For a night in the middle of summer, it was awfully cold. That kind of thing used to bother me. Nowadays, I thought, it was an advantage for our side; we always knew when the wights were near.
Every night they came out of the city, seeking what was left of humanity. It was like they had just been given a direction and sent off. They wouldn't stray from their path until they found us -- smelled us, some people said.
This bunch was heading up Route 2. In an hour they would be at the camps. Without a blessing, our bullets weren't much good against them. A shot through the heart of a wight would knock it back some, but then it would keep coming.
I leaned against a tree, listening to a storm of chatter in my earpiece. "Can it!" I said into my radio. "Wait until they're close, then withdraw. No shooting unless you have to." I clicked the radio off and looked at Father O'Malley, who sat next to me, whispering a prayer. "There are at least a hundred of them," I said. "Do we have a chance?"
O'Malley's eyes opened. They were clear eyes, undaunted by the horrors they had seen; but they were bloodshot with weariness as well. "With God's help we may win free if we are surrounded," he said, shaking his head sadly. "But a hundred we will not destroy tonight."
"What, should I pray harder?" Jack Griffin asked, leaning against his tank.
"Do your best," I said to O'Malley. Even with a blessing, our guns were hardly lethal to the wights. I shot Jack an angry look, but the moon was behind me, so he didn't see it. "Go to second platoon," I said. "We're going to have to buy some time."
"Very well, my son," O'Malley answered. He began walking down the road toward the rest of the company.
Third platoon, closest to the wights, began to pull back. This was the most dangerous moment; the enemy was slow, but men would lose their minds near wights, and run screaming. A retreat could easily turn into a rout without a single blow falling. But my people -- the 141st Massachusetts Volunteer Company -- had been through this all before. The chaff was gone; only the fighters were left. There was no screaming, no loss of discipline.
"Am I gonna have to move 'er back?" Jack asked. There was one working tank left in Massachusetts, and it was right here. Just starting the engine every night was an adventure. If it blew, we'd have to leave it. We could get it back the next day -- the wights didn't care much for machines -- but we'd suffer in the night without it.
"Let me find out," I said. I switched channels on my radio and called the battalion HQ. "One-four-one to battalion, we are engaged. Enemy strength one-zero-zero," I said. "We need Lyarreh."
The answering voice, barely identifiable as Colonel Levin's, was full of static. "Lyarreh's engaged, one-four-one. Fall back and maintain contact. Slow them down as much as you can."
I switched the channel again and cursed.
"First platoon," I said, "fall back to my position. Second platoon, close up with third platoon." I switched off the mike again. I figured we had fifteen minutes until my position was overrun.
"The culvert, about half a mile back," I said to Jack.
"I remember it." He could hardly forget it. We had fought over this same ground a hundred times before.
"Go a hundred feet farther back, and sight on the culvert, in the median, between the two lanes."
"All right." He climbed onto the hull of the tank and shouted into the hatch. "We're moving! Hit it!"
The tank's engine coughed to life. Jack's driver threw it into reverse, and its treads began to creak. Pebbles and tiny concrete shards cracked under the weight of the tank as it crawled away.
I hated being alone in the night. Being responsible for the hundred fifty men of my command, and thousands more up the road, didn't help.
We set the wights back half an hour that way, and that half hour was precious to the refugees who huddled in the woods behind us. It gave us time to get Lyarreh into action.
The war against the wights had turned America into a God-fearing nation overnight. Or, depending on who you asked, gods-fearing or just plain spiritual. It didn't matter which way you said it. Shiva, Jehovah, Gaia, anyone else you cared to name -- all of them listened to our prayers. Thanks to them, none of us would follow the millions whose broken bodies had gone over to the enemy. Men who died under the blessing of a god stayed dead. But the legions of priests, and the power of all the gods humanity had ever prayed to, were only enough to slow the wights down. To have a fighting chance -- we needed Lyarreh for that.
I trudged back to Jack's new position while my platoons took turns slashing the wights. The tank was on a bridge over a small creek. "This is one-four-one," I said into my radio. "Where's Lyarreh?"
