The male stepped aside as she collapsed. I shifted my grip on my weapon and parried as he feinted at me. His blade flickered around my guard like a live thing, caressing my arm with a touch that was almost gentle. Blood welled. Reluctantly at first, then flowing freely down my arm.
I winced and he plastered his ears flat against his head and grinned.
It was then I realised I really didn't have a chance. Only my reach and the strength in my blows were holding him back, but I was tiring. I clipped him a couple of times, he recovered too fast. It was only a matter of time, that time coming too soon when I stepped on something that rolled treacherously under my feet, taking other pieces of rubble with it. My feet shot out from under me and my only defence flew out of my grasp and clattered loudly to the ground as I went over backwards.
With sweat running down my face I faced the Sathe and knew that I was going to die; everything but the Sathe went out of focus. I opened my mouth. . .
He gave a triumphant yowl and lunged, then his cry cut off and he sprawled across my body with a force that knocked the breath out of me, then lay in a twitching heap over my stomach. I just lay there for a second, then frantically shoved him off, scrambled away and crouched staring at the feathered shaft that protruded from the back of his neck then looked up at the Sathe who stood on a pile of rubble, still holding a spent crossbow, an M-16 slung over her shoulder, grenades at her belt.
"My Ancestors. . . You just cannot stay out of trouble can you?"
Then Rhasct rushed forward in concern as I doubled over and threw up.
The howling of the Gulf charge rolled across the town like an insubstantial tide. Thousands of them, pouring through the gaps where the antipersonnel traps and obstacles had been cleared. I swung the rifle around the crenel and fired a long burst, felling clumps of Sathe before ducking back as a hail of quarrels rattled and spanged off the stone. Down along the ramparts there were screams as Eastern Sathe were hit. I stuck my head out again and emptied the weapon, fumbling for a reload. My last.
The howling continued, growing. Screams rang out, mixed with the rattling of automatic weapons fire. Several times there were the flat crumps of grenades detonating. Eastern archers were loading and firing their crossbows as fast as they could, taking out Gulf Sathe by the dozen.
They just kept coming.
I leaned back against a merlon, shaking, sweating. Shit, despite the overcast I was dripping, sweating rolling into my eyes and stinging like the stink of propellant. The Sathe archer beside me ducked back to reload and cast me a glance filled with all the fear I felt. Too many of them, our ammunition wouldn't hold out. Every time a Green stuck his head up to fire he'd draw crossbow bolts like iron filings to a magnet. We'd already lost one to a bolt through the eye.
I swung the rifle around and fired another burst, sweeping the muzzle across the milling Sathe below the walls while hot brass clattered across the parapet. They fell, but there were already others to take their place, bringing ladders to the front lines. Guns snapped metallically. Gulf soldiers fell and cried out: dying and wounded. There were always more.
The walls were too low. Their ladders were easily long enough to reach the ramparts, at such an angle they didn't even need to climb them; just run up as if they were stairs.
A scaling ladder dropped down on the wall near my head, steel hooks at its end holding it in place. It rested for a second, then began bouncing, like something was moving up it. I popped up to fire several rounds down it, nailing the snarling trooper already halfway up, as well as the one behind him, and the one behind him.
A crossbow quarrel slammed against my helmet, almost knocking me back off the parapet. "Shit!" That hurt. I blinked, shook my head to clear my vision and plucked a fragmentation grenade from my vest, hurled it. The blast sounded above the noise of battle, clods of dirt rained down across the wall. The ladder fell away, splintered. I ran to help Sathe overturn another. The Sathe on it howled as they were tipped off.
A young, scared female was there, panting hard. "Sir?"
" Pass the word down. Start falling back by sections. Move the archers and Greens back to the barricades. They are to cover the guards while they torch the walls. Use the guns to stop them as they come over the walls. The commanders know their orders. Got that?"
"I . . . Uh . . . Yessir." And she was gone, yelling to other messengers.
Archers began to fall back, scrambling down ladders, pelting hell-for-leather for the streets of the town, the bridge. We'd be able to hold for a while there. Now the clashing metal-on-metal of sword fighting rang from along the walls. Another grenade thumped. Looking behind me I could see green-clad figures moving back, stopping to aim rifles up at the walls. Gunfire cracked and gulf warriors dropped as they crested the walls.
