A Place Amid Ashes (2.3)

This story segment contains scenes of violence and death.


Shaila Dominance – Djose Woods, outside Knyskna.

Sergeant Bahir was still lively, and he began to deal out orders. “Gather up any stray Schnitzers, and point them north. Keep six or seven shells around for each. We’re advancing. I’ve got more Imperialists to kill. We’ll leave behind a few people to rig up the Imperialist’s ammunition and supplies for destruction. You,” He pointed at Elena, “You’ve got explosives in that pack, right? Leave them for the cleanup crew before we go.”

Elena nodded and she did as instructed, leaving behind her pack. She seemed relieved to be rid of it. Sergeant Bahir ordered about ten people to stay behind, crewing two undamaged Schnitzer 37mm guns and setting explosives around the stacks of crates and in the contents of overturned tents.

About forty other soldiers, including Leander, Elena and Bonde, gathered around Sgt. Bahir and advanced north over the toppled sandbag wall the armored car had run over to attack them. He divided them into three teams that would spread out and follow the woods around a path about five meters wide that ran downhill from the clearing and into the forest. The path was an old woodland trail just flat enough and wide enough for cars to move through, but the fire teams stuck to the treeline on either side.

Everyone moved briskly, no longer caring what they trampled over to make it from cover to cover. Without the element of surprise they had to treat every stretch of wood as though the enemy was charging to meet them. Electric torches cast wandering lights into the wood to make up for the distance they had put to the Nocht pyres and lanterns in the camp. Two people in each thirteen-gun squadron walked with a sidearm and a flashlight, guiding the rest downhill. Eleven others stuck to their submachine guns.

As they advanced Leander saw flashes in the west, flares and gunfire in the distance.

“The other assault group,” Bonde said. “They haven’t found respite like us.”

No sooner had this been said that the respite was at its end.

From the gloom of the forest Leander heard the clinking sounds of several grenades striking the carpet of twigs. He could not judge the distance well, but nobody was about to risk being bombarded by fragments. Everyone in Leander’s squadron took cover against the thickest, closest trees they could find and steeled themselves.

No explosion followed.

A thick cloud of smoke rose from the forest floor instead, and there was a din of running boots, moving in the cloud, crunching leaves and twigs. Leander and Elena stuck shoulders to either side of a big tree, put their backs to one another, and leaned out in preparation. Nocht soldiers moved up in force, known at first only by the stomping of their boots, and then by the cracking of their bullets, chipping bark off trees used for cover.

After the first exchanges of gunfire the battle grew pitched. Smoke grenades burst around the forest, some igniting patches of dry leaves and creating dancing torches in the gloom. Assault teams hunkered down and shot their Rashas and pistols into the wood in the hopes of stemming the hidden tide. Nocht’s combat presence grew from distant flashes and rustling movements through the fog; to withering bursts of concentrated gunfire probing the Ayvartan’s cover; to shadows, darting from tree to tree and charging ever closer to Leander and his team. He directed tentative fire their way, hitting nothing.

Chaos unfolded in the thick wood. Leander could have sworn that he had heard men fall and cry in pain, but nonetheless the opposing ranks crashed into one another as though their numbers had never thinned, and he found himself firing at gray uniforms so close that he could discern everything about them. The battle lines were just a few meters from each other, and it felt far more personal even than the battles in the well-lit camp.

He saw the helmets, like coal pails, with a projecting visor and a flared rim; faces white as chalk with piercing eyes; great gray coats that seemed to hide their real shapes.

Rather than Nocht carbines, many of the soldiers Leander now faced returned fire with metallic SMGs, pinning him with the same deadly bursts as the Ayvartan Rasha.

Leander and Elena quickly found their backs directly pressed to each other, both fully in hiding from intense gunfire. Wood chips flew around them as gunfire struck cover.

“Watch your sides!” Sergeant Bahir shouted through the storm. “They’re going to flank you! Ignore the gunfire facing your cover and keep your flanks and backs guarded!”