"One-four-one, Lyarreh is on her way."
I switched channels. "First platoon, firing line behind the culvert at bridge number six. Second, angle left, third, angle right. I want a nice, tight sack." Every one knew what those orders meant: the Minuteman Vise.
All of these maneuvers were simple textbook stuff for the old soldiers; but we had almost none of those left. When you're trying to motivate raw recruits, you give these things names. You try to convince people that they have an edge. You give them something to hold on to when they're face-to-face with things that freeze their souls.
Behind me, Jack called down to his gunner. "You zeroed on the culvert?" He nodded and turned back toward me. "Beautiful setup, Alan," he said. "She coming?"
"On her way," I said.
Jack held his hands out, as if grasping something -- a woman's breasts, in his mind's eye. "Oh, yeah, Lyarreh, give me some of your magic."
"For Christ's sake, don't do that in front of her," I said.
"You goin' Puritan on me, Alan?"
"You know how important she is to us!" I hissed. "If you piss her off, we're screwed."
Jack grunted. "Piss her off? I watch her go back to happyland every day, and I should worry about pissing her off?"
"Yes, Jack, because she comes here every day to help us. And who the hell says she has to?"
Jack shook his head and looked off. "Jesus, a guy can dream, can't he?"
"Sorry, Jack," I said, sighing. "Just be careful, you know?"
"Yeah. I know."
I looked off at the horizon to the east. The full moon gave a hint of definition to the darkened skyline of Boston. Like almost every big city, it was now a stronghold of the enemy. I wondered if there were still rats hiding in the subway tunnels. Probably not. The wights consumed everything in their path.
Jack did not join in my grim remembrance. "Happyland," he said wistfully. "Where you sleep through the night, and the women don't look like scarecrows." He saw just a glimpse of Lyarreh's world every day; at dawn, once the fighting was over, he stood guard over the mirror she used to travel home. "I tell ya, Alan, if the Devil offered me one night with her--"
I now noticed the first signs of Lyarreh's approach. She always walked through the woods, always impossibly fast, always bringing a soothing quiet with her. The cold of the night abated with her approach.
"He's not going to," I said, "and you'd better zip it."
I turned, hoping to catch a glimpse of her. Some of her people wore bright colors that were easy to spot at night -- after all, what had they to fear from wights, or guns and shells? Lyarreh was more subtle than that. She wore a muted green dress wherever she went. But her face was white, and seemed sometimes to glow; and by that I could see her, striding through the forest.
The Auditeurs -- named by the French, who were the first to see them -- were very much like us, but not quite the same. Their faces were just a little odd, and their clothes and hair not quite like anything that I thought humans had ever worn. When they first came to us, they didn't even know our language; but it didn't take long for us to accept them.
Lyarreh came to a stop before me, and for an instant I thought back to Jack's vulgar appreciation of her. She was beautiful; and her face was neither hollow with starvation nor scarred by wounds and sickness.
More importantly, for now, she could save my company from annihilation, as she had several times before.
"Cap-tan Morse," she said, "I am here for you."
"Thank you, Lyarreh," I said. I pointed at the culvert in the dip ahead of us. "You can see where my men are lining up?"
"Yes," she said. "The wights will walk between the roads, near the waterways."
"Exactly. And Sergeant Griffin will destroy them there, with your help."
"I understand," she said. She walked over to the tank and climbed onto its forward hull. With long-practiced grace she began etching a chalk stripe on the gun barrel.
"So, what happens when we don't have room for any more stripes?" Jack asked.
I started to snap at him, but Lyarreh was quicker. "Then I start again at the end, Sergeant Griffin."
"Shut up and get ready to shoot," I said. I looked down at the culvert. The attack would begin in thirty seconds.
Lyarreh began her song, a song of might tinged with sadness, uttered in the strange language of the Auditeurs. She held on to the barrel with both hands, one above the new chalk line and one below. Below us, the wights shambled forward. Our obvious ambush would not deter them.
