August 26, 2002
The palisade protected the defenders against the spears and arrows from the outside, but it also limited their vision. In order to get a clear shot at one of them, one had to look out over the top and expose oneself to being shot at. The defenders had heaved more than one body with an arrow through the eye or the heart over the palisade; they were still there, still fighting, but the spirit was wavering -- it was over, and they knew it. It was written in the acrid tang of smoke that came wafting from somewhere behind them, where they dared not look -- mixed with the sweet, sickening smell of the charnel house, the stink of burning hair and human flesh. The day smelled of blood and ashes.
The young man who had taken up position at the north-eastern corner after its previous defender had become one of the bodies heaved over the side peered out into the woods beyond the palisade with an intensity far beyond a simple searching for a moving target. He knew that the trees were too far away -- he knew that in his head -- but his heart still searched the shadows for one face, for the face of the companion with whom he had grown up, the boyhood friend with whom he had traded first blows and who had been at his side when they had both first been hailed as warriors. How... how had this happened? How could he be out there in the woods and his friend here in the failing fortress? What dark Gods had written this ending?
There were tears mixed with the blood and the grime on the young man's face. Nobody else noticed. Nobody else had time to care.
Something crashed behind him -- he could feel the heat on his back, the fire had taken hold, somewhere close by. He turned to look, raising himself into a crouch.
He had removed his leather helmet hours ago. Even as his head cleared the palisades a bow sang out from the forest, and the arrow flew true, sinking deeply into the back of his neck and into his shoulder.
He cried out, fell.
"Fool!" someone beside him muttered wearily. "What were you thinking?"
He'd reached behind, and with failing strength he'd broken off the shaft that had pinned him. Now he brought it forward, looked at it, and started laughing weakly. He knew that fletching. He had often helped a friend make the arrows that bore it.
So it had been a friend who had killed him, after all. No us, no them, just two people who once loved each other facing one another across a battlefield.
The world spiralled down into darkness, into a point of incandescent blue light, and then it was gone.
He couldn't believe he was actually out here shooting artillery at the same Parliament building that he had sat and argued in not a week ago.
With some of the same people whom he was now shooting at, trapped inside the hallowed walls.
The once-graceful columns were black and pitted. Someone had hit the flagpole on the roof with a nicely gauged shot, and it had snapped, falling forward; the flag they were all supposedly fighting under had poured itself over the edge of the building and now hung limp and riddled with rips and holes over the doomed columns.
"Fire!" he shouted hoarsely, and to his appalled distress heard his voice break on the word. The soldier beside the gun emplacement obeyed his order. The gun gouted flame. The officer turned away abruptly, turning his back on the burning building.
Something hit him from behind, making him stagger forward, fall onto his knees as his legs buckled, grab for the gun carriage as support.
"Sir! Sir! You've been hit!" The boy who had fired the gun left it to come round to the wounded officer's left side, offering his shoulder. "Sir, lean on me, sir, we need to get you out of here..."
But the officer had turned his head and was looking at the building they were shelling. He could not see it very clearly, because of a number of reasons -- not the least of which was the fact that his eyes were so full of tears that they were overflowing, leaving tracks of smeared dirt on his face.
"Leave me alone..."
The boy took a step back, confused, agitated, anxious. The officer took a breath which bubbled in his throat and allowed his head to fall forward, closing his eyes against the sight of the downed flag which he had helped bring down.
"I wonder," he whispered. "I wonder which one..."
His mind presented him with a picture of Harry, his friend Harry, who had sat beside him in that same building up there, who was in that building now. With a gun in his hand. One of them. One of us.
A memory stirred in his mind, very faint, of flames and arrows. It was quickly gone. He folded down into himself, his breathing shallow, his eyes closed.
"Sir? Sir?" The boy-soldier's voice was coming from very far away. The light shuddered, and died. The last thing the officer saw imprinted on the backs of his eyelids as his consciousness ebbed away was the familiar smile in Harry's blue eyes, sparkling like sunshine on water.
