We fell upon Moscow like hungry dogs. Three hundred thousand men, blackened by months of snow bite and battle smoke; hungry for rations, clean water and any woman we could find. And when we found them, we guzzled them down, threw them aside, and went hunting for more.
We had destroyed the Russian army at Smolensk, sweeping across the Dnieper River on bridges we built under cover of darkness. Pushing through the town in the pre-dawn light, we had engaged the enemy forces while they sat with trousers around their ankles and their morning shit still warm in their bellies. That would have been enough for most of us. We were exhausted, bloodied and starving. Our supply lines had been uncertain for weeks. Now here we were, in an unscarred city with stores large enough to keep us fed and warm for months. But the Little Corporal had other plans. We barely stopped long enough to fill our canteens before he was forming us up again in the city square, striding up and down a platform erected for the purpose, calling on our honour and urging us on to one last, glorious push.
We groused, and moaned. We were, after all, Les Grognards, the old guard, the ones who had a voice. But he stared down at us with a grin on his face, and raised his arms to the thousands who stood behind us.
“You hear?” he cried. “The grumblers are happy! They allow us to share in their joy. And if they can be so cheerful, how can we simple soldiers do other than join them in their happiness? Stride onwards, my friends, and let us give our grumblers the blissful death they so desire!”
So he made us laugh, and laughed with us, and he had us again, the bastard. We would march for him, and fight for him, and die for him, and we all knew it. And so we trudged on, through snow-lost terrain that we crushed beneath our boots, and villages we treated the same way. When we came upon the remaining Russian troops outside the village of Borodino we smashed through their unprepared central lines like lions through paper walls, and gorged ourselves on mayhem and murder. This was not the pretty warfare of my youth, with armies formed up in quadrants and battalions, and the order of proceedings known to all. This was a new kind of conflict, where Generals slogged through the mud next to their subordinates, and where the press of bodies and screams of hatred waited for no orders. This was the war of the desperate, the filthy, the hateful. We were its masters. We bared our teeth at Russian throats, and drove ourselves like bayonets through any armour that dared oppose us. And our Emperor was amongst his troops, no noble diplomat jousting words with perfumed monarchs but a screaming, slavering animal with sword and unsheathed claws like the rest of us, slashing his way forward inch by muddy inch alongside the men who worshipped him. He killed Kutuzov, the Russian General, himself, scrambling through a protective cordon to drive the point of his sword underneath the older man’s jaw so that the point snapped off inside his skull. I was next to him when it happened. I saw the blood in his eyes. They were mirrors to my own. We stormed through the Russian positions until not an enemy breath was heard, and the surviving Russian Generals came in from their wings to kneel in the snow before our Emperor and beg him to bring it to an end.
We looked over their heads, past the field of dead men, and saw the road to Moscow open. And our roar shook the walls of the world.
Moscow was unprotected, and unprepared. Nothing would stop us.
News travels faster than armies. With the Russian forces destroyed, time was now our enemy. If the Tsar and his ministers were to hear of our victory before we could surround them, they would desert Moscow and all we would gain was an empty City. Walls and windows were merely possessions. To win his war, our master needed to capture people. But if we could get there first, while the shifty Byzantine and his lapdogs still believed themselves protected by the corpses that lay under our feet, we could seize the City, its populace and its Government. The Tsar would have no time to flee to the capital. He would be trapped, and the soul of Russia with him. The country would be ours: not just its body but its heart and head as well. Once again we formed up, and this time we needed no impassioned speeches to drive us onwards. We smelled victory. He simply pointed us in the right direction and loosed our leash.
A good army, and we were the best army in the world, might march thirty miles in a day, provided the ground was clear, and the weather fine, and it was well-rested and without hunger or thirst. In the filth of a Russian winter: starving; parched; beset by illness and injury, a lesser army would be lucky to make five or ten through the drifts that sunk us hip-deep in bitter, clinging cold. But we were Napoleon’s lions. We made fifteen on the first day, almost twenty on the second. News might travel fast, but it needs messengers to carry it. We left no-one alive to precede us, and by the time the citizens of Moscow realised that the wave of soldiers approaching its walls was not Kutozov’s army coming home in joyous victory, we had them surrounded, and escape was impossible.
We brought forward the bodies of their Generals, and laid them before the city gates, just outside the range of the rifles lining the tops of the walls. The Tsar Alexander himself rode with the party that sallied out to collect them. Napoleon was waiting. They spoke, and Alexander wheeled away, and our Little Corporal came back towards us, smiling a wolf smile.
