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Spirit of Nationalism by Richard Marsden

The wind bit into his skin like daggers into flesh. The cold was like no other he had felt, and he knew it was only going to get worse, day by day. Never mind the night; even people such as himself had to find shelter by night or end up a victim of his own trade by dawn. Gregorie's eyes panned the vast, empty, bleak Russian landscape. It reminded him of looking out to sea from the docks at Cherbourg, with its long piers and obstacle strewn harbor to keep His enemies at bay. The steppes of Russia, much like the waters outside the port city.

Here and there he spied a single tree, or what looked to be a hill or solitary steeple. White land, white skies, and cold wind made Gregorie curse Him again. Why had they marched so far? What was the point of Borodino and the thousands of dead they had to leave unburied, and only a week ago had to trample upon as they retreated? There was no point, beyond the vainglory visions of a man. Of Him!

A groan redirected Gregorie's thoughts. He looked at the makeshift path the Grand Army had carved through the snow. While Russia might be near-featureless, His army was leaving behind plenty of markers. The snow had been trampled flat by thousands of cloth-wrapped boots. Unnecessary items littered the roadside and were lightly dusted by falling snow. As each frigid day passed, Gregorie noted that what counted as 'unnecessary' changed. At first, men tossed aside their hefty Charleville muskets and ammo. Next came their empty packs. After weeks of enduring cold, Cossacks and the recent desertion by Him, Gregorie found gold and riches left along the winding boot-trod path. Men were only keeping what was truly valuable in the wastes of Russia: food, clothing and tinder.

The groan came to his ears once more. Peering through the frosty haze, Gregorie saw a few toppled bodies, but they had already been well picked over. Some were naked, their forms a particularly pale color, giving them the appearance of marble statues, complete with open, sightless eyes. A bundled up figure on the road moaned and tried to rise. Snow fell from him in torrents.

He licked his lips, and instantly regretted it. The saliva froze as soon as it experienced winter's chill and burnt his tender skin. Picking his way through the debris-laden path, Gregorie approached the figure. The stranger's greatcoat was shabby, and he had lost his shako. His boots were in fine shape and Gregorie eyed his wool gloves with covetous intent. As he neared the rising figure, Gregorie reached a hand out and braced it under the man's arm.

"Let me help you, friend," he croaked, unused to using his voice.

The man stiffened and turned. His face was weather-beaten, his moustache was laced with frost and from his nostrils miniature icicles dangled. His eyes widened and he shrugged off Gregorie. "Vulture!" the Frenchman gasped.

He wished he was a vulture. A vulture could fly in and pick the best morsels. He was more akin to a lone wolf, picking off the weak of a herd. Never mind that it was his own kind he preyed upon. He was no murderer, however. Not yet. He stepped back and raised his hands. Several wedding bands glittered on his fingers, and several strips of cloth, nominally used as bandages, were wrapped about his palms. "I am unarmed," said Gregorie, "and only came to help." Not entirely true. He came to see how far gone the man was. Judging by the ice forming on his face, he didn't have long.

The man sneered. He took a few steps past Gregorie and nearly fell. Before assistance could be offered, he flailed his hands around and trudged another step. His greatcoat was ratty, and bore powder burns. He may be unarmed, but not long ago the man had seen some fighting. Just beneath his eye, Gregorie noticed tell-tale black marks.

To the east, the way from which the Grand Army had retreated, a crackling burst of musketry echoed. The cold wind had a way of carrying sounds. There was no telling how far away, or how close the gunplay was. Gregorie peered down the path, but the barren landscape revealed nothing. He doubted he would be able to see the white smoke of a musket anyways. "Someone is still putting up a fight," he said. The musketry continued to crackle methodically.

The stumbling Frenchman looked over his shoulder. "Ney. Bravest of the Brave. He fights on as the Emperor would wish." The man wrapped his coat tighter about his body and gazed in the direction of the sound. "I should be with him."

Gregorie cautiously approached his victim. He smiled lightly and jerked his head. "Then walk that way."

"I'm wounded. He said my musket and ammo was better off with the able." A wry smile came to the man's face. "I agreed and gave him my food and tinder-pack as well."

Gregorie frowned at the news.

The man laughed instantly. "The vulture will get little from me. Pick over the others."

"I have, and today's pickings have been slim, friend. You have nothing? Not even a tiny morsel?" A suspicion came over Gregorie. "You stumble like a wounded man, but where is your wound? Where is the blood?"

The man grunted and shook his head. "The cold has sealed me." He opened his coat, revealing the uniform of an Imperial Guardsman, and on his left breast a blackened hole. Blood, dried and rust-red, spattered the blue and white of his once imperious tunic, but nothing fresh leaked.

