To Free A Comrade by Jack Mulcahy
To Free A Comrade
First appeared in Sorcerous Signals under the title, Journey into the Darkness, May-June 2008
Mikhaila was in a hurry.
Damn that Kestrel, anyway! She’d told him and told him she wasn’t interested in him the way he was interested in her, but he refused to take ‘No’ for an answer. But what possessed me to agree to meet him out by the jakes-pit after dark? So I could tell him again how uninterested I am in him? He still hadn’t gotten the idea, she knew, even after nearly a half-hour’s trying. When they’d heard the bugles signaling for everyone to be in their tents, he’d handed her a shovel and told her to claim she was using the jakes-pit and shoveling over the evidence. Now she was stuck with the stupid shovel, which probably wouldn’t get her out of trouble anyway. Maergte, her Mage-partner, was probably in trouble now for covering for her. Who takes a half-hour to use the jakes, anyway?
She glanced back at her quarters. Row upon neat row of hide tents nearly disappeared under a half-moon. Tents filled with smoke and the smells of burning dung, roasting meat, and sweat. Some ten thousand soldiers — men and women, all that remained of the Grand Army of Auriga — would be laughing, singing, sharpening weapons. Every tent’s doorway faced south, the direction from which Aurigans believed good news came, but the bugles had sounded half an hour ago, so now all the flaps were closed.
At fourteen, Mikhaila was taller than most men. No one else in the squad had blonde hair or gray eyes like hers. Those things caused her to stand out from the others in ways she did not like. She’d joined the Aurigan Army only a few months before, when she came of age. Her parents, farmers turned soldiers, had died when she was nine at the Battle of Twin Pines. The Army had adopted her then, as it had others who’d lost their parents, so joining up had been a way of paying that back.
Now she was regretting that decision. She shoveled a spadeful of dirt, to back up her story, and caught a whiff of the jakes.
An instant later, the spade turned into a double-bladed axe. Alarmed, she threw the weapon away, and it became a shovel again. When she picked it up, it turned back into an axe. She lifted the strange weapon, ran a careful finger along the blade. How did that happen? I didn’t…
She was still puzzling over this phenomenon when the silence was interrupted by the sounds of voices and approaching feet. A strange man’s voice rang out:
“Hold her! We ain’t got all night!”
She took a quick peek, saw two men carrying a heavy, wriggling, sack between them. Enough watery moonlight fell on the taller man to show her that he sported a mustache and beard. A scar ran down the side of his square shaped face, from hairline to jaw, just missing his eye. A single gold ring pierced one nostril of his hooked nose.
“I can’t help it, Sneg!” A short, skinny, lopeared man with the pained, pinched look of one with digestive troubles complained. “She keeps fighting!”
A string of curses erupted out of the scarred man. “Then hit her over the head, Feortan! We need to be out of here now!”
As their voices, and footsteps, died away, Mikhaila risked a peek from behind a mound of dirt, watching as they vanished into the woods. Nothing was visible through the black vault of trees, and only the barest of paths could be discerned amid a dense carpet of vines and brambles. For several heartbeats she stared into the darkness and felt the blood roaring through her veins, the sudden increase in her heartbeat, the jagged pace of her breathing. She wanted to move, but her feet seemed to have taken root, and when she looked at her hands, she saw how they trembled. No sound escaped from that dark void, yet it beckoned her.
She glanced around for a guard, but the jakes was too far from the nearest tent. If I don’t do something now, it will be too late. Axe firmly in hand, she crossed the grassy space, and plunged into the forest.
