About seventy fighters lay among the canjira, covered with sprigs and branches to blend in. Behind the ridge twenty archers crouched, ready for the command. The generals crouched with them, waiting for Tracy, who lay with the fighters, to signal them.
The part of Neil’s army that the scouts had seen earlier were moving up the slight valley towards this ridge, with the clear intention of cutting across the path of march that the rebel army would be taking to reach the meeting place set earlier.
Tracy and Valinja lay close together, with Ajnilav a little higher up the slope. The sound of heavy treading could be felt now as the army came closer. Tracy was worried that the men, not used to ambushing an enemy, might spring from cover too soon, but she knew she could not risk any movement herself that might give them away.
Soon, mingled with the tread of the army came their sound – animals and men grunting as they pulled wagons laden with provisions, a murmur from the ranks as they trudged along, and the occasional command from an officer to keep things in line. Judging by the clarity of the sounds, they were now very close. The scout hidden at the point where it was thought the army would be close enough for the ambush to work, suddenly gave a shout.
Immediately Valinja jumped up, Tracy a second behind. It later became clear that the leading draftbeast had trodden on the scout, and that was why he shouted. This meant the army was not quite in the ideal zone, but they were obviously confused. All around her the rebels were charging forward, screaming and waving weapons. “Wait, wait, not yet!” Tracy’s shout was carried away, but the action around her was enough. The archers loosed their shots, but most of the bolts fell short. One did, however, make a crucial strike. The leader of the troop fell to the ground, the arrow having struck him in the throat.
With no leader, and the surprise of the attack, the rebels poured over the army, striking and hacking. The archers had also reloaded, and now could pick their targets. Tracy herself concentrated on deepening the confusion by lobbing fireballs into any spot where the defenders seemed to be rallying.
The draft beasts had broken free and were lumbering away, but here the generals Hadimon and Nimondah showed their mettle, dispatching a squad of soldiers to capture them and their cargo. Tracy looked around. The strike was slowing, and it was time to withdraw her troops. She lobbed a fireball straight up, and then concentrated on making it burst with a white glow.
The rebels immediately turned and ran, which of course made the troops of the DarkLord cheer, thinking they were winning, and they started chasing. Straight, of course, into another hail of arrows, this time with devastating effect. Of the initial two hundred or so men, a scant handful were still on their feet, and these quickly realized their situation. In minutes more they had either surrendered or been cut down as well.
The quiet that descended, now that the shouts and the clash of sword on shield had died away, was broken by grunts and keening from the wounded. Tracy had not drawn her sword, but even so she was spattered by blood from the fights around her.
“That a cunning trick. We think no, but Red Lady she yes, she fighter, she great leader.” Hadimon slapped her on the shoulder. “Come, we gather our anidon, friends, and go back camp.”
Tracy assented gratefully.
The second ambush went better, and by the time they reached the meeting place, and were joined by another group of rebels, all the soldiers in her troop were seasoned veterans. Tracy had had to draw her sword twice, and sported a cut across the outside of her thigh from the second clash, but had found to her surprise that she had progressed to the point where each fight had seemed to take place in slow motion, giving her more than enough time to defend or attack. The first fight had been almost a classic piste exercise, with attack, parry, riposte, except that her riposte had ripped into a real flesh and blood person, cutting across the belly and driving into the kidneys. His sword had fallen from a suddenly limp hand, and with a sigh he had fallen forward, almost pinning her sword. The shock of it had stunned her, and she had stood, bloodied sword in hand, staring at the corpse, and it was only the fact that the skirmish was already over that saved her from attack and death.
The second fight, in another skirmish, had taken longer, and she had resorted to some unusual overcuts and deflections, one of which had resulted in the cut across the thigh. But the moment had also come where the blade of her opponent had been swung wide and his throat exposed, and she had not even hesitated as she cut it in a back handed sweep that laid it open to the bone. And been ready to deflect a blow from behind as she turned with the sweep, before chopping at the shoulder and causing the axe to fall from a suddenly limp hand as the nerves and tendons were severed. The soldier in front of her had fallen back, into a blow from a rebel.
