With approving eyes, the high priest looked at the last of the four gatehouses he had to visit that day. Everyone —from outside as well as from inside the walls— had been working hard for several days to prepare for the grand finale of the festivities. The Longest Night would soon begin.

As far as the high priest could tell, all living souls from a hundred miles around had gathered in town. The entire community had found a place to stay for the night within the safe boundaries of the city limits. It wasn’t always comfortable for anyone, but no one ever complained. It was tradition, and traditions had to be respected. This was how countless generations before them had experienced the longest night of the year.

The origin story of the celebration had been passed down from father to son, and from mother to daughter. Centuries ago —long before the years were counted—, there had been a great battle between Mankind and Snowmankind. After many years of fighting with great losses on both sides, Mankind had eventually emerged victorious from this mythical war.

When it became clear that his race of snowmen would lose, the leader of the assailants, the cruel and inexorable Snow Lord, vanished from the battlefield, but not before unleashing a menacing warning: "Once, on the longest night of the year, we will return to have our revenge and to restore our honor." Thus it was recorded in the Holy Books of Mankind.

Since those days of yore, the anniversary of this triumph of men over snowmen, also known as Victory Day, coincided with the longest day of the year and marked the start of the Festival of the Children of the Sun —Children of the Sun being the name Mankind had given itself. It was a great holiday, but due to the nature of the ceremonial obligations that were involved to protect the community against the menace of the Snow Lord, it was not nearly as great as the week-long holiday preceding the Longest Night.

Certainly, there were those who doubted the Snow Lord had ever existed, but even those who didn’t believe the Prophecy respected the rules and regulations that had remained in place unchanged since the illustrious victory of Mankind over Snowmankind —whether it was a historical event or just a fable to justify having a holiday in the Winter.

Almost everyone in the city and beyond was convinced that the threat of Snow Lord and his snowmen was gone for good. For most of the men and women who gathered in the city for the Longest Night, the week that preceded the ceremony was an opportunity to bond with each other, united by a common goal. It was a welcome excuse for them forget about the daily grind for a handful of days.

A horn rang at “Westpoort”; that was the sign that the sun had disappeared behind the horizon. The high priest climbed the steps of the gatehouse of “Noordpoort” and peered into the darkness. He looked left; he looked right; he looked straight ahead. When he saw nothing, he took the stairs back down. At the foot of the gate, a concerned citizen was waiting for him.

"Are you really sure you haven't seen any of the dreaded snowmen?" the townsperson asked solemnly.

"I am sure," the high priest replied with equal earnest, "but to reassure you, I am going to take another look."

The protocol required this procedure to be repeated three times.

Every time the high priest was asked the same question by a different person. Every year, every adult man and woman hoped for a chance to make the selection. Being chosen as one of the three townspeople waiting at the foot of the gate meant that your peers regarded you as a valuable member of the community. It included several perks and benefits that could easily last for the rest of their entire life.

Once the priest had been questioned three times and reassured the selected townspeople three times that there was no peril, the festivities for the night could start. No one ever expected the priest to come down the stairs with bad news.

You can imagine the fuss, followed by the fear, when the high priest started to scream the third time he glared toward the dark horizon.

There, just past North Creek, he saw the light of torches flare up. Much to his horror, he distinguished a group of dark figures about to cross the bridge. With a trembling hand, he reached for the alarm bell. When he rang it, the whole city held its breath. Despite the enormous crowd within the walls, you could hear a pin drop once the sound of the bell had faded.

The tension was unbearable for several long seconds until roaring laughter resounded from beyond the walls. The high priest was furious when he saw that the alleged assailants were nothing but a bunch of rascals wearing dark cloaks, making fun of the yearly tradition. Disgusted, the high priest yelled at them: “Heretics! Sacrilegious scoundrels! How dare you frighten your fellow brothers and sisters!”

He then addressed his audience within the walls: “Don’t be afraid, the snowmen aren’t coming. It’s just a small group of good-for-nothings who thought it was a good idea to fool us into believing the Snow Lord was coming for his revenge.”

Indeed, hours before the sun would set, a dozen of men and women had been hiding in the cold just to pull this prank on the high priest. They now moved toward the Northern gate, growling and howling like crazy. Some were carrying hollow beetroots with candles inside, other were brandishing torches.

The high priest was about to spit out his wrath and order the men below him not to open the gate for the infidels, when an icy wind rose from the North. The torch lights of the men outside the walls died abruptly. Their laughter died down. The only thing the high priest saw were a few bright spots in the dark, candles that had not been blown out by the sudden gust of wind. Those too died when a dark cloud passed over the moon. The high priest reached over the wall as far as he could, but it was pitch dark. He didn't see any movement near the bridge anymore.

The heart of the high priest froze when he suddenly heard a war drum beating in the distance.

May 19, 2020 15:49

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RBE | Illustration — We made a writing app for you | 2023-02

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