As she entered the woods, a wall of thick black growth closed around her. The forest smelled like well-worn armor, and trying to breathe was like being smothered by a wet towel. Low branches formed an arch over the path beside the huge boles of trees that stood sentinel. She tripped over vines she couldn’t see, stumbled forward, and smacked her nose into a tree. As she stood, rubbing the pain away, she caught sight of faint, star-like glimmers flickering weakly in the distant darkness. A noise caught her attention and she squinted. There, not far ahead of her on the trail, she could just see the dark shapes of the kidnappers with their burden. They’ll kill me! I’m only fourteen. But I can’t just abandon whoever it is they’ve got. If it were me, I’d pray for help. The words of Saint Jehan the Warrior to the suppliant came back to her mind: ‘I did send someone to help. I sent you.’ She squared her shoulders, set her jaw, and began cutting across country, forcing a path through the buckthorns.
With a loud crack, the buckthorns on either side of her closed like shark’s jaws. Her heartbeat quickened, her breath came in gasps. I’m trapped! She tried to chop through the stabbing, clawing thorns with the axe, but every time she moved, the grip of the thorn-bush closed tighter. It was like being caught by a giant spider.
This farm girl’s not finished yet, she told herself. I can use fire! I’ll have to keep moving though, but not to fast so the branches don’t close too tight. Carefully, she gathered a cluster of dried grasses and twigs, and added several thorns from the bush itself. Moaning? She paused, looked around, then shrugged and went back to collecting kindling. Must have imagined it. Pushing the kindling up against the base of the bush, she pulled out her box of flint and then drew her knife. It took several tries before a spark leapt from the flint to the kindling. She squatted down and blew gently, fanning the fire into a small flame dancing at the foot of the thorn bush. As the fire licked up the trunk of the bush, the moaning came again, and again, only louder. The branches drew apart, the bushes sprang back, and she jumped free. She let the fire consume the buckthorns, then smothered it. Too bad Sergeant Reudh’s not here to see me. She dusted the dirt from her hands.
But there was still the matter of catching up with the kidnapers. Battling the thorn bush had cost her precious time. The men surely weren’t planning to walk to Rahesh, they must have horses, or a wagon, waiting somewhere. Putting all other cares aside, she ran after them, staying on the trail and praying she would hear them in time, to hide.
By the time she caught up with them, they had reached a wagon with a canvas top secured to rows of hoops. She stared at it. That looks like the one Papa had. Almost.
Sneg and Feortan threw their burden into the back of the wagon like a sack of potatoes.
Mikhaila winced at the sickening thud.
The two men climbed up onto the front seat and gathered the reins. With a creak and groan of wheels, the wagon moved off.
“We do not abandon our comrades.” Sergeant Reudh’s words came unbidden to her mind.
I took an oath, she thought, and swallowed hard. Now it’s time to see if that oath was just words, or something real. With a prayer to Fehtan, the Warrior Goddess, she took a breath and started after them, watching where her feet trod, lest she trip over a root.
When the trail crossed a wide ford, she was at a loss. The underbrush on either side of the path had thinned, which meant that she would be in plain sight if she tried to cross there. She turned at right angels to the stream and searched for a better option. As she searched, the stream widened, and tumbled over a knife-edge of rocks, cascading down a cliff. Leaves, yellow and brown, red and green, floated on the current, tumbling over the miniature cliff face. The creek was too broad to jump, even for her, and the depth she could only guess at. She turned around and headed upstream.
Branches hung low over the bank, like arms trying to drag her down, and for the first time she was grateful for whatever Magic had transformed her shovel into the axe. After several more minutes of searching, she came to a spot where the stream narrowed. She frowned and regarded the stream, then glanced around. When she looked back, the stream had widened. Did I misjudge that much? I don’t have time to find anything better. This will have to do. She took a deep breath, and plunged into the water.
Her boots struck sand and small rocks, the water swirling about her shins. Something grabbed her ankle and yanked, dragging her under the surface. She found herself facing a huge creature with a manlike body covered with scales black as coal. She struggled frantically, unable to break free. Water-demon. The thought rose in the back of her mind, old memories percolating to the surface. Soul killer. I have got to get away! It grabbed her around the waist, dragged her toward the bottom. The axe squirted from her hands as if alive. As they bounced off the bottom, she struck at it, her outstretched fingers brushing across a broken branch. The branch juddered and turned into a knife at her touch. Fighting water resistance, she shoved it into the demon’s arm. It let go, roaring in pain so loud she heard it underwater. Her lungs, starved for air, burned like acid. She kicked it in the chest and shot to the surface.
