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“Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.”

– Francis Bacon, Novum Organum, 1620

Countess

It didn’t care if you were human. What died in the forest stayed in the forest. Nothing went to waste. This was cold comfort to hesitant boots breaking virgin snow, rifles at the ready. Each man had only one shot – if it came to that. Frostbitten trigger fingers ached, threatening to fall off, but no one dared lift a finger from the frigid metal. They kept their rifles pointed at the trees. They were surrounded. They did not belong there. Some of them looked up to the heavens. Cold, black mountains tore into the sky with jagged shark’s teeth. Strips of icy white flesh hung between them. The mountains forced the snow towards the heavens but no warmth came; for most of the year, the Sun shunned them. Even the trees avoided them. Nothing lived there – the great silence. In the shadow of the mountain, the wind bothered cedars and pines. No comfort for birds. Never a chance for them to rest. Only a fool envies the lives of birds. They struggle to eat their own weight in food every day, in order to energize their never-ending flight from predators. With curiosity, combined with hopes of a free meal, the birds looked down upon the strangers trudging through the snow far below. From their perches hidden deep within the thick green, these strangers looked helplessly out-of-place – unprepared, vulnerable. Yes, a free meal may be in order.

Looking up towards the pines and cedars surrounding him, he failed to see the birds gathered to observe his progress with morbid interest, hopping from limb to limb. The man got used to the wind; it was the silence that disturbed him and his companions. When the wind died the imagination lived. He froze. A threat from every direction. A snapped twig – or a branch falling to the ground? The wind retreating, a bird, a squirrel – or something larger? He could not tell through the thick curtain of pines surrounding them. The stock set solid against his shoulder, feet firmly planted, he kept it cocked and pointed towards the green curtain. The sounds were getting louder now – drawing closer. The wind was approaching, pushing a wave of swaying green towards them – and something else. His finger provoked the trigger but to no avail. Neither his weapon or his cry could be heard. Dropping his rifle, he grasped his neck. It flowed down his chest, warm and thick. The last sounds he heard were the last nails banging into his coffin. A volley of nervous gun fire tore through him, its intended target now moved on to another victim. Within seconds, five men painted the snow red.

As the wind and snow tore around, the remaining survivors made a desperate attempt to form a circle. Another two men fell to the ground. Muskets flashed, men screamed – those who still had throats – and the blood flowed freely. The Captain, atop his horse, shielding his eyes from the sudden snow squall, ordered bayonets at the ready. Another five men sprayed crimson. No sooner had one soldier affixed his bayonet than he found it thrust through his abdomen, pinning him to the soldier frantically reloading behind him. Muskets flashed. One found its mark; it soon lay broken at the soldier’s feet, encircled by blood spurting from his carotid artery. The remaining soldiers, sensing no time to reload, made a valiant attempt at a charge. The Captain, trying vainly to steady his horse, pistol clenched and ready, caught a quick glimpse of the last of his company. Grasping their necks, they slowly sank into the impressionistic blend of white and crimson – the only reminder of the shortest battle the Captain had ever fought. His pistol exploded, more an act of sheer desperation than genuine defence. His horse ran off. The pistol lay in the snow, still smoking. His hand was still grasping it, the severed stump of his arm still pumping blood. The rest of him didn’t get too far. The horse was fine.

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