Cold Comfort


It’s cold on the flatlands, and today is colder than ever. This evening is so cold even the snow won’t fall, the biting wind blows tiny ice crystals into the eyes of anybeast fool enough to look towards it, and the ground is like iron beneath the frost-white grass.

Dingeye, still patchily moulting into his winter coat long after most of the other stoats have shed and whitened, sits shivering beside a tiny fire on the outskirts of the camp. His teeth rattle on the edge of the tin bottle he sips from – strong alcohol brewed from any scraps of vegetation found on the march and kept fermenting in the bottle, stolen from some other soldier who wasn’t bright enough to keep close watch on his pack. It tastes vile, but it keeps out the cold. Who knows, maybe it’ll get him drunk enough not to care about what’s coming tomorrow. No. Nothing can take away the fear. No matter how many times he goes through this feeling the night before a raid or battle, it never gets any easier.

“’Ey, wot’s that yer drinkin’?” asks a nervous whine from behind him. He grits his teeth.

“Nuffink, Thura,” he lies.

Thura crawls into view, his own coat also patchy, the white already going dusty brown-grey from dirt picked up on the march. Even when he’s fully changed his coat, it’ll be near-impossible to tell that he has.

“Aw c’mon, can’tcher spare a sip?”

“No. An’ willyer stop tryin’ the big-baby-eyes act, it don’t work an’ yer knows it.”

Thura glares at him. “Yew selfish b-”

“Ah, ah. That ain’t the way ter get wot yer want either,” Dingeye mock-scolds, wagging a claw. He takes another brief sip, and grimaces. Thura scowls, and then sighs resignedly.

“Ah, I’d prob’ly sick it straight up anyways. I ain’t feelin’ too good.” He stares into the embers of the fire, and shivers violently. “Never do, nights like this.” He shuffles closer to his friend, still keeping one eye on the bottle. “I don’t even remember wot the raid’s s’posed ter be for now, an’ I don’t care. I jes’ feel lousy.”

Dingeye glances around to check nobeast’s looking, shuffles up to Thura and throws a paw round his shoulders. At least that’ll help warm them up a little.

“Aw, look on the bright side. We’ve bin through this enough times an’ we’re still alive, ain’t we?”

“Yeah … but don’t that jes’ mean our luck’s gonna run out sometime soon? We can’t live on dumb luck f’rever.”

“We can try.” Dingeye huddles closer to Thura. It shows how miserable Thura is that he doesn’t immediately grab for the bottle. Instead he leans back against Dingeye’s bony chest, into what both stoats try to convince themselves is not a hug. Corpsemakers may huddle together for warmth, but they most certainly do not hug. “We don’t ‘ave much choice, do we?”

The sun is setting, the sky becoming the same colour as the dying embers of the campfire, and turning the white-frosted grass blades around them from diamond to gold. Even the battered tin grog bottle gleams like copper. The two stoats, however, are in no condition to appreciate it. They stare blankly into space, sunk in their own fear and misery.

Finally Dingeye breaks the silence.

“We should prob’ly try ter get some sleep.”

“I can’t, mucker. Yer know I can’t ever sleep the night ‘fore a raid. ‘M too nervous.”

“Well, if yer don’t sleep, yer’ll not be able ter think straight tomorrer, so yer’ll be even more likely to get hurt-”

“Yer makin’ it worse!” Thura whimpers, and sighs. “Jes’ wish there was somefink ter take me mind off it.” He looks up at Dingeye, then pointedly looks back at the grog bottle, hoping he’ll get the message.

Dingeye doesn’t, or at least pretends he doesn’t. Unfortunately, Thura’s words have spawned ideas of a very different distraction, and once the thought sets in it won’t go away. It really doesn’t help that Thura’s pressed up against him like that. He’d blame it on the grog, but nope – he’s only had a few sips this evening, as the stuff is so strong and tastes so vile he can only cope with a drop at a time. No, he knows the reasoning this time; he’s cold, hungry, too nervous to sleep, and needs something to keep himself occupied … and, well, so does Thura. Maybe it’s not such a bad idea after all. He’d really have preferred a female, but since Thura’s a lot more easily accessible right now …

“Weeeelll, I know o’ somefink that’ll take yer mind off it,” he says quietly, glancing around to make sure nobeast’s looking. Nope, safe. This is one of the more sparsely populated areas of the camp anyway – most of the soldiers are clustered together in the middle of the group, and the stoat duo are stuck right out on the fringes as usual. The few beasts nearby are either talking (or being talked at) about the “fun” they’ll have in the attack tomorrow, or, like Dingeye and Thura were, staring into their campfires, getting depressed and possibly drinking themselves into oblivion into the bargain, not caring about the headaches they’ll have by dawn. As long as they keep quiet, they probably won’t even be noticed, and nobeast would care overmuch if they are. Perfect.

