Comment by General Pentheusson to the High Masters' Commission on the War in the Magisterial Republic of Mip, speaking of the troops at Spy Hill:
"I did not consider that my men were soldiers until they came down from Spy Hill. They went up recruits, I think, and they came down soldiers."
As I stood there with the General, I heard a cry – a shout of warning. Acting from instinct, I leapt onto the boulder, pulling out Fairview's spy-glass and training it in the direction of the sound. I stiffened. Then I looked down at the General and said softly, "White flag, sir."
"Greene," the General said quickly to his soldier-servant. "Send word to the picket to hold fire. A truce party is arriving."
"More than a truce party, sir." I had the spy-glass fixed upon what was approaching us from Big Pool Road. Stretchers, wagons, men stumbling hard. . . . I heard the General climb awkwardly up the rock – his shoulder was still swathed in bandages – and so I turned to hand him the spy-glass silently. He took a look, then said to me, "Send word." He handed me back the spy-glass and climbed carefully off the rock.
"Yes, sir." I hopped down, found a passing soldier, and sent him to the field hospital, where the hardest wounded were still being tended.
The General and I stayed where we were, at the crossroads between Big Pool Road and the Magisterial Turnpike. Eventually, through the narrow gap in the trees, the Mippite delegation reached us.
They were led by a middle-aged man who had lost his hat in the conflict; he looked as dusty and fatigued as we did. He took us in at a glance, but if he recognized me, he had good enough breeding to pretend he didn't. Instead, he and the soldier bearing the truce flag stopped immediately in front of the General.
"General Pentheusson?" said the middle-aged man in our tongue. "General Starke's compliments, sir. He is returning your wounded to you."
"Lord Aldred," the General said slowly, and I started in my place. So I had spared the life of General Starke's younger brother. Well, Fairview would have died in any case. By this point, I had no taste for revenge.
"General Pentheusson." Field-Cornet Lord Aldred Starke met the General's gaze without wavering, not bothering to deny his part in the slaughter we had undergone. I wondered whether General Starke had snickered at the idea of sending us the very officer who had brought about so many of our deaths.
General Pentheusson managed to pull himself together. "Thank you, field-cornet. I have arranged to have your own wounded returned to your General. . . . Ah, here they are."
Field-Cornet Starke raised his eyebrows as the four stretchers came forward, but he said nothing. He must have already realized how disproportionate the casualties had been between the two sides in this battle. "Thank you, General Pentheusson. General Starke is returning three hundred of your soldiers. He has also asked me to let you know that he will allow you to retrieve your dead tomorrow from Spy Hill, under flag of truce."
"Please offer my thanks to your brother." If nothing else, the General could match Field-Cornet Starke in well-bred speech. "Will you stay and take refreshment with me?"
We had precious little stores remaining, but there was no point in emphasizing that fact to the Mippites. Field-Cornet Starke shook his head, though. "Thank you, General, but my orderly, young Demas, was wounded in the fighting. I want to return to see that he is well cared for."
"Of course," said the General, managing to hide his relief. "Colonel Rook, if you could find an appropriate escort for the field-cornet . . ."
It took many minutes for me to locate a Landsteader soldier who was unlikely to bayonet the enemy officer. By the time I returned, the first wagons bearing our wounded had arrived, tended by nurses of the Red Circle. We have such nurses among our own soldiers in the force attacking eastern Mip; they appear everywhere in wartime, tending the wounded on both sides of any conflict.
The Red Circle is actually a spiral; having sent the Mippite officer on his way, I stared at a wagon painting of one such spiral of rebirth until my eyes hurt. Then I asked the General, "May I volunteer to lead the party to retrieve our dead from the hill, sir?"
The General shook his head; his eye was on a young man on a stretcher, crying piteously for his mother. The young man's face was half blown off. "We have no time to retrieve the dead. The Commander-in-Chief's orders are for us to retreat back over the Potomac at once. He still hopes we can find a way to relieve the forces trapped at Fort Frederick."
"But sir, our dead—!" I cut myself off, biting my lip. What did it matter? Fairview was dead as ashes, regardless as to whether I retrieved his body and buried it. He was reborn into a baby somewhere in the world, undoubtedly far beyond my reach. I should let go.
I could not let go.
I looked over at the General. He was staring at one of the returned soldiers, who had been bayoneted in the gut and looked as though he would not live out the night. The General said, "I've resigned."