Lyarreh's song grew, filling the world around us with the sound of her magic. I saw a tiny motion down by the culvert. It was Father O'Malley making the sign of the cross at his holy warriors. Still the wights came on -- closer, closer, and then...
My men began to light off their flares, and the roadway was bathed in light. Then the company began to shoot. The power of God and the power of momentum drove the wights back into a churning mass centered on the culvert. The One-Four-One stood as a unit and began walking forward, tightening the ring, pouring bullets into the wights.
Lyarreh's song reached an indescribable pitch; she snatched her hands back from the barrel and pressed them onto her ears. Her spell was done.
"Hit the ground!" I yelled into my radio. "Fire!"
With a roar, the tank bucked and flames spit out of its main gun. The shell was nothing, but it carried Lyarreh's magic. A flash of light erupted from the ground beneath the wights, burning some away, tearing others to pieces. Another loud crack sounded and the earth trembled beneath us. All around the roadway, bits of wight came raining down. Most of them lay motionless where they fell. Wights farther from the blast were prostrate and quivering.
My soldiers began to get up as the echoes faded. Lyarreh's spell had done enough that Father O'Malley could complete the job on his own. I reached for my earpiece, but it was gone. I turned on my radio. "Gas and torches, guys. Finish them off."
I looked back. Lyarreh was down in the dirt in front of the tank, still clutching her ears. I walked over to her. Firing the gun was hard on her. Anybody else, in her place, would have been deaf long ago.
I knelt next to her and offered her a hand. Wincing, she uncovered her ears and took it.
"Thank you, Lyarreh," I said with relief. "We have won."
"Being honored," she said haltingly. "Being honored to be a part of your struggle." She pulled herself up by my arm, and smiled when she let go.
When the sun finally came up, I hopped on a bus full of wounded and rode back to Hanscom to find out what was going on. There were glum looks all over the place. The old air base was the center of resistance in eastern Massachusetts; planes came in twice a day to deliver food and ammunition. A couple more nights like last night, and the wights would tear this place apart. The runways reminded me of the stories of Stalingrad, with guys lining up on the last functioning airstrip, making any excuse they could to get a spot on a plane going out.
I got out and looked around. "Morse!" It was Colonel Levin. He was one of the few real army types left, and we all looked up to him. Over and over again during the last twelve hours, he had gone to the front to patch things together. I was relieved to see him alive.
"Colonel," I said, holding my hands out, "what's the deal? Where were they? We got killed out there--"
"Not just us, Captain. Everyone got hammered last night, everywhere." His lips pressed together. "Not only that, I think it's our own damn fault. My own damn fault. Come on." He motioned me toward his headquarters building.
As we walked in, people stopped talking and looked at us. Whatever the bad news was, it seemed that I was the last to know. When we walked into Levin's office, he sat down and told me to do the same. I faced him across his desk. To my left, on the wall, was a mirror. It was not just any mirror; Lyarreh arrived through it every night, and went home through it every morning.
Levin slumped in his chair. I had never seen him do that. "Yesterday morning, when the Auditeurs opened their... portal, or whatever, to go home, Jack Griffin jumped through."
I was stunned. Perhaps I shouldn't have been. "Did they send him back?" I asked.
"He didn't come back, and neither did they," Levin said. "They didn't come back anywhere. Not here, not anywhere in America... nowhere."
"Can we go through? Ask them--"
"We can't open the portals," Levin said. "Nobody knows how. To us, they're just mirrors." He sighed. "There are places where people are saying it's Armageddon, that the Auditeurs were sent by Satan, and now we have to turn back to God."
I was appalled. "The priests can't hold the wights back. They know it." I caught myself. "My company will fight on, no matter what, sir, but..." I shook my head. "We're dead."
"Tell me about Jack," he said.
I swallowed. The clues had been there. "He talked, sometimes, about how easy they must have it, wherever they are. I think he might have been jealous."
"If you thought he was jealous, why didn't you say something?"
"Everyone's jealous, sir," I said evenly.
"But I had him guarding the transit just in case--" Levin cut himself off. "Goddamnit, Morse, he was in a crucial position. Crucial!"
