It was a lonely night, not a living soul in sight. The breath-stealing air sighed occasionally with a frigid gust of wind, but beyond that all was still. Naught but the cold light of the stars gave illumination to the world that night. All was quiet. The snow-covered plain seemed an idyllic picture of beauty, all natural purity and blissful stillness, and so it was. However, in the midst of the untouched, tranquil beauty, there was a single, weary dissenter to nature’s decree of silence and stillness.
It was a man.
It was a man, tall of stature and wide of frame, marching wearily in the God-forsaken night. This man, the lone figure in the snow, trudged doggedly onward, his boots sinking slightly into the thin shell of ice that crackled and groaned beneath his weight, threatening to drop his tired body into the depths of the snow beneath. The man’s broad shoulders swayed perceptibly as he walked, his body’s fatigue growing more than his formidable will could bear, but still he pressed on.
The man’s face, a blank mask betraying neither emotion nor thought, was frozen in a tired grimace beneath a thin pair of cracked spectacles. ‘Don’t stop…’ he urged his body silently, ‘Just a little further… Just a little further…’ The man continued to lift his leaden legs, and place a single foot ahead of the other, just as he had for the countless hours since his regiment had been scattered to the winds.
It had all gone so horribly wrong. The campaign was to be a simple affair, an attempt to expand the power of the Swedish Crown, but how had such a seemingly infallible plan fallen so easily to ruin? The man felt his thoughts wander back to the past as his feet staggered along the lonely path of the snow, a thin path of reddened snow trailing behind him.
It had been a frigid morning, the sort of cold that made the thought of warmth a distant memory. The air was still, but the soldier recalled it biting like the sharp blade of a knife. Mornings like that had become almost routine, normal in fact. He remembered gazing out over the regiment, observing how each of the soldiers had supplemented their usual uniforms—heavy, royal blue overcoats accented with a single sash of gold—with mufflers, mittens, blankets, anything to keep in precious body heat from the clawing cold. It was a strange sight. The proudly uniformed army, indefatigable and unconquerable, victors of innumerable campaigns, was shivering quietly underneath homespun, rustic wrappings. They looked neither intimidating nor imposing, the soldier remembered. In that brief moment, the men ceased to be soldiers. No longer were they men of the Swedish Army: they were husbands, brothers, fathers, sons, lovers, all bearing little tokens of warmth from their loved ones.
The soldier remembered looking out among his fellow warriors—men whom he had fought alongside for months and had grown to love as brothers—and suddenly feeling as though he was a stranger, ostracized and apart from their camaraderie. The soldier gazed sadly at the boiled wool blanket he slept on each night, a standard piece of equipment on these cold campaigns, which he had wrapped around his neck like a scarf. It was a pitiable excuse to what the other soldiers possessed. For they each sought solace, not in a piece of unfeeling equipment made by a stranger, but in something warm and reassuring made by the hands of a loved one.
There was an ache, a longing sort of envy, the soldier experienced that morning. Unlike his fellow men, he had no one back at home waiting for him; he had no token to remember a dear someone by. He had fought bravely in battle, and won many a compliment from his commanding officers, but neither of those things even touched the quiet, puerile longing in his heart.
For a moment, the soldier brushed his hand over the blanket covering his mouth and nose. Indulging himself in a warm fantasy, he imagined his worn and tattered gloves caressing a warm muffler. He felt the coarse, toughened wool fade slowly into smooth, softened yarn. He could feel the gentle rise and fall of the ribbed pattern of knots beneath his wind-chapped hands, soft and delicate, like a lamb’s ear. He could imagine the ghost of the little hands that had carefully assembled that knitted wrap lying intertwined in the yarn, whispering of the love put into it. And for a brief moment, the soldier smiled, encased in the warmth of his imaginings.
However, the call to arms sounded across the camp, dragging the soldier from his warm reverie. The soldier readied himself obediently, his face blank and unfeeling, but his mind was not on the battle ahead. As he prepared for the march, he couldn't help but fall back into his earlier musings. As the field drew nearer and nearer, the man’s thoughts were solely of an imagined scarf, one that would warm him body and soul, for which he silently yearned.
The man felt his legs quivering as he stumbled forward, desperately attempting to continue his unending trek. Hours of ceaseless marching were taking their toll. Already the iron-clad will of the soldier was beginning to falter as his strength seeped slowly into the cold, night air. In his fatigue, the soldier saw nothing before him or behind him: not the snow at his feet, not the stars in the sky, not the few blonde hairs that drooped past his brows. His glassy eyes gazed unseeingly as he willed his legs onward, each step a conscious act. He felt his body sway drunkenly as it begged to stop, to lie down and sleep, but the soldier knew he could not allow this. To sleep now was to die. He had to press on for even the slightest hope of survival.
