Published in Volume 13 No. 1 of Pleiades Magazine (1997)
THE RED EARTH
Walter R. Milton
The battle is lost. Our forces, untrained, out-numbered and poorly provisioned, are no match for the advancing hordes of this new and terrible enemy that knows combat as well as we know how to raise crops from the land or tend boundless herds of livestock. This is our profession -- or at least it has been for untold generations. We no longer know anything of warfare.
Even as we retreat before their relentless pursuit, our only wish to live long enough to collect our families and flee to some safe haven in some unknown land, they manage to strike and slay countless numbers of my brethren. People I have lived and grown all my life with lay torn and battered within this enemy's swarming, storming mass.
My sword and clothes are stained with the black-brown blood of those who wish to drive my people from our lands or bind us under his dominion. My hands reek of the bile from my best friend's entrails as I had, just this morning, tried to keep them from spilling from his slashed and torn body. He could not even die in the dubious comfort of my embrace as I was forced to flee from the hordes or suffer a fate similar to his. It pained me to leave him like that, but there was little choice.
Our retreat has stalled for the moment. Even with certain death so close behind and seemingly ready to consume us, we can go no farther than our bodies can take us. Our bivouac is a somber affair. A morbid fascination with the enemy is the only topic to those of us who can still talk in complete and coherent sentences, not moan or rattle. And, of course, there is the inevitable talk of the enemy's most lethal weapon: the red earth.
In each of our five engagements with the enemy, we found ourselves ankle deep in a gurgling, bubbling mire which was somehow transformed from solid, dry ground. It held us firmly and, in most cases, helplessly when the enemy swarm came charging in. Only after we spilled the enemy's blood at our trapped feet could we again move. This did not occur often, as many of our people died where they stood, but to each and every one of us who had survived, it most assuredly did -- more than once, we all alleged and agreed.
I recall the first time it happened to me. I was running at full-speed toward the onrushing mass of black shadows, my sword brandished, my throat aflame with cries of battle, my friends by my side, then, just as quickly, I was stuck to the ground, unable to move forward or even retreat. The mob engulfed us as might a mighty cloud of locusts descend upon a field of wheat, so immobile and helpless were we. Terror greater than the mere fear of death robbed me of my senses and I remember striking out wildly and desperately with my sword, lest I be slain without first slaying a single enemy soldier. But the mob ran on, each enemy soldier engaging each of our soldiers singularly as if deliberately choosing whom they would engage. Then one came up to me, his face a featureless shadow with hollowed eyes alive with crimson flames. His fetid breath stole my own and his battle cry was a thousand agonies which I, in my moment of greatest terror, could recognize as those that I, too, knew and loathed. I almost felt compelled to lay down my arm in the face of this misery and be undone from it all for once and for all, but I did not submit to it. I fought it and I won.
It was only after my bloody victory and witnessing the bloody deaths of so many about me that I was again able to move on to more combat. I fled. The same things occurred during the next four engagements. The only noticeable difference was my steadily increasing willingness to allow the misery of my adversaries to overwhelm me and the steadily increasing fervor of their attacks against me.
Even as we start to resume our retreat, the ground surges crimson once more and the black mass of shadows comes forth with ever-frightening haste. With my feet quickly frozen and a demon with sword-in-hand rushing to meet me, the sense of familiarity with the approaching enemy soldier wells within me, even as my fear and my sudden terror subsides. In fact, this frightens me more than the thought of yet another impending battle with what is an intractable enemy. That I should be able to sense its thoughts as if they were my own? That I should actually find myself empathizing with this creature as it does what it does so well and as it forces me to do what I dread doing but must in order to live?
What sort of enemy is this that attacks us at the most basic and essential level? What sort of enemy is this that makes us feel such a oneness with him, while he still seems so alien and so obscene? I remember our bivouacs and the thoughts of the men who had all felt things that everyone else had felt concerning these very questions. They had said it was almost like fighting against one's own inhibitions -- that it was not slaying the enemy that they feared and loathed. It was the destroying of what they were -- of what we are -- by slaying the enemy. It was the destruction of our lives as peaceful farmers and herdsmen that we all loathed and we all felt that we would almost rather perish than do that. We did not wish to kill. We did not wish to wage war, even to survive. Yet we had to wage war -- to survive. Those thoughts were my very own. Those fears I, too, shared.
As the thing approaches me, I can see its renewed ferocity, and its awesome determination to destroy me. It has strengthened in its resolve and I have weakened in mine. Perhaps to the same degree. I know that soon, if not now, it will overwhelm me. I know that soon, if not now, it will defeat me. I can feel its thoughts as never before. So dark, so powerful, so -- seductive in a way that I cannot describe. It is calling me, this thing. It is telling me to submit to it, and allow it to slay what I am -- allow it to transform me into what I really want to be: like it is. A creature bereft of compassion, of soul, of life. Even as I try to block those thoughts from my mind -- even as I shun what horrors this thing is making me see -- I have to attend them, for those thoughts are my own. It is commanding me to submit because that is what I wish it to do.
And I realize, upon this very spot where the red earth holds me, that this is an enemy we cannot defeat. We cannot defeat it because we cannot defeat that part of ourselves that we shun. And we have shunned it for generations as farmers and herdsmen. We have shunned it. We have never faced it; thus, we have never defeated it. We have looked away from it, disguised it, and denied that it has ever existed. But now it has returned to us as a tangible and most lethal foe. We never faced it, so now it has come to face us. We must now contest it. Yet, however hard we try, I see, we must eventually submit to it, to be forever lost to it, if not completely slain by it. For that is what we wish to do, in spite of what we think we want to do. And the red earth? Our anger welling up at us at the thought of having to do what we so dread doing, giving us fatal pause? Our morals bogging us down to both prevent our willing submission to our dreads while surely hastening our capitulation to them?
I stare into the thing's shadow face, and fiery eyes and raise my sword. I shall not lose this battle. I shall not submit to the darkness as so many of my brethren have, although the fire I see in its eyes is tranquil this time, not threatening, not malicious. It is so much like that flame upon the hearth in my warm, love-filled home on the green pasture.