"I'm sorry, sir," I said. "But there isn't a man or woman in this outfit who wouldn't say something you'd worry about. Not one."
"You?" he asked.
"I'm pissed off, sir, seriously. Not an hour went by last night when I didn't say to myself that they should have just let us die, instead of coming here to make us think we had a chance."
"You'd better not say that in front of the men."
"I haven't. `Chin up, soldier, we'll give 'em hell tomorrow.' `Don't worry about your grandma, soldier, someone else is covering her.' `I'm sure President Condon is all over it, soldier.' Anything else I should be trying?"
Levin sighed. "I need you to be steady, Morse. I lost both of my other company commanders last night. I have to teach two guys how to fight and survive tonight."
I tried to meet his gaze, but I couldn't. "I understand, sir." I couldn't stand the thought of disappointing him. The U. S. Army had withered and died before Levin's eyes, defending places like Boston and New York and Washington. They had fought for time, not knowing where hope might come from. I had been a firefighter when it all began, but burning houses were the least of our problems now. It was my turn to toe the line.
As silence descended between us, I heard a sound to my left. I looked at the mirror; it was beginning to mist up the way it always did when an Auditeur was about to come through. Was this it? Please, God, let it be Lyarreh, let her tell us that last night will never happen again.
This was how it had happened the first time, just north of Merseilles. Two men talking in front of a mirror, heard by a listener -- an Auditeur -- who chose to help.
The mist swirled and crystallized into a flat reflection of Lyarreh, and then she stepped into the room. I stood. Lyarreh's face was a mask of dismay.
Levin stood. "Miss Lyarreh," he said, "What did Sergeant Griffin do? Why didn't you come back last night?"
"I listened," she said. "Though it is forbidden. So I tell, though it is also forbidden. He shot with his gun two of us, and is not yet found. He has created great fear. And we are never to come back, because the danger is too great."
"Never to come back?" I asked. I stood, even though my legs felt like rubber. "Lyarreh, we can't make it without you."
"I know this," she said. "I say this, but they have fear, great fear among the people, because he cannot be touched, cannot be harmed."
"I don't understand," Levin said. "Why can't he be touched? Bring him back, or -- if you must, kill him."
"Cannot be touched by magic. Not there." She put a hand to her chest. "As we cannot be touched here, not by steel or cursed flesh."
"Your magic doesn't affect him?" I asked. "But his guns work?"
"Yes follows yes," she said.
"And they affect you."
I looked at Levin. "Let me go and get him. I'll go."
Lyarreh shook her head. "No, that is forbidden, I cannot do it."
"Lyarreh," I pleaded, "I can stop him, whatever he's doing. I'll use bullets, not magic." I ignored the aghast look on Levin's face. "We need a chance, Lyarreh. How else can I show your people that we're worth saving?"
She shook her head. "You do not understand. They will not change the deciding."
A cold weight dropped into my stomach. "No, I don't understand. People make mistakes. Terrible mistakes. But we don't give up on someone after one mistake, Lyarreh."
"The people argue about the risk. Then Jack Griffin comes. Do you see?"
Levin forced his way into our exchange. "Calm down, Morse. Your job is here. Do you read me?"
I turned to him and erupted. "Jack just fucked over every person in the entire human race! Because he wants to live in happyland while the rest of us fight and die." I forced my anger down. "Sir, I request permission to pursue and apprehend Sergeant Jack Griffin, so that he can be brought back here for trial."
"She said they won't change their minds, Morse."
"And if they don't? Then we've got a renegade who's already shot two people and is terrorizing civilians." I shook my head. "If we're finished, then... why not do one last thing right? Why not bring him in?"
Levin held my eyes for a long moment. I could see the struggle inside. I was an asset he couldn't afford to waste. But one of his men had committed a crime; and doing something about it might be the last testament of our civilization. Finally he relented. "If she'll let you."
"They will not believe," she said.
"I don't ask them to believe," I said. "I ask you to believe. Believe... that it was all worth it. Believe that we would do the same for you as you have done for us."