Gasping, spitting up water, she hauled herself onto the stream-bank, trembling as though she had ague. The smell of the dirt seemed like roses. She stared at the knife. First the shovel, now a branch. How did I do that? Is my Magic showing itself, finally? Behind her, the water showed no sign of the life and death struggle, nor did the demon’s body float to the surface. The stream was narrow and shallow once again.
Dripping wet, she renewed her pursuit of the wagon. She caught up with it in less than a mile, stopped in the middle of the road.
Sneg climbed down and went into the bushes.
Mikhaila clung to the far side of a tree, out of their view, and waited.
Feeling around, her fingers closed around a large stone. She flung the stone away as hard as she could.
As Sneg exited the trees, and started for the wagon, the sound of the stone crashing into the bushes split the night. He jerked his head around and started toward the sound.
Mikhaila took a small step away from the tree, gaze fixed on Sneg’s back. She was reading herself for a sprint to the back of the wagon, when something grabbed her from behind, twisting her arm up behind her back. A hand clamped itself over her mouth. Too late, she remembered Sergeant Reudh’s admonishment: “Never assume the enemies you can see are all there are.”
“You need to learn better methods of tracking.” A man turned her to face him, a menacing glare in his eyes, and she gasped.
“Major Col!” Mikhaila had never been so close to General Eurydice’s adjutant. “What are you —?”
“Shut up,” Col hissed. “I have a plan.” He turned her around and bound her hands loosely behind her back. “Play along. Pretend you’re my prisoner. And keep silent.” He pulled her away from the tree and marched her through the woods at an angle to the wagon’s path.
They emerged from the woods where the wagon was stopped. Sneg let out a grunt and peered at Mikhaila. “Whatcha got there, Col?”
Mikhaila shot a questioning glance toward Col, which earned her a swat. If he’s just playing a part, did he have to hit me so hard?
“Found her following you. Figured she wasn’t up to any good.” Col hoisted the girl up and tossed her over his shoulder.
Sneg retrieved a rope from the wagon and bound her feet. “Look at you!” A leer crawled across his face. “There’s a lot of you to go around!”
Col walked to the wagon and tossed her inside.
Mikhaila struggled against the ropes, desperately trying to use the Magic on them, but failed.
“Get moving. We have a deadline. And no messing with the prisoners. Keep your mind on business,” Col snapped. “If they escape, I will nail both your hides to a wall. I’ll be out there watching your behinds. And I’ll be watching you, too!” He vanished into the bushes.
“High and mighty spy,” Sneg growled as he swung up onto the seat and gathered the reins once more. He waited until Feortan settled into the seat beside him. “Gee-up!” He clicked his tongue and slapped the reins. Squeaking and rattling, ungreased wood groaning on iron axles, the wagon set off. “Somethin’s not right about that guy,” he muttered. “He betrayed Auriga, his homeland. What’s to stop ‘im from betrayin’ us if somebody makes ‘im the right offer?”
In the back of the wagon, Mikhaila continued to struggle. The Magic worked on the shovel and the branch. It can work on these ropes, too. She tensed and tried to use her Magic on the ropes binding her hands. Turn into worms, knives, anything! Nothing happened. Goddess, what do I do? Am I going to be a slave for the rest of my life?
A hand grasped her arm. Glancing down, Mikhaila spotted a dark brown face, a patch over the left eye, peeking out of the burlap sack, a finger pressed against the lips. General Eurydice!
The general spread her hands in a “stay still” gesture, and silently climbed from the sack. A knife appeared in her hand, glittering in what faint moonlight filtered through the cover. She cocked her arm back, took aim at Sneg, and threw. It went awry, wounding him in the shoulder.