“Prepare the siege,” he shouted, and his Generals strode away to their regiments to issue orders. The countryside would be scavenged to within inches of ruin. Farms would be seized, farmers turned out or enslaved. Nearby woods would be levelled to feed fires, and build encampments. Moscow would be ringed with steel and starvation.
We had seen sieges before. They were ugly, hateful things, but they opened walls like water grinding away a rock. There was only one side to be on: the outside, and that was where we stood. Napoleon turned towards us.
“My Grognards,” he said. “My immortals.”
We stiffened, drew ourselves further to attention. He swept us with his gaze: such a small man, surrounded by his grizzled timber, not one of us less than six feet in height, each bearing the scars of service, of age, and of loyalty. I saw his arm twitch, the hand tucked inside his coat to hide the damage that frostbite had caused. Another reason why we loved him: if we were scarred by our years of war, then so was he. Perhaps he saw my stare, because he turned his eyes upon me.
“I know you, do I not?”
My chest expanded until I felt my ribs creak.
“Ah, of course.” He nodded. “You were with me at Marengo, yes?”
I gaped. It had been twelve years since the Battle of Marengo. A different country, different enemies, more than fifty thousand men on the battlefield. But he knew my face. I had loved my Emperor for twelve years. I loved him all the more now.
“A fine day, Toupin. A fine day. You remember how we made Melas run, Toupin?”
I smiled a soldier’s smile. “Like a rabbit towards its hole, my Emperor.”
He laughed at that, a lion’s bark that echoed across the frozen ground. “A rabbit! Yes, Toupin, yes! A rabbit.” He shook his head, chuckled to himself, then raised his eyes to me once more, all mirth gone, only business upon his face.” Fetch me nine men, Toupin. You at their head. I have work for you.”
“Sir! Yes, sir!”
Then he was gone, into the tent that had been erected for him, its canvasses flapping in the wind that battered us from all sides. And I turned away, to be surrounded by my troop mates, and deal with their demands for inclusion as best I could.
A siege is a war of attrition. Each side bets its resources and will against that of the other. It is a game of mathematics, of stacking numbers gained against those lost, and tallying the costs in weeks, days, and hours. It is also a war against the weather. In summer we could wait for Moscow’s food and water to run out, for disease and civil unrest to act against the populace. Eventually, the people would defeat themselves. But in winter we were at the mercy of the same forces: food was not plentiful, disease and injury were not only hurried on by the cold but caused by it, and months of inaction would destroy morale more quickly than any battle. We might have the Muscovites cornered, but this was a trap that could destroy us both. We needed a second assault, a way to breach the walls. Nobody was Napoleon’s equal when it came to the secret battles hidden within the heart of all conflict. Nobody saw more deeply under the skin of war. And while we may have won the surface battles, he was already thinking of those beneath, and how they may be won.
There were a quarter of a million people living in Moscow. Not all of them were Russian.
“Frenchmen, Toupin,” he exclaimed when I took my little troop to see him. “There are Frenchmen in the City. Hiding, I’ll wager. Sealed inside houses, or businesses, or crouched in dark corners. Anywhere they can escape the attentions of the locals.” He waved his hands at the stone walls outside his tent. “The hungrier they get, the angrier they’ll become. And when they can’t strike at us, they’ll find the next best thing.”
I frowned, taking in his meaning. “You want to rescue them, sir?”
“Better.” He allowed us a thin smile. “An army cannot breach those walls with anything less than bombardments and siege engines. But a single man, or two or three, might find a way. No wall is airtight, Toupin. Find me a way in, and find me a Frenchman.”
So we set to work. Ten soldiers, men of rifle and shot, of bayonets and charges. Now we became engineers and spies, negotiators and surveyors. Endlessly prowling our lines, talking to anyone with an experience beyond soldiering, pulling men out of their regiments to sneak forward under the cover of night. Probing and prodding and scraping away at the walls of the city, scratching away at its surface while the Russians shot at our exposed heads and our soldiers returned fire, not caring whether we were under the line of their aim. We picked and poked and pried and pestered, working our way right round the city and back again, like fleas vainly looking for blood on the carcass of some long-dead animal. And finally, after a week, we found what we were looking for: an old drainage hole, three-quarters buried beneath generations of silt and shit, home to wiry bushes that camouflaged it from the outside world. But we were the most devout gleaners, my hand-picked crew and I. Slowly we dug the hole out, working carefully to keep the surrounding snow drifts and vegetation in place so that our efforts could go unobserved. Three terror-filled nights with files and hasps, rubbing away at the rotten bars that gridded the hole, saw us through. It only remained for somebody fearless to wriggle down the pitch black, winding pipe, praying with every inch gained that he would not find sharpened bayonets waiting at the far end, or the pipe would not narrow and trap him forever. Evade all that, we hoped, and he would be inside the City.
