Captain Bradley hadn’t believed the advance scout’s report of the previous evening, but now that he stood at the mouth of the valley before the obscene hill of skulls he knew the scout had been speaking truthfully.
A soldier often finds the dead strewn across the battlefield or markers laid for the fallen, but this exhibit was no tribute; the collection of skulls occupied an acre of land, piled so high into a bony morro that the rising sun still hadn’t breached its apex. Thousands of men must have lost their lives to contribute to the pile, no doubt the losers in some past battle, though the valley seemed quiet and fairly unoccupied.
Bradley felt a shudder disturb his shoulders.
The lieutenant, younger than the captain and unexposed to war, let his gaze linger on the hill of skulls a moment before guiding the captain around the base of the hill.
If the sight of the appalling collection of skulls seemed anachronistic to Bradley, the thin old man sitting in a rustic wooden chair before a small wooden shack completely disarmed him. The surreal vision was certainly only an anomaly of the march on which he and his men were presently making across the mountainous land, though nothing in previous reports mentioned such a memorial—
The captain stood before the old man and straightened in his immaculate uniform.
“What happened in this valley to cause such death?” Bradley asked without preamble.
The old man turned his rheumy eyes toward the impressive pile of bones, then nodded.
“A great war,” he said in heavily accented English.
“Why were these skulls left in this way?”
“As a monument to the victor.”
The captain stared at his lieutenant questioningly, but the younger man had no comment.
Again, he turned to the old man and said, “When did this great war happen?”
“Many, many years ago,” the old man replied, grinning. His age and decrepit condition gave him a skeletal appearance. “These have been peaceful lands ever since.”
“Who was the losing army?”
“The vanquished have no name, nor should they. Their grave is anonymous.”
The captain found himself briefly laughing at the statement. He turned and studied the great pile of skulls a moment, wondering what terrible punishment these anonymous soldiers had endured.
He turned to the old man and said, “You may not know the name of the losing army, but who was the victor?”
The old man’s smile widened, toothless.
“Genghis,” he said, laughing softly.
The captain and the lieutenant glanced at each other curiously, and Bradley began to feel a subtle fear traveling across his shoulders again.
“And now I have a question for you, captain,” the old man said, rising from his chair. “What are you and your men doing in my lands?”
Lawrence Buentello has published over 90 short stories in a variety of genres, and is a Pushcart Prize nominee. His fiction has appeared in Murky Depths, Cover of Darkness, Bete Noire, and several other publications. He lives in San Antonio, Texas.
Betty Rocksteady is a Canadian author and illustrator. Learn more at www.bettyrocksteady.com.