Recently I thoroughly enjoyed the televised adaptation of War and Peace – it was a tremendously entertaining piece of drama. It got me thinking back over the fantasy setting I devised some time ago, one focused on elven city-states and a strange theocracy. Specifically, it made me think about two things – the feeling of uncertainty that an impending or distant war brings, and the harshness of a Russian winter. I always imagined in this fantasy setting that the kingdoms I described would have a harsh winter; the so-called “high winter” that has the beauty of freshly-fallen snow and frozen lakes, but the almost-lethal cold that comes with it.
It is something of a cliche to say that the Russian winter defeats invaders, but it is nevertheless true; a geographically vast nation with particularly bad weather is not easy to invade. Something of this inspired this story – not the problems of invading a country like Russia, but the opposite – what if a nation in the depths of its own harsh winter is called upon, by a treaty, to mobilise for war against an invader attacking a neighbouring ally?
High winter was something beyond cold. Standing outside, even wrapped in a thick woollen cloak and leather armour under metal plates that would on even a mild autumn day drive one to distraction with the clammy warmth of it, brought a deepset ache of chill to the bones. It was the kind of coldness that made one’s muscles burn with incessant pain that crescendoed in stabbing agony if one moved too fast. The wind’s shrieking drove needles into one’s sinuses, and the sun in the cloudless sky reflected harshly off the snow such that one eventually perceived the world as just a void of white. It was a beautiful hell, a world that nature had reclaimed with an elegance so harsh as to be untouchable.
One did not stand outside for longer than needed, and so the messenger, wearing the colours of the castle that sat on the frozen bay, made the last stretch of their journey as quickly as possible. Ordinarily some other method of sending a missive would have been found in the depths of high winter, but this time it could not be avoided. From the gatehouse they were hurried up through the walls and through a concealed door into the smaller keep they had been headed for, its long halls warmed with braziers and lit at night with candelabrae densely forested with candles. At this time of year, one walked with an eye permanently turned upward to avoid any stray wax dripping to the floor below. The close warmth of the air, rich with the smell of aromatic woods burned on the fires to freshen the place as its windows could not well be opened, felt all the more oppressive after so long spent in the snow outside.
It was around lunchtime, and the castle’s lord was just sitting down to eat. Although the table was set opulently, with fine silver and gold tableware and high, plush chairs, the food on offer was meagre. It was clearly with discomfort that the three sitting to dine accommodated a fourth, for in the winter every grain and joint had to be counted carefully. A fine, large plate formed a sea of white on which a few vegetables and a thin slice of meat sat, wine-glasses were half-empty with every drop poured painstakingly from a half-full decanter.
“I trust your journey was not too arduous?” The pleasantries of accepting a guest felt strained at this time.
“I wish I could say it was not, but I bear bad news. Ships have been sighted in the Bay of Osten, bearing the flags of Nyra and Valen.” Osten was miles away, days if not weeks ride even in summer, but it was close enough a neighbour that the armies of snowbound Cathil would have to march to its aid. “I am riding from Velen Calim to Velen Cathil to deliver the message to the Countess herself.”
It was an embarrassment that meant Cathil would have to ride to Osten’s aid. An ill-advised marriage between the second son of the Countess and the first daughter of the Earl of Osten had turned into a treaty that nobody had ever expected to have to honour. After all, there had been no sign of war with Nyra for years. And a declaration of war in high winter was suicide, surely? Osten may not be so severely affected, may still – by Cathilan standards – be autumnal, but the granaries of Nyra would have been as lean as those of its frozen counterpart.
The lord at the head of the table, the frail and bookish Viscount Thamyra, drained his glass and stared somewhere past the messenger’s head. His wife continued to eat, apparently unconcerned by the news.
“The levy will appreciate the change of climate, I suppose. When you deliver the message to the Countess, inform her that Velen Thamyra will send…” Thought. “Will send what it can.”
“That will be done. If I may impose upon Your Grace, could you set that in ink and seal it?”
The third at table had said nothing all this time, and only now made to speak as if the very act of forming an opinion needed time and consideration. “We should write also to Caramere and Seyland, and-”
“I am sure the Countess will inform them.” Vidame Thamyra looked at the young man. “Should it be necessary, of course.”
Any further conversation about the prosecution of war was not for the ears of a mere messenger, and with pointed tone the Vidame drew the conversation onto more appropriate matters for table. The state of life in Calim, the southernmost sea-port of the state of Cathil, for one. On a rugged spit of land that on a clear day offered a tantalising glimpse of the alluring towers of Osten, it was a harsh city, the elegant architecture of its people transformed into something unwelcoming and ugly by the necessity of constructing it from grey stone that over time became slick with guano and plantlife, needing constant cleaning. The Vidame had a cousin in Calim, although the messenger had not met him. The sea had frozen, and people were skating on it. This happened some years.
War hung in the air, the thing that nobody dared talk about. The very thought of an army having to march in winter was unthinkable. How many would die from having to camp in the cold? How would a supply train be gathered when even the nobility were having to eat diminished meals? These were not questions that could be discussed simply in the dining-room of Velen Thamyra, and yet their continued unansweredness seemed stifling. They finished eating. The messenger was invited to stay the night, in the sandalwood-heavy halls of the castle locked in a siege against the cold. His horse was given a warm stable, and he a bed thick with blankets.
Morning would come, the ships would be closer to Osten. There, where the air did not stab at the body with every hard-fought breath, where snow was a light irksome dusting on the coldest of mornings rather than a hostile invader spreading out across the earth, the militia would be preparing for a siege. The rider would continue on his harsh journey to the distant high towers of Velen Cathil to deliver a message that Osten called on an almost-forgotten treaty. There would be discussion, and the stores would be checked. The ships would land. Osten would fight, its soldiers likely dying. Perhaps the attackers would attack it directly, attempting to storm the harbour, beaching their ships upon its sands and flooding into its white-stone streets. More likely they would land somewhere down the coast, and fall hungry and cold upon whichever unfortunate town or village was closest. Its people, had they not sought shelter in the walls of Osten, would likely die. The armies of Nyra were renowned for pragmatism at the best of times, and winter made even good men desperate. Maybe the local lord would have the foresight to ride out and meet the Nyran army as it landed. All that would mean would be a number of dead soldiers on the beach, and maybe grief in whichever castle they had ridden from. More likely ransom, the humiliation of having to empty ones vaults to secure the safe return of the captured knight.
War would spread across Osten much like the snow spread across Cathil; a blanket of harshness that consumed the land, drove people into hiding and saw carefully-stockpiled food dwindle. Of course, once the Count’s army moved, and open battle was joined, the success of this venture would be measured. If the Knights of Velen Cathil were present, if the Countess sent her finest forces, then the Nyran interlopers would be put to the blade and scattered. That went without saying. But they would not be there from the start, they would arrive as a last hope if they arrived at all – hungry, cold, tired from marching through the high winter. Would victory be so assured then?
It was not the messenger’s place, nor Vidame Thamyra’s place, to think these thoughts. Indeed, this whole sudden pall was merely the result of a careless comment over a sparse meal – a traveller saying something that should not have been said until the Countess had herself issued the command. But it had, nevertheless, been said. Word had reached Velen Thamyra that there was to be war in Osten, and it was widely known that Cathil could not sit idly by.