There was one man bolder than any other, and nobody had the courage to deny him. Nobody but a grumbler. He came to the site in the early hours, before dawn began to stain the horizon, stripped of his ornate uniform and medals. He was small without them, diminished, as there was only an ordinary man hiding beneath the fabric of the Emperor’s clothes. When I refused to let him kneel down and slide into the hole, he very quietly, and with great care, exploded.
“I am your Emperor. You will do as I command.”
“You are my Emperor. And you are also commander to this entire army. What will half a million men do if you are captured in there, or worse, killed?”
His finger was a tiny, yellowed bayonet, stabbing into my chest as he enunciated every word. “I will not suffer myself to be ordered about. You will obey me or you will be dealt with.”
Even kneeling, as we were, I towered over him. I was unmoved.
“I have sworn to protect you, and protect you I shall, even to my death. That was my oath. Even if my death is at your hand, I will protect you.”
He glared from me, to the hole I blocked, and back.
“And what will you do,” he asked slowly, “if I gain entrance, hm? Follow me to make sure I stay protected?”
I stared at him for long seconds. There was only one answer I could give, and he knew it.
“Yes,” I said, and squared my shoulders. I had only one form of resistance left. “If you gain entrance.”
He smiled up at me, and held out his hand. Someone filled it with two daggers. He tucked one into his waistcoat, and placed the other on the ground at his knee, hilt towards me.
“Stand aside, Toupin.”
I looked at the knife in his hand. I could pick mine up, and he might consider that treason, or he might consider it I sign that I intended to follow him. Or I could leave it where it lay, and he would definitely consider it betrayal, at the very least. He saw that I understood the trap that he had laid, and let his hands rest on his legs. Eventually, I dropped my head, and shuffled to the side. He grinned, and dove into the hole.
“Come on, then.”
Sighing, I picked up my dagger and followed him.
We emerged into a world on the edge of ruin. After two weeks under siege, Moscow was beginning to turn upon itself. Supplies were still plentiful: a city of 250 000 people has stores that can survive a winter with minimal replenishment, and drinking water was as close as a scooped handful of the snow that blanketed every surface. But being trapped, no matter how little that entrapment changed everyday life, works strange magics upon a city’s soul. Walls that once offered protection now loomed over everyone’s line of sight like the silent bars of a cage. Guards who were once the pride of the populace were now a reminder of impotence and empty faith. Meals, entertainments, family, all the things that once livened the existence of Moscow’s citizens were now traitors to survival, sucking away precious food and fuel and energy. In the early days, before the food runs out and starvation makes mad men of everyone, it is not the presence of the siege that gnaws holes in a person’s mind. It is the fear of not knowing when it will end, and the sure knowledge that neither surrender nor victory is a guarantee against slow, terrible death.
We crawled out of the drain, smeared head to toe in filth, and found ourselves at the rear of an alleyway piled high with broken furniture, smashed bottles, and household garbage. We bent to rub snow over our faces and through our hair in an effort to clean ourselves as best we could, and surveyed our meagre surroundings.
“Public services,” Napoleon noted. “Always the first thing to fall away.”
He was right. We had seen it before. I had entered enough cities after sieges had done their work not to be surprised. Duty rang strongly in many sectors of public life, but rarely in civil administrators. Soldiers were tied to their posts by a love of country greater than any distraction, but civilians were weakened by thoughts of home, and family, and possessions. When faced with losing such things, civilians deserted their posts to a man. Better to be a soldier, and die for honour, than hide with children and feel your heart sicken inside your chest. We slicked down our hair, tried not to sniff the stink on each other, and snuck towards the open end of the alley.
“Where to?” I asked, scanning the street beyond. It was deserted, Muscovites huddling inside their homes to escape the bitter cold of night. The Emperor ducked his head around the corner and surveyed the empty avenue.
“Which way to the centre of the City?”
“That way.” I pointed to our right. The street curved away from the wall, following a line of houses down towards a small square, a frozen-over fountain at its centre. Somewhere in the distance would be the great plazas, the golden domes of the Kremlin, and the Tsar. But this was a meaner section of the City, filled with grubby grocery stores and chipped cobblestones. Napoleon nodded and stepped out onto the snow-brushed street.
