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Stone Soup Prologue

A work in progress.  Looking forward to your comments.



The clanking of steel treads, muffled in the snowy forest, were lost in the grumble and growl of tank engines until, one by one, the tanks of the column finally came to a complete halt.  Within moments, tendrils of heavy smoke, rising from damp wood, smeared against the overcast sky.  Infantrymen built fires against the cold as the little sunlight available throughout the day quickly faded and temperature dropped with each passing moment.  Through mist and occasional snowflakes, dim shapes moved among the trees as cold, wet, exhausted soldiers sought what comfort and relief they could find. 

A sharp wind sent snow drifting and swirling across an expanse of farmland adjacent to the woods.  Here and there a small rise or fence-row or stone on the rolling steppe would create a barrier against blowing snow.  Aberrations in elevation drew snowflakes like magnets and everywhere such aberrations were found, drifts grew from them like blossoms of ice, flowering across the Russian landscape.  The transforming wind sculpted, shaped and drove the drifts over the vast waste and the terrain changed before the eyes of weary Panzergrenadiers who followed the tanks to the outskirts of Moscow.  Sometimes it seemed the snowdrifts moved with minds of their own.   

In fact, some of the drifts defied the laws of physics.  They moved into the wind, drifting closer and closer to the edge of the forest.   Then they would remain static with no movement at all even in the face of the strongest gusts. 

Sharp eyes would have noted this but there were no sharp eyes in the Panzer column.  Those dull eyes sought only firewood, a likely place to shelter against a night that promised bitter cold and misery.  Those eyes sought respite, sleep, a chance to recover from a grueling ten-hour push that covered so little ground it hardly seemed worth the effort.  Tired and hungry, the soldiers engaged in the same conversations such men had been having since the days of the Roman conquerors, of Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan; the conversations such miserable men have always held among themselves when they are in a foreign country and unaware that, for some, their last moments are but seconds away. 

* * *

In the frozen field, one willful snowdrift moved ever so slightly, pushed not by wind but by deadly purpose.  Beneath a heavy white cloak, a rifle barrel, wrapped in white cloth, slowly emerged and steadied; on the rifle, a scope and, behind the scope, one hard gray eye, cold as the Russian winter.