the room, his voice wavering slightly.
"The boats are still in good order. They are moored by the isle of the Green Witch. We will take the river east to the coast. It will be quicker than going overland." Several of the men nodded in agreement.
"Two days. Then we will leave this Mother-forsaken place."
The journey was as hard as they had all expected. They had only the scout's dog team to pull a sled. The rest had to be dragged by hand. To make matters worse the river had frozen solid at the Isle of the Green Witch. They had to drag the heavily laden boats down the river. It took until the End of Graves to get to clear water. Along the way the Earth Mother saw fit to let the ice claim more than its fair share of their dwindling number.
They reached the coast. Mercifully the Earth Mother seemed to have had her fill and kept the weather calm. A further day passed and their small band entered the harbour where the boats of the many great Kingdoms had embarked for the southern lands. They pulled into the shelter of the bay and made camp in their homeland for the last time.
Huddled around the fire the people listened as Pendred told the story of the Earth Mother and her vengeance. The children sat transfixed as he described how the people of the First Kingdom had angered the Earth Mother. They had stolen her fire, harnessed and enslaved it, making the her do their bidding. But the she fought back and released the daemon, Carborn, into the air. The daemon and his minions stalked the earth, killing the plants and animals that the people of the First Kingdom needed to survive. The Kings sent great warriors, Kyoto and Copenhagen against the daemon, but it was not enough. Their crops failed and many thousands starved. Then, finally, the oceans began to change. Carborn had stopped the great currents that kept the world warm and the Earth Mother sent the ice to drive people from her land and make it new. Nicholas had heard the tale many times. He was not sure he believed it, but it was their oldest legend and the children still gasped and sighed at the tale.
Pendred ended with the customary caution that men should never again try to tame the Earth Mother and should instead take from her only what she gives. Nicholas was not so sure about this. The Earth Mother had given him little and had taken so much. His wife, daughter and sons were lost to the ice. He could dwell on this and lose himself in the grief, but he had vowed long ago to show that heartless bitch what man was made of. He would make sure they survived.
The next morning, five small boats set off into the Great Channel. Nicholas was the last to leave. He pushed off from the shore, the slush of the barely liquid sea water clinging to his feet. He was the last man, surrendering this land, the graves of his family, to the Earth Mother. It was hers now, the once great united kingdoms of men.