Cautiously, like cats touring the night, we slipped from street to street, ducking into shadowed doorways to avoid the patrols that slunk past us without so much as glancing from the road beneath their feet. After an hour we had met not a single civilian, and found ourselves at the corner of a much grander boulevard than those we had wandered. The Emperor stood with his chin in his hand, examining first one direction, then the other. I tugged at his sleeve, and he shrugged me off.
“Not now, Toupin.”
“Yes, now.” I tugged harder, and did not let go when he made to extricate himself. He turned on me.
“What is it?”
Over to the east, beyond the crowded lines of roofs, the sky was beginning to lighten.
“Dawn,” I said. We stood staring for long moments. I could see calculations skittering across Napoleon’s face. Light would mean the resumption of the daily routine, bringing Muscovites out of their houses. It might be easier to locate a Frenchman, and interrogate him to learn how to breach the walls en masse, but two shit-coated strangers who spoke no Russian between them would not evade capture long enough to find one. In the end, he shook his head like a wet dog, and gestured back the way we had come.
“Tomorrow night,” he said. “We return then, and make for richer quarters.”
We scurried back to our bolt hole, and slithered back to the waiting army. We had invaded Moscow, if only for one night. The next time, we would conquer it.
In the end, we never found a resident Frenchman. His curiosity sated, and his bravado established far enough that the official accounts could be suitably embellished, the Little Corporal retired to his tent and his perfumed bath and let Les Grognards take over the task of slithering through the breach. Without having to bow to his whims we were able to infiltrate the city in military order. We soon located an abandoned warehouse hard up against the wall, from which vantage point we could sally forth each night and observe the guard activity surrounding the nearby gates. Within twenty four hours we had two dozen men inside the building, and an observation post tucked high on a roof between two chimneys, hidden from view and as warm as it was possible to get in such a city. And three nights after that, with the rest of our companions forming the sharpened point of the invading spearhead outside, we took our moment.
There is strength in numbers, and there were, perhaps, fifty men within the square before the gate. Our advance cohort may even have taken them: the odds were little worse than two to one and we had the element of surprise. But we had something greater then numbers. We had mystery. So we brought three dress uniforms in through the pipe, and washed and dried them to some semblance of respectability. Dressed as befitted the representative of the greatest army in Europe, I strode into the square with two compatriots by my side. When the shouts of alarm went up and the muskets swung towards us I raised my hands in an amused shrug, and smiled at the terrified faces before me.
“My friends,” I said, hoping that someone amongst them spoke French. “Do you really think I’d walk out here like this if you weren’t already dead men?”
Perhaps my meaning was clear. Perhaps it was just the sight of three fully armed French soldiers appearing out of the darkness behind them, and the knowledge that the only safe quadrant they had in the world was safe no more. Whatever it was, one of the soldiers immediately sprinted away, and in moments returned with someone whose uniform and bearing marked him out as an officer. He stepped in front of us, and eyed us warily.
“I am Sub-Lieutenant Aptekar,” he said in halting French. “Tell me why I should not shoot you down where you stand.”
I saluted, and introduced myself. “Sir,” I said, showing him all due respect. “There are three hundred thousand troops camped outside your gates. How many do you think are already inside?”
“Don’t insult me, soldier.” He thrust his face into mine, but I maintained my stance. I was a grumbler, addressing a superior officer and a gentleman. The burden of etiquette lay with him. The power was all mine.
“Sir. I mean no insult, sir. I ask you this one thing.” I leaned forward, and murmured so that only he could hear. “Who are you defending with your life, friend? If we have to sneak in, then we will fight from street to street, and it is so hard to tell enemy from civilian under those circumstance. Have you fought in the streets, before, friend? Everybody is an enemy. Men, women, children. Uniforms no longer count. But if we march through the gates, like an army should?” I shrugged. “There are rules to occupation. Rules of honour. An army the surrenders is treated properly, as soldier to soldier.”
He hissed. “You expect me to betray my country? You think I will open the gate and let you invade, just because you have the balls to whisper threats of invasion in my ear?”
I straightened, and indicated the men to my side. My meaning was clear. He might be able to see three of us, but who knew how many hundreds of similarly dressed men hid in the dark, waiting to see which way the negotiations went? We grumblers are chosen for our service, our strength, and our height. To hungry men, filthy and cold and desperately frightened, we must have looked like giants. “Sub-Lieutenant Aptekar,” I said, with all the sympathy I could muster. “You are already invaded.”
He stared at us for what felt like the rest of my life. One word, and I would lie dead upon the cobbles. Finally, he blew out his cheeks.