Thura, however, merely seems puzzled.

“Wot’re yer talkin ‘bout, mucker?”

Dingeye sighs. Subtlety is lost on Thura. He lets his paw slink downwards to Thura’s belly, then under the hem of his shirt.

“This. Geddit now?”

Thura’s gasp tells Dingeye that he gets it. Dingeye grins triumphantly. He puts down the bottle, reaches round Thura’s skinny body with his other paw and starts fiddling with the knotted rope that serves him as a belt, nipping lightly at his ear as the paw inside Thura’s clothing slips downwards.

“Thought yer might appreciate the company,” he whispers.

A shrill whimper stops him in his tracks. Thura has gone rigid, his eyes squeezed shut. He trembles harder than he did from the cold.

Dingeye curses himself silently. He should have seen this coming.

He’s known Thura for what feels like forever, ever since he joined up less than a season after Dingeye did. Well, “joined up” is stretching a point; a more accurate description would be “was found wandering lost and weeping and was press-ganged under threat of death”. Thura latched onto him, probably because he was comparatively non-threatening, and much as Dingeye hated it at first, he got used to having Thura around. Sometimes he jokes about how he taught Thura all he knows, but there is a grain of truth in that. Thura never talks about his past much, but when he joined up he was completely clueless about the world outside his home. Without Dingeye to show him the ropes, Thura would probably be dead, and little as either of them likes to show it, they did develop strong trust for each other, just because there was nobeast else they could trust. Life in the Corpsemakers is cruel, particularly for creatures like Thura – small, weak, and easily cowed. Dingeye knows first-paw that’s a dangerous combination … far worse, when you look at Thura and realise he joined up young and was quite pretty for a jack before life took its toll on him, before the starvation and the ringworm and the fights and beatings which left him scarred, broken-snouted and missing teeth. Dingeye can’t watch his friend every minute, and probably wouldn’t be a lot of help in a fight if he could. He knows only too well what could have happened to him. No wonder he’s so nervous. He’s not usually so bad around Dingeye, because usually the worst he gets from Dingeye is a cuff and a curse. But now …

Ohshitohshitoshit, Dingeye thinks, wondering what the hell he’s supposed to do now he’s probably just scared away his only friend. Maybe he should let go of Thura, but if he does then he’ll probably bolt, or possibly turn round and kill him. He remains still, one paw still down the front of his friend’s breeches.

“Or … hehe … maybe … yer wouldn’t,” he chokes out nervously, trying to make light of the situation. He realises where his paw is and removes it hurriedly. Oh bloody hell! What do I do? What do I say?! “Er. Sorry?”

Thura relaxes slightly, but doesn’t respond, or even stop shaking. Dingeye lets go of his belt and scuttles backwards.

“‘Ey mucker … Thura … I’m really really sorry. That was dumb.”

This is the first time Dingeye has ever directly admitted to his friend that he’s done something stupid. Still no response.

“Uhh. Mebbe I should go.” And find some place I can curl up and cry, he doesn’t say.

He tries to stand up, but Thura’s paw shoots out and grips his wrist. He stares down at it, then looks at Thura’s face. Thura is grinning.

“I didn’t say I wanted yer to go.” He looks at Dingeye’s astonished expression and snickers. “Aintcher gonna finish wot yer started?”

Dingeye’s jaw drops. “But yer … but I thought …”

Thura’s grin has an uncomfortable edge to it, his whiskers are twitching and there is a faintly desperate gleam in his eyes. The paw on Dingeye’s wrist tightens its grip.

“C’mon, at least it’ll warm us up.” Dingeye finds his paw dragged abruptly back to its previous location. His look of surprise slowly starts turning to gleeful hope.

“Yew … really don’t mind?”

“Nah! Won’t deny I got nervy just then, but hey – yew only live once. Might as well find out wot all the fuss is about while I got the chance, right?” Thura chuckles nervously. The desperate gleam hasn’t left his eyes. Fear does funny things to creatures’ minds sometimes. In Thura’s case, it’s apparently moved it downwards.

Dingeye knows this is probably a bad idea. If nothing else, they’ll have cramps in the morning, and that’s not good on the day of a raid. But it’s this or they lie there for hours, unable to sleep, dwelling on what’s just happened and making it infinitely worse. Besides, he’s cold, and Thura is warm, and there’s nothing better to do.