The outlaw let out a roar of pain.
Feortan twisted around, then scrambled over the back of the seat and knocked the general sprawling.
Sneg jerked the reins with his good hand, tied them to the wagon’s brake, and joined the fray.
Mikhaila hugged her knees tight against her chest and brought her tied hands around her legs to the front. Concentrate. Your soul is a conduit for the Magic. Focus. The rope binding her wrists and ankles seemed to grow warm. It vibrated, softened, and transformed into a pile of hemp fibers. She reached for a barrel, her hand passing through the closed lid, grabbed a handful of nails They turned into throwing stars. She yanked her hand free of the barrel and tossed.
Feortan and the general were struggling now, hands around each other’s throat. One of the stars struck him in the eye. The general seized the dagger from his belt and cut his throat.
An instant later, Sneg slammed into Mikhaila, knocking her over and kneeling on her arms. She struggled to break free, but the hard floor was slippery and her opponent heavy. Almost as bad, he stank worse than a wet dog, and his breath was no better.
“You little maggot!” he snarled. “Are the Aurigans so desperate for soldiers they send half-trained children to fight us?”
General Eurydice dropped a rope over his head from behind, and pulled. The noose constructed around his throat, cutting off oxygen. She leaned back, tightening it, veins in her neck standing out as if she had ropes of her own.
Sneg’s hands clawed at the rope, eyes bulging, face turning red.
“Do something, Cadet!” the general shouted. “I can’t hold him like this forever!”
Sneg heaved against the floor, the muscles in his powerful good arm knotted like ships’ ropes.
Eurydice’s grip loosened as Sneg rose. “Use your Magic!”
Her arms free once more, Mikhaila twisted out from under Sneg, then grabbed for more nails, but her hand wouldn’t go through the barrel’s lid. She cast a quick look around, her glance landing on a piece of iron used to mend the wagon wheels. She lunged for it, grasped it in both hands. As she turned toward the combatants, iron shuddered and transformed into a sword. As Sneg broke free from Eurydice’s grip, she rose to her knees, grasped the hilt in both hands and ran him through.
The general grasped Mikhaila’s arm. Blood spattered Eurydice’s uniform and a grim expression painted her face, but her single golden eye was warm as she regarded the girl. “You did well, Cadet. Normally, I’d send you back to camp, but I’d not send my worst enemy alone through those woods. Therefore, you will accompany me on this mission. Keep in mind you are a Cadet in the Grand Army of Auriga. I expect you to behave like one.”
The wagon made its way through the dense trees, squeaking and groaning as it crawled over ruts, climbed hills, descended into low spots, always smothered by near-total darkness. Low hanging tree branches clawed at the wagon cover like old beggars, and once it sounded as if the limbs might tear the canvas apart. But the wagon and its covering survived. Overhead, hints of dawn could be seen through the roof of leaves. As the sky lightened, the trees began to thin out, and the trail widened to a shallow dale bottomed by leaves, rocks, and dark mud.
The fresh scent of newly tilled land borne on the breeze wafted past Mikhaila’s nose. Bloody-handed dawn had just crawled over the horizon when Eurydice halted the wagon near the forest’s edge, still well under its protective eaves. Ahead, the trail left the woods, continuing for some ways through a golden meadow-land, climbed a low rise, and then disappeared into a shallow saddle between the hills. Beyond the rise, dim in the distance, more hills could be seen, covered by trees that glowed red, green, and orange in the rising light could be seen.
Eurydice gestured with her hand, and the two women climbed out of the wagon and dropped to a crouch under the shelter of the dark forest roof. “My task is to go out along the trail to where it crosses another in that shallow valley, fulfill my mission, and come back. That’s as much as you need to know. I need you to remain here with the horse and wagon so that you and I can safely return to camp.”
Mikhaila nodded, but her expression of concern gave her emotions away.