"Sir?" As I spoke, I stared, stupid with sleeplessness.
The General turned his attention toward me; his face was grey with weariness. "I've resigned my commission. The Commander-in-Chief has accepted my resignation. He agrees that I can do better work for the Dozen Landsteads in the diplomatic office."
I did not know what to say. I wanted to tell the General, "You're a fine officer" . . . but that would be a lie, and he would know it.
As I struggled for speech, he smiled – a half-smile, implicitly acknowledging my dilemma. "You're to take my place."
"Sir?" Truly, I must be asleep.
"I did not fail to hear you the day before last, General Rook; I simply failed to heed your words of wisdom. These men" – he gestured toward a group of cripples who were hobbling past us – "have paid the price for my folly. They'll be in good hands with you, I know."
I was silent. Two days before, this would have been glorious news – news that would have made both me and Fairview shout with joy.
But since then, I had witnessed Fairview shot dead after his own promotion, and I had learned what it meant to be the man who stands in the shelter of the General's rock. It was a privilege I feared I could no longer bear. Not without Fairview there to help me accept the burden.
Doyle's white spaniel, which had been pawing away at a bush next to the boulder, came out and quietly sat at my feet. She had followed us down during the retreat, clearly puzzled by her inability to wake Doyle. Now she watched, her head turning back and forth, as the first of the Mippites' ambulance wagons reached the crossroads at Ammippian Springs. Nearby, a handful of medical men were moving forward. We had lost many of the Yclau doctors and assistants at Spy Hill, and the colonial stretcher-bearers had sneaked off somewhere during the morning to lick their wounds, but the Commander-in-Chief had returned the Yclau ambulance corps, and those men were now kept busy transferring the wounded from the Mippites' ambulances to ours.
It took me some time to realize that the men accompanying the Mippite ambulances were all dark-skinned.
I had only a moment to understand the implications of this – the colonial stretcher-bearers had gone back to the bloody battlefield to retrieve our wounded – and then I stopped one of the wagons by raising my hand. I had recognized the man lying in it.
Biddle was wrapped in bandages covering half his face; I would not have recognized him, except that he still wore his engraved wedding watch in his pocket. As I spoke to him, he stirred.
"Sir?" he said in a breathless manner, almost too low-voiced to be heard. "Oh, sir, General Rook – no one will tell me. Did we win the battle, sir? Did we win?"
I could feel the eye of the stretcher-bearer upon me. As it happened, it was the head stretcher-bearer. I gestured toward Biddle and raised my eyebrows.
The head stretcher-bearer shook his head and drew a circle on his forehead with his thumb. Biddle was entering into death, then. No wonder no one had been willing to tell Biddle the truth. I leaned over and said, in the most cheerful voice I could force, "Not to worry, Biddle. All is well. Your sacrifice, and that of your comrades, was not in vain."
Biddle gasped with relief. "Thank you, sir," he murmured. "Thank you. My woman will be proud to hear that. When I write her the news—"
"I'll write her myself," I promised. "You get some rest now." I stepped back; the head stretcher-bearer's concentration transferred back to his charge. As I watched Biddle placed in the wagon reserved for the dead, it occurred to me that I had never asked the head stretcher-bearer his name.
I turned away, shaken by my encounter with Biddle. So many of the men I had known were gone. Canton, killed in the first minute of the battle, whose last long conversation with me had been in receipt of my reprimand. Tice, whom I had misjudged so badly. Fulton and Lexington, both immolated by my fault. Doyle – poor, silly Doyle, who had never found the kind master he wanted. Davey, who had tried vainly all afternoon and evening to revive Fairview, and who had been shot in the head during the last hour of conflict, shortly before I gave the order for retreat.
Fairview himself, abandoned on the hill.
Fairview, who would never have abandoned the hill.
It was at that moment, I think, that I realized why the Fates had stolen Fairview from me. It was because always, equal friends though we were, I had taken my cue from Fairview. He had led in battle; I had followed, standing by his shoulder, but never taking a step where he had not taken a step.
