A short story by Tommy Arrigan.
Jasik Thacker was cold as cold could be. He’d been hiding among the snowy bushes for hours now, waiting patiently. He huddled, he stood, he stamped around his little hideout, trying to little avail to hold some warmth inside. There wasn’t much day left by now; the winter sun was dipping towards the hills on the opposite side of the valley. If it was going to happen at all it would have to be soon.
Both the valley itself, and the sleepy village of Trogsvale that nestled below Jasik’s vantage point, lay blanketed in pristine snow. Dark clouds were moving in swiftly from the north, against the sunset: more snow was on the way. Jasik wondered where his friends were, whether something had disrupted their carefully-planned assault.
Every so often he’d part the branches around him and peer carefully out from his thicket to survey the enemy compound, half-way down the hillside. A handful of scouts patrolled the courtyard vigilantly, but someone had also lit a bonfire, and most of the rest of them, especially the younger ones, were gathered around it toasting marshmallows.
Jasik envied the rich kids. All the village kids did. They envied them their marshmallow fires, their ski trips, their elevated private school with its majestic view of the bay. They came down to the village at weekends to hang around the main square, where they boasted of their foreign holidays, their many possessions, their countryside mansions. Jasik’s mum would often wonder aloud at tea-time on Saturday evenings when these kids had last seen their parents, and whether having all the fancy toys in the world made up for that. Jasik knew she was right, but he envied them still.
The minutes passed slowly. The sun sank further, and the laden clouds came rolling in quickly, spreading out to blanket the darkening sky above. Lights winked on in the village. Windows glowed yellow, the lit snow beneath them sparkled gold against the ice-blue snowstreets.
Jasik felt a sting on his cheek; the threatened snow had arrived. He squinted down towards the village, trying to make out the time on the clock tower. The village Christmas tree illuminated the clock face just enough. Five-forty. When the clock struck six today’s game was over; and tomorrow, before the private school kids went home for the holidays, would be their very last chance.
No one knew when the Winter Wars had first begun. The boarding school had been founded in the late eighteen-hundreds, and Jasik’s grandfather claimed that his grandfather had played an early version of the game. It had all begun with a pilfered apple pie, it was said, and both sides still denounced the other for that original sin. Rules, honour, etiquette had all been formalised over the years. The weeks leading up to the first snowfall were always full of excitement and anticipation. That was when it started, with a ceremonious exchange of flags half-way up the hill and a solemn march back to both bases, up to the school and down to the village. And then: avoid the snowballs, capture the flag. The village kids hadn’t had claimed a win in seven years, which had badly dented the pride of villagers of all ages; any that had ever gone to battle. And Jasik had turned twelve last month, so this was his very last chance.
The snow was coming on thick now, and visibility was decreasing. Jasik could just about make out the enemy snowman in the centre of the schoolyard, its bright red flag the trophy they were so desperate to seize. The village kids’ own snowman was located on the far side of the main square’s frozen pond this year, flanked by built-up embankments, almost as defensible a position as the boarding school courtyard.
And that was the problem; if neither side claimed the flag, last year’s winners won again. So the Snow Boarders, as they called themselves, could afford to play it safe and guard their fortress. The Village Pillagers had to be more aggressive, exposing themselves to the snowball strikes that meant elimination for the day and left them vulnerable to counterattack.
The whole world seemed muffled by the falling snow. All was perfect silence until a piercing clarion call split the night. No angel blew that trumpet. No, it was big Henck Harfjord, the Pillagers’ fearless leader, finally sounding the charge. Jasik now knew why they’d waited so long: Henck had known the snow was coming, was hoping poor visibility would improve their chances. Jasik leapt into motion; it was finally time to act. The Pillagers were depending on him.
He left his hideout and pulled his toboggan out from underneath the bushes. Shrieks and ululations rent the air below as twenty village children charged from the tree-line below towards the school’s open gates. The Boarders had left them open out of arrogance, inviting the Pillagers to have a go any time they liked. They rushed to defend their fortress, arming themselves from stockpiles of burnished snowballs as they went. No one was looking up the hillside towards where Jasik had lain all afternoon in wait.
He sat down on his toboggan and aimed it carefully. The packed-snow ramp he’d constructed with Henck under cover of darkness last night had remained undiscovered all day, its peak just below the shoulder-high schoolyard wall. This was it, no time to hesitate. Jasik kicked off, and tucked in his feet.
The slope was precipitous. Cold air burned Jasik’s face and howled in his ears as he plunged towards the wall. As the wall rushed towards him. Their little ramp was narrow, and Jasik was a little too far to the right. He shifted his weight just enough to make it. The world flipped backwards as he shot up the ramp; before him, briefly, was only sky.
The toboggan’s runners clipped the top of the wall, and Jasik leaned as far forwards as possible to prevent a backflip. He’d spent the last three days practicing ramp jumps. Boy and toboggan sailed together through the snow-filled air. He landed cleanly, but his earlier course-correction left him spinning wildly across the courtyard, right into the enemy snowman where he tumbled off in a heap.
Battle was raging away to Jasik’s left. Henck Harfjord towered above the other children, awash in flickering firelight, dodging, throwing, bellowing wildly with ferocious joy. Many Pillagers had already fallen, but no-one had spotted Jasik yet, thanks in part to the flurrying snow. He struggled to his feet, plucked the enemy flag from the snowman, and sprinted towards the schoolyard’s opposite side. A shout went up behind him.
“The flag! He’s got the flag!”
Jasik glanced back, saw Henck go down to a snowball to the head. Their assault was crumbling. Boarders were running towards him. Some were taken out by snowballs from behind, but not enough. He reached the wall and scrambled up it. A snowball flew past him. He slipped as he jumped.
He landed awkwardly, twisting his knee. Something popped. Jasik stood, stumbled, fell. Pain shot through his leg. He rose, staggered forwards, fell again. He’d never make it. Behind him two Boarder girls had mounted the wall and were reaching back to be handed snowballs to finish him off with.
Jasik bowed his head, wincing in agony. He clutched the enemy flag to his breast. So close, a voice inside him said. You almost made it. He fought back tears.
And then, a shout to his left.
He looked. Grethal Thungar was sprinting around the perimeter towards him. Little Grethal Thungar, the tagalong they’d all dismissed as too small and slow for this boisterous game. Jasik cursed inwardly despite himself as she reached him. If only it was someone faster.
But Grethal stuck out a hand, determined, imperious.
“Give it here. Now!”
Something in her fierceness awed him. Jasik rose, renewed, and handed over the flag, roaring “Go!” as he turned to face their pursuers, shielding her body with his own as she fled. A pair of snowballs struck him in the face and chest, and he staggered and collapsed again, pain searing his leg. Grethal was away, but the two Boarder girls had already jumped from the wall and run past him in hot pursuit. She’d never make it back to their base.
Jasik struggled to turn and watch brave Grethal as she was overtaken. Then Henck was there beside him, and unexpectedly, another eliminated Boarder girl he didn’t know. They helped him sit up. Henck pointed, spoke quietly.
Jasik raised his head. He hadn’t noticed. Grethal was wearing rollerblades.
The last rays of sunset illuminated her as, crouched low, Grethal shot downhill like a cannonball, the Boarder’s flag a blood-red pennant fluttering behind her. Into the village, into the square, across the frozen duck pond. She rose and plunged the flag deep into their snowman, alongside their own.
And Jasik passed out with Henck bellowing jubilantly beside him, as the clock struck six.