The general’s expression hardened slightly. “That is an order, Cadet. No heroics. You will wait here for me only until the sun lights that last tree along this path. If that time arrives and I do not return, you will turn around and go back to camp. Is that clear?”
Mikhaila gave a sharp salute.
Eurydice returned Mikhaila’s salute, then took her gently by the arm. “I let them kidnap me, Cadet. You’ll understand when the mission is over, Stay vigilant.” She moved off silently through the tall grass, little more than a phantom in her leather and fur.
Mikhaila fidgeted, watching the sun as it crossed the sky and began its descent toward night. The sunlight crept ever closer to the tree. The shadows shrank. The afternoon turned to evening. Still the general had not shown. Finally, the first beam of sunlight touched the tree’s roots. “She’s in trouble,” she muttered to herself. “And I’m just sitting here, doing nothing!” Approaching hoof-beats interrupted her thought. She clambered up into the back of the wagon and hid.
The hoof-beats stopped and a voice she didn’t want to hear called out: “Well! I follow a General and I find her pet, the little Aurigan rat!” Major Col said. “Come out of there!”
Make your enemy come to you. The words her sergeant had pounded into her rose in her mind. She nodded toward his memory. This is my ground, so here I stand. Col wants me, he’ll just have to come and get me. There was a space between the barrel of nails and a wooden case of something. Just over her head hung several unplucked geese. The stench was awful.
“You must be afraid, rat!” Col shouted. “I’m just one man! What’s to fear?”
He wants me to think he’s alone. Which could mean he has someone with him. What else was in the wagon? The iron bar she’d turned into a sword. But, if I touch it, is it going to turn back into an iron bar? She reached for it, tried to focus….
Several thunks shattered her concentration. An arrow shot through the opening in the covering, narrowly missing her. More followed.
She reached through the barrel lid once more and grabbed a handful of nails. They sparkled, became indistinct, transformed into throwing stars. Good! I think I’m getting some control. Finally!
In between flurries of arrows, she touched a coil of rope. It became a black viper. She flung the snake out the back of the wagon and was rewarded with a yell, and the sound of someone stomping and kicking.
She ripped a handful of feathers from one of the geese, turning them into darts with needle points. One long feather she turned into a dagger. Where was Col?
Gravel crunched on her right side.
She inched toward the front of the wagon, trying to make as little sound as possible, all the while listening for footsteps. Now he was at the right rear. With the silence of a girl born at the edge of a forest, she slithered over the back of the seat and huddled down, out of sight.
Col’s voice called from the back of the wagon. “We are going to divide you among ourselves, little Aurigan rat. By the time we’re through, you’ll be a thoroughly trained and compliant slave girl.”
Now or never.
She jumped down the right side of the wagon and snuck along it toward the back. Stopped. Peered around the corner. The accomplice lay on the ground, unmoving. I guess that snake was poisonous. Pity.
Col stood pressed up against the end of the wagon, hands on the tailgate, eyes peering into it. She readied a dart, took careful aim, and tossed. It buried itself in the right side of his face.
Mikhaila charged, leading with the dagger, but Col whirled, caught her arm and knocked the dagger from her hand. He kicked it well beyond her reach, then grabbed her in a headlock, one arm around her throat, the other hand pulling the arm to exert maximum pressure. She grabbed his arm with both hands, struggled to break free, then remembered her training. Pulling down heavily on his choking arm to relieve the pressure on her throat, she reached between his legs and grabbed his crotch, squeezing as hard as she could.
Col let out a yelp and lost his grip on his arm.
Mikhaila spun, followed up with a left jab to his jawline, putting all her body mass into the blow.
Col’s head snapped right, fury flaring in his eyes. He knocked her hands aside and wrapped both hands around her throat. He squeezed. Hard.
I’m going to end up a slave, she thought. He’ll drag me back to Rahesh in chains! She panicked, struggled to breathe, to pull his hands away, to escape.
As darkness descended, she felt hidden strength well up inside her. Her will hardened. I defeated the water-demon and the prison of thorns! I can defeat him too! She closed her eyes and opened herself wide to the Magic.
It flooded in, filling her, transforming her into an incredible weapon. In moments, a huge woolly mammoth rose from the forest floor, caught Col in her trunk, and slammed him to the ground.
A moan of pain escaped him and he curled into a ball, gasping for breath and holding his ribs.
Mikhaila released the Magic and returned to her true form. “How could you betray your own country?” she demanded, wrapping a rope around his ankles.
He turned his head and spat, wincing with the effort. “My country fails to see talent when it’s right in its midst!” he turned back to look at her, forcing the words out between gasps for air. “Talent? All that matters is how friendly you are with the precious General Eurydice!”
“Is that so?” came another voice.
Mikhaila turned to see a tall, willowy woman approach, the general striding behind her. She, too, was dark like General Eurydice, though slightly paler in complexion and clad in a silvery dress that changed color as she moved. Mikhaila’s Magic surged as the woman neared. Whoa! She… she must be one of the Elder Witches! She lowered her eyes and bowed her head in respect.
“I find your opinion most interesting, Major,” said the Elder. “Seeing as how it was at General Eurydice’s recommendation you received your first commission!” She held out her fist and opened her fingers in a sprinkling motion.
Col’s eyes went wide and he gasped, then shrunk rapidly to the size of a mouse.
The Elder Witch bent over, plucked him from the ground by the arm, and deposited him into a pocket of her gown. She passed her hand over the pocket and the seam vanished. She turned her attention to the general, a cold expression on her face. “He can stay there, wondering what we’re going to do to him next. A partial payment for the kindnesses extended to me by my Raheshi jailers.” Something dark and mysterious flashed across her face, yet a breath later, her expression became open and kindly, as though nothing had ever happened. But the same ominous shadow flickered in her eyes.
Mikhaila swallowed hard, glad that she wasn’t the target. Not a woman to cross. I shudder to think of the power it took to keep her prisoner.
Two weeks later, after returning to camp and resuming training, a weary Mikhaila — tired of answering questions from her squadmates about how to turn into a wooly mammoth, and what the General was like, and how they could earn favor with Eurydice — received a summons to the general’s office. When she entered, both the general and the rescued Elder, Moirea, awaited her. She bowed her head.
Moirea lifted a hand. “As you were, Cadet Mikhaila.We want to commend you for taking the initiative to try to right a wrong, and for overcoming your fear of your own Magic. Either of those alone is a challenge; dealing with both at the same time is highly commendable. You should be proud of yourself.”
Mikhaila raised her head, a faint smile playing about her lips. “Thank you, honored Elder.”
Eurydice spoke, her eye twinkling with mischief. “No good deed goes unpunished, however, so we present you a proposition: I suddenly find that I have a need for a personal aide, someone to keep my appointments straight, handle my correspondence, and so on. It must be someone I can trust absolutely, whose loyalty is without question. She should be willing to tell me when I’m wrong, and stand up to me now and then for something she strongly believes in.” She laid her hands on Mikhaila’s shoulders. “I’d like you to fill that post.”
Mikhaila gasped, “Me? But… I thought I would just continue with my squad.”
Elder Moriea shook her head at Mikhaila. “Things can never be the way they used to be. Every gain comes with a loss. Your training will continue, however. General Eurydice and I had a rather spirited… debate… over which of us would provide that. In the end, we decided we both would.” She smiled at Mikhaila’s puzzled expression. “I shall tutor you in the Magic, and General Eurydice shall take a few hours each week to supplement your military training,”
Mikhaila nodded, then turned and looked out the window, saw squads of cadets practicing on the drill fields, thought about how everything had changed, then turned her attention to her superiors. A quick smile broke across her face, then she stiffed and became serious. She saluted. “I’ll make you proud of me, General,”
Eurydice’s mouth twitched as she returned the salute. “You’ve done that already.”