Unto the breach pos 4, p.60

Unto the Breach pos-4, page 60

 part  #4 of  Paladin of Shadows Series

 

Unto the Breach pos-4
 



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  * * *

  Captain Guerrin stood up on the ridgeline as the line limped towards him. Bodies on stretchers carried by men in battle armor and women in blood-splattered smocks. Men with women, too wounded to walk, over their backs. Men carrying the bodies of dead comrades. Smoke-stained and blood-drenched. But they were all there, every dead Keldara, man and woman. Some of the men carrying multiple weapons and still helping to lug the heavy mortars.

  “First Sergeant, get the stretchers,” Guerrin snapped. “Hell, get the whole company. These people are going home if we have to carry them on our backs.”

  Epilogue

  Mike stood before the massive dun of the Keldara, head bowed, as the light wind from the north ruffled his hair.

  The entire tribe stood behind him, more than half wearing bandages. That was, the whole of the tribe that was not in the hospital in Tblisi or the much more modern and capable Landschein Hospital in Germany. The worst casualties, those who had lost limbs or eyes, the ones with really serious damage, were in Germany undergoing reconstructive surgery. The survivors.

  Those for whom no surgeon could do anything lay on the ground in front of the dun. Twenty-one bodies, the ones that were even vaguely viewable dressed in their finest clothes, weapons by their sides, axe in one hand and a bundle of mistletoe in the other. Five were covered with sheets. Including Gretchen. He’d had to look, too. God damn him he’d had to look!

  Twenty-one bodies. Fifteen male, including Father Ferani and, fuck, Sawn. Kiril, Gretchen… Six girls, Gretchen and five more from the battle in the fucking pass. The fucking girls of the Keldara. The fucking girls had broken them out. Broken the defenses in the pass he had chosen to avoid, to go to ground, rather than assault. He couldn’t imagine ever taking another, Rite of Cardane or no. They were now, all, his troops. You didn’t fuck your troops.

  He’d always known the favoritism reasons against fraternization. What nobody ever mentioned was having your soul ripped out of your body when you hit the perfect storm. It counted as the two-fer from hell when you fell in love with the fiancee of one of your troops — Rule one: do not screw the dependents of subordinates — then said fiancee got blown away by a fucking 12.7 — Rule Two: do not fall in love with anyone you are in command of who is liable to get splattered all over a helicopter.

  He’d lost friends before, he’d lost comrades before, he’d lost Keldara before.

  But he could not face losing Gretchen. He wanted to scream. He wanted to throw himself on that broken body and howl like a mad dog. He felt as if he was going mad, that he finally understood the madness of grief of King Lear, the repeating images that his brain simply would not stop showing him. Flashing legs and golden hair and blue eyes that haunted his dreams. He felt as if at any moment he would scream to the skies, begging God to bring her back.

  But he couldn’t. All he could do was stand, as calmly as possible, and watch her be sealed away in a tomb.

  He wanted to lie by the side of his wife and his bride. But he couldn’t. Because she wasn’t, never could be. And because of the people behind him.

  They were so few, now. Yes, they had broken the Chechens, broken them good and hard. The Georgian military was advancing in the Pansiki, virtually unopposed. The Russians were pressing forward from the north, catching the remaining formed Chechen groups in a pincer.

  But there were a billion fucking Chechens. He’d kill every fucking one, drop smallpox on them, nuke them to fucking ashes, if he could just have one of those brave fucking girls back, if he could raise Sawn from the dead. If he could share one more beer with Father Ferani.

  If he could have one more moment, just to look in her eyes, with Gretchen.

  He’d kill the whole world for that one more moment.

  Anastasia, wearing a thin blue dress far too cool for the day, stood with the girls of his harem, just behind him and to his left. Katya was among them though he wasn’t sure that was quite right. He thought she probably belonged with the staff, now. He also wasn’t sure what had happened to the girl during the mission but she was… changed. Oh, she still had that hard side, but he’d actually seen her do nice things for the other girls in the house. Nobody was sure the change was going to hold, but he wasn’t sweating having her at his back anymore.

  Most of the Fathers were behind him and to his right. Including the new “Father Ferani”, a relative youngster in his early fifties. In a line behind them were the Mothers. Mother Lenka was right there with them. He wasn’t sure what that boded, but he could feel it boding something.