Even if we had succeeded in installing guns at the top of Spy Hill overnight – an unlikely prospect, I thought – and even if we had entrenched ourselves better up there, it was still a hill that we could not have held, except at the cost of most of our remaining men. I had realized that, looking down at Biddle, and so what I had said to him was the exact truth. His sacrifice was not in vain. His upcoming death, and the death of many others, had woken me to the fact that our war with Mip was a terrible, bloody conflict that was much better resolved through the patient efforts of Pentheusson and other diplomats than through arms on the field.
Knowing that, I was more determined than ever to be a General.
It's odd: the same circumstances, which turn some men into pacifists and diplomats, turn other men into better soldiers. Before, war had been a game for me; now, having been on Spy Hill, I knew that every order I gave would determine whether my men suffered without need. So I was determined to give good orders. I was determined to provide them with wise leadership they might not receive elsewhere.
None of this would have happened if Fairview had not fallen in battle. He was a different man than I; he would have held out to the exceedingly bitter end at Spy Hill. His departure, which tore at my vitals like an exploded shell, had nonetheless freed me to recognize certain facts I would not have seen if he had remained in command.
I wondered whether he had been granted knowledge of my transformation, in the new life which he must now be living as a baby in someone's cradle.
I shook my head and strode forward. There were hundreds of men passing through these crossroads, and nearly all of them required comfort. I did my best, during the next hour, to supply that. As the line of ambulance wagons slowly moved its way up Big Pool Road, I met each ambulance and exchanged a few words with the wounded, thanking them for their contributions to the fight. To the wounded men who were well enough to walk – and would therefore likely continue their work as soldiers – I acknowledged the gravity of what had occurred, then did my best to provide a cheerful assessment of what lay ahead. Faces brightened, spines straightened, men who had hovered at the gates of afterdeath seemed to find new reason to remain on this side of the gates.
I found myself wondering why it had taken me half a lifetime to learn what it meant to be an officer.
My messenger-lad, newly risen from his sickbed, arrived and handed me a dispatch. It was from the Commander-in-Chief, confirming my appointment as the new Major-General in charge of General Pentheusson's brigade. As an afterthought, the Commander-in-Chief added that he had heard various reports that Colonel Fairview had performed well in battle, and therefore he too was to be rewarded with a brigade, though for now he would remain a Major-General in my brigade . . .
I folded the note and slipped it into my pocket. Army communications, it seemed, were no better now than they had been in the battle. Still, Fairview's grandmother would be pleased by the posthumous honor her grandson had received; that was something. I turned my attention to the white spaniel, who was yipping excitedly in her usual fashion. What the bloody blades was I to do with the beast? Well, I supposed the brigade might make a pet out of her, given that she had proved herself in battle. I turned to look at what she was yipping at—
—and then I was running, stumbling, calling, as though my life's thread had just been snapped, and I had only seconds left in which to speak.
Doyle was holding him. His own right arm was in a bloody sling, but his left arm was firmly around the waist of Fairview. I could see no blood on Fairview, only a bandage around his head. His eyes looked dazed.
"Oh, there you are." Doyle's eyes brightened as I skidded to a halt beside them. "Thought you'd be along, soon enough. That the General over there? Hoped he'd survived. Most of the rest are gone, I figure. Thought I was a goner too, when that rifle shattered my funny bone. I fell down in the trench, and that weren't a safe place to be, I'll tell you, but there weren't no safe place on that hill, certain. So I figured I'd just stay still and hope for the best. Fairview were 'side me, and I could hear him breathing – a day and a night I'm hearing him, and we was both struggling to stay away from afterdeath, I guess. Then the guns got all silent, and I'm thinking it's time we was moving on, 'fore the locals come and knife us. But the master here, he didn't seem much taken to moving, so I had to wake him up, ungentle-like."
Only death, it seemed, was likely to still Doyle's tongue. Fairview had seen me now and recognized me; he gave me a lopsided smile as Doyle rattled on about the various methods he'd tried to poke and kick Fairview into awareness.
"What worked?" I asked, addressing Fairview.
"You did," Doyle replied cheerfully. "I told him you'd keelhaul him if he didn't return to duty."
I ignored Doyle. Fairview blinked rapidly, as a man does when emerging into daylight from darkness. Then he said softly, "They wanted me to go."
"Who did?" I asked. Behind us, the stumbling train of three hundred wounded men was nearing its tail end.
"I don't know. The Fates? Someone. They wanted me to go on. To be born. Again. And I said no, not until I saw you. I knew you must be there. I'd seen the Mippite begin to stab you."
