THE PLAIN OF DEATH
A billowing mist lay heavily upon the horrid scene.
Its whispering sheets covered like a death linen and mercifully hid the sprawled bodies of the dying scattered across the barren circle.
Here and there a pitiful fire smoldered, forming weak swells of ruddy light in the mist. Around their puny comfort of warmth huddled the miserable lumps of stricken human beings, moaning, coughing, crying out in pain, keening over the still forms of loved ones already gone.
Most seemed too weak even to feed wood or turf to the campfires. So, one by one, the lights were fading out. Of the many hundreds of people in the camp, only a few score were on their feet. Some of them moved from fire to fire, carrying water, vainly administering to the dying. The rest applied their services to a larger number-the dead. Working in pairs they hoisted limp or already stiffening bodies onto four-wheeled carts and dragged them slowly, wearily, endlessly to the center of the plain.
At that center was a vast pit, both wide and deep. Still, it was filled already, filled and heaped high with hundreds upon hundreds of dead forming a great, grotesque, tangled mass of bodies growing ever greater. Here other laborers plied shovels, heaving earth upon the mound, pushing more in around the pit’s sides in a hopeless attempt to bury the already decomposing corpses. The shovelers wore scraps of rag tied about their faces against the stench of putrefaction that hung dense in the thick, gray air.
At a fire nearby the pit, a man watched the awful work go on. He lay propped against a stone, white faced, breath rasping from shallowly pumping lungs. He was an elderly man of grey-white hair and lined face. He watched the bodies cast into the pit with eyes glittering from tears of anguish. They pooled to run down the seamed cheeks.
A figure came out from the windings of the mist and approached him. It was a young man of dark hair and strong countenance. He moved with a vigor that seemed immense in contrast to the rest. He knelt by the old man.
"Partholan," he said, "you should move away from here. This poisonous odor... "
"It will make little difference to me," the other wheezed out. "And I must be here, to see my people to their final rest, terrible though it will be."
The young man lifted a pail. "Then drink some water."
Partholan waved it away. "I can no longer swallow it," he said. "My stomach rejects even this by twisting into knots. That pain is worse than the thirst."
"I am sorry, Uncle," the young man said in a helpless way. "You’ve done all that anyone could.
"Tell me," his uncle demanded, "what are the numbers?"
"Of our five thousand, perhaps five hundred remain. Of those, only some two dozen seem untouched by this monstrous plague."
The old man shook his head in despair. "Soon there’ll not even be enough to carry our dead to their grave. And the healers? The priests?"
"There was nothing they could do. No magic, no medicine could help. The last of them is dying with the rest."
"Not a dozen days ago we were strong. We were well!" the old man said. "Tuam, what happened?"
"It spread as a gust of strong wind sweeping through the wheat," the young man said. "Another day, one more, and there will be none left."
"Tomorrow," said Partholan. "Beltaine. The day of death. The same day we first came to this land... this ’beautiful land!’" He spoke the words bitterly. "Is that why we are destroyed, Nephew? Is it the curse of Bel?"
"No," the young man said. "It’s not the gods, Uncle. It is them. I know it. They have found some sorcery to do for them what they could not do themselves. They’ve made us pay for our defiance."
"Tuam," the old man said urgently, "you must not stay."
"What, Uncle?" Tuam said, aghast. "I can’t leave you... leave the rest."
"There is nothing more you can do. I am gone. They are all gone. Escape if you can. Take any others who are still untouched. Flee this cursed place. Go far away."
"Abandon you, our families, our friends? Let you die here, unburied and unmourned?"
"You will only condemn yourselves. Don’t be a fool. Go now. As your king, it is my last command to you!" Partholan gripped the young man’s arm, pulling himself up by an effort of will, body quivering, voice intense. "You must obey me! Promise you will go! Someone must survive!"
"I promise," Tuam agreed reluctantly.
The old man released him and lay back, drained of his last strength. His dimming gaze turned to the mass grave. "My people," he said with failing voice. "My poor people." He went limp, eyes rolling back, final breath rattling out of his deflating lungs.
The young man sat in mourning over his dead uncle for some moments. Then he covered the wasted form with a cloth. He rose and went out across the plain, checking at each fire, gleaning the meager number of his people miraculously untouched. At his order they gathered what possessions they could and unwillingly, regretfully stole away, abandoning the dying, leaving their own families and their own comrades helpless, escaping into the mists.
Another day of agony crawled by for those left behind. The few still mobile weakened swiftly, at last joining the rest languishing about the tires. The dead lay ungathered, the last of the workers gone. Slowly the last fires burned out, the last groans faded, the last stirrings ceased.
The plain was silent.
Soon, however, there came new sounds. They came from above, from things stirring far up in the surging clouds of grey. There were fluttering noises, and there were sharp, exultant caws. Dark, angular forms, like ragged shawls of deepest black, swooped down. With a last beating of broad wings, great carrion crows settled in to perch upon the dead... and then to feed.
But their feast was interrupted.
Something else became visible in the mist-a vast something that was moving in through the gray shroud, an immense shadow, growing larger, darker as it advanced.
The birds panicked, rising in a single, clattering, flapping mass to vanish in the mist. The form grew nearer, then halted just beyond the edge of the encampment of the dead.
Though its details remained shrouded in the thick coils of mist, its silhouette could be seen as manlike but of a size over four times more vast, its shoulders and head towering up into the clouds.
Around its legs other forms came into view, some hundred of them, also human shaped and this time of normal size. They moved out ahead of the giant form onto the edge of the plain. All were men of broad feature and swarthy complexion, each wearing a like uniform of grey and a rounded helmet of black metal, each carrying a long, thick rod with a glowing, blue-white tip.
They moved up to the first of the fires with its circle of dead, but stopped there, looking at the corpses uncertainly.
"Go on," a resonant voice boomed from the giant figure. "Be certain all are dead."
They still hesitated. One man looked back to the towering form and said quietly, "But, my Commander, the plague... "
"The plague has burned out," the voice rumbled. "It is safe."
"But, can we be sure... " the man began.
The vast figure stirred. High up, where the head was only a vague mass of darkness in the clouds, there was a metallic click, and then a shrill rasping sound. A curving line of crimson light appeared, at first only the slimmest thread.
"Will you obey?" boomed the voice. And the thread widened fractionally to a gleaming wire.
"We obey, my Commander," the man said hastily.
He signaled emphatically to the other men, and they moved quickly, fanning out, searching through the encampment, peering down at the dead faces, here and there poking at dead forms with the shining tips of their rods. As they did this, fine tendrils of light shot from the tips, like tiny lightning bolts, playing across the corpses in a blue-white mesh, then flickering out. The lifeless bodies did not respond. At last satisfied that no one living remained on the awful plain, the men returned to the giant form.
"All are dead, my Commander," said the one who had spoken before.
"Good, Captain," the deep voice said. "Move all their bodies onto the central pile."