"You will not live long." Gregorie tucked his hands into his coat and glanced at the dim sun. They didn't have long until the deathly night arrived. He had found no wood to burn and only a small tin of food. There were some scraps of cloth he could burn at night, but such wouldn't last long and he was loathe to cast to the fire that which he could later wear. "How about helping a soldier out? Give me what you have."

"Soldier?" The man spit, but nothing came out. "Brave Ney fights the Russians. The Grand Army wades through Cossacks, defending French men, women and children!"

"And their loot," Gregorie added.

"You are no soldier. You and yours. You think I've not seen your type before? Like ghosts you wander the field of battle. Clad in the uniform of a friend, but you bring death as surely as a musket ball." He stumbled a few more steps, following the trail left in the wake of the army's retreat. "Coward," he muttered.

He would agree with almost everything the Guardsman had said, save one. "I'm no coward." He fell in alongside the old fool. "I marched with Him, fought for Him, killed for Him. I was there at Austerlitz. I was there at Jena. I was--"

"Where are you now?" the man roared. His pale eyes flickered with life.

Gregorie replied smoothly, "Where is He?"

"Saving France." The man staggered on. He walked in silence, his pace ragged and uneven. "If you are no coward, why are you here, vulture?"

The matter was an easy one, in Gregorie's mind. "He left me. The signal is clear, each man for himself. I am far less a criminal than He is." Gregorie kept an easy pace alongside the wounded man. "I pick over the dead. He left the living behind to die, my friend." He put himself on a higher moral plane than your usual looter. He hadn't killed a fellow Frenchman. Not directly, at least. No worse than Him. Gregorie took what he needed from those who no longer needed anything, or were close enough to death that the removal of their belongings changed their fate very little, while vastly improving his own.

"You justify your actions, vulture." The man glared at him.

"I prove my actions. I could kill you now. I could slit your throat or use the pistol in my belt to put an end to you," Gregorie said, "but instead I march alongside you, my friend."

A grunt left the Guardsman. "Waiting for me to die."

"Or live." He was no coward! He had stood proudly in the firing line time and again. The idea that one of His favored pets could cast doubt on Gregorie was grating. He was a survivor, who had simply woken up to the fact that France's master was no God, but like him, just a man: a man with faults and weaknesses and a streak of cowardice. He had left his beloved army behind in the grip of Russia's winter. Gregorie still marched with it. In a sense. "I will make it clear to you, my friend. So long as you walk, I will walk with you. Come night, we will find shelter together, and together we will make a fire." He raised his hand. "Ah, but if you fall. Just once, then I will mark you as dead and take what the dead don't need." He extended his hand. "Agreed?"

The Guardsman tilted his head. He glanced up a moment, as if in contemplation. His gloved hand grasped Gregorie's. It was as cold as the snow they slogged through. "Agreed," he said. "If I fall, you can feast. If I do not, then you will march where I march. You will follow." He released his grip and tottered to the side of the path. He bent over, and rooted through the snow. A musket was plucked forth and he used it as a brace. A smile flashed across his pale features. "Do you have spare powder and shot, vulture?"

He had in fact only one shot in his pistol and nothing more. "None, my friend. What do you need with a musket anyways?" He looked around and wandered over to a clump of snow-coated bodies. He expertly began to search them for powder-packets.

"I gave up my arms to my comrades, but if you are true to your word, then we are soldiers again. I am no invalid and you, vulture, are no scavenger." He palmed a few items from the snow. "Soldiers carry arms."

"I'm not a soldier anymore," Gregorie replied.

They spent a few minutes procuring powder and shot. Gregorie surrendered what he saw as unnecessary weight to the Guardsman. If he wanted to walk about wounded with a hefty musket and its accoutrements, then let him.

They moved at a sluggish pace as the sun crept along the horizon, shielded by low-hanging clouds. The sound of musketry ceased.

"I hope we won," the Guardsman muttered, staring to the east with narrowed eyes, before staggering westward. To the west the Grand Army marched, racing for the safety of the Duchy of Warsaw.

Gregorie doubted the Guardsman would make it to nightfall, let alone Poland.

He was wrong.

The sun moved across the sky, and the grayed-out-light started to darken and give way to night. The winter weather intensified with each passing moment of daylight. Despite the cold, the Guardsman stumbled along the path. They passed an abandoned wagon. All the horses of the army had long ago been eaten, and Gregorie imagined that men had been used in their stead to haul the wagon. There were some supplies left within, as well as stolen jewelry, a few paintings (their frames missing) and other luxuries that would have fetched quite a price in Paris, but in Russia couldn't be eaten or burned, and so were worthless. The wagon was made of wood, but after a few half-hearted tries, Gregorie was unable to strip anything away or free the wheels so as to consign them to flames later on.

The Guardsman walked without speaking to Gregorie. At times he would grumble, but he did not falter in his forward momentum. His musket, doubling as a cane, gave his tracks an odd, three-legged appearance. His pace was agonizingly slow, but as the sun sank it picked up.