I felt a chill all down my back. One hears stories about such things – of men who enter so far into afterdeath that they can remember afterwards what it is like. But that tale is rare; men who are so far gone don't often return.
Even Doyle was silent now, though he kept Fairview firmly in his grip. Fairview said, still hesitant, "I wouldn't go on. I didn't want a new life; I wanted my old one. They kept urging me. I got angry at them. I called for you. And then I heard Doyle speaking. He said you wanted me. So I came back."
He spoke simply, as though nothing were more natural than for him to defy the laws of death for my sake. For a moment I was still.
Then I took him into my arms. I told myself that I was only relieving Doyle of his burden, but somehow my lips found Fairview's lips, and I was kissing him with a lifetime's worth of accumulated passion. Sweet blood, he was kissing me back. And it was good, feeling the power of a man who was my equal in strength and rank. It was very good.
But it would have been good in any case, because it was Fairview.
I drew back finally, though not letting go of Fairview's waist. Instinctively, I looked around. The General – perhaps out of pure tact – had entered into conversation with his messenger-lad, setting his back to our reunion. Some of the other soldiers passing us, who knew that Fairview and I considered ourselves equals, looked shocked at seeing their frivolous slanders confirmed.
Doyle merely grinned. "There now," he said, "I knowed that if I brung him back alive, it would be worth it. Maybe a little reward, hmm? A few sips from the officers' supply of drink?"
"Doyle," I said, unable to help laughing, "what are we going to do with you?"
"Drown him?" suggested Fairview, but he was laughing too. His eyes still looked dazed, as though he remained half in afterdeath, but it was clear that he could understand what I was saying and doing.
Doyle shrugged, grinning. "Keep me close by, I figure. You're the only masters who can stand me."
"I'll raise you in rank—"
"If you want to be my soldier-servant—"
Fairview and I stopped and stared at each other, while Doyle nearly rolled off the road, laughing at us. Then he stopped and pointed. "Oh my blessed, see? That's what I was telling you 'bout!"
I stared at what he was pointing at. "The General?"
He rolled his eyes, the way he always did when officers missed the point. "The rock he's standing right near – that's the monument I was telling you about. See here . . ."
He hurried forward, while the spaniel tried to trip him in her eagerness to welcome him back. Fairview and I followed more slowly. I still had my arm around Fairview, but he shook himself loose as we reached the boulder I had stood upon earlier. I let him go, uncertain as to why he wished to be released.
"Look." Doyle pointed at a sketch on the rock-face that I'd missed. "Ancient. Half worn away, but you can see it's just like the one in the guidebook."
I stepped forward to look. There, almost entirely hidden by the bush that the spaniel had been pawing at, was the frieze of the soldier saving his love-mate's life. I leaned forward to take a closer look as Doyle chattered on.
"Third century, my boat-master said. Right old. I heard there was another monument somewhere, over their grave."
I felt the shock all down my spine; I straightened up abruptly. "Their grave?"
"Well, they died, of course." Doyle was giving me another of his "you blockheaded officer" looks. "All that shilly-shallying the clean-shaved man did over whether to save his friend . . . He waited too long, and the spear killed his friend, and then the chariot-wheel went over the clean-shaved man, and he got killed too. My boat-master, he said that there are later tales about the two friends. The way folks tell it, the men kept meeting again, time after time over the centuries, and each time the clean-shaved man would be granted the chance to save the bearded man, but he'd wait too long, and they'd both be killed. The Fates kept giving the two men another chance to be together – another chance to show that they was worthy of each other's love."
I couldn't look at Fairview; I wasn't sure what I'd see in his face. But I didn't have to look. A moment later I felt his hand warm around mine, squeezing it as tight as a clam—
Do you remember now? Ah, I see that you do. I suspected that your memory, made faint by your healing wound, would sharpen if I recounted the events of Spy Hill. So you know what that clasping of hands meant to both of us: A reminder of life. We were both alive now, and what happened in the past – what I failed to do for you in the past – no longer mattered. We had each other now.
I felt your hand's strength pressing against mine in a silent, sacred vow to each other that we would not allow history to repeat itself.
"C'mon," said Doyle, nudging me in his familiar manner. "The General, he's waving at us. Guess he's impatient to go on."
"Yes," I said, turning to match your smile with my own. "Yes, I guess we all are."