  Then the team leaders spread in an arc behind him. Yosif, his head still bandaged and one eye covered by an eye-patch. Vil with a bandage around his arm and leg. Pavel, unscratched and clearly unsure about that. Gregoriya Kulcyanov, the replacement for Sawn. Tall, slim and blonde, Mike kept wanting to call him Sawn. Did they change the name of the team? Fuck. Dmitri Makanee, in place for Oleg. The best doctors in the fucking world hadn’t been able to save his knee. They were promising miracles for a replacement, but the bottomline was that his top team leader was now going to be missing a leg. For Mike, it was like missing an arm. His left, maybe, Adams being his right. Last, Padrek Ferani, also apparently unscathed. But his eyes were dark. Team Padrek, the best of their technicians, had taken the worst losses of any of the teams on the mission. They were going to miss that braintrust. Badly.

  Then the staff. Nielson in his Army dress blues. Adams, just about covered in bandages from the final assault, wearing Keldara camo, and the two pilots, standing side by side.

  They wore their flight suits and the new patches that had mysteriously appeared in their quarters only that day.

  The short one, Bathlick, wore a patch on her right breast of a flaming dragon, breathing fire down towards the ground. Banked in a tight angle, the dragon’s tail was pointed forward and shooting out what looked very like a laser beam. The ground below was littered with small figures that might have been bodies might have been bunkers.

  The taller, Wilson, wore a patch of a woman riding a winged horse. The woman had a wounded soldier cradled in her left arm and a sword that looked very much like a yellow light saber held above her head. The figure was not in armor, she wore only a smoke-stained flight-suit. She was not blonde with plaited hair, but brunette, her hair streaming out from beneath a pilot’s battered helmet. But it was unquestionably a Valkyrie, one whose face and figure looked very like the wearer.

  The patches were, just as unquestionably, hand embroidered.

  Also standing there, not quite sure of himself, was Dr. Arensky. Marina had chosen to remain in Russia but, with Mike’s permission, Dr. Arensky had asked to stay in the valley. He was, besides being a microbiologist, a trained physician. He had helped, immensely, with the recovering Keldara.

  Then the rest of the Keldara, the team members mingling unconcernedly with the girls who had fought in the Pass. It seemed that there was no end to the wounds. But there were a lot of hands being held, too.

  Father Kulcyanov stepped forward and raised his hands.

  “Father of All, the Far-Seeing, Lord of Ravens, raise these warriors, these Sons and Daughters of Tigers, these right hands of Fir, to your home. Let the Valkyr come for them and carry them across the shining bridge to the Halls… ”

  Mike tuned it out, looking at the fucking tombs the dead were going to be laid in. He didn’t know where the rocks had come from. Maybe the Keldara kept several dozen slabs of granite around just in case their Kildar really fucked up. The slabs had been set up in a partial circle at the base of the dun, twenty-one small chambers, flush into the base, awaiting the bodies to be placed within. Closing slabs were laid before each of the chambers, the bodies resting on them in all their finery. On the completion of the ceremony of Going the bodies would be placed in them, the chambers closed and covered in turf.

  Finally, Father Kulcyanov finished the invocation and the team leaders stepped forward. Together with the Fathers, they slid the bodies into the tombs then more of the
young men stepped forward, closing the chambers and beginning to cover them in earth.

  The Keldara could dig like motherfuckers.

  When the chambers were covered, the turf placed on them and the whole business done, the Keldara began to break up, quietly. There was no sobbing from grieving mothers but nobody was exactly partying. Later, maybe. Mike, personally, was planning on drowning himself in beer.

  “Kildar,” Father Kulcyanov said, walking over to him. He was still wearing that fucking tiger skin.

  Mike wondered, again, if he should tell the old man about the tiger. Kulcyanov didn’t have much time left in this world, he’d probably like to hear that the tigers were coming back.

  “Kildar,” the man repeated, laying his broad, spadelike hand on Mike’s shoulder. “It is well.”

  “Yes, Father Kulcyanov,” Mike replied. “It is fine. Thanks. I’m good. Thanks for asking.”

  “No, Kildar,” the old man said, clenching his shoulder with amazing strength for his age. “You do not understand. It is well. Father of All, Kildar, try to understand that. For you and for the Keldara. For decades the Keldara had no chance to enter what you Christians would call heaven. Yes, we miss our sons and daughters. I had known Ivan Ferani most of my life, and all of his. I miss his gentleness and humor. And… everyone knows that you grieve, especially, for one who was laid here.

  “We grieve but at the same time we live in joy. For the first time in decades we have added to the dun. We have lived in shame for a generation, for we could not add to the dun as our ancestors have for time immemorial. We weep not for these heroes, but because their light is gone from our lives. It is selfish. They have, all, men and women, brought honor to our clan such as we have not had in centuries. You, Kildar, have brought our honor back. Do not fear so. Missions will come to you and, for our honor, for her honor, you must not fear. Do not turn from the path of the warrior! Do not forsake us to die of old age and be buried in the dirt. If you do, you shame us before our gods and our ancestors. You will shame her memory.