"All right!" I shouted at guards around me. "Out of here! Move it!"
They were moving, down the ladders in a single bound. I trailed, firing single rounds as Gulf warriors came into sight, knocking them back off the walls like tin cans in some backwoods shooting range. Smoke billowed as Eastern soldiers tossed firebrands into casks of oil spaced along the wall, the flames climbing and catching on the wood.
I jumped the final few metres down to the ground and set off in a dead run behind the retreating guards. Howls sounded from behind, a quarrel hissed past. A Green aimed a rifle and fired at a target on the walls. Another gestured frantically at me: Come on!
I put my head down and ran, frantically trying to keep up with the Clan Guards Sathe who were easily outpacing me. The main street was just ahead. Behind: the flames were climbing higher.
Ahead a guard went down.
Something pounded into the ground off to my left, raising a small cloud of dust. The front porch of a house seemed to bounce then collapsed with a splintering crash. What?! . . .
A boulder the size of my chest thumped into the dirt ahead of me, halting me in my tracks. Their goddamned artillery again. I ducked right, aiming for the shelter of burned buildings, the gutted, blackened walls. More stones came down, raising mushrooms of dry clay, bouncing unpredictable. I saw another Sathe go down and heard the louder CRACK of stone on stone above me. Sathe were screaming. A Green - Rhasct? - howling, "K'HY!"
What? I hesitated, looking behind. A few bricks thumped around me. I looked up and froze, staring at the toppling wall like a rabbit stares at the headlights of an approaching car. Like a jigsaw tipped on side it teetered, swayed, crumbled into fragments. I started running but not soon enough not fast enough. An avalanche of dust and timbers and bricks, twisting and pummelling and pounding. . .
A noise. Clattering of stone. Voices?
Like I was tiny, not all there, curled up in a dark place as sensation flowed; first a trickle, then abruptly a river. It hurt. I hurt. Everything was pain and pain was everything. The be-all and end-all. Pressure weighed down on me with sharp angles jamming into me. Copper taste choked my mouth, my eyes gummed shut. Breath brought a red agony, hot lead in my chest. I wanted to move: twitched my hand, rock rattled and more lead covered my arm. Tried shifting. Legs? Numb. Numb like nothing. Another breath. The tearing inside that brought drew out a groan.
Rock clattered and weight shifted. Light touched my eyelids and the noises were louder. Fingers grabbed my hair, twisted my head around with a sensation like ground glass in my neck. A cold line traced across my throat.
They were voices. Loud. Washing in and out like a weak radio station.
Then my arm was grabbed and pulled.
I think I screamed, in the seconds before the agony that ripped from shoulders to chest to hips to ankles smothered everything, dragged me under like a riptide.
I don't know exactly when I woke, it just happened: drifting all-too-quickly from warm, neutral nothing into . . . pain. If lay still, hardly breathing, it was bearable, but it was everywhere: a dull aching promising worse to come. I lay still, hardly breathing, taking stock: face, chest, back, hips, right leg, my hand, all throbbing with old pain: worn in like a pair of old slippers. Something I'd been feeling for long enough it'd begun to dull.
Through that there were flashes of vivid recollections: staring up as a towering wall folded and toppled to engulf me like a landslide, now. . . I was on my back, something soft and padded cushioning the bruises. Sheets? Mattress? My hands. . . I couldn't move them. Tied. I tried my right leg and choked on a strangled scream at the pain that caused. Broken, had to be. Not just one place either. My left hip ached. I Just lay panting, becoming aware of how dry my mouth was, like I'd been sucking dust. Slowly cracked an eyelid to look up at fabric. A tent? Big one. Where. . . ?
A face moved over to stare down at me. Fawn fur. A distinctive blaze of white fur on his muzzle. Black lips slowly slid back to bare gleaming, curved incisors. "Feeling better?"
And the pain was abruptly replaced by a light headedness, a lurch like the world had fallen away leaving a hollow in my guts. I just stared, feeling my pulse thumping through my temples.