Leander swallowed hard, realizing that he and Elena were now a flank of their team, positioned by ill fate on the extreme left side of the advance.

He leaned out of cover and opened fire, hoping he might dissuade Nochtish movement, but a retaliatory blaze from the enemy forced him into hiding again. Nocht gunners fought back with precision, while the Ayvartans had no coordination as to who was firing, who was reloading, and how to advance. Without Sergeant Bahir screaming from somewhere in the middle of the battle, there would have been no leadership at all.

Their squadron was concentrated, and had poor angles on the enemy’s positions despite proximity. Leander could see Bonde and many of his other squad mates crowding the adjacent trees, sloppily trading low caliber gunfire with the enemy.

A principal obstacle in front of them, preventing them from advancing or dispersing, was a long, overturned tree trunk serving as cover for crouched and seated Nocht troops, and guarded on either side by Nocht submachine gunners in good cover behind standing trees. It was from there that a rising gale of bullets kept Leander’s team pinned down.

He could not see the positions occupied by the other teams through the shadows and smoke, but he knew his own team was gaining no ground at all.

“I’m throwing a grenade!” Elena told him suddenly. “I hear movement over there!”

She pointed out to their left flank, at an indistinct series of shadows in the gloom that Leander assumed were more trees. SMG fire raged in front of them and prevented Leander from leaning out to try to spot enemy movement, but he was not about to doubt Elena if she thought they were in danger. He nodded to her in acknowledgment.

“I’ll cover you.” He crouched and tried to guard her as she primed.

Elena had a good arm, and reared back and cast the grenade exactly where she had told him. It soared between a pair of thin trees and over a series of cleared stumps. Within an instant they saw the blast as a brief, powerful flash. They heard a crashing noise from something heavy nearby, and a helmet flew out of the wood and rolled past them.

Looking over the site of the carnage they thought they could make out a corpse, sprawled over a tree stump with an uninhibited view of Leander and Elena’s tree. He had been trying to circumvent their cover, and Elena had managed to stop him.

They stared in shock, wondering whether this was horror or fortune before them.

Emboldened by Elena’s throw, one of their squad mates at Bonde’s side reached for his own grenade. He shouted, “Throwing a grenade!” and signaled his intention to throw forward at the Nocht position. Several other squadmates stepped out and fired fiercely to cover for him, while Elena and Leander reloaded and attempted to join.

But this maneuver would prove very short-lived.

Nocht gunners retaliated instantly despite the suppressive volleys from his squadmates, and the man received a wound to the leg as he leaned out to throw, and fell out of cover. His grenade rolled out of his hands and barely left the battle line.

Nobody could reach out to save the man; everyone hunkered down in a panic, as the grenade was primed and about to blow. Leander cried out in shock and covered himself. Between the lines the grenade went off, the trees fully absorbing the blast and fragments. When the squad recovered their comrade lay butchered on the floor just centimeters away, and the enemy gunners were mildly shaken and certainly far from dislodged.

Leander’s stomach tightened, and he could not grip his weapon well.

In the midst of the noise he remembered the only other time he had ever felt so sick and hurt and fearing for his life – once when his family had stopped to hunt wild boar in the woods of some lost corner of Ayvarta, untouched by anyone but nomads for years and years. He had never been allowed to go hunting, and was forced to stay with the girl children. But one time he had ventured to escape and to find the hunters.

Unfortunately for him, he met a wild boar before they did.

He saw firsthand how one of the caravan men killed it to save him.

It was faster and stronger than them, a massive beast against mere men, but it wanted Leander’s flesh, not theirs. They dove upon it from behind and butchered it alive with their knives. Despite all its brute strength the boar could not match their ferocity.

Leander had not been able to move a muscle, facing that hideous thing, but in his terror he had played a part in their success. He had drawn the monster’s attention to himself.

“Elena,” he found himself saying, his voice shaking and his Ayvartan tongue ever more accented and difficult to maintain, “You have a sharp spade, a trench spade, do you?”

