Struggle in the Snow
The flat, dense grey clouds ahead were ominous and full of threat.
Issue #10, Monday 25 April 2022
“More snow coming,” said Joseph wearily. The flat, dense grey clouds ahead were ominous and full of threat.
He stopped and turned to look back at his companion, plodding steadily upwards towards him. He was worried about Felix. The big man was usually so strong. But he had been wounded in the left shoulder during that last battle, and it seemed to have weakened him and shattered his confidence.
It had been a bloodbath. All because of the stupidity of their commander, and probably the stupidity of the Emperor too, for starting the war. All Joseph knew was the terror and the misery of the campaign, and he had had enough of it. When their commander tried to round up the remaining troops, he and Felix had hidden themselves and decided to make their own way back home.
Maybe that was when they had made their big mistake. They had decided to avoid the main pass through the mountains — the army would be taking that route, the same way they had come. Instead, he and Felix had decided to try one of the more obscure, smaller passes. But they had no map, and now Joseph thought that they might be lost.
Felix drew up alongside him, silent. His face, like Joseph's, was hidden behind the wrappings of cloth they had wound around their heads to try to protect themselves against the bitter cold.
"All you all right, old friend?" asked Joseph. Felix simply nodded slowly.
"It's not far now to the top of the pass," Joseph said. "All downhill from there!" That probably wouldn't be quite true; there would be plenty of hills still to cross, but the trend would be downwards. And at least they would be back in their own country. Here they were enemy soldiers, and couldn't trust anyone.
Felix just continued to nod. Felix never said much, but now he seemed almost to have lost the power of speech. Joseph turned and started the weary trek again, one foot after another, sinking into the soft snow.
Those clouds bothered him. If it started to snow heavily again, they would die out here. Still, he thought glumly, it would be a better death than lying on a battlefield with a lance through your guts, screaming for your mother.
They plodded on for another half-hour or so. Snow started to drift down, at first slowly and then heavily. It became hard to see more than a few feet ahead, so Joseph slowed and fell into step beside Felix, to ensure that they were not separated.
Felix was Joseph's oldest friend. They had been through a lot together. Some ugly battles. There had been many times when Joseph had been terrified out of his wits, but Felix had saved him, always finding the courage to press on against the odds, or finding the safest place to crouch as a troop of cavalry raced past.
Now they plodded on side by side, facing their toughest enemy yet. It was starting to get dark, but Joseph knew they couldn't afford to stop. Fortunately, after about half an hour, the snow eased off and then ceased. But as the clouds cleared, he could see the stars coming out one by one.
A great weariness began to overcome him, and he realised that he could hardly feel his feet any more. Beside him, Felix was slowing, and starting to stumble. Joseph, too, was weaving from side to side.
It was then that there was a kind of miracle. In the faint remaining light, Joseph saw a small building up ahead. Some kind of hut. A shepherd's hut, perhaps? Shelter, anyway. If the shepherd was there and made any objections, well, Joseph still had his knife.
He pointed out the hut to Felix and they changed direction towards it. It seemed a long, long time before they reached the door. There was a dim yellow glow from inside glimmering through the cracks. Joseph, astonished at how weak his arms felt, thumped feebly on the door. In a few moments it was opened, pushing outward through the drift of snow at its foot.
"Marone e mia!" exclaimed the lean figure who stood there. "Prego, entra, subito!" Joseph didn't speak much Italian, but the gesture was obvious. He and Felix stumbled into the little hut and their host quickly closed the door behind them on the whirling snow.
It was warm and close in there. At the far end of the room, next to a small stone fireplace, was a tethered goat, looking at them incuriously and chewing contentedly on some hay. There was a single, narrow bed, a wooden table, a small desk with a crucifix mounted behind it, and some cupboards. The occupant of the hut had a tonsured head, and was wearing a coarse brown robe. A monk then, not a shepherd.
All of this Joseph saw in an instant or two. Then, suddenly, he found his legs giving way and his vision blurring. He fell forward and blackness claimed him.
Over the next few hours, consciousness came and went. Flashes after that; awakening with a terrible thirst and the monk gently tipping sips of warm milk between his lips. The monk, leaning over him, unwrapping his clothing, doing something painful to his shoulder, Felix's muffled face looking on in concern.
Terribly hot; terribly cold. And then true sleep at last.
When he woke, it was to bright sunlight in his eyes: the monk had opened a shutter and a cold breeze swept in along with the light. Outside, snow lay everywhere.
Joseph found that he was on the monk's narrow bed. The monk came across and put a hand on his forehead, and said something in Italian. Joseph tried to respond, and the monk switched to good German.
"Your fever is gone, that is good. That wound in your shoulder is a problem, but with rest and food you should recover."
"Where's Felix?" Joseph croaked out. "He's wounded, too, you must look after him."
"Felix?" asked the monk. He was lean and wiry, with a grey stubble beard and eyes nested in wrinkles.
"My friend. He's called Felix. Is he outside?"
"Oh, of course. Felix." said the monk. "And what is your name? I am Brother Marco, and you are safe here, do not concern yourself."
"Joseph, I'm Joseph. But Felix..."
"Yes, yes, I will attend to Felix soon. Just rest for now. You had a bad night of it."
Joseph slept again for a while. When he woke again, he felt much stronger, and the sun outside was high in the sky.
He needed to piss, and Brother Marco helped him up so he could use a pot. After that, he felt able to swallow some bread soaked in milk.
"But Felix... don't tell me Felix has gone on without me? Where is he?"
Marco looked steadily at Joseph. "Come with me," he said. "I will help you to the door."
Together, they stood at the open door, with a cold wind whistling by them. There had been no more snow since last night, and Joseph could still see the tracks that had been left in the snow.
"My son," said the monk gently, "I have not seen anyone called Felix. You were alone when you came to my door."
In the snow was one set of tracks. One set of footprints.
© Copyright David R. Grigg. All rights reserved.
About This Story
Not sure now where this 2012 story idea came from. I might have been reading some account of a polar expedition, or it might have been triggered by a writing prompt. I do recall reading about some historical battles in the north of Italy and how many soldiers were lost on the retreat (nothing like Napoleon’s catastrophic retreat from Moscow, however, about which I wrote a much longer story a few years ago).
Out of time for more this issue. I hope to see you next time.