Slowly she nodded her head. "I do believe."
Not earth; dirt from somewhere else entirely.
I was in a forest clearing. The mirror that I stepped away from had been built -- grown, perhaps -- into two tree trunks standing side-by-side. Above the mirror their branches were woven together. All around me were the furnishings of a house. Table and chairs, cabinets, even a simple mattress and bed frame. Pillar-like trees stood among and around the place.
I looked up into the forest canopy. I realized, from the odd glare, that the bright light from above was streaming through glass windows.
"My home," Lyarreh said.
"It's... beautiful," I answered, shielding my eyes from the light.
Lyarreh walked to the center of her home and brushed her hand through the air. The windows above began to go dark. Then I began to see little metal filaments, one hanging from each window, bundled into a giant tassel that Lyarreh had just touched with her magic. Between the darkened windows I saw triangular frames. Every triangle was different; the hundreds of glass panes within them formed a dome over my head.
With every look I saw more of the artistic design of the place. Everything was functional, and everything fit into some aesthetic scheme. It didn't just look like happyland. It looked like Paradise. I had tried to imagine what it might be like here; and for a second the reality made me want to weep.
"There are other mirrors?" I asked.
"Yes, many others."
"Did Jack come through here?"
"How did it happen?"
"Each goes to his own home," she said. "And he followed me to here. I told him he must return. I told him loudly and strongly. And next I gave warning, that I would use magic. But this was untrue, because magic cannot touch him here. He ran away. I brought Kellin and Arishe to follow, and with his gun he killed them." She sat down. "And with his gun he warned me, pointed to me, and he argued, but he did not kill."
"Has he been seen since then?"
"People say they have seen him, that he is somewhere in the woods, that he steals things."
"Near here?" I asked.
"He will stay near," I said. "He won't go very far from you."
She looked at the ground.
"How did he look at you, Lyarreh? How did he look at you when he pointed his gun but wouldn't shoot?"
"With want," she said quietly. "Kellin and Arishe he killed because he did not want."
"I'm sorry, Lyarreh," I said. "I knew he had thoughts--"
"I heard them through the mirror," she said.
"Not just jealousy. He's obsessed with you. We may have to use that to catch him."
She nodded. "Obsession we understand. Love and lust and not knowing which we also understand. We are not so different."
I stooped down to look at a heel-mark in the dirt. It had to be Jack's. The Auditeurs didn't wear boots. I could see now some traces of Jack's passage -- a trampled fern here, tiny shards of a cracked mica tabletop there. I wasn't any good at tracking people or police work, but the evidence sang out to me, as if someone had taken a knife to a painting or torn a page out of a script.
And then, to my dismay, I saw tiny strands of dew-laden spider's web on my own boot. I looked back toward the mirror. On the ground behind me lay the remains of a broad flower, a few of its sinuous petals still bound by silky tendrils, crushed into the dirt.
Little signs of Jack were everywhere. He had run away, but as I thought, not very far away. There were some verdant bluffs that overlooked Lyarreh's home; and that was where I thought we might find him.
We were walking along a trail up the hill when I heard movement behind me, along with the unmistakeable mechanical sound of a safety being clicked off.
"Don't move, whoever it is," Jack's voice said.
And I thought I'd just go and get him. What an idiot. Of course he would set an ambush on the trail -- if he thought someone would come after him.
I put up my hands and began to turn around. "What are you doing here, Jack--"
"Shut up and look away!" he yelled. "I'll blow your head off, Morse, believe it."
"Lyarreh," I said softly, "leave. Go right now."
She turned and looked back at Jack. "You will not harm him," she said. "I will never care for you if you harm him. Do you hear?"
There was a long pause. I slowly inched my head around, and then twisted. Jack's gun was pointed right at me. His hand was steady, but his face wasn't.
"Why'd you come here, Morse?" Jack asked. "Why'd you have to come here? You're going to make me shoot you, you son of a bitch."
"Thanks to you, the Auditeurs have stopped helping us," I said. "They won't come because of you. Do you realize that, Jack?"