"I had not thought we would be meeting again," Hrrasa continued. "You do seem to be a survivor. Last I saw you you did not seem to be in any condition to do anything. Now, not a hole in you. Even having a building falling on you is not enough. Tougher than you look, a?"
I lay there panting, a cold sweat breaking out across my brow. Green eyes stared at me: impassive, like green glass, emerald. Now I knew just how a stalked mouse felt.
He moved closer. Leathery digits came down to touch my face and there was nowhere to retreat to.
"I have been waiting for a chance to talk with you for a long time," he almost purred. His hand touched my forehead and what had to be a raw wound: pain flared again. "We have a lot to discuss."
I tried to move. My floating ribs burned. Ropes padded with cloth strapped my arms, legs and torso to the cot. I could have spat in his face. . .
I'd already made that mistake once.
Grin and bear it.
I shuddered and turned my head away. Away in the distance I could hear shouting, the occasional thump of a catapult. What was happening? What'd happened? Was Weather Rock still holding out? How?
There was a grunt of irritation from the Gulf Lord. His hand grabbed my hair and yanked my head around so he could see my eyes. "Saaaa. . . You are not feeling very talkative today. Not surprising. Perhaps some water?"
At the word I licked my lips and eyed the flask he sloshed around. He grinned and smiled at the same time. His style: offer it easily, almost pleasantly. But I'd seen some of the things this Sathe had been responsible for.
"Kill me," I croaked.
His muzzle wrinkled and the fangs came out again. At that instant another Sathe stuck his head into the tent. "High One. . ." Hrrasa turned, snarling. "Forgive me, High One. It is important. There are developments at the town."
Hrrasa stroked his fingertips, as though pushing claw tips back in. Then he looked at me. "All right. We shall speak again later. There are other matters to attend to." He tucked the flask away again, then casually reached out and slapped my leg. My broken one. I gagged. He grinned: "Do not go anywhere."
The tent flaps swung closed behind him. I could see the shadows of two guards cast against the fabric. Why'd they tied me? Even without the ropes there was no way I was going anywhere. They'd left me my clothes and boots, probably because of the clotted blood practically melding them to my skin. My leg was definitely broken. My left hip, it felt like something was sprained or dislocated. My arms. . . seemed all right - bruised and cut like the rest of me - but they didn't hurt as much. My ribs and chest ached with every breath. There were cuts and bruises everywhere: my back felt like someone had taken a meat tenderiser to it. My face. . . It hurt. I could easily feel the clotted blood from a wound running from temple to cheek. My back burned like it'd been sandblasted raw.
I looked back at the tent entrance: the guards hadn't budged.
Rolled back to try and think. And there was nothing. . .nothing I could do. I wasn't going anywhere.
Shit, Tahr. I'm sorry.
Hrrasa was back.
The stuffy heat of the tent began to cool as the light dimmed. Insects whined around above me. I'd been laying still, listening to sounds from outside: a continuous susurrus of Sathe: lots of Sathe. Several times I could have sworn I heard distant gunfire, but I couldn't be sure. Things weren't the clearest, especially thinking. Untreated wounds, lying in the heat of the tent; it was getting to me. Voices sounded outside, snarling, rattling of metal, then the Gulf Lord pushed in through the tent flaps. When he looked at me it was with same kind of scrutiny I'd seen Tahr give a particularly choice cut of meat. He was carrying a box: an olive-green ammunition canister that rattled when he set it down and popped the catches. I felt a sick despair when he picked up a cylinder resembling a stretched soft drink can; olive drab.
"Familiar?" Hrrasa growled.
Ohyeah. M-14 Incendiary grenade. There were more M-69 AP grenades in the case, also the distinctive tips of a pair of mortar rounds. Hraasa hefted the grenade, turning it over in his hands. "I would never have believed something this small could cause so much destruction. Like you: so much trouble in an innocuous package, a?" he hissed a chuckle then bared teeth at me. "I am going to give you one chance to save us both a lot of trouble. You will help us. You will tell me how these work. How to make more of them. Your answer?"
I swallowed through a tight throat. Said nothing.