"Hasan is out there, Misha."
Misha turned away from the window whose glass he had just shattered with the stock of his rifle and leaned against the wall beside it, the gun hanging limply in his hands.
"What for?" said Misha violently. "You probably have a best friend out there as well. It's this bloody war."
Hasan -- who had helped him chase old Stevan's chickens when the two of them were young boys, delighting in the old man's curses, in the way the gnarled stick which seemed so much a part of the gnarled hand that bore it had been shaken at them in impotent rage; who had been his staunch and no-questions-asked alibi for countless frowned-upon activities; who had courted and won Misha's younger sister, Ivana, and who had probably watched, if not taken part, when she had been raped and killed and the house burned above her head less than four months ago. Hasan. Who knew him better than he knew himself.
"What happened?" whispered Misha bleakly.
"Nothing. Nothing." A shot whistled into the house through the broken window, and Misha whirled, aimed, fired back, dropped back into cover.
"We're trapped, Misha. There's no way out of this accursed place. They're all over the hill."
"I know," said Misha. He fired again, fell back. "How are we for ammunition?"
"Not too good. A few hours. Maybe."
"I'll not wait like a rat in a trap," said Misha. "We'll blow it. We're dead anyway. We can at least take a few of them with us. Get the rest of the ammo, and rig a fuse. And don't light it until I say so!"
He didn't watch his orders being carried out; he was looking out into the street, to the hill above it, watching for a thoughtless move. Something did stir, and he fired; a shrill cry rewarded him. He grinned, looking feral. "Got 'im," he said softly, his hand closing into a fist. "Got one of them."
What if it had been Hasan?
His mind shied away from it. Not Hasan. Not the friend who...
Who had been dead these many months already. Dead. It had been Hasan Misha had been crying over when they had buried Ivana. And afterwards, he had hated him -- hated him for stealing his sister's funeral, for being there in spirit, for haunting the place with his absence, with the ghost of his laughter, of the wind-tousled fair hair and the sky-blue eyes. That had always been a running gag between them -- that they must have been switched at birth, because Misha, dark and brooding and olive-skinned, looked far more like a Hasan than the flaxen-haired gentle giant with broad Slavic features who really bore that name.
"We're ready," Misha heard from behind him.
"All right. Cease firing. Let them think that we're done for," ordered Misha. "And then wait. How long's the fuse?"
"Don't know. A few minutes."
"Don't light it until you are sure that they are close enough to feel the sting."
They watched, standing at attention and peering out of the windows. The silence stretched out interminably. More shots whistled through the house; nobody stirred.
Then they came. They rose like wraiths from hiding places, guns at the ready, approaching stealthily, walking on the balls of their feet. Misha could see him now, clearly -- it had not been Hasan whom he had hit with that lucky shot, out on the hillside. Hasan was coming, closer, those clear blue eyes hard as diamonds.
"You were my brother..." whispered Misha, choking on the memory.
"Fire," Misha said softly, and stepped out into the open, standing at the window, aiming straight at his friend.
There were three explosions. One from his own gun. One behind him, as the house bloomed into flame. One from the muzzle of Hasan's rifle.
They had been looking into each other's eyes as they had fired. Misha's world contracted to that -- the blue eyes on the far side of his gun widening in shock, in fear, in anguish.
A memory stirred in his mind, double-layered -- flames and arrows, flames and guns, wooden s, Grecian columns. The smell of blood. The smell of ashes.
"Hang on," Misha whispered, reaching out with a bloodied hand, his eyes filming. "Hang on..."
The light went out.
The plasma crackled and hissed, blue and hot, covering the no-man's-land before them with deadly crossfire. One beam hit the nose of the shuttle the lieutenant had been hiding behind; Clary saw it disintegrate, heard the muffled cry from behind it.
"Hey! Hawk! You OK?" he tried to shout in a whisper.
