Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Return to Fusang: Headlong Flight

Continues From.. | Meanwhile.. | Meanwhile...

The mare is in fine shape; she speeds down the reverse slope of the pass where the Land Dragon had stopped for the night, bullets starting to whisk by us right and left.. one of them coming uncomfortably close, plucking at my sleeve. It does nobody any good to ruminate on bullets. When they find you, they find you. Besides, the mare is a dark grey color, and so are my Chinese peasant clothes. I doubt the cavalrymen are doing anything more than frantically pursuing their decamped horses and firing wildly into the night

I do not grieve Ignatieff's death; I'm not in the slightest bit shaken about the moral implications of taking his life-- he was dangerous, fanatical and absolutely ruthless. He would not shy away from killing ME were our positions reversed. The boy soldier fumbling with his rifle, though, the fear in his face... that will bother me for a long time, I suspect. I must shake that thought away, and maintain the fury for a while longer... long enough to get me to a place of safety. Moral pondering will weaken the Fury almost immediately. I know, instinctively (for there is no science to the berserk), that I had not had nearly enough bodily essence (what the scientists are now calling metabolic energy) to maintain the berserk for very long-- a steady diet of rice and fish scraps will only take you so far. I am keenly aware I am in a race against time.. my hands are already shaking with adrenalin quivers.

At the bottom of the mountain trail the railroad cut disappears, although the foundation for a railroad bed spreads out before me pointing in an almost perfectly straight line towards Fusang.. German engineering again. Clearly the Fusang engineers wished to tackle the harder part of the task first, and are busy dynamiting and grading the cut through the mountains, no matter how many slaves they kill doing it. The railroad bed is fine, pulverized rock and packed dirt; my little mare hardly makes a dent in it. Perfect for hiding the trail-- long enough to throw off pursuit. I had no doubts about the inevitability of pursuit-- a Celestial Kingdom cavalry unit can be quite proficient under the right leadership, and I know it would be reformed shortly (if it wasn't already) and the pursuit would be on. They fear the consequences of failure far too much. Tsk Tsk.. is this any way to run an army?

Five Li of riding along the railroad bed and the trees open up on either side to reveal a wide field full of untended sorghum plants. I smell the corpse-stink long before I see the pathetic group of bodies at the side of the railroad bed. Had they tended these fields? Had they objected to a railroad being built by strangers running straight through it? Perhaps a necromancer could find out, but I will never know.

I pull off the railroad bed and ride South and East now, trying to cover tracks as best I may.. through the fields of sorghum. I have been riding for an hour and a half, and the fury has left, and the withdrawal is coming on full force. Hands and feet shaking, vision dimming.. I manage to get the mare to the edge of the forest before falling off... flopping about in a fit like an epileptic fakir, in pain and nausea. I raise myself to my hands and knees, feeling the welling up of toxins inside me.. and I vomit, copiously, again and again. The Fury must be fed, or the price is somewhat dire-- the rage eats you instead, and this malaise and sickness always ensues as the body seeks to rid itself of the toxic effluvia of rage. I blank out as the pain from the bayonet wound suddenly reasserts itself. My normal nervous system has returned-- My eyes are blue again, I am down to my normal size, and I cannot ignore pain any more. I grunt, a broken finger shouldn't be nearly as distracting but for some reason I'm aware of it more than the wound in my side. I look down at my left hand, covered in blood, holding my steadily bleeding side. This wouldn't do. I stagger up to my feet... the mare is still there, cropping sorghum plants placidly, appreciating the down time after the long run. I mumble something that must sound soothing, her ears flick away at flies calmly. I put one arm around the mare's neck and walk her a bit.. where there is a field, there is a hut. Another corpse is by the door, in an advanced state of putrescence. I walk through the fly cloud (some of which take an unhealthy interest in the blood flowing out of my side), and look about the hut. Not much is here.. overturned baskets, grain larder taken.. the floor dug up to look for the typical cache of meager coins the family managed to save. I am astonished to see even the ancestral statues are looted. My heart sinks for the unknown owners of this house. Even the worst of the worst would not dare the wrath of heaven in the Celestial Kingdom by committing this worst of all atrocities.