"Uh, your choice," he grunted and slapped the grenade back down into the case then raised his voice, calling out, "Bring her in!"
Two guards pushed into the tent. Slung between them. . .
I made a strangled noise and bucked against the restraints. Hrrasa glanced at me and flashed teeth.
R'R'Rhasct struggled again, then fell limp between her guards, chest heaving. Above the straps muzzling her, her eyes were green and wide: fear. Naked. Arms tied behind her, legs tied. There was a gash across her chest, cuts everywhere, dried blood caking her fur. She stared back, making muffled sounds through the gag.
"Rhasct," I croaked in despair.
"You know her," Hraasa said. "She was one of the ones you taught to kill us. WE found her trying to dig you out. We gave her the choice, but she has sworn her loyalty to the Shirai."
Things Remae had once told me bubbled up from the depths of my mind. I felt sick. Torn between two impossibilities. She was a friend; I couldn't let them hurt her, but I couldn't help them.
"Well, K'hy. Are you going to speak?"
I looked at Rhasct again. She closed those green eyes. I gave the slightest shake of my head.
Hraasa snorted. "All right." Then he gestured at the guards: "Kill her."
"Wait. . . NO!"
It happened. Right before my eyes it happened, but it was still something I couldn't believe. The sword slid up under her ribs as smoothly as it might have gone into its sheath. Rhasct went ridged, eyes panic-wide, spasmed violently, a noise I'd heard once before escaping her muzzled mouth along with a fine red spray from her nose. For long seconds she stood, stiff as a board, trembling violently. Then. . . she was gone. The eyes were still open, muscles still twitched, but that light behind the eyes was gone.
The guards let the body drop. She. . . it, crumpled into a twisted pile. Blood trickled from a nostril, oozed from the hole in her chest.
I stared in shock. Choked on her name.
"That is one," Hraasa was speaking. "We have others to use as example. They will not die so easily. Have you ever seen someone having their claws torn out? Skinned a strip at a time? You will. You should find it quite interesting."
I just stared at her. Spoke her name again as if she might be able to hear me, as if it were an act. Hrrase looked annoyed and snapped at the guards. Rhasct's sorry remains were dragged out like so much trash, a guard pulling each leg. Her mane brushed a trail through the dust, smearing droplets of blood into the earth. Rhasct . . . goodbye. I shuddered, clutching the mattress.
Hraasa move back to glare down at me. "There are more. Do you really want to see them end up like that one?" I was slipping, a feeling like when I'd first gone into a Sathe town. Nothing was real. I was hyperventilating, lightheaded. He snarled into my face, then drew back, his expression changing. His voice was softer. "K'hy, you can help stop this fighting. You can save so many lives. Without your help this fighting will drag on for so much longer. Too many Sathe dead. I do not understand why you hold such loyalty to the Eastern Realm: You are not Eastern; you are not Sathe. But surely you know that every day they fight more Sathe die." He held up a baseball-sized black device. "You can end this war. Do it."
It was the only way.
I shuddered, then nodded: ever so slightly.
"That was yes?"
Closing my eyes I choked on the word. "Yes."
"Ah." It was a breathed sigh. "Good, K'hy. Good. This: How do I use it?"
I looked at the weapon in his hand. God, I don't even remeber what kind it was. I didn't care anymore. "Open it."
"What?" he blinked. "How?"
"That pin. Pull that pin out."
Hraasa did. There was a metallic snap as the handle popped free, then a sound like a cap pistol firing and a hiss. His ears went back. "Now what?"
I lay back. "We die."
"You. . ." His eyes went wide and he turned to run, to throw it away, something.
And his body was haloed in a flash of light and fire and I never felt a thing. Nothing.
". . . here."
"Hah! Look at this one. Earrings! Gold!"
"Rot your luck. Only a copper buckle."
"This one's a mess. . . Hai! What is this?" Weight shifted. "Feniri, help me here."
"Now what. . . My Ancestors! What is it?!"
"I do not know. Shave me, look at it. Shredded."
Hands touched, turning my head. Light flickered under my eyelids, I saw blurred shapes reeling back, earthern walls of a trench, bodies everywhere; piled around and over.
"ROT! It is alive!"