Of course, after both fights, she had shivered and thrown up and huddled in Leman’s arms, and slept badly, seeing the faces of those unknowns in the moment that death, death by her hand, claimed them.
But, and this was what really frightened her, she was not as upset by it as she thought she’d be. Would she become hardened and cynical about life? Would it be easier and easier every time she had to do it?
She knew that some of the fireballs she had hurled had landed either on people or close enough to cause death or injury, but that had somehow been remote. The sword was personal.
Mizoraph saw it the next day, as they were sparring, and called a halt.
“You are not committed. You wait, you slow, you dead.”
“I know, but two, no, three people are dead because of me and my sword. They were people that felt, and loved, and now they can do nothing. I killed them. I killed their future and their families hopes for them.”
Mizoraph sat down on a log.
“Yes, problem of warrior always. We know we are alive, we know what alive means, but we spend our time to kill, to take away alive. It changes us, when we kill. We are not the same. We see them, the ones we kill. If we are aware of life, and precious of life, we see them always. I have many that come to me in sleep, or quiet.”
“How do you keep sane with all that? How do you not become hardened, cynical, immune to it?”
“Because I good person, and I care, so I keep them with me. I make peace with them – we both warrior, we both fight, we both know we can kill or die. That time they die. One day I die. Then someone, if good, will carry me with them.”
“So if you care about life, you carry the ghosts with you, knowing you will be one someday?”
“Yes. But I want that day to not come for long time, so I train hard as can. So you also.”
It was something practical she could grasp, and when they resumed sparring she once again threw her heart and her body into the moves. Mizoraph nodded in approval.
The guerilla techniques were having an effect. The DarkLord’s army was less inclined to move in small groups, and tended to keep to open areas these days, which of course made it more difficult to strike at them. But there were always stragglers, scouting parties and the like, and slowly the numbers were being whittled down, with minimal loss on the rebel side.
It had been at least three weeks since her confrontation with Neil, and she had by now come to terms with his treachery and had resolved to, before too long, confront him in person again and if possible, kill him.
After her talk with Mizoraph she had made peace with this aspect of herself, and was able to think in terms of ‘him or me’, and most of all, resolve to never give him a chance to betray her again. The faces that still haunted her dreams were now faces that she acknowledged, but in the way that Mizoraph suggested – that day it had been you, someday it will be me, in the meantime, rest with me and I will honor the fight you gave me. Maybe not the healthiest of attitudes to have, but here, in this situation, the only one that worked.
Leman and the council of generals called a meeting after another week had passed, and Tracy knew that they wanted to do a big attack again.
Her premonition was correct, especially since all of them felt that the army had, by now, been demoralized while their own troops have gained experience and were now, with all the victories behind them, eager to engage the enemy.
Tracy herself was feeling that she’d like to finish the whole thing, get back to her life, somehow get back to her mom and sort out that problem, finish school, go to university, and spend her life with Julian by her side. Besides the worry about her mom, he was her main concern. She wanted to get to him, she wanted to be able to share everything in her life with him, and she wanted to finally take that next, frightening step, becoming his wholly and with no reserve.
The physical side of the relationship scared her, if she was honest. She knew enough about the mechanics of sex to be vaguely disgusted by it, until now. With him she could imagine long, slow, dreamy days of kissing, holding, being close.
So when one of the generals proposed an attack on the stronghold, especially using some of the weapons they’d captured that seemed designed to knock down walls and breach doors, she readily assented.
They knew enough about the castle to be able to plan an attack carefully. Since they had seen how effective a small group can be, the plan involved many small groups, attacking at different points, rather than one big assault on the front, as was usually the case. When they finally were happy with what they had, it was nearly dawn, and with many yawns they all stumbled off to bed.
Sleep was not, however, a luxury they were to have that day. Barely an hour after lying down, Tracy was shaken awake. Some scouts had come back to report that five units, of about two hundred soldiers each, were moving towards their camp, coming from as many directions. The intention was clearly to engage the whole rebel force on as wide a front as possible.