But each step was growing heavier and heavier, and his body continued to protest this hopeless venture. ‘So tired…so tired…’
There was the inevitable chaos of battle: shouts, cries, smoke, blood, drums, sweat, fear, panic, fury, combined in the becoming all-too-familiar nightmare of murder and survival.
There was the rush of primal blood that came in the heat of the nightmare.
There were the images of men shot, stabbed, bleeding, dying, all by the soldier’s hand.
There was the glorious sound of the enemy’s retreat.
There was the commanding officer’s cry to pursue.
There was the inhuman lust for blood the soldiers succumbed to as they raced across the red-stained snow.
There were the enemy soldiers running toward the woods.
There was their sudden halt.
There was their abrupt about-face, all fear gone from the enemy’s eyes.
There was one man--a fox-faced, shifty-eyed individual--uttering a single word in his harsh, native tongue, a triumphant smirk upon his face.
There was the cold stone of dread that formed in the soldier’s stomach as he heard that single syllable. They had fallen for the trap, hook, line, and sinker.
There were the cries, the shouts that came from everywhere and nowhere.
There were the rocks, the trees, the snow, spewing enemy soldiers onto the once-empty field.
There was the soldier’s desperate slashing and bludgeoning with his musket, attempting to ward off his assailants.
There was a blow to his chin, a lurch at his arm, and suddenly, the familiar weapon disappearing from the soldier’s grasp.
In the panic, everything had devolved into a flurry of movement and screaming, men fighting and dying in a tempest of sound, smell, and heat.
He remembered blood, pain—a howling pain in his lower back.
He remembered the desperate cry of retreat in the midst of the tempest of blood and terror. The soldier had no weapon, no chance of victory, and no hope of survival, so he ran.
He ran as the tails of his uniform grew damp and heavy with his hot blood. He ran, he ran, and he ran. He ran until the pounding in his ears ceased and the clawing, choking gasps of fear faded.
He remembered stopping, panting for breath as he rested his hands on his knees. As he regained his breath, he had begun to tear strips of his blanket to bind his wounded back which throbbed in time with his gasping lungs. For a moment, he had wondered why the rest of the men were not nearby. Surely the rest would have beaten him back to camp.
The soldier looked up from his bandages, only to have cruel reality dawn upon him with a horrible realization: The soldier had not run toward camp; he had run into the open plains, beyond even sight of the trees for guidance. The soldier remembered the fear he felt as he gazed forward, backward, all around, looking for some clue to his whereabouts or the regiment’s. There were none.
The soldier remembered the horrible clarity with which he finally understood his predicament. He was lost in the winter plains of Finland with no weapons, no food, an injured back, and no idea where help could be found. Worst of all, the last few rays of daylight were rapidly fading beneath the horizon.
‘Stop!’ his body wailed as he tottered forward slowly, his energy all but spent. ‘Stop!’ it begged, pleading for respite. The soldier took another faltering step forward, his head hanging low to his chest, exhausted and utterly spent. He could not think of anything else but of how he wished to stop and relieve his aching body of this torment. The man had no will to go on. He had no strength, no drive, no fortitude left. As he attempted to take another weary step forward, the soldier’s body finally gave up. His knees folded beneath him like wet string, and he fell into the hard-packed snow with a grunt mixed with both pain and relief.
The man lay sprawled in the snow, bearing a crude resemblance to a child’s snow angel. His legs, his feet, his hands, his arms, he could feel none of them. He felt only exhaustion. Blearily, the soldier noticed something strange about the snow. It wasn't cold as he had expected; it was warm, like a quilt warmed by the fireplace. The soldier was surprised, but not unpleasantly so. It had been so cold during his long march that he found this pleasant feeling of great comfort. As the warmth invaded his limbs, the soldier could feel his eyes slowly closing.
‘Just a little rest…’
It seemed that the purity of nature’s stillness had been restored as the man fell silently into the snow, the chill wind stealing what little warmth the exhausted soul retained. It seemed the man would die as he had lived: alone and lonely.
So it seemed.
However, the stillness of the night, the loneliness, was not destined to last.
The warm, soft light of a lantern—in stark contrast to the cold, distant light of the stars—suffused the night with a cheery, hopeful warmth. Dancing along the shards of light, two shadows lay extended upon the snow, a pair of figures that seemed giant-like in the light’s impish exaggeration. To look upon these shadows, one would think a large, two-headed troll or maybe even some great Frost Giant with its beast attendant had come to visit the darkened earth. However, as the light’s source drew closer, it became clear that the two wanderers were merely a laughing, bright-eyed young maiden bundled from head to foot against the winter chill with a small reindeer—barely rising past the young woman’s knees--led close behind by a leather thong draped loosely about its neck.
