The End and Afterward
The next Soldese attack came a quarter of an hour after Colonel Terzo and I separated, a wave of troopers running, throwing themselves flat in the stubble to shoot, and springing up to dash forward again until they fell. A second wave came behind the first, and a third behind the second.
There were no more after that.
Only a few weeks ago I watched a massed attack by the men of Han. The field of battle was black with them, and a trooper who shot one saw another appear at once in his place, and another in his and another his, man succeeding man as raindrops do. Because I had seen that, the Soldese troopers seemed less dangerous, perhaps, than they really were. I would never deny their courage and discipline; but I feared at first that they were no more than a diversion; and when at last I realized that there was to be no other attack, I felt a vast relief. Our veterans could no longer run and jump like the young men they had once been, but they could and would stand behind the walls and shoot all afternoon if need be. Some of our women still shut their eyes when they drew the trigger, as I saw, but it hardly mattered at that point; and although I saw tears here and there, I saw them through my own.
The second wave got as far as the deep ditches before our walls, and a few men leaped into them and tried to climb up the other side, but a more hopeless enterprise could not be imagined. I struck one on the head with my staff, and so saved him from having his brains blown out, which would have happened in another half second.
The third and final wave got no nearer than half a chain, I believe. For the space of a breath the troopers who composed it wavered there, firing and falling; then they turned and fled. Inclito led our reserve after them-such cavalry as we had, most of the boys, and the troopers who had been with him in the hills.
I watched them then, climbing up onto one of our walls as I had stood upon the stile and wishing again for the clumsy wood-and-brass telescope I had left behind on Lizard. The horde that had sifted through the hills was melting into them again, pursued not so much by our reserve as by striding shell-bursts from our big guns, distant dots of sullen black smoke and short-lived fountains of what at that distance seemed a yellowish water, like urine.
After that, there was nothing more to do except clean up. A few uninjured Soldese surrendered; they had to be herded together and searched for weapons. Our own wounded had to be bandaged and given what comfort and treatment we could muster. Two of the elderly men who had agreed to fight for their town one more time were physicians. The one who had examined and re-bandaged my own wound the day before the battle had been wounded himself, his right arm smashed so badly by a Soldese slug that it had to be taken off just below the shoulder. When that had been done, he helped with the rest, doing what he could with his left hand, and directing a woman he found who had an aptitude for the work.
If our own plight was bad, that of the Soldese wounded was far worse, for we could give them little attention until our own wounded were taken care of. Our wounds were to the head, arms, and shoulders almost entirely; that was fortunate, since many of our wounded women objected, in the most pathetic and ingrained fashion imaginable, to having their gowns and camisoles cut away, as often had to be done.
Our dead we laid out as decently as we could; and since we could not spare blankets for the task, we covered them with straw, hay, and brush. By that time the short, dark day had ended, and the snow had ceased to fall. It was cold, the wounded (the Soldese wounded particularly) were dying with every breath, and we were all too tired, almost, to move. A few of us built little fires and ate rations taken from the Soldese dead. Most, and I was one of them, wanted only to lie down-anywhere-and sleep.
I was about to go into the farmhouse when the first party from the town arrived. It was made up of men who had been with Inclito in the hills, mostly. Of men, in other words, who had run, had in nine cases out of ten thrown away their weapons, and had taken refuge behind the walls of Blanko. Many, I do not doubt, had passed through our position or skirted it only a day or two before. There were a few officers among them, and I placed them under arrest, had their hands bound, and made them sit in the snow under guard with our Soldese prisoners. The rest I told to take slug guns (we had come into a plentiful supply) and join us.
No sooner was one group thus disposed of than another arrived, and by that time it had been disposed of as well, a third had come. Sfido and I went to the farmhouse at last, too weary almost to speak, and discovered to our great pleasure that the old woman had built a fire in our room. He slept at once; but I, finding that as tired as I was I could not sleep, sat up for a time and wrote about noticing the boy who looks like Hoof and Hide, then rose and went to the door of the old woman's bedroom, and knocked when I could not hear her breathing inside. But got no reply.
I was returning to our room, stepping as softly as I could manage across the bodies of the many sleepers who had thrown down their blankets and themselves upon her floors, when I heard distant shots, screams, and shouts. I gave the alarm and ran myself, when I had thought myself too tired to walk, and in that desperate fight in the dark wood by the river did what I could with my voice and the azoth.
As we learned later from our prisoners, fewer than a hundred men of the Ducal Bodyguard had found a point at which they could ford the river, wading in freezing water up to their necks while holding their slug guns and ammunition pouches over their heads. I cannot help thinking that if the leaders of the Horde of Soldo had employed that sort of enterprise and imagination against us while their horde was still intact, things might have gone very badly indeed for us. During the battle, I was constantly afraid that a second flanking attack would be attempted on our right, either by fresh cavalry (I could not be sure the Soldese had none) or by foot soldiers. Two hundred men there would have made things difficult indeed for us, and there must have been far more than that in each of the three waves that attacked our front.
I lay down a moment ago to look at the stars. How cold they are, how lovely, and how remote! Green, which is just setting, looks as cold as any and almost as distant; but I can never forget its steaming heat. Our wounded here were in danger of dying from shock and the cold; but wounds there are attacked at once by strange diseases. I remember far too vividly rotting wounds, and dead men whose rotting wounds still lived, seething with blue and yellow slugs, and striped creatures that resembled tiny squid.
Drinking rainwater from cupped leaves, and finding it alive already with the threadlike green worms.
The Whorl is high in the sky, yet another cold whorl of stifling heat, one in which I wandered through nights that lasted for days.
Nights in which neither these beckoning stars nor the skylands shone.
Nettle will never read this, I know-indeed, I would keep it from her if she were sitting at my right hand-but might I not communicate with Nettle if I chose, giving Oreb some message to carry to her? It is a thought I have had and pushed aside ever since he sought Seawrack for me. If I were to speak to her, I would not say that I was still alive, which could only fill her with false hope; rather I would say to her that the Outsider, the god who brought our race into being on some unthinkable short-sun whorl circling one of the myriad stars that I have been staring at, is no less present for her-or for me-tonight.
The Neighbors must have worshipped him here, under whatever name. When I sacrificed for Inclito's sake and was told that Mora was still alive (which Legaro now confirms), I was as eager for information and divine favors as Inclito himself. Tomorrow-or if not tomorrow, someday soon-I hope to learn of an altar of theirs in these hills. If not, I will build one and sacrifice to him there. Or merely worship him without offering any sacrifice, which I know that Oreb will greatly prefer.