The following is a story that was inspired by a couple of pencil sketches by Karl Kopinksi of two French cavalrymen from the Napoleonic era. I don’t know what setting that Karl had in mind for them, but I hope he likes this one!
Snow drifted slowly down, adding to the inches that had already built up into snow drifts that were taller than the infantry slowly plodding their way along the frozen ground. Jacques looked at them with no small amount of pity. Ever since the retreat from Moscow they had been walking through snow that never ceased, in air that was so cold you could lose the tip from your nose in a matter of minutes.
Poor supply routes meant that many of these men had not had a proper meal for days and he shifted in his saddle as they looked at his horse as only a starving man could. After all, horse was a popular source of meat back home.
He turned to make sure that Pierre was still with him. In the chaos of the retreat, the storms that blew in and the skirmishes that they fought against their pursuers on a daily basis, they had lost contact with many of their unit. Now, it was just the two of them and a couple of Lancers, all that stood between the drooling infantrymen and the dreadful Cossacks.
How the Russians not only lived, but thrived in these conditions, God only knew. Frozen bodies littered the ground, men from further up the column who had died long before he reached this point. Their fingers were often frozen into claws, as if they had tried to cling on to life as long as they possibly could. Others had just sat down, allowing the ghostly warmth and drowsiness that came with freezing to death to lull them into apathy.
The crackle of musketry rippled towards them and voices rang out, shouting orders, screaming in fear as the owner of the voice finally lost his last shred of courage and ran wailing into the barren wilderness.
Jacques cursed as he struggled to draw his sword from its scabbard, fear and cold combining to rob him of strength and rational thought as he repeatedly tugged.
“Pierre, guard me! My fucking sword is jammed.” Putain de merde, he thought as the muffled sound of hooves approached from behind the curtain of snow. With one last effort he yanked the blade free.
Muskets and pistols continued to crack, both sides shooting at targets they were not even sure were targets. Squinting against the flakes that constantly robbed him of the ability to see more than five yards, he glanced over at his friend.
“Brother, if we make it back home, I’m going to retire, buy a gite with a fucking huge fire, marry a girl with even bigger tits, and live my life quietly. I’m too old for this sort of game.” Pierre merely grunted, then slowly toppled off his horse, blood jetting from where a musket ball had caught him in the throat.
Cossacks loomed out of the snow, raising their war cry, ‘Urah!’ Lances snapped down in time to spear the near-frozen infantry men, drops of blood steaming in the frigid air. The lances were held overhand, rising and falling as their sword-sharp points punched through layers of woollen cloth, flesh and bone as easily as a hot knife through butter.
‘Fuck you!’ He rammed his spurs into his mount’s ribs, causing the beast to squeal and leap forward. His first target was a great bear of a man, ice-coated beard spilling out over his greatcoat, laughing as he pinned a screaming Jäger to the ground with his lance and working it back and forth.
It didn’t matter to Jacques that the Jäger was as good as dead, all that mattered was that the Cossack be just as dead. He attacked from the side, bringing his heavy-bladed sword down in an overhead back-hand swing. There was a slight shock as the blade hit home before slicing the bottom half of the man’s arm off.
He wrenched on the reins, looking for another target. Seeing an unhorsed Cossack struggling to his feet, Jacques had barely decided to spur his horse on when he felt a tremendous punch in the back. Desperately he tried to turn his horse to face his attacker, but found he was unable to move his legs. With barely comprehending eyes he looked down at the lance sticking out of his chest.
A cough, spraying blood into the air; one last hard-drawn breath, and the Jacques slowly slid from his saddle, falling onto the frozen ground and joining the hundreds of thousands of his countrymen who had already died.