His grammar was becoming loose as well. Still in shock, Elena nodded.

It was easily seen on her pack, and Leander took it, hands shaking.

“What are you going to do?” She asked, staring with wide eyes at him.

He did not respond, not with words. He did not even breathe.

Leander dropped his SMG and stormed unceremoniously out of cover.

Running with desperate strength he tried to circle the engagement, putting as many trees between himself and the enemy as he could. He had to cover as much ground as he could while they were still focused on the trees and not their flanks. The gun, the ammo, the grenades, none of it would help him. He had to bet everything on his feet, his arms, his foolishness, and the enemy’s focus – and on their primal fear of claws, teeth, and melee.

He ran with his head down, vaulting over stumps and roots, charging with both hands on his spade, held out in front of him, swinging with his arms. For a foolish instant he believed he went unnoticed, then bullets started to trail his way from the enemy’s right flank, chipping pieces off the trees and striking the dirt as his feet left the ground.

He did not pause, he took no cover – he felt as if his heart would seize up with the rush.

Around him the gunfire grew in intensity.

Stray SMG bullets ricocheted off the back of his plate armor and off his shoulder with each enemy burst and he screamed in pain and rage from the blunted impacts. He screamed to keep moving, his entire body hurtling forward in a daze. He screamed to live. If his voice gave out, if his mind froze up, his limbs would too and he knew he would die.

Through the firestorm he ran a dozen meters to cover less than six, and it was like a writhing blur before him. Leander ran the left flanks of the enemy’s position and charged toward a pair of guards still firing at his comrades from behind the trees. He put his spade in front of him and threw himself as fast as he could toward the two men.

One man looked over his shoulder and saw him coming.

He ripped himself from his position, turning in a panic and opening fire as Leander drew upon him. Rounds caught in the metal assault armor, hitting Leander like rocks thrown at his stomach, but he did not slow. He came crashing forward and swept the man aside, throwing him to the ground and casting his weapon away into the shadows.

Ayvartan fire resumed as Leander attacked, chipping at the trees; the second SMG gunner turned away from the front and fully around in time to meet Leander.

He did not get to fire a shot.

Leander bashed his hands with the spade, turning his gun to the ground, and bashed him across the head. His opponent stumbled, hitting his back against the tree. Leander reared back and with all the strength he could summon he drove the spade through the man’s mouth. The sharpened edge split the cheeks and cut right through the back of the neck. Leander thought he felt the tip slicing through bone and hitting wood.

From the ground the surviving gunner witnessed the horror that had become of his squad-mate and crawled away on his back. Leander ripped the bloody spade free from the corpse with both hands and in one fluid motion he turned and swung again.

With one horrible thrust he pierced the man’s head across his nose.

There was silence for a few confounding seconds before Leander was again aware of the gunfire, of the rustling in the trees, of the distant blasts. He dropped his spade.

More pressingly, he had become hyper-aware of his own body, trapped in it.

He sucked in air desperately, choking and heaving. Every tissue in his body seemed to thrash and thrum with pain, blood crashing through sheared sinews, muscles twisting, his tongue hanging out and drooling. Rivulets of sweat felt like razors across his skin. He felt the bullet impacts blunted by his armor across his back and belly and chest, swelling and scorching. He kneeled helplessly over the corpses, about to vomit in pain and trauma.

From the forest came a renewed stomping and screams in a strange language.

Leander looked slowly up and saw figures in the forest, staring at him like a beast.

Kommunisten! Feuer frei!”

They brought their rifles up to shoot at him.

From behind him a hail of gunfire lit up the figures, like fiery arrows in the gloom.

“Leander, we’re retreating! Leander!”

Elena knelt beside him, firing her submachine gun into the woods and screaming at him. Leander lay dazed for a moment, while his squadron moved up to the position behind the long overturned trunk, firing into the woods and leaping over the cover.

His distraction must have allowed them to overrun it.

He helped himself to stand by Elena’s shoulder, hobbling to look around the tree he had charged. All of the men that had impeded their progress lay dead, and his comrades hurried to pick the officer among them for anything important.