Like a bird, Gregorie flitted from corpse to corpse, from debris pile to debris pile. His be-jeweled fingers dug through the litter of the army, but there was nothing to be had. No food, and worse, no wood and precious little cloth to burn. The sky was getting darker, and worry seeped into his bones as well as the increasing cold. He looked at the Guardsman. The man had no interest in scavenging. With ammo and musket secured, he had what he wanted. He marched awkwardly, but continually.

"We need shelter. Firewood. You could help, you know?" Gregorie said to the back of the Guardsman.

The Guardsman did not turn, but said, "The deal was you would follow, so long as I did not fall. I am not falling." He shouldered his musket, teetered a moment, and fell into a rhythmic march. His tracks were less curious without the cane.

"You'll break open your wound! Or trip." Gregorie jogged after him. "Not that I should care. Your fall means my gain." He stared at him as he fell alongside. Frost coated the Guardsman's face like a layer of wax. His eyes were fixed on the road ahead and his boots crunched in the hard-packed snow. "You'll tire." He looked towards the setting sun. It had sunk low enough that it acted as a beacon. To the west, the sun; to the east, darkness and bitter cold.

"I feel stronger. You give me purpose again, vulture." He strode ahead. "If not for you, I would turn and fight with Ney." He smiled, and his crusty, yellow teeth flashed a horrid smile. "Maybe, if you are lucky, come night I will fall and you will have your reward."

Gregorie wrapped his arms tightly about himself. He shook his head. "Crazy. All you Guardsman are. You live and die for Him. He who left you behind."

"He who waits for his army to return." He tilted his head. "If you manage to make it out of Russia where will you go?"

"Back to France," Gregorie answered instantly. Where else would he go? He wasn't running away from battle, he was running to France and home. Where spring and summer were warm and winter wasn't a death-sentence.

The Guardsman nodded. "And when you are back in France, then what?" He smiled. "Desert?"

Gregorie frowned and shook his head. He said he wasn't a soldier, but he didn't mean it like that. "No. I told you, I'm no coward. Just like your master, I am trying to survive. He did it by fleeing back home. I do it by taking what is not needed from the dead." Gregorie sighed. "Not that it matters. I believe other vultures have picked over this path too well. The sun sets." He glanced towards the fading orb. "And we have nothing to start a decent fire with."

The Guardsman nodded. "Then we march." He plodded through the snow.

"We'll freeze! You must help me find wood. We can't survive the night."

The Guardsman paused. His eyes had taken on a pale appearance, much like his skin. "Then we march," he repeated himself. "I have a musket ball in me, and I march. You can do the same, vulture. That is the deal." He strode away.

With little choice, Gregorie followed. He saw his breath flow in steamy contrails into the darkening sky. He fixed his eyes on the Guardsman's back. Momentarily, he thought of drawing his pistol and ending it there. He could burn whatever he found. His hand strayed to his belt, but he clenched his fist, ignoring the pain that it caused him. He was no coward. He had been tempted to murder, but had not crossed that line. He wouldn't!

The sun was soon gone and darkness spilled across the land. The endless plain of white became an ocean of black. No stars could be seen above and the moon's silvery rays barely penetrated the clouds. Gregorie followed in the footsteps of the Guardsman. He felt warmth spreading up his legs and worry etched into his mind. He had heard of men, moments before succumbing to the cold, speaking of a relaxing warmth. He prayed what he felt was just the burning of his muscles from keeping up an ever-quickening pace. The soldier in front of him marched steadily, his limp gone, replaced by a purposeful stride. Perhaps, just as a man felt warmth before winter claimed him, the Guardsman felt renewed strength before his frozen wound brought him down.

The steps became harder to take. The warmth had not left his legs, but rather had filled his hips and chest. He could no longer feel his toes, or his fingers. Gregorie wiggled them within the confines of his coat, hoping to get back some sensation. When the wind howled across the steppes, he shuddered, and even the sinister warmth inside his body would flee, replaced by deathly cold.

He breathed harder and tried to pick up the pace. Cursing, he stomped along the path, glancing up at times to see the implacable Guardsman a few paces ahead. The man was impossible!

Colder still and the night was young. The wind whistled fiercely and the chill that had consumed his fingers and toes grasped his legs. He couldn't feel them, and only dumbly did he walk. His breathing was labored. He was freezing to death! The damn Guardsman was marching them to their doom. He should have burnt the wagon, or searched the numerous piles and mounds of snow they passed, rather than walking in the dark when Russia's revenge was at its peak.

His body shook. It was not shivers. Shivering was something that he had ceased to do weeks ago. The cold was too strong for even that natural action. No, this shuddering was different. His body was giving out. Panic seized him. Warmth! Fire! Heat! He needed these things, but there was nothing. Gregorie leaned back, stared into the night sky and sighed. He was going to be another marker on the path. He fell backwards.

