We charged up the embankment on the other side of the river.
A thick fog of smoke and dust drifted past us as we ran. I could hear the cavalry far off in the distance to my right. They were going to try and come in on the fortification from the rear. The Russians inside the fort opened fire. I heard some of my soldiers fall behind me, but I didn't look back. I just kept my sword raised high. I felt a few musket balls rip through my torso, but I ran on.
We reached the top of the mound. We started to fight the stubborn Russians hand to hand. All around me was sound. Yells of courage. Screams of pain. Grunts. Pleas. Russian. French. Smoke in the air. The smell of blood. Sulfur. My head was dizzy. There was fucking movement everywhere I looked. Hundreds of men fighting for their lives. Some losing. Some winning. I stood still, my hand still raised. I couldn't budge. Fierce, sharp human emotions all about me. Hitting me. Wave after wave. Fury. Pain. Anguish. Hate. It was... ecstasy.
A young Russian foot soldier pulled me out of my trance. His eyes were wide and full of terror. He launched the point of his bayonet at my chest. I jumped aside. He fell. I was about to move on when I felt him grab my legs. He was clawing at me. Pulling himself up. Trying to draw me down. His small hands clutched me, leaving his weapon lying there on the ground. He was spitting and clenching his teeth. He almost succeeded in knocking me over. He gurgled at the strain. His feet kept slipping in the mud. I reached down and pulled him up to me. Instantly his arms started to flail at me. He was on his knees. His chin on my chest. Leaning against me. His arms thrust forward. Swinging wildly. I remember his eyes. They were blank. Vacant. A dead man's look. He was mad. Mad with fury. I drew the knife from my belt and plunged it into his back. He froze and arced his body. He died instantly, as if he was just waiting for the strike before he could leave. He crumpled at my feet.
I got back my knife and walked away, leaving him lying there, looking more asleep than dead. I remember wondering who he'd been, where he was from, and why he fought like that. I never found out.
This battle lasted hours too. I wandered around in my brightly colored uniform. I killed Russians in my bliss. Once I even stepped between a French soldier and Russian soldier who were at each other's throats. I smashed both of their fucking skulls together. They fell dead in the mud, their arms entwined like lovers. I was Achilles- the invincible warrior challenging individual soldiers to duels.
And like Achilles, I always won.
I stepped on fallen companions and enemies. To me, in the middle of battle, they became only "humans." Not "French". Not "Russian." I crushed heads with my boots. I broke ribs with my fists. And I made sure there weren't any witnesses to any of this.
We finally secured the hill fortification. When our cavalry arrived, the Russian line fucking retreated again, as one, further back towards Moscow. Every Russian soldier who'd been ordered to hold his position was dead. The rest of the enemy's front lay only a few hundred feet off. My men were exhausted. I was too.
The Russian guns weren't silenced, however. I knew the men who'd charged the mound with me couldn't go on any further. Back to the new Russian line. It was around three in the afternoon, I think.
I was covered in blood and dirt. It was on my uniform, tangled in my hair, on my tongue and between my teeth. I ran to the top of the fort. Here I could look down on the battlefield. To the corpses that were still cluttering the valley. Above me cannonballs were still flying everywhere.
I looked toward the Russian line. They were amassed to the northeast. Thousands of peasants and veterans and Cossack warriors. But I saw something that surprised me and made me stop.
I saw the entire Russian line standing at attention. Shoulder to shoulder they were still and unmoving. From time to time, just as before, an artillery shell would fly far enough to reach them. It would land and explode. Body parts would fly everywhere. And when the dust settled once again, the neat lines of men would still be there.
I found out after the battle that thousands of Russian infantry died like this. At attention. Where they were ordered to stand. Later in the day, lives were saved when one of their generals ordered them just to fucking sit down.
I also found out that the Emperor refused at this time to commit his Old Guard to the fight. It was standing behind his camp as a reserve. With it, we could have fucking crushed the Russians with one final push.
I say we. Sorry.
The French could've crushed the Russians with one final push. He could've ended the war and captured the capitol by force.
Instead, he chose to delay. He wouldn't commit the Old Guard. His generals couldn't understand why. His men couldn't understand why. They shouted for the Guard up on the battlefield. But he didn't yield. In the end, his decision destroyed them. And himself.