I doubt the Fusangs would loot the kitchen, and a quick glance shows that aside from breaking such crockery as they had, they had not done much here. Looking through my nameless benefactor's herb collection, I find what I'm looking for: Achillea millefolium, commonly called bloodwort or yarrow. My eyes are swimming a bit now but I manage to make a poultice from an herb paste of bloodwort, charcoal, and a little wild honey. Yes, honey. I don't trust the water here one bit. First, I sew the wound with one of her precious sewing needle collection, which she had stuck in the curtain in a neat little row. Clever woman! May angels speed thee to thy rest! comes unbidden into my brain. The poultice is the work of minutes, bound tight with ripped pieces of cloth from the mattress ticking (already slashed with bayonets). As I work, I look out the window from time to time.. no pursuit yet. Tsk.. surely I hadn't shaken off their pursuit this easily. I shall be revising my view of their cavalry soon.

A few more valuable minutes.. binding and splinting my left little finger, which is now a swollen agony. At least it's my left hand. As I leave, I turn and painfully bow three times in the direction of the niche where the ancestor statues are supposed to be. Nobody is alive to be honored any more, but I feel as if *something* should be done to thank my nameless farm wife, who, all unknowing, has helped me far more than she could ever realize. It hurts to walk, and isn't going to be a treat to ride, either. But I suspect I have lost my valuable lead time now.. the Sun is just beginning to silver the edge of the horizon, and I do not wish to anywhere out in an open field by daylight. As I painfully attempt to mount the mare, I hear the first of the far-off Chinese voices punctuated by a weird, ululating cry. Fight, Flight, or Hide? Fight: not recommended.. I can barely stand up, my side is imperfectly stitched, and I'm still sickened in the aftermath of the Fury. Flight is possible, but I don't relish riding in the open anywhere near the Fusang Immortals. They look proficient enough with those carbines. Hide, then. There's enough time to hide with the little mare in the hayrick out behind the hut. Painfully, I climb to the top of the rick and lay down. The view is excellent-- I'm laying on a pile of moldering hay sighting down the railroad bed. Far off, I see a small troop of cavalry approaching. Only ten of them? No, 9.. plus an odd figure that is running ahead of them, close to the ground. That's about 8 more than I can manage in this state. They must have lost my trail and split up to cover a wide search pattern.

I slide down to the ground, and carefully untie the mare and walk her to the woods edge. At this point, the sounds of the approaching cavalry are very near. I hear excited exclamations in Mandarin with more of the strange whoops and howls. They have spotted something.. of course, blood. DAMMIT.. I forgot. They've been following a blood trail-- that strange figure, it's so familiar. Of course! A Lycan! The Celestial Kingdom is crawling with both kinds-- of course Fusang would have some in their employ. I can't believe I made such a stupid mistake. They will be at the farmer's hut in minutes. Already I can just make out the first of them coming through the edge of the sorghum field. FLIGHT then! I lead the mare into the trees and painfully mount up, moving out on a walk. There's no trail, but the forest grove is thin here, opening up to another field to the South, planted with some form of grain I don't recognize. Spurring the mare now, I bring her to a light canter, ever jolt a bit of fire in the side.. there are dense woods farther off.. dammit, I will be in view for a substantial distance. Perhaps they will not look this way. mmm hmmmm... Nothing for it, then, I lean over the mare's neck (excellent, uncomplaining creature! There are oats in your future!) and lay it on for all it is worth. She flies through the field, exalting at the chance to run. I hold on for dear life, crouched low over her mane. From back at the tree line, I hear the yelps of Fusangs again, they have espied my fleeing form. CRACK! CRACK! CRACK! bullets whiizzzzz by, uncomfortably close. Nobody is a crack marksman with a carbine on horseback, no matter what.. the far edge of of field looms closer, closer. I hear the CRACK CRACK CRACK of rifle fire, again. This time, is it my imagination, or am I hearing it on two sides? Have I been flanked? Dear lord... I crash through the wood's edge at the far side of the clearing.. the tree branches are very low here.. suddenly, I feel a tremendous clout to the head, I see the ground approaching quickly, then, darkness.

I have awakened with a cracked skull in many a dicey spot in the past. This is an unfortunate hallmark of my profession. Occasionally, I have awakened to have a weapon pointed at me. This was what I was expecting when I came to, an unknown amount of time later. Instead I found myself gazing into the ape-ugly, grinning face of Kasukalan Tauhan. I never could get my brain wrapped around Tagalog, but his intentions are clear-- he is wrapping a bandage around my throbbing head. Pu Ying and Small Shang are behind him, grinning. I sit up. "Ying! Shang! Father of Fakers! It was a ruse!" Ying grins. "We work for Long Noses from the Iron Boat at the mouth of the Yalu. They pay many yuen for us to spy on Fusang, join army, tell them what Dragon who Waits does. You work for Long Noses, too, no? Or has Father Ward sent you from heaven?"