Bonde hurried up to the front, and took Leander over his shoulder.

He looked Leander in the eyes and nodded, smiling at him. Acknowledging him.

“I’m afraid we can’t take a token of this, but we will remember it.” Bonde said.

They left the spade where it lay over the corpses, and Elena took Leander’s other arm over her own shoulder. She tried to smile at him too, but she was visibly more shaken than Bonde. Leander thought that like him she was nearing the end of her composure.

Something intangible that allowed them both to fight as they had done until now was dangerously close to breaking. Leander could hardly make sense of his own head anymore.

Sergeant Bahir screamed out from somewhere in the forest: “All remaining flares, fire overhead to the closest enemy position and retreat quickly! We need to cover our escape, we’re falling back to the trucks. The enemy is livelier than we anticipated!”

Leander sighed pitiably, feeling a terrible pain just doing that.

It all had been for naught.

All at once the remaining flares rose skyward from the depths of the wood, and were followed by a torrent of mortar fire from the far-off road. Like stars falling from heaven the shells would scream down behind them and light up the forest for an instant, forcing the imperialists into hiding or tossing them like toys with direct hits.

Joining the attack on the advancing Nocht forces were captured Schnitzer guns from the camps in the rear, lobbing High-Explosive shells over the retreating Ayvartans and deep into the ranks chasing them. Many shells caught in the trees above Nochtish troops, but burst into fragments and lit fires that nonetheless worked in the communist’s favor.

Leander did not look back, but the fire and the marching he heard in the distance suggested to him that they had likely not even chipped at the imperialist’s strength in the wood. Surprise had been their only advantage and they barely left a scratch on the enemy.

Somehow the desperate retreat was not overrun. Elena and Bonde hurried through the wood with Leander in tow, past the clouds of smoke and the corpses of enemy and comrade alike. They rushed uphill, and the Schnitzers were abandoned and disabled with grenades.

Leander asked to be put down, and on shaking and hurting but still capable legs he ran alongside his comrades. His chest felt like it would rip open from the inside whenever he breathed while running, and he was soon feeling light-headed again, but he would not stop moving. He did not want to be carried again. He hated feeling like a burden.

Soon the group was deep into the forest, and could see the lights from the trucks ahead of them on the road. They heard resounding explosions at their backs as the imperialist’s stockpiles detonated, consuming the remainder of their outer camps in an inferno.

Even that felt like a hollow victory.

Everyone who reached the road pulled themselves back into their trucks with bleak expressions in their faces, if their face had an expression at all. Many soldiers seemed struck dumb with glassy eyes and no understanding of their surroundings.

Adrenaline now wearing off, Leander felt he too must have looked confused and spent, struggling to raise his legs and climb into the bed of a truck while feeling as though his body would rip itself apart in the process. He had never felt so drained.

Of the 24 people who could fit in this truck, there were only 8 left.

He settled uncomfortably on his bench, playing with the catches fastening his armor at his shoulder. He knew his binder was totally ruined under his clothes – he felt the itchy fabric sheared to pieces against his chest. But he still wanted the damned armor off. He could not quite remove it by himself, and was advised to wait until a physician could see him – the armor might have been helping to keep him standing, his comrades told him.

The truck rattled to a start, drove into the ditch on its side and turned around back the way it came, toward Knyskna. It had been many hours since they departed. Goblin tanks lobbed shots into the length of the wood to stymie an enemy interdiction as the convoy drove forward at full speed, the time for stealth and silence long since over.

Leander’s vision went in and out of focus. He felt someone reach out to him.

“You did well, Leander. You were brave.” Bonde said. “You too, Elena, you fought fiercely. All of us are still learning, and right now the enemy is our only teacher. Today you conquered an enemy who fought like he was born to do so. We were not born into this. But if we can buy more time and fight like that, we can win. I know we can win.”

“Can we?” Elena said, sighing. “Nocht has felt nothing short of invincible to me.”