“Alrighty then, I’ll show yew wot all the fuss is about indeed,” he says, finishing the unfastening of Thura’s belt and smirking broadly. His smirk is quickly obscured by Thura’s mouth, pressing hard enough to bruise their lips.


Too soon, they roll apart, panting hard, refastening their clothes as quickly as possible, very pointedly not looking at each other, as the last spark of their campfire dies and the sky fades from flame to cloud-mottled darkness.

Dingeye glances briefly and guiltily at the red-raw bitemarks visible under the ruffled fur on Thura’s neck, knowing there are more marks under his shirt, but Thura doesn’t seem too bothered. Maybe the cold’s numbed them. He winces as he rolls onto his back. Thura gave as good as he got – Dingeye has the scratch marks to prove it. He’s going to be sore all over tomorrow, but here and now he doesn’t care.

Thura grabs for the bottle, realising too late that they must have kicked it over and most of the grog has spilled out. He looks briefly disappointed, shrugs and upends the bottle to catch the final drips. Some dribbles from the corners of his mouth, mingling with the blood where he bit his lip in an attempt to stay quiet.

“Warm now,” he pants, sounding very tired. Dingeye nods, incapable of forming a sentence through the rising mists of sleep.

They huddle back together before the cold can seep back into their bones, and fall asleep smiling.


Next evening, they find themselves still alive, and feeling terribly awkward.

This time, they sit on opposite sides of their tiny fire. Thura fiddles with the dockleaf dressing on a leg wound from the raid. (They were lucky this time; there’ll be scars, but they’ll still breathe and walk, at least till next time.) Dingeye wishes he could get hold of another bottle of grog. Neither looks the other in the eye. It’s awkward enough waking up curled up with your best friend, with musky smell and muscle cramps reminding you in detail of what you did in a state of panicked insomnia last night, without realising that, thanks to the fact that the temperature is still below freezing point, you’ll have to sleep curled up together again tonight or risk death from cold. Each stoat silently curses the weather, and whatever stupid whim made them do what they did.

Finally, Thura clears his throat just to break the oppressive silence.

“Cold, ain’t it?”

Dingeye gives him a death glare. He cowers and covers his head with his paws as if expecting to be hit in the face. With reason; it wouldn’t be the first time Dingeye’s blacked his eye for saying something stupid. This time he just sighs.

“Uh, look, I don’t wanna talk about it an’ I know yew don’t either, but … ‘bout last night …” he trails off. He can feel the embarrassment rolling off both of them. “Well. Sorry I scared yer like that.”

“Eh, ‘salright.” Thura shrugs. “If yer’d meant to scare me yer could do much better’n pawin’ me.”

“True. An’ I made up fer it,” says Dingeye with a grin.

“Yeah, right.”


Thura conceals a giggle at his friend’s outraged expression. “Look, I dunno why I agreed to it, but … I s’pose it wasn’t so bad.” He means it. It was brief and clumsy and this morning he hurt all over, but he doesn’t regret it.

A long pause. A noncommittal shrug from Dingeye.

“Can we do it again?”

If Dingeye was drinking at this point, he would be spraying it everywhere at this sentence. He gapes at Thura, who cowers again.

“Sorry … sorry … jes’ slipped out there …”

“Yer really … yer meant that?”

Thura looks up.

“Wot? Yer …”

“Well.” Dingeye is glad his fur conceals the blush spreading over his face. “Maybe. S’not like I’d ‘ave a problem if yer said no.”

“But yer wouldn’t ‘ave a problem if I said yes?”

“Errrr …” Dingeye trails off again. “S’pose not.”

Thura looks as if he doesn’t know what to think.

“Well, why not? Not like ‘arf the army’s not doin’ the same when they don’t wanna pay the whores. An’ hey, ‘tain’t like I tried to say I love yer or nothin’. I jes’ … jes’ need the company sometimes.” Dingeye giggles nervously in a desperate attempt to cover his embarrassment. Thura thinks briefly, then grins.

“Then I guess it’s all fine. Right, mucker?”

“Right. Now get over ‘ere, I’m freezin’.”

Thura obeys cheerfully, wrapping himself around Dingeye like a furry snake and giggling.

“Try ter kiss me an’ I bite yer nose off,” Dingeye mock-snarls. Thura grins and pulls him down to the stone-hard frozen ground, where they squirm into the most comfortable position they can find. Somehow, during the process, their paws find their way inside each other’s clothing again. They both collect new bites and bruises, and Thura proves Dingeye’s last coherent sentence wrong.

Eventually, they start to doze off, faces buried in each other’s fur. With his last waking thought, Dingeye realises it’s starting to snow.

He doesn’t mind, though - he feels quite warm.


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