"Over here, sir!"
Aral's nostrils flared at the familiar, unpleasant smell as he approached. Shit and seared skin. Ensign Koudelka lay face-up under some dying vegetation. Aral tore the plants away and bent down over the motionless body, anger and grief seething up inside him. Then Kou's eyes opened.
"Sir," he gasped. His breathing was shallow, but regular. He stared desperately at Aral as if trying to hold him with his gaze.
"It's all right, Ensign. You're going to be fine," Aral said in his firmest and most reassuring voice. Kou didn't move.
"No," Kou whispered. "I can't ... he got me in the back, sir. Nerve disruptor. I can't..." He paused, his eyes wide with fear. "I can't move. Nothing except my head." He swallowed, and his voice was suddenly ancient. "My combat knife is in my belt, sir."
Aral's eyes fell on it, helplessly. Images of the past days spent helping Cordelia care for her disruptor-damaged ensign flashed through his head. Dubauer had been able to move, to walk, to experience the world, for all that he couldn't talk; Aral had wondered occasionally what it all looked like to the man. Kou, it seemed, was the opposite, with his wits but not his body.
Little more than a week ago, he would have known what to do. Now everything looked different. Kou was watching him trustingly, certain he was doing what a good Barrayaran soldier ought. That trust unnerved Aral.
"We took them," he said at last. "Radnov and his followers. Tafas even managed to redeem himself. We won, Ensign. I don't want the death toll to get any higher." He placed a hand on Koudelka's shoulder, then wondered if Kou could even feel the touch. "You've still got your mind, your voice, your breath. You're not going to surrender yet. Let's see what the medics can do for you."
Kou looked more frightened by the prospect of living than dying. "Sir, please... I don't... it's all right, sir. I want you to do it."
Aral reached down and pulled the combat knife from Kou's belt. He looked at it a moment, then flung it away. "No, Ensign. You are under my command; you obey my orders." He waved the stretcher party to come over.
"Sir," Kou protested, and there was raw terror in his voice now. "Sir, I don't want to be like this. If you pity me, then do it!"
"I don't pity you," Aral said. He knelt down and put a hand against Kou's cheek, where he would be able to feel it. Kou's head jerked at the touch. "But you're still here. It's not over for you yet." He paused. "I've led you into battle before, Kou, and you've followed me. Follow me now."
Kou stared at him.
"I don't abandon my men," Aral said. "Whatever happens. You won't fight this one alone."
Kou closed his eyes, and Aral felt moisture on his fingers. The boy was terrified, Aral knew. He was asking too much. If this was a battle, then he should lead Kou in it the way he did in all battles: one breath, one minute, one hour at a time. Not the entire campaign in one gasp.
"We'll get you to the medics," he said. "We'll see what they say. One step at a time, Kou. And remember, there's no such thing as a hopeless fight."
"Not around you, sir, anyway," Kou said, his eyes opening, a flick of his old humour in his voice. He turned his head slightly. "All right. I'll follow you again, sir."
As he helped the medics get Kou onto the float pallet and walked at its side, Aral wondered whether he was doing the right thing. Kou's gaze hadn't left him, even more trusting than before, even more unsettling than before. This was a battle he'd never led a man through before. But even as he wondered, he knew he couldn't have done anything else. Whatever happened to Kou next, he would see it through.