"Get the. . ."
Green eyes going wide in agony. A fine spray of red from her nostrils. A tiny noise.
A trickle of blood made a sticky puddle in the dust.
Rhasct. Oh God no.
I screamed at the hulking figure of the Gulf lord looming over me. Swordlike teeth came down to my throat. Hands clawed at my face. No! I struggled and they held me.
"K'hy, do not. . ."
And the pain through my leg was nothing I'd ever dreamed of. Bone shifted and I tried to scream, tried to claw at the pain and it was insubstantial and all-pervading and unlimited. I just moaned while bones moved and clicked and sank deeper, away from it all to that place where it was grey and nothing
"K'hy . . . ?"
Armies fought around me. Shifting masses flowing like tides, hissing voices like waterfalls, like rain, like thunder, furry bodies changing and melding into something amorphous, flexing, shifting and permeating. Teeth slashed, gleaming like metal spiralling away into dark depths and a river flowed around me: viscous, endless, trees on the banks hunched and stunted and the black closed over me and I fought and. . .
Silver-blue steel slid deep into matted fur. Metal cutting flesh. . .
Fur curled close around me, soft like sunlight, stroked my face. Blood-warm insubstantial breath touched my cheek and a rough, damp tongue lathed gently at my eyes. "You are all right. Safe. My strange one. Rest. . ."
Strong arms cradled me like some earliest memories and a low, soft voice murmured like a lazy sea. . .
There are more memories of times: pain, hands touching, moisture on my lips, my eyes, body. Sometimes voices drifted in and out of awareness. Soft paste held in my mouth until I swallowed. Other touchings. I never wanted to stay in that place where I could feel things, because there was always pain. Always there, hovering on the other side of the threshold just waiting for me to step across.
No sense of time. It never meant anything. Past and present mixing and overlapping, making no distinction between worlds and lives, twisting like skeins in a rope:
Christmas in Manhattan. Lights everywhere, santa on every corner, screaming kids, crowds buffetting, the department stores no-go areas. In a small backstreet there was a small place: Engelmann's imports. All kinds of old, dusty neat stuff. I found a jade carving: a single piece carved into a skeletal sphere, inside that one another, inide that another. Incredibly delicate. . .
At a bar with friends. Place made up like an old English pub with softened lights and chrome trim and electric pumps drawing the drinks. Huge tankards you could drown a dog in.
Night rain on the windows. Lying awake, listening to her breathing in sleep, her hand on my chest. . .
Sword glittering like chrome. Blood shone black then red.
A shadowy figure standing in a doorway, watching me.
Feet up, popcon in hand. With friends watching laserdisc movies: Heavy Metal, True Lies, Aliens, Sleepless in Seattle on a bigscreen.
Hangover. Burrying my head under the pillow while voices clamoured in the dorm hall outside.
Terrified green eyes watching me over the straps of a muzzle. . .
I woke like a diver breaking the surface of the water, breaking from still darkness into pain and dim light. I took a breath: slow and shuddering.
I hurt. Everything hurt. An aching from old wounds, throbbing with every heartbeat. I lay still, staring up at a low wooden ceiling. Alive? I was still alive? The last seconds flicked past in my memory: Hrrasa pulling the pin, the look on his face, then the flash of light.
What had happened?
Licking my lips I felt scabs and skin pulling across my face, my left cheek and temple and I couldn't see out of my left eye. Panic surged through me and I tried to raise my arms to my face. My left arm screamed and burned as cuts and bruises and what felt like sutures shifted. I lay still again, taking stock.
Bandages everywhere. The stink of alcohol. My clothes were gone, but the blankets covering me were warm enough. I thought my legs were in splints, but I couldn't be sure. Bruises turned my muscles to knots when I lifted my right arm. There were angry red scratches and massive bruising, but nothing as serious as my leg. I touched my face and found the left side of my head was swathed in cloth. I could open my left eye and when I shifted the wraps covering it could see a glimpse of light. Not gone or completely blind. My scalp had been shaved: my fingers scraped across millimetres of stubble.
