Frozen faces, brittle like ice
thawing gently in the sun,
how tentative smiles break,
lapping gently at thin lips.
The first snow marks the true passing of fall; when those last few tenacious leaves are finally torn from their desperate perches and left to the wind’s mercy.
The man stood silent and alone, the dying sun sinking behind the Blackthorn Stronghold. Every day he stood on the same grassy knoll to watch the sunset and every day his breath fogged in the air just a little more clearly. Flags snapped in the chilled air behind him and he knew that if he were to turn he would see tents so numerous as to be impossible to count. And yet despite the vast numbers, his army had yet to breach the walls to which they had spent a season laying siege.
Now the cold crept slowly in, spreading delicate webs of frost and misting one’s breath in the mornings and nights. The man ran scarred hands over the creaking leather straps of his armour, his blade heavy at his side.
Just one more day. Please. Just give us one more day. It was a prayer the soldier had made every evening of the last week. As though if he willed it strongly enough it would ward away the snow and the season of gold and orange would remain eternally.
For he knew as soon as the snow set in, those gathered outside the stronghold would be far more vulnerable than those trapped inside. For even the hardened people who had lived and grown here fear the white of winter and struggle to survive it. Left exposed to the elements in naught but tents, his men would slowly fall. Much like the wind whittling away at a cliff face, chipping away at stone until it all collapses. The man took a breath and felt the weight on his shoulders as though it were a cliff. To win the campaign would be at the cost of most of his men, and the wealth waiting inside would do little to comfort the dead.
The gentle crunch of browning grass being crushed beneath booted feet, drew him from his thoughts. They were far too light to belong to any of his men.
He does not turn as his wife approaches and settles at his side. Nor does he look at the small figure standing to her left or the bundled one he knows she carries in her arms. When he speaks he looks still towards the fading sun. “You should not be here.”
“And yet here I stand.”
“Gisele. The children—”
“Winter is not yet upon us. They will keep.”
“They will catch their deaths.”
Gisele shifts at his side. “Soon so will we all.”
Remus turns to her and thinks there is little difference from the sight he just turned from and the one he looks upon now. Her fiery hair weaved in intricate braids had once blended with the leaves of the trees, all a ruby so brilliant that the entire forest looked as if it was aflame. Now the red locks stand out against the stark nothing that coats bare branches. Gisele meets his gaze with firm eyes, one hand resting on the curls of their older sons’ head, the other cradling their new son to her chest. The hem of her dress is damp and the fur mantle of her cloak engulfs the delicate arch of her shapely neck. They are so beautiful. Alive and breathing. And Remus fears. He has seen too much death and he doesn’t think he can bear to witness theirs.
This was always a war of attrition. If those inside the keep could last until winter, then those outside would be doomed. It was always unsure what manner of supplies Blackthorn possessed. They could be days away from starving, or could still be weeks from it. Remus had no way of knowing and because of that was stuck.
At his feet Julien moves from his mother to pluck the grass from the ground, tearing it apart as children are wont to do. Remus wishes it were as easy to keep his son safe as to entertain him.
Gisele must read something of his thoughts on his face and speaks. “I have thought of a name.”
“A name for what?” Remus asks, though he knows already.
“For our son of course.”
“It is too soon.”
“It is a good name.”
“A good name will do no service to the dead. It is too soon.”
Remus is not wrong. There are too many dangers that could steal children from the world – sickness, cold and hunger. Many parents would wait at least two seasons before naming so as to not get attached only to have the babe die. His youngest son came into the world just as the leaves started turning gold, and only now did the last of them fall. It was too soon.
Gisele huffed, but let the subject go. Remus thought she feared their son dying without a name. But Remus was responsible for more lives than those of his sons.
“If I order these men to stay I sign their death warrants.”
“Great men are rarely good ones.”
“Perhaps I only wish to be a happy one.”
Remus gestures Julien over, face already pink from the cold. Remus sweeps his son up so Julien is hanging from his throat like a necklace. Julien buries his cold face in Remus’s neck as Remus wraps Gisele and the baby both in his arms and breathes them in. There is great wealth waiting inside Blackthorn that is true. But gold was cold and gemstones were sharp and his wife and children were warm in his arms.
Just one more day, he prayed.
Please just one more day.