A gloved hand grabbed his arm in a vice-like grip. He felt a violent jerk and was pulled close to the frigid body of the Guardsman.

The man whispered, "Are you a coward?"

He shook his head. "You damn fool, we will freeze! We should have found shelter. I should have--"

The Guardsman shook him violently. "Should have what?"

Gregorie's thoughts were muddled. He wanted to lie down, to let the last bit of unnatural warmth secure his body and let death come. He had seen it before, men lying down as if to sleep in a blanket of snow. He slumped, but the Guardsman hauled him upright. A slap struck his cheek and he blinked as pain momentarily flared. "Should have surrendered to the Russians. Deserted. Killed you."

The voice in his ear was fierce. "But you didn't, vulture. Something within you stopped it." He walked and dragged Gregorie with him, as if hauling a petulant child. "Austerlitz."

Unwilling, Gregorie tottered behind the Guardsman. Why the man would bring up the glorious battle of 1805 was beyond him. "What," he managed.

The Guardsman whirled. In the faded, obscured, moonlight, his features glowed and his lips peeled back. "You said you were there. Were you?"

"Yes," he wheezed. The snow beckoned him. All he had to do was lie down and shut his eyes, but the Guardsman wouldn't let him be.

"Where were you?" When Gregorie didn't instantly answer the man shouted, "Where?"

His memories came to him. Austerlitz. It was cold that day too. Gregorie had been placed on the left under the command of Lannes. They had faced down Russians then as well. "The left. I was on the left."

The Guardsman wrapped an arm around him, denying him the embrace of snow and death. The soldier's musket remained propped against his shoulder and he nodded. "Then you remember. You were alone. He was gone. He had left you."

He had! But that was different, Gregorie thought. The Emperor had placed them on a hill with a promise to return, to save them when things would be at their darkest. And on that day He had done just that. When the Russians were swirling around their position, when Lannes was waving his broken saber, and it seemed the end of glory was upon them, He had come. Gregorie smiled at the memory of happier days, of defeat transformed into triumph.

"Ahh, you remember. He came. I was there too, vulture. I stood in the center. Ranked up with the Emperor's best. We smiled down upon you as you held the enemy at bay. Fighting for your lives, with faith in us and Him. Remember?"

He did. "The sun," he gasped, "the sun was rising, and your shadows cast upon the ground. You were all so tall."

"The Russians and Austrians saw it too. They saw the Immortals and they fled. We had come and with us . . ." he trailed off.

"Him," Gregorie finished. He remembered the sight of the gray coat, the broad, bicorn hat. The Emperor rode along the Pratzen Heights as the Guardsman carried the day. Impending defeat had become a glory like no other. The Emperor had saved them! Gregorie felt a wave of guilt. He had preyed on men who had been there on that auspicious day. He had, like a vulture, waited for the Guardsman to die. He shook his head. "I am sorry. You are a better soldier than I." He forced himself to keep walking, trying to fend off the desire to sleep forever. Gregorie's head drooped and he stumbled. "But, I will march with a Guardsman and die with him."

He would die. The night was upon them and the merciless grip of winter would crush them both. Not even fond memories of past battles or newfound faith in the Emperor would prevent that. Gregorie sighed. It wasn't so bad. He would die a soldier.

"Look up."

Gregorie felt the Guardsman release him. Still, he marched forward.

"Look up, soldier," the man said from behind him.

Wearily, Gregorie looked up. Light! He could see a cluster of campfires and hear voices carrying on the crisp air. The Grand Army! There was not much left of it, but there was enough. Enough for one more soldier. "We're saved!"

"You are," the Guardsman agreed.

Gregorie turned to look at his savior. Soft light illuminated his pale form. Slowly, the Guardsman removed his coat and tossed it to Gregorie. "Take this," he said, "as a reminder. Remember. He has not left you. He is waiting for you. The days of glory will end one day, but not today, soldier."

Catching the heavy cloth, Gregorie nodded. "Yes. You have reminded me. I almost forgot myself out there. Come, friend, to the warmth of the Grand Army."

The Guardsman shook his head. "No. You will go. You will warm your bones and march again. I must go back. Back to the others." He turned around and walked away.

A gasp fled Gregorie's dry lips. He leapt back and clutched his chest. He had seen the wound on the Guardsman's chest, but now, without his coat on, he could see the grievous damage to his back. He could see splintered bones, a gaping hole, and far too much dried blood for any man to have lost and still live. He watched, mouth agape, as the figure trudged back into the featureless snow and darkness. Within moments he was gone.

From the darkness the Guardsman called out, "Long live the Emperor."

Blinking, Gregorie stepped back. He walked towards the firelight and the comrades whom he had so nearly lost. "Long live Napoleon," he whispered.

### END