  “So understand this, Kildar. Know it in your bones, in your water, in your soul. It is well. Year upon year, century upon century, we build the dun. It is said that the final battle will commence when the dun of the Keldara reaches the roof of the sky.”

  Mike looked up a the massive hill, fully a hundred feet high and three times that at its base. Then he blanched.

  “Wait,” he said, blinking in horror. Each of the tombs was maybe two feet high and seven deep. “I thought this was… Are you telling me… ”

  “The dun of the Keldara is the graveyard of our heroes, Kildar,” Father Kulcyanov said. “Those that die of old age, sickness and infirmity, they are consigned to the Cold Lands and buried in dirt. They die without honor. These are our honored dead. These rest with the heroes of centuries, Kildar. Rank on rank, circle on circle, layer upon layer, it is the home of our soul. It is our destiny.”

  * * *

  The bar in Georgetown was nearly deserted. It was always pretty busy at lunchtime and got really busy after dark, but in the middle of the afternoon in “The World’s Capital” the busy beavers of Congressional Staffers, White House Staffers, Congressmen, Senators and the predators that circled them were all beavering away.

  Which was why Pierson had chosen it for a quiet drink with an old “friend.”

  “We know they weren’t nukes, you know,” Pierson said, raising the glass of Bushmills to his lips. If the bartender found it unusual that a full bird colonel in dress greens was drinking in the middle of the afternoon he didn’t let on.

  “That became obvious rapidly,” Colonel Chechnik said, shrugging as only a Russian could. He tossed off his vodka and poured more from the bottle on the table.

  “I’m thinking smallpox,” Pierson continued. “The SecDef is holding out for Ebola, but I think he’s been watching too many movies.”

  “He has,” Chechnik said. It was a virtual admission.

  “We need verification that it’s gone,” Pierson replied. “All of it. Everything along the lines.”

  “What? You won’t take my word as a spook?” Chechnik said, lightly. “I hope you do get it. But all I can say is that I’ve been told, personally, by our president, that all such research has been shut down and all samples destroyed. Whether that is true… I’m not sure even Vladimir could say.”

  “Fuck,” Pierson said, knowing that thousands of hours of very quiet negotiations, personal talks at high level summits and billions of reams of paper would come down to that, that even the Russians didn’t know if everything was gone. The problem with infectious biologicals was that one fucking lab tech holding back one fucking vial could destroy the world.

  “I understand that you’re now personna non grata in Keldara Land,” Pierson added.

  “I’m sure that will pass,” the Russian said with a shrug. “We both need each other too much to remain permanently estranged.”

  “Estranged is, I think, too mild a term,” Pierson replied. “And the Keldara, not to mention the Kildar, have long memories. The Kildar, in particular, is taking this one really hard. I don’t have all the details but… Don’t expect to be invited to tea any time soon. In fact, I’d suggest that you, personally, stay as far away from Mike as you possibly can.”

  “Well, at least he got paid,” Chechnik said, tossing off another vodka.

  “Yeah,” Pierson said, snorting. “I can’t believe you guys just handed him three nukes.”

  “Well, we wished for him to get paid, no?” Chechnik said, grinning. “And otherwise, you would not pay him. He had suffered enough, and done enough good, that he should not be ‘stiffed.’ ” He tossed back another vodka, set the shot-glass down, poured another and then paused, his face suddenly going blank, the bottle suspended above the glass. The neck rattled against the lip, faintly.

  “Wait. Did you say three nukes?!”

  * * *

  The tiger propped himself up, hips sprawled to the side, and looked down into the valley.

  He’d recently caught a feral pig and was feeling pretty happy. His belly was full and while there weren’t any female tigers around, hey, things changed. This area seemed to be simply crawling with pigs and deer, most of whom had forgotten all about tigers. He’d stay awhile.

  He lumbered back to his feet and stretched in the dying sun then raised his head to the purpling sky. He coughed a couple of times and then tried out the roar. But his throat still wasn’t full grown, didn’t have the broadness of a mature male. All that came out was a half-hearted bellow. It was lost on the wind, carried away into the dusk.

  Well, there were other days. He turned away from the valley and descended into the darkness of the ravine. It was time to find someplace to lay up for the coming winter. It was going to be a cold one. But spring would come around again. He could feel it in his bones.

  Above the tiger, the ravens soared.

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  John Ringo, Unto the Breach pos-4

&n
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