The cartography, writing, and ramblings of one crazy winter lover who likes to blog about the fun and inconsequential.

The Grand War: Prologue

Well, here for you all is a small preview of The Grand War: its prologue. Unfortunately, I don't feel comfortable posting more than the prologue at this point due to my wish to, eventually, try to get the book professionally published. But, for now, I hope the prologue will be enough to interest you all in the book. Also, coming this weekend, a full book written by yours truly, all for free!

Here is a .pdf of the prologue if you want to read it that way, otherwise the prologue is below.

Prologue

February 11, 1895

Yuri gripped frostbitten fingers around his rifle. The wooden stock was as hard and cold as stone, and the blued metal stuck to his skin. Wind whipped the trees around him, dropping icicles and loose snow onto his woolen cap and trenchcoat. Underneath, his mothbitten uniform kept out no more of the cold than his own skin did.

“It's too damn cold here,” Malik said beside him, echoing Yuri's own thoughts. The worn soldier cupped his mitten-clad hands to his mouth and blew into them. “What does the lieutenant think the Poles will do, rush out from behind that fancy wall of theirs to come kill a few frozen infantrymen?”

“The lieutenant said that war's coming any day now,” Yuri said, slushing through the packed snow behind Malik. “Maybe he's right, don't you think?”

“Tell me, Private Rostov, does anything here look worth taking to you?” Malik swept his hand across the wintry scene before them.

The forest lining the border between Poland and Ruthenia was dark and dense, with thickets of trees so close together their branches interlocked and, in places, formed organic walls of their own. Nothing moved in the darkness, save for the beams of their flashlights that cut through the inky night. It was as desolate a place as he could get, Yuri supposed, and he nodded to Malik.

“I suppose you're right. I wouldn't want to fight a Pole for this place, either.”

Malik laughed and trudged on ahead, his rifle slung over his shoulder. Yuri struggled to keep up with the taller and older man, his young legs burning after hours of patrol. He was a native of the warm shores along the Black Sea, where snow was, at most, a minor nuisance for much of the year. His youth had been made up of sailing and racing along the docks, activities that had done little to prepare him for winter patrolling.

They had been patrolling the silent forest for close to six hours now, stepping their way through snowdrifts and frozen streams, and avoiding pitfalls and slippery ice underneath soft snow where they could. Patrols were done in eight hour rotations from their headquarters—little more than a hut at the end of a dirt road that was two hours away from the nearest sign of civilization. Despite that, Yuri longed for the leaky roof and rusty heater in the hut, if only to get out of the miserable cold.

Somewhere nearby, a bird took flight, creating a shockwave of noise as the rest of the forest around them lit up in a cacophony of hoots, howls, and murmurs. Yuri spun around, his rifle in hand, finger wavering over the trigger guard.

Malik laughed. “Settle down, boy, settle down, it's just all the riled up animals. Nothing that can hurt us, I'll assure you.” He pointed to where a couple deer were bounding away. “Ah, if only we could hunt around here. Alas, no one is brave enough to go firing off a gun this close to the border. If we had game this good back home, I would never have joined the army!”

The deer ran off and Malik went back to his jaunty patrol, with Yuri glowering from behind. It wasn't his fault he hadn't tramped through dirty forests for most of his life like his northerner partner. The man at the recruitment station had assured Yuri that he wouldn't be serving more than a day from Odessa. Liars, the lot of them. Hadn't his father told him that? He shook his head. It was too late to listen to him now.

They continued on, and snow began to fall once again. It came so often and in such great amounts that Yuri had stopped bothering to measure them. He only pulled his coat tighter around himself and his cap lower. The cold got in anyway, and he was so focused on hugging his arms into his jacket that he almost ran into Malik.

“Crazy old man, watch where you're going!” he cried.

Malik pulled him aside with a strength that surprised Yuri and shoved a mittened hand over his face. “Keep quiet, you young fool, and listen,” he hissed.

Yuri listened.

The forest was quiet; no sound echoed through the bare branches but the soft shaking of trees blown by stray wind. He scowled at Malik. “It's silent, what am I supposed to hear? Are you afraid of a monster in the dark?”

“No.” Malik pulled his rifle from his shoulder. “I'm afraid of whatever's gotten this whole damn forest to fall silent.”

Yuri spun around, straining to hear. Perhaps the groaning of a walking machine, or the heavy thump of artillery from the guns that lined the Polish defenses. Something, anything that would indicate war. For long moments, only a stillness filled his ears.

Then, from the west, came a dull thumping. Artillery! Yuri dove to the ground while Malik stood his ground with a firm scowl on his face. That was when he realized that the thumps were growing closer, but not nearly as loud as artillery would have been.

Materializing out of the night were tow horses, one riderless and the other with a man slumped in his saddle. They carried no banner nor sigil, but their uniforms made it plainly clear they were Ruthenian. Malik flagged them down, giving the wounded man an experienced hand in calming the horses.

Wiping snow from himself, Yuri stood and helped with the horses, taking the wounded man's charger by the reins so that Malik could help him to the ground. He tried to stand on his own, but fell to his knees and groaned. Redness covered his tattered uniform and seeped through dark holes near his belly.

“Who did this?” Malik asked. “Who shot at you? We must know! Yuri, grab one our flares. We must let the headquarters know.”

The man howled in pain, but grabbed Malik's arm and pulled him close. “It doesn't matter now,” he groaned. “Alexander and I, we... were running a message from the northern command, and they hit us.” He coughed, and blood seeped through his teeth. “Damn them! The Poles shot us like we were at war. But, I suppose, we already are.”

Malik's eyes narrowed. “War? This is news to us.”

The man pointed to his bag, tucked into the saddle. “A letter inside for the men around here... Germanians moving in the Baltic, already crossed the border. We were trying to,” he said, but fell silent before he could finish the last word. His body went stiff with it still on his lips, but he would say no more.

While his body cooled, Malik stood and peered toward the Polish border, Yuri crouched behind him. The darkness seemed to go on forever, like the ocean under a moonless sky, ready to swallow them up and wash the two soldiers away like so much foam in the surf.

Then, the night lit up in a fiery explosion of guns as, in the distance, artillery guns firing shells the size of Yuri's rifle came to life. Traces whizzed through the trees and entire sections of the forest were leveled. The mayhem was off in the distance, far from where Yuri and Malik stood, but it was just as well on top of them. An icy ball formed in the pit of Yuri's stomach.

“A pity,” Malik said, holding his rifle against his chest. “It seems that the war has come to this part of the world. Pray it doesn't find us before we can make it back to headquarters.”

With a weary look over his shoulder, Yuri followed Malik back into the angry night and toward the world that had shuddered into war.

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