That winter was cold and dark, colder and darker than any winter I remember. It did not snow that much, so it was not a proper cold winter. It rained, and the mornings were dull and misty. Everything felt damp, with a coldness that wearied rather than chilled.
I remember longing for one of those ice-cold winter days when the snow lies deep, and the sun shines, with a cold that is somehow brighter, sharper, more invigorating. Not one of these dreary days of cold and damp, when you are not sure when the night ends and the day starts.
But this was a grey damp winter, not a cold white winter. The rain fell all the time. Everything was a trudge through mud from the wall to the barracks and back again. Each patrol beyond the wall was a slow slog through terrain that was more bog than ground. Everything was damp or sodden. It was almost impossible to get a fire lit, or if it did light, to keep it going beyond a few thin wisps of desultory smoke, lost in the air that always seemed full of rain.
It was a terrible time to die for those that fell. Imagine if your last day was cold, damp and dreary with no possibility of one last sight of the sun or stars. If what some say is true and there are no gods or heavens, just nothingness then that last sight would be so… so….
I don’t know of a good way to die, but that must be one of the worst.
Or, perhaps it would be better – seeing that the world you are leaving is not really all that great.
I don’t know.
I have been close to death a fair few times. But I’ve never been close enough to it to see what that final step is like, whether it is into a heaven, to a feast hall, or a step into nothingness.
But if it is eternal nothingness, I think that winter was as good a preparation as any. Each minute spent away from the warm indoors and the roaring fires, on guard or patrol, lasted a day. Each hour lasted a week. Each week was a month or more in passing.
We forgot the names of colours. We forgot what bare skin felt like. We forgot the feeling of dryness, or the comfort of warmth.
Even the barbarians beyond the wall were quiet that winter. Not quite enough, though. Some of us died, on the wall or out beyond the wall. Some of them died too; all trying to cross the wall into a land far better than the one they existed in. All looking for a life we were sworn to protect from them.
I remember looking down at one of them I’d killed who’d scaled the wall. His fingers were all torn and bloody from his climb. He didn’t – if the truth be told – look all that different from us, despite all we are taught about their barbarian savagery.
If I had to spend many of those dreary winters there in the lands beyond the wall, then I too would want to take the chance of escaping before another winter like that became my final one, and I too died under a dull grey sky with no sun or stars.