For whatever reason, the general put a lot of stock in the old wizard. I was never one for ancient superstitions and parlor tricks.
To me, battles are won by strategy, force of numbers, and iron will.
But the general would not even begin a campaign without the wizard’s counsel.
He had persuaded the general that the weather would favor our victory. On this assurance alone, we had proceeded into Thrax territory in the late fall. Now the water kegs are frozen solid and the horses are dying.
I heard Captain Manx crunching through the brittle, thin snow behind me. “Looks like you were right. It was too late in the season to begin a campaign in the North,” he said, through chattering teeth.
I could not keep the bitterness out of my voice as I replied, “Being right is cold comfort to a dead man.”
But the gods play funny tricks with both weather and war…
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7 thoughts on “Flash Fiction Challenge: Cold Comfort”
Our Scouts returned from their observations beyond the front lines. Where we suffered the effects of the cold the Thrax army suffered double. Men froze in position on sentry duty. Horses fell never to rise again. Our time to strike was now.
Captain Manx and I left the command tent with new orders from the general. Ready the men. We would push ahead and through. The Thrax army would now fall before our might.
Energy and heat returned to my men. With the goal in sight they were renewed. We marched through at first light, refreshed and ready for war.
I saw it before the call was taken up by the men. The bitter cold proved too much for the Thrax encampment. By the look of it, nature had done more to them than we ever could with sword or bow.
Guards stood frozen at their posts, forever at the ready position, but never to move again. As we moved through the camp we found more men, more horses, all dead. The weather, maybe with another’s help, proved well beyond their abilities to survive.
What magic the old wizard conjured, well, I am not privvy to such knowledge. But I saw it with my own eyes. An army, an entire army, wiped out. Magic may not have been the cause, but it assisted in their deaths.
Sure the ol’ wizard helped us this time. But his aid is cold comfort to the knowledge that he could change his mind.
“Sir, a bolt of lightning struck the ridge, and the black stones are burning.” The young messenger paused to catch his breath. “Maybe the Fates have looked upon us with favor and given us heat so that we can defeat the Thrax.”
I glared until he averted his head; and then I rebuked him. “The rocks must be coal. The gods had nothing to do with light—”
The Captain interrupted. “Lightning this late in the season? And warmth exactly when we need it? I, for one, intend to thaw my bones. I care not whether gods or happenstance brought us this unexpected good fortune. Now we can save the horses.”
I scowled. “You will order the men to set fire to all the coal they can find. They must melt snow and fill the water kegs. Every man will sleep with his horse tonight. You and I will meet with the General and the commanders to discuss tactics.”
Once our plans had been forged, we enjoyed our first comfortable slumber in weeks. The rocks continued to burn and glow, alerting the Thrax to our position.
Their soldiers attacked the following night when the moon was high.
What happened next will be remembered for future generations. The enemy crept forward, stabbing and thrusting at each cloak-covered figure in the camp. But the shock in the eyes of the Thrax was echoed by their screams as our real warriors came out of hiding.
Sorcery or strategy? Perhaps only the gods know.
Why is there no snow on the hillside on the right? I wondered as I paced back and forth at my post. You can just see the enemies’ camp on the hillside a mile away from our outer perimeter here. They are exposed to the wrath of winds and snow without even a bush to shelter under or behind. At least here, we have some windbreak offered by the hills on three sides of us.
“Tano! I am going down the hill a ways to relieve myself. While I am down there, I will have a look around for anything threatening.”
“Okay kid, but don’t go too far away in case the enemy has spies about.”
“Spies? They haven’t stirred much since we have been watching them for the past six or seven days. They are too cold and stiff to do more than stay in their tents or crowd their fires.”
“Just keep a sharp eye out for anything out of the ordinary.”
“Okay, okay. I am just going to look around.” Spies indeed, I muttered to myself as I made my way downhill.
The path down was surprisingly easily navigated due to the absence of snow the further downhill I went. Wait! What is that faint mist rising from the bottom of the draw? I dropped to one knee and watched the mist rise from behind a tangle of bushes at the bottom of the hill with no snow. Could it be a cave? A warm one?