"What about the cavalry, Ying?"

He gestures with his rifle. At the clearing's edge, hanging upside down, are ten bodies, stripped of clothing and accouterments.

I shudder a bit. "Ying! we don't treat the enemy this way!"

He frowns, and points behind him.

"I do not, Banner Chief (using my old EVA title). But they do."

I had not noticed it, my brain was so fuzzy from riding full tilt into a tree branch. There is a small crowd here. Men and women, all of a certain type.. dull black clothes, mixed in with discarded Fusang uniforms, wielding recently liberated carbines, bandoleers, swords, shotguns. A very ugly crowd. Nieng Bandits.. answerable to nobody. They were a plague in the side of the EVA back in the old days. They must be a plague in the side of Fusang, now, judging from all the captured Fusang weaponry I am seeing.

"Their leader, Hai'zi, wishes to speak with you"

A rather rotund Chinese man approaches. Unlike his rather evil looking counterparts he seems big, healthy, cheerful.. a veritable Buddha. Unlike almost any Chinese man I have met, he seizes my hand and pumps it vigorously, Western style, a large smile on his face.

"I am Hai'zi"

I sound this out in my head... it is Cantonese for...


He laughs. "Close enough. I am the Bandit Leader the Fusangs call "Big Baby Yao". His English is remarkably good.

"Schooled in the West, perhaps?"

"Indeed! Two years divinity school, Trinity College, Dublin!"

My facial expression must be comical for he laughs loud and long.

"You marvel at it being such a small world, Colonel! I sometimes do work for British Intelligence, which has a headquarters on the HMS Pigeon, at the mouth of the Yalu. What my colleagues here call the Long Nose Iron Boat. You have caused quite a stir, sir!"

"I have? I didn't know anyone knew I was gone!"

"Oh, rather! Inquiries from the Pinkerton Agency. From the British Government. From a small intelligence unit named "Caledon MI-5" whatever that might be. Your presence here is like the pebble dropping into a still pond.. the ripples spread ever outward... touching many, perhaps, who knows, toppling Empires?"

"How did you end up... here...?"

"Let us say... I chose to, and leave it at that. Now, you might do me a favor, Colonel."

"Anything in my power, of course."

"This group of partisans (NOT Bandits, despite appearances) are quite suspicious. They think you are the reincarnation of the Devil Soldier, or his son. You know these types. Would you speak with them, please? I don't wish for any misunderstandings.. they could be fatal."

"Certainly, er.. what do you wish for me to say?"

"Tell them who you are and why you are here, please"

I stood on my (rather wobbly) feet. One of the bandits rushed to give me a flask of tea, which I gulped from. My imperfect Mandarin would have to do.

"Hear me, friends. I am Banner Chief O'Toole, who fought with the Devil Soldier in days of old. I fought with Ward and I would not fight with Burgrevine (many present spat at that unlucky name), so I left the Celestial Kingdom as my enemies had grown many and were endangering the Ever Victorious Army. I have fought in many wars since, in many places. Now I have returned, not as the reincarnation of Ward (At this, many downcast eyes), nor as his or Gordon's son. In truth, I came to the Celestial Kingdom uninvited. Now that I am here, I will make this promise. I am here to see H'sieh Lieng dead. That is one man who has stayed above the ground far longer than his time. I will accept no other outcome. I have said my piece." I stand with my arms crossed.

The cheers in that small clearing are very gratifying, but perhaps too loud. They may draw attention from unseen quarters.

I must have a prescient streak, for as the cheers died down, I heard another clear English voice say (in a pronounced Southern accent)

"Why, I am delighted to hear that, suh! We may be walking the same path after all!"

Into the clearing strides a strange man, a Caucasian-- tall and lean, ruddy of face, with dark hair and eyes. Alongside him is a strange were-creature, unlike anything I've ever seen. A raccoon? Too big for that.. and very strange eyes. And the sad little village healer from Hanxiang! I glance back at the man, frowning in puzzlement.. He seems familiar. I realized where I had seen him before! I had dreamed of this stranger in a fit of delirium, some nights ago! His eyes are gesturing.. to his raised hands (an excellent precaution, as 30 Nien rifles are at this moment pointing at him). Suddenly I realize what he is doing-- he is bringing my attention to his fingers. They are flashing the Caledon MI-5 recognition sign!

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