“I will not open those gates,” he said, eyeing me. I resisted the temptation to run for the shadows behind. I would not make three steps before I died. I had made my play. I would accept its failure. Before me, Aptekar bit his lower lip, and came to a decision. “But I will not be here when they are opened.”
He turned away from us, and yelled something to his men. A brief argument broke out. Angry gestures were exchanged, curses spat in our direction. I understood none of it, but I watched as the Sub-Lieutenant took control of his men, shouting down those who argued and bullying the rest until they lined up before him, and one by one, were dismissed, to go running off into the night. At last, only we three and Aptekar remained. He turned to me.
“Your honour as a soldier.”
I matched his gaze.
“My honour as a Frenchman.”
“Gah.” He spat on the ground at my feet. “We are here because of the honour of Frenchman.” And with that he was gone. I eyed my compatriots in silence for long moments. Then, with a whoop, we ran forward and released the gate.
We formed up in the great square in front of the Kremlin, fifty thousand soldiers in various states of disarray, our blue and white uniforms that had once gleamed so brightly now little more than tattered, patched rags. We stood in silence, partly through discipline, partly through awe at the sight of the great madman’s cake of a building before us, its golden cross staring down like Christ himself was judging our endeavours. Throughout the city another two hundred thousand French soldiers strode along unfamiliar streets, goggling at the bright-painted domes and spires, and the lengths of gilded chains that connected them like some giant, glittering spider web. Faces gawked at us from behind sealed windows, and quickly slipped away whenever we turned our heads. Somewhere amongst them were Aptekar and his men, I knew: hiding; silent; nestling the black sliver of betrayal within their chests. But alive. Moscow was a city of gold and silver, of jewels and exotic mysteries. And now it was French. We had slaked ourselves on Russian wine, and Russian food, and Russian women and now, three days later, we were ready to assume ownership.
At the head of the steps stood a single, small figure, resplendent in full uniform and hat, his hand tucked inside his waistcoat to hide his frost bite. As we watched, another figure emerged from the building and walked towards him, footsteps echoing dolefully from the freshly swept stones: a tall, stooped figure without a hat, the thin ring of his hair only serving to emphasis his baldness. The Tsar, Alexander, his head bowed in shame and defeat, abandoned by his army, his ministers, and, it seemed as he stood alone before his new Master, all of Russia. He bowed to Napoleon and the Emperor returned the gesture. As we watched, the Tsar held out a sheaf of papers. Napoleon accepted them. Alexander then unbuckled the sword at his side and offered it. Again, it was accepted.
After all the fighting, and death, and desecration, it was over in under a minute. The Tsar had surrendered. The Emperor Napoleon, master of half the world, had added Russia to his collection. He turned away from the defeated prince, and faced us.
“My friends!” he began, holding the sword above his head. And that was all he spoke.
Before we could answer, before we could shatter the sky with our roar, the air was shattered by the echo of a single shot. Men dove to the ground, but I could not. I was watching our Emperor, my Emperor. I saw him take a single step backwards. I saw him drop the sword he had fought so hard to possess. I saw him raise a hand to his face, to the dark spot that had blossomed just below his eye. And I saw him fall.
Men were scrambling to their feet, calling out in confusion and terror.
“The Emperor!” someone was screaming. “The Emperor!”
In a moment I found my mind. I swung away from the fallen man before me. He was dead. I knew it without having to run towards him as so many others were doing. I turned in a circle instead, barely registering the knot of men that had swamped the screaming Tsar, and who now stood above him, their boots rising and falling, rising and falling. Others were racing towards nearby buildings, throwing themselves at the heavy doors as they tried to break through and wreak havoc beyond. Still more were racing towards the entrance to the Kremlin. What they would do once they gained entrance did not bear contemplation. I spun, and kept spinning, looking for the impossible: a sight of one man amidst all the chaos, a single man who did not belong, still holding the gun that had brought down the Emperor.
And then, a hundred feet away or more, I saw a familiar frame slip through the edges of the turmoil and disappear down a side street. A man I had seen less than half a week before, to whom I had spoken of honour, and the rules of occupation. As I stood, helpless, staring in silent horror, Aptekar disappeared into the endless winding streets and the anonymity of a quarter of a million strangers. And I knew then that the city was lost, and the Empire with it. The Grand Armee was without its God, too far from home. All honour, all hope, was lost.
We fell upon Moscow like hungry dogs. And when we were finished, all that remained were bones.
This story originally appeared in Crusader Kings.