In minutes, it seemed, the camp was being struck, and the wagons of supplies were leaving, moving towards the mountains and the caves. Leman rode in one, waving to Tracy as she left. The bands quickly gathered up their weapons and dispersed into smaller groups, moving to outflank the enemy. Each leader knew where to strike, and where to regroup, if possible, after the strike. The plans had been made hastily, and depended heavily on them keeping to the strike and run, strike and run method they had been employing so far.
Tracy and her band made their way south, towards the column that bore the flag of the DarkLord, and, where, hopefully Neil would be found. All too soon they were close enough to see the enemy clearly, and unable to conceal themselves effectively, engaged the enemy. The rebels had smaller numbers, but they had learned that it is best to cut and run, then cut and run again rather than stand and fight. Skirmishes moved across the battlefield as groups of soldiers tried to keep formation, but were tempted to run after a fleeing group only to be cut down by archers from a flank. Tracy’s use of fireballs to break any push also added to what seemed to be a certain victory, when suddenly the DarkLord appeared. Swathed in his cloak and with his face hidden from view, she nevertheless could see Neil’s swagger.
“To me! There!” She ran towards him, readying a fireball and then tossing it. With a gesture, the figure tossed the fireball aside, into the midst of a group of his own soldiers. By now Tracy was almost on him, her sword held in the high strike position, ready to cut down and across the torso, but again she had underestimated his readiness. His own sword was whipped out and parried hers in the classic seventh parry of naval officers, then he thrust at her. She leapt sideways and ducked, coming up under his guard with the sword driving at his stomach. But then her foot twisted on a loose rock and instead of striking dead centre, she pierced his side. She whipped out the blade and lunged again.
He jumped back, a hand pressed to the wound, then dropped his sword and gestured. A volley of small stones rose and sped towards her, and she had to drop to the ground and roll to avoid them.
When she rose to her feet, he was on a fast runner, supported by a soldier, heading for his castle. All around her the fights continued, and she turned her attention to driving off as many enemies as possible with fireballs.
Soon she and her troop were alone except for the wounded, dead and dying, the remaining soldiers having beat a retreat. And, for the first time quite a few of the dead were rebels.
One of them was Ajnilav. Valinja knelt next to his half person, dazed and unresponsive. When someone tried to get him to stand up, he shook them off violently. It was only when he saw Tracy, that he finally burst into huge sobs that shook his whole frame.
“Red Lady, it was him, it was the DarkLord. Ajnilav charged and he showered rocks down.” The broken skull attested to his words. “I am no longer alive. I am now barta. Inbetween.”
Tracy could think of nothing to say. She sank down beside him, and softly stroked the cooling skin of one of her first friends in this strange place. She knew nothing would help – the strong bond of one soul in two bodies was outside her experience, and she had no inkling of what it would feel like to lose half of yourself.
How long they stayed like that she had no idea, but the timid touch on her shoulder of one of the rebels roused her.
’Red Lady – go. Now. Meet we other.” His English was poor, but he managed to get his meaning across. She touched Valinja and gestured for him to stand. For a moment it seemed as if he might resist, and then he nodded.
“We’ll take the body with us for burial.” she said.
“You know, dead persons placed in the ground? Service?”
“Why do that? Can roots find them? Can nourishment be drawn better?”
Tracy suddenly realized she had not seen any burials take place. Sure, the army had always gathered up the wounded, and she had assumed buried the dead somewhere, but she’d never seen it happen.
“Canjira covers, uses, gives back into life.”
“You mean the corpses are absorbed by the canjira?”
“Look.” He waved a hand.
All across the battlefield the ground was moving as the vegetation pulsed towards the bodies.
“My god, you people are the ultimate recycling facility. Even your vegetation eats the dead.” She started laughing, almost hysterically. Then realized what she was doing and crammed a hand in her mouth and bit down, hard. The pain sobered her, and she apologised to a stunned Valinja. Together they walked away from the carnage, leaving behind their dead.
At the meeting place, it was clear that the rebels had taken a beating. The reports from all the battles, however, indicated that so did the army of the DarkLord. Which made it even more imperative to push the attack on the stronghold ahead as soon as possible.