"That's bullshit," Jack said with a snort. "Levin sent you because I'm AWOL and he's got old army regulations stuffed up his--"
"It's not bullshit, Jack! They're gone." I waited, hoping he would respond. "Everywhere. The whole world. I lost half of my company last night. We're getting killed out there."
"Why would they pull out?"
"You're fucking up their world, Jack. Can't you see it? Everywhere you walk you destroy something, because we're not supposed to be here."
"Not supposed? What the hell are you talking about?" He shook his head, trying to force a laugh of derision. "There's food here. There's fresh air here. There's no wights here, Morse. It's like going to heaven. I been fighting four years with no end in sight. Are you telling me I don't deserve to be here?"
"You shot two people."
Jack erupted. "They came at me, Morse!"
"It's their home and you're destroying it, Jack. What you're doing is wrong--"
"What am I destroying? All I've done since I got here is sleep and eat food."
"Can't you see what's happening, Jack?"
I caught myself just as I opened my mouth. Why was I so hung up on these little things that Jack and I had done here? I shook my head and looked at Lyarreh. Our eyes met, and I could see that she was just as surprised by my outbursts as I.
"Jack," I said calmly, "they offered their help and you're abusing it." I decided to lie to Jack; it was the only way I could think of to move him. "But they're not going to help anymore as long as you're here. Do you hear me, Jack? We got killed out there last night. And we're going to get killed until you come back. It's that simple."
Lyarreh stared at me, horrified.
"I'm not going back," Jack said. "I'm not going back to hell. If they stop helping just because of that then they're wrong, Morse. They're selfish, cruel bastards who want to keep us alive just because -- because--"
"Because helping us was a decent thing to do, Jack, just like going back--"
Jack's face twisted with anger and he began to stride toward me. The barrel of his pistol never wavered in its aim. Veins stood out in his neck as he clenched his jaw.
Lyarreh began to move to intercept him, but I grabbed her. "Run, dammit!" I said.
"Do not, Jack!" she cried, struggling against me.
I felt the muzzle press up against my temple, and I closed my eyes. We stood there for a moment. I felt Jack's hand trembling. "I want to live in peace, Morse. That's all I want." His voice was shaking. Then his other hand grabbed my collar and began to drag me away from Lyarreh. I opened my eyes, and I saw that her face was full of tears.
Jack shoved me down with my back next to a tree, slamming my head into the bark. "Put your hands back," he said.
"What are you doing, Ja--"
"How many times to I have to tell you to shut up?" he roared, cuffing me with the butt of his pistol. My head rang.
I sluggishly put my hands back. He pulled them around the tree, and I felt handcuffs close around my wrists.
"You think about it, Morse," he said as he took all of my weapons. "You think about it." He took me by the hair and turned my head toward Lyarreh. "Look at her," he said. "Crying. For you, you lucky son of a bitch. A year and a half I spend following her around and she cries for you. Okay, screw it. I'm going, Morse. You better not follow me."
"Jack," I said, stumbling over my words, "we have to go back."
"Why would you want to go back, you moron? You have her!" He slammed my head into the tree again.
The tugging stopped. "I am here," she said. She stepped over me and knelt. "I cannot work the metal."
"It's not from here," I said. Idiot, she knows that. Behind her I could see the shattered stump of the tree I had been cuffed to. It looked painfully wrong.
"What can I do?" she asked.
I thought sluggishly. "You can work your own metal? Into any shape you want?"
"It is true," she answered.
"The pins in your hair -- we need them," I said.
She pulled them out, and her hair hung free. "What else?" she asked.
"Take one of them, and bend the end of it. Make a key for the handcuffs."
"It is a key with one tooth?" she asked. She took one pin and molded the end with her fingers.
"Yes." I was astounded at the sight of her bending the metal like it was chewing gum. "How long was I out?" I asked as she moved behind me and began to work on the cuffs.
"It is not high sun yet," she answered.
"What did Jack do after he knocked me out?"