The maiden, holding the lantern high to illuminate the pathway, was chatting animatedly with the reindeer behind her, alternating from a sharp chiding to a sweet crooning in equal and rapid succession. The shaggy-furred beast plodded obediently along, occasionally reaching its lips out to nibble on the trailing edge of her cornflower-blue cloak, as if trying to offer an apology.
Laughing, the maiden wagged a mittened finger playfully at the little deer in a forgiving reprimand. “No, no, Orvokkikala,” she chuckled as she tugged the cloth from the young hind’s velvet-soft lips. “Don’t try to butter me up.”
The deer lowered its antlered head, a look of shame within its dewy black eyes. “You know better than to run away like that,” the maiden chastised gently as she gazed at the contrite deer. “It’s a miracle I even found you.” Her voice had softened to a fearful murmur as she continued to speak to the deer. “You know how cold it gets here at night. Had I not found you, who knows what could have--“ The smiling woman turned her head back to the path, her lips parted as if to say something else to her little companion. Her words died on her lips as she gasped at the sight before her.
Lain across the snowy path, was a man, inert and unmoving.
In frantic haste, the young woman dashed over to the man’s side, urging the reindeer to follow at a brisk trot. Her round eyes grew wide with fear, but her feet worked quickly and with purpose. How long had he been lying here, she wondered? A few seconds? A few days? The maiden knew not, but she feared from the stillness of the man that it had been too long.
Muttering prayers under her breath, the maiden knelt beside the prone man, feeling desperately with her clumsy, mittened hands for a heartbeat.
‘His face,’ she thought fearfully as her fingers fumbled across his chin, ‘it’s like ice.’
Breath bated, the frantic maiden placed her hand over his neck and felt. Fearfully, she waited. For a few moments, she could feel nothing. The young maiden’s round face fell as her fingers felt only stillness.
‘Please,’ she pled her mind frantic with worry, ‘please let him live.’
In that moment, she felt something beating faintly beneath her fingertips. For a moment, she thought she had imagined it. However, the weak throbbing of the frozen man’s vein continued, much to the young woman’s relief. He was still alive, but only just.
A quick sigh of relief was replaced only by another burst of frantic movement. She had to warm the stranger up, and quickly, lest he freeze completely. Coaxing the reindeer nearer, the young woman began to shake the man roughly, shouting for him to awaken. But the man remained as frozen and unresponsive as the snow around him.
For the briefest of moments, the young woman looked over the titanic frame of the man before her and felt a moment of helplessness. He was nearly twice her height, and likely almost three times her weight. How was she ever to move him? A flower could sooner lift a bear than she could carry him.
Fingering the hood of her cloak nervously, the maiden paced nervously, occasionally muttering her thoughts aloud to the silent night air. For the second time that day, she felt a tug on the trailing edge of her cloak. Exasperated, she whirled around with every intention to chastise the erring deer. However, when she opened her mouth to yell at the deer, she noticed the pale-blue cloak held over the hulking man’s body. It was just as long as he was, maybe slightly shorter. An idea came upon her suddenly, and her eyes grew bright with hope.
Untying the strings about her neck, the young woman quickly pulled off the long, warm cloak and placed it next to the man. Ignoring the harsh bite of the wind, she began to turn the man over onto his back. She huffed and groaned with effort, her boots slipping in the snow as she tried to gain leverage. Slowly, the man’s shoulder began to rise slightly under her. Hopeful, the maiden continued to push. With a small thud, the man finally laid face-up upon the cloak. A small groan escaped his lips as he landed.
With a start, the maiden jumped back in fear, but the man made no more noise. He merely continued to breathe lightly, the rise and fall of his chest the only indication that he still lived.
With renewed hope, the maiden took the leather lead of the deer and the edges of her cloak and tied the two together as her hands shivered lightly. She carefully looped the two under the reindeer’s chest, so as not to choke her and to maximize her strength.
The maiden offered a quick prayer under her breath as she tied the final knot, testing its strength. “Please, please let this work.”
Standing before the deer, she beckoned it forward with the lantern. “Come, Orvokkikala,” she crooned desperately. She had no idea if this plan would work, but it was the only hope for this man. With a gentle grunt, the deer strained itself against the snow and ever-so-slowly began to pull the makeshift sleigh.
Overjoyed, the maiden urged the reindeer onward, the lantern-light illuminating the path before them. The warm fractals of light spread over the glistening plain, creating a path toward safety and warmth. As she glanced carefully back to the frozen man, the maiden’s face grew firm with resolve. With steps firm and sure, she raised the lantern high and allowed the light to suffuse the darkness. She strode forward, urging the reindeer forward with renewed vigor and vehemence as they walked the final miles of their journey.