The frozen ground crunched beneath the general’s boots as he made his nightly stroll around camp. The cold was such that it caught your breath deep down in your windpipe, but he didn’t mind—sub-zero temperatures always helped him think, forced precious blood up his limbs to his prodigious brain.
And there was plenty to turn over in his mind.
Last weekend had brought a great victory, maybe the general’s very greatest.
An old enemy began the day at even strength and with even numbers. It boasted a cocksure young leader whose exploits with ale and women spread like wildfire across the land. Its earlier success captured the hearts and minds of their homeland like previous campaigns rarely had.
The general’s forces left his opponent decimated. The battle had already turned into a massacre when the Lakesmen raised the white flag, but no quarter was shown.
Such a victory can have a galvanizing effect on troops like his.
The hour was late, but still lights peaked out from behind canvas tent flaps. The holiday was less than a week away, and celebrations had begun in earnest. Boozy Christmas carols came from the general’s left. To his right erupted another round of laughter from a raucous card game.
Let them celebrate, said his mind.
The season hadn’t been easy. He entered the year with more firepower than ever, and challengers to the crown were as weakened as he’d ever seen them. Yet every victory was followed by some kind of defeat or another, tripping up momentum just as it began picking up speed in earnest.
The general strolled past Vontaze’s quarters—the timing seemingly underlining the point—where one of his stoutest fighters lay nursing a host of festering injuries.
More. I want more, the general’s heart answered. How can they be so content when so much is yet to be decided? Don’t they realize that all our gains can be washed away over these next two weeks?
Only he understood just how perilous things stood, how vicious the fighting to come. One slipup, and they’d be given the sword, just like the Lakesmen.
Internalizing it all—that was both his primary strength and glaring weakness as a leader. The general trusted no one. Not even his closest advisors knew what bubbled behind that unchanging mask.
The “stone man,” his troops and support staff called him behind his back, half in mocking, half in admiration.
The more mutinous also questioned his tactics time and time again, more boldly with each campaign’s ultimate defeat.
Yet here the general was, all these years later. Wasn’t that proof of his methods? Maybe he’d never sat upon the throne, but his troops were a constant threat.
He came to the edge of the orderly row of shelters, one of a thousand scattered over the ridge. The general watched impassively, just out of sight, as a group of his soldiers gathered around a campfire.
Double rations were ordered through the 25th and the men chowed down happily. Pints materialized out of thin air and soapy suds added to the revelry.
A light snow began to fall.
The general wasn’t going to change now, not with the prize still within his reach. His strategy had long since calcified.
If they were going to take command from him, they were going to have to pry it away from his concrete grip.