"He ran," she said. "He is angry. He will be a danger." She hesitated. "I think I should have given to him. Then he would not be a danger."
Did she mean what I thought she might? I didn't want to think about it. "He'll be a danger either way. You can't take it upon yourself." I sighed. "I'm sorry about what Jack -- what we've done to you."
"You are a welcome visitor, because you see," she said.
"You see the fearing, the hurt."
"But every moment I stay here, I hurt things, don't I?" I twisted my head up to look at her. "I cause fear. In you, in this place, in your people."
She shook her head. "Not in me." With a click, one of the cuffs came undone. Lyarreh's face glowed with a moment of joy; and as I began to sit up, she held one arm to steady me. Patiently she took her hairpin and began picking the other cuff.
I looked around. I could see that the saplings on this part of the bluff had not been placed haphazardly. Someone would live here in a hundred years -- but their house would have an ugly blemish. "You make all of... these things with magic?"
"Magic does many things that are greater than battle," she answered. She turned the pin in the lock, and the other cuff came off. She did not let go of my arm. My wrists were raw from being wrapped around a tree and bound. She looked at them mournfully. "If you were of my people I could heal this," she said.
I wobbled to my feet, and Lyarreh rose beside me. "If I were of your people," I said, "I couldn't help you with Jack."
I tried to turn away from her, but she held my arms. "Do not go back with Jack," she said with a startling firmness. "Make him go and you stay."
"I'm a danger here, Lyarreh."
"You will learn," she said. "You can see, and you can learn. I cannot think of you alone in the cold and the terror."
I shook my head. "I can't do it, Lyarreh. I swore an oath to my country and I made vows to my men. I told them I'd be there to the end. I told them that before you came and gave us hope."
"You could be the voice," she said. "Stay with me, as the voice for your people, so that they will not be forgotten."
"But you've seen us," I said. "You won't forget. You'll tell people, won't you?"
"Do you feel at all for me?" she asked with dismay.
I felt like I'd been punched in the stomach. Feel at all? Hell yes. But who could say what I really felt? Time and time again Lyarreh had been the difference between life and death, an angel with the sword, our only hope. I'd never let myself think past that.
Look at her. Crying. For you, you lucky son of a bitch.
"Lyarreh... my people are dying. I can't turn my back on them."
She stared into my eyes for a long moment, and then looked away. Her chin was set, her breathing tense.
Did she really mean what I thought she'd said? My resolve almost cracked. But then we were walking silently back to her house, and the debate within me was silenced.
I sat in the corner for a while, checking my rifle and checking it again. It had fired just fine the previous night; but now everything would depend on it.
Finally I stood up and began to walk. Lyarreh tore herself away from her friends and followed me. "They want to do what is forbidden," she said, "but the elders will close the mirrors to us. They will not let us go."
I barely heard her words. I'd been thinking of the things I wanted to do before the end came. In the old days, before the wights, they had been things like Rome and the Pyramids. Right now, irrationally, the only thing I really felt driven to do was to finish a book I'd been reading a page at a time for over a year now. "Yeah," I said absently. "I'm going to have to kill Jack. I can't take the chance anymore. I have to hunt him like an animal."
She nodded. "I can be silent," she said. We left.
Jack had fled his hill in the direction away from Lyarreh's clearing. He left a trail of unease behind him wherever he went; and it grew greater as we followed. Jack was too mad for an ambush, I could tell. He wanted to hurt something -- or someone.
Then, through the woods, I heard a shot. The sound itself was nothing special; but it was so wrong, so out of place that I flinched and edged behind a tree. That was ridiculous; the shot was nowhere near me.
Ahead of us we heard the thudding of feet on the trail. I didn't think to react as I should have. A woman and a young boy crested a rise just in front of us and blanched in terror at the sight of me and my gun. As they skidded to a halt, Lyarreh held out her hands to them. There was a flurry of words between them.
"Jack is there," Lyarreh said to me. "He is with the daughter."
Almost without thinking about it I pulled the bolt back on my rifle. Jack would be distracted. Like an animal. There wasn't a