Christ knows. Hrrasa. . . he must have taken most of the blast. I'd gotten the spillover, and that had almost been enough. My entire left side, the side that'd been exposed, stung like a thousand beestings.
I sank back into the pillows and soft matress. Where was I?
A dark room. Wooden floors and ceiling. Tapestries hanging from stone walls; In the darkness I couldn't see what was on them. There were cabinets and shelves stacked with what looked like sheets, bottles, a few books, and other odds and ends. A door in the far wall, drapes drawn across what was probably a window in the one to my left. The bed was a typical Sathe round-bowl type, but the concavity had been flattened out, turning it into a round platform. I felt fear growing again: I had no idea where I was.
What had happened?
The Gulf Realm? Did they have me again? Wouldn't they have killed me? Did this mean there was worse to come? But I thought I remembered things: voices I knew. . .
Things in my chest shifted when I tried to move. My arms ached. My skin hurt. I just lay there, watching the candle burning down in dribbles of wax, breathing steadily, letting my eyes close and that enveloping, drifting sensation. . .
. . . a coolness washing down my body. Soft dampness dabbing against my chest and neck. A pause, the sound of water trickling, moisture cool against my cheek, then water dribbling into my mouth. I coughed and cried out at the pain deep inside. Hands touched me and a voice murmured.
Opened my eyes to a candlelit stranger.
The Sathe flinched back, spilling water from the bowl in her hand: Droplets felt like pinpricks against my skin. I started in fright, tried to move away but my body betrayed me. More pain clawed at me.
"No!" She pushed the bowl onto the bedside table, sending a mug tumbling to shatter on the floor, and caught my shoulders to press me back to the mattress. "Stay still. You will reopen something. You understand me? Rot it! I am trying to help you."
Pinned, I lay still, panting like a trapped animal. Gingerly, she took her hands off me. "Better. Can you understand me? They said you could speak."
I didn't say anything. Her muzzle furrowed, then she shrugged, patted my shoulder and went to the door. I could hear her talking with someone just outside, only snatches of their conversation: he is awake. Go tell someone. . . something like that.
Then she closed the door again and stood a while, half washed in candlelight, other in shadows. Her eyes glowed with that hot titanium shimmer, not blinking. I looked away. Presently I heard floobroards creak as she moved closer. "You do not know where you are, do you. You are in Weather Rock; in the Keep. Safe now. The Shirai will be pleased to. . ."
"Tahr?" I croaked.
"Tahr," I repeated, turning so my one good eye could see her. "She is here?"
"She is coming. She will be here soon. Now, please, just lie still. Would you like some water? Yes? Here."
Water. It felt fantastic, easing the burning in my throat, but she took the bowl away too soon. "No, please." It hurt to talk.
"All right," she touched the side of my face gently. "More later. You are not ready for too much, alright?" She returned to the bedside table and poured more water into a larger bowl. It steamed slightly. She dipped a rag and wrung it out again. I protested when she pulled my blankets down:
"Hey. . . no. . ."
She touched my face again, "It is just a wash. You will feel better."
I didn't have much of a choice, but it did feel good. She was gentle, especially on those places torn by shrapnel. Also on some other places, but I wasn't in any condition to appreciate it. I drifted in and out of half-sleep while she murmured reassurances and the warm water caressed me. Places where she'd finished cooled, feeling alive again. I was more asleep than anything when she patted my cheek, "You have a visitor."
I couldn't lift my head to see properly. There were feather- soft footfalls, creaking of floorboards and Tahr was standing over me. A subdued, hagard Tahr. Again, "K'hy? How are you doing?"
"Tahr." My face ached when I tried to smile. "My skin hurts."
I don't know how to describe her expression. Like a man who thinks he's only got three days to live being told it was a mistake; there's nothing wrong with him. For some reason it was funny, and the feeble laughter hurt more than anything else.
Tahr was sitting beside me, touching me, wiping away the tears that welled up and blurred everything. Her head dipped and warm breath washed across me, then her tongue gently rasped at my eye, her voice a murmuring sound I remembered from my dreams. I touched her. Muscles ached, but I laid my good arm across her back.
We held each other.
The other female's voice said, "Not too long, High One."
I didn't care if it was for eternity.