There was no reply.
"Damn you," Clary murmured, fighting a lump in his throat. "Oh, damn you..."
It was one man's face that swam into his mind when he hurled the curse. The boy who'd shared his quarters when they had both arrived at the Academy. The boy whose fragile fairness had immediately earned him the nickname Angel, and whom Clary had been constrained to defend until he realised, with respect, that Angel had resources of his own. Angel had been the best of the best. Crack shot, unbeatable in hand-to-hand.
Except, sometimes, by Clary.
They were two of a kind, loners both, but accepting each other for companionship. They could not have chosen other friends. The friendship chose them, rather than the other way around. Clary, too, was the best. The sharpest mind in the class. The quickest on the uptake.
The best. The best. The best.
And now Angel was out there, commanding the plasma battery that held Clary pinned behind the shuttle freighters in the docking bay. The dictator's catspaw. Angel. His enemy. His friend.
He leaped, rolled; plasma seared the space where he had been, smoking, leaving burn scars on the floor. The air was alive with blue energy.
But there was little left of his lieutenant. The shot had been deflected by the ship, but not deflected enough; Hawk had been almost decapitated by the plasma ray. Clary, no stranger to violent death, turned away, gagging.
Angel's doing. One of them.
One of us.
The us of a lifelong friendship. Of something that was almost brotherhood.
Arrows. Forest. Fire.
Clary frowned. The vision had come into his head uncalled for, unexpected, straight from the dark ages of one of the heroic fantasies he'd liked to amuse himself with in the vid arcades. But it was more specific than those generic tales. A specific fire. A specific forest. A specific conflict.
A specific arrow. Bearing the fletching of a friend.
Columns. Smoke. Fallen flag.
Clary shuddered, curled into a ball of pain, the plasma almost unnoticed around him.
A specific building. A specific flag, one he did not recognise so as to be able to identify it, but which he knew in his bones as being his. His to defend -- his to attack.
A specific bullet. Bearing the signature of a friend's gun.
Guns. Ambush. Broken glass.
The high keening cry that rent the empty space of the hangar silenced the plasma for a moment. Clary suddenly realised that it had come from himself, that he was still crying out. He bit on it, on the pain, on the memory of yet another encounter -- the sight of shock and horror in familiar blue eyes, the mushrooming explosion behind him...
It had always been him.
He carried the death with him like a seed.
The plasma had died. Angel must have stopped the barrage.
"I remember," Clary whispered. "I remember..."
He staggered onto his feet, into clear sight.
"Angel..." After he had won the right to ditch the nickname, Clary had been the only one that Angel had allowed to keep using it. Clary took another step into the now silent hangar. "Angel... I remember... It isn't over... It never ends..."
A single shot took him in the chest. He dropped without another word, even as another voice broke into a scream.
Angel burst out from behind his fortified position, ran a few steps forward, stopped, his hands falling helplessly by his sides. When he turned to look back, his eyes were pools of hot blue rage.
"I gave no order to shoot!"
"But sir..." It was one of the younger ensigns, looking scared and confused. "He was one of them..."
"No, you poor fool," whispered Angel, looking back at the crumpled body of his dead friend. "He was one of us."
· · · · · ·
Alma Hromic, the author with R. A. Deckert of Letters from the Fire, was born in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia. Trained as a microbiologist, she spent some years running a scientific journal, and later worked as an editor for an international educational publisher. Her own publishing record includes her autobiography, Houses in Africa, The Dolphin's Daughter and Other Stories, a bestselling book of three fables published by Longman UK in 1995, as well as numerous pieces of short fiction and non-fiction. Her last novel, the first volume of a fantasy series, Changer of Days: The Oracle, was published in September 2001 by Harper Collins. Hromic is an essential member of Swans. She maintains her own Web site (with Deck Deckert) where she provides information about her work and the professional services she offers: ButterknifeBooks.com
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