Long-Nights Moon, Wolf Moon and Ice Moon brought the North Wind to fasten its freezing grip on Earth Mother. Little-Boy’s people knew nothing of bitter cold survival. They migrated to warm plains down-mountain where game abounded.
“The vision, Grandfather. I must stay.” Little-Boy reminded the gathering.
Grandfather nodded, “You’ll remain, but you’ll have a new name. SniWe, With Cold In His Blood.”
Like his tribe, SniWe, knew nothing of winter survival or snow hunting. He sought new visions.
Buffalo Spirit appeared first, asking for food.
“I have nothing,” SniWe said.
“Become one with the land. Together we’ll find grasses and herbs.”
All was eaten when Bear Spirit approached asking for food. .
“I’ve nothing left.”
“Hunt only what you need. Use all you take. Together we’ll harvest fish and honey,” Bear said.
Next appeared Fox Spirit also wanting food. SniWe said, “Nothing remains.”
“Honor those that die so you can fill your belly. We’ll dine on those scampering beneath the snow,” Fox said.
Likewise other animal spirits taught SniWe how to hunt, transform hides and furs into blankets, rugs and lodge coverings. He learnt to make warm clothes for his body, head, hands and feet. He learnt to respect Earth Mother. He honored her creatures.
When snow began to thaw his people returned up-mountain. SniWe taught them what he’d learned.
And that, my children, is how we, the OyateWasma, came to know how to live in cold comfort when winter moons come and Northern Winds create deep freezing snow.
The Wizard sat before a meager fire massaging his chilblains. Below, the remnants of the General’s army were paralyzed, defeated by the cold.
Beyond, the enemy defenders were snugly, nay smugly esconced in their garrison.
Not much given to introspection, he could not put from his mind that he had advised the General that the predicted harsh winter provided only opportunity for a surprise initiative, not a guarantee of total victory. The General’s arrogant impetuosity had led to an ill-prepared strike, now degenerating into a prolonged siege.
Turning away, the Wizard’s cloak upset his neglected goblet of warm yak’s milk and honey. The contents however did not spill. The Wizard dug into the frozen, congealed mass with his wand and brought it to his lips, and his eyes lit up.
Sunrise saw the Wizard’s men constructing a strange, subterranean edifice. Once completed, ice-blocks from the frozen river were stacked inside its cavernous interior.
The General looked on, incredulous.
“Sir!” Pitched the Wizard, smiling dementedly, “Sadly your campaign is doomed, but all is not yet lost. I foresee a Spring truce… and the summer which follows will be as hot and arid as this winter has been savagely cold. Men will give their souls for relief… We shall triumph – providing for their refreshment and our considerable profit… Ice-cream! We’ll make a killing!”
“Cold comfort indeed,” muttered the General, rolling his eyes at Captain Manx.
“Hell! Why couldn’t this damn Wizard have graduated West Point instead of Harvard Business School.”
“War has a way of laying out your plans delicately in front of you and then smashing them utterly when the fighting begins, Captain Manx.”
“Yes, Sergeant, that it does. You’re sage, for all your youth.”
“I’m old enough to remember my time as a corpsman during the Drakina rebellion, sir. Then at least we were in a defensive stance, we could deal with our plans being dashed. Here… here I am not so sure we can hope for anything but a quick death and two coppers on our eyes for the toll.”
“A realist, how refreshing. I was beginning to worry I was the only one with any sanity around here. What would you propose we do instead, Sergeant?”
“I’ll not say it, sir, with respect. A man lives and dies by his honor, and I feel my urge to live is fighting my urge to be honorable. If that makes any sense.”
“You’d not be the first man to suggest tyrannicide against the General. But you may be the last. No, no, I’m not going to kill you, sheath your dagger, man. No, you are not the first man to suggest the act at all. In fact, you are surrounded by men who have all come to the same conclusion you have.”
“The time to act is already upon us, sir?”
“Indeed it is. Will you stand with us, Sergeant? The attack begins on my word.”
“Unfortunately, you need a tongue to utter treason. Let’s fix that, Captain.”
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