The two armies stopped fighting when night fell. It was out of fucking exhaustion more than anything else. The guns finally fell silent. And the French had claimed a half-mile of land.
The Russians hadn't fled in panic at the size and might of the Grand Army. In fact, in their camps they rejoiced and claimed victory as well.
The Emperor toured the battlefield at dusk. As I said, I rode with him. So did the rest of his generals. Through the mounds of dead and dying bodies. French soldiers moaned and screamed for aid. Russians soldiers stifled their cries. They were now in enemy territory.
I dismounted and stooped down. A young Russian soldier lay dying against a mound of earth. He wasn't any more than eighteen. He gulped back blood. He clutched a small medallion on a silver chain in his bloody fingers. A bullet wound was ripped in his chest.
He recognized my uniform and startled. But I put a firm hand on his shoulder. He calmed a bit.
The Emperor turned in his saddle. He peered down at us.
I'll never forget the expression on his face. It wasn't disgust. He didn't have any hatred for the Russians. He'd given orders earlier that Russian casualties should be carried off the field at the same time as French ones. It wasn't compassion either. These two emotions would've been easy to understand. Easy to accept as fucking human failings or whatever. It... It was really an absence of emotion. Not calm, but a totally empty expression. The Russian soldier I was touching didn't matter. The carnage around him didn't matter. I wasn't even sure if the victory or the battle mattered. None of it did. It was all fucking meaningless to him.
Suddenly I understood why he hadn't committed the Old Guard.
Maybe deep down, he felt the defeat of Russia was justified and necessary. But his definition was his warfare- the battle, the strategy. The skill. When that stopped being important, there just wasn't anything left.
Only a short, ill-tempered Frenchman with a clogged bladder.
He turned and rode away. His generals followed, like silent obedient puppies. I was left alone with the dying Russian and a new fire that was starting to burn inside my chest.
I looked down into the boy's dirty face. He looked up at me. I couldn't sense any fear in him. He even attempted a smile before he started choking again.
I remembered the hundreds motionless as our cannon balls cut them down like pins.
I remembered the thousands standing at attention, keeping rank as artillery shells burst around them.
I remembered the hundreds of thousands lying dead on the small chunk of Mother Russia they were ordered to defend.
And now I saw this one boy soldier, bearing his pain in quiet suffering. Not a haughty dignity that would've overcome "Le Soldat Noble" if he'd escaped with a fucking bruised rib. This was calm courage. Sublime.
This young mortal was worth the fucking entire Grand Army.
I picked him up in my arms. He was very light. His eyes slid shut. Around the battlefield haggard volunteers were sifting through the corpses, half-heatedly trying to find survivors. I walked away from them. I walked south. Past the perimeter of the battlefield itself. It was growing dark and no one paid any attention to me. Soon I was miles away. I kept walking.
The young Russian died sometime on my trip. When I finally stopped, his limbs had already started to grow hard. I was alone. I set him down on the grass.
I searched around for some sticks. There was a grove of trees nearby. I made a small mound and lit a fire, using the tinderbox on my belt. I undressed the young body. When the flames were roaring, I put him on the pyre, naked and heroic.
I also burnt my French uniform.
I sat there until dawn, thinking. Although, I'd really made my decision as soon as I'd seen the face of the fucking Emperor. The soldier's body burned and withered into a stinking black shell. I slid into his torn Russian uniform as the sky came alive above the surrounding hills. I started to make my way towards the area where I hoped the remains of the Russian army would be found retreating.
I caught up with a band of snipers. I invented a story about becoming separated from my unit during the battle. They were willing to label me a deserter, or a spy, until I showed them my skill with a musket. And that was how I finally got to be a soldier in the Russian army.
In their rustic language, the snipers told me the main line had pulled back even closer to Moscow. The prospect of another immediate battle, and the Emperor's fresh Old Guard, had made the decision. The fucking Emperor would probably be on the march as soon as he learned this. It was now our job to harass his flanks.
And harass we did. It wasn't something I particularly liked. I'd become what I fought in Spain. But every time I squeezed the trigger, my barrel pointed at a blue, red and white uniform, I smiled. With every French death, I was inching the Emperor ever closer to defeat. And that was all he fucking deserved now...