“I’m not quite together enough to return the optimism, Bonde.” Leander said.

“I’m just trying to lift your spirits up. You did not fail by any measure today.”

The two of them looked skeptically at Bonde.

“I’m being serious with you two!” He said. He took off his helmet, and ran his hand through his very short, closely cropped hair, scratching. He showed them the helmet – a bullet had caught in it, a hair’s width from his head. “All of us survived an ordeal today. All of us cheated death today. Our continent has so many legends about this.”

“I’m sorry, but I’m a Zungu.” Elena said, referring to people of Lubon or Cissean or Nochtish or Svechthan extraction – “ivory-faced” – that were nonetheless native to Ayvarta.

Leander was a Zigan so he already did not fit the demographics particularly well.

But he knew Bonde was an Umma, the most ancient people of the continent, even more so than the majority Arjuns of Ayvarta, examples of which were many around them.

“I don’t know the legends,” Elena said, “and I don’t really worship the Umma’s ancestors or the Arjun’s spirits. I just know what I saw – and it looked like defeat.”

“Zigan folklore is even grimmer on this subject.” Leander said, his voice beginning to grow weak again as the pain across his chest flared up. “If you cheat death you owe him, and he will collect far sooner than if you had lived a full and healthy life. Daredevils are not rewarded among us. We are a cautious sort who try to avoid trouble.”

“Well, fine, then let’s not talk about legends. I’m comforted by religion – but I understand a lot of communists are simply not. If you need a reason to carry on, think of this.” Bonde said. “We are free. We have our place in the world. They’re trying to take it away. There is no other place for us like Ayvarta. That is why we must, and we will, keep fighting. We do not exist anywhere else – what you are here, Leander, you can be nowhere else. Same goes for you, Elena, and for all of us. What we are here, will fight here or will die here. It has to win here.”

Bonde’s words shocked him. He instantly wondered whether Bonde knew those inalienable and difficult feelings which Leander held about his body, about his soul – but of course he could not have. What chance had he had to learn them?

However, some of what he said rang true for him in other ways.

Leander remembered Gadi, the brightly-dressed woman who accepted him into Bika. He remembered the people of Bika and his few days living under the auspice of their generosity. He thought he’d had a place with them in a way that he never had before. He was free with them. He felt both a strong disgust and fear that Nocht had taken it all from him, but also a growing strength to resist. He had to fight for it, all of them had to.

He had to stand amid its ashes to preserve his freedom if needed.

“You’re right about that, in more ways than you know.” Elena said.

When they wanted to kill Leander, the Nochtish men had screamed Kommunisten.

It was strange. His eyes began to water, but not because of corporeal pain or the reverberations of gunfire and shells and wailing death that played out inside of his skull. His tears were sentimental. He felt the fighting so close now, much closer than ever before; each round fired was being fired on the soil of his only home.

He had been fighting for something borrowed all this time, and it was becoming his now. But it gave him a strange kind of courage too. Bonde and Elena both noticed him weeping, and they patted him in the back and tried to console and comfort him, as their trucks drove hurriedly back to Knyskna to prepare for Nocht’s counterattacks.

They looked like they understood what he felt.

This was something common among them all now. They were Ayvartans.


In the year 2030 D.C.E the Federation of Northern States, “Nocht,” launched “Operation Monsoon,” as part of Generalplan Suden, the invasion of the Communist southern continent of Ayvarta. Across the twin dominances of Adjar and Shaila, Nocht deployed half a million troops for their first wave, and held more in reserve.

The largest concentrations of these troops were the elite Task Force Lee in Shaila, whose Panzer and Panzergrenadier divisions stormed quickly through Ayvartan defenses and seemed unstoppable as they took land, bombed airfields, and drove back defenders.

Shaila was defended by Battlegroup Lion, an army weakened by the policies of the national civil council parliament in Solstice. Suffering crushing defeats, the bulk of its troops were encircled in Tukino. In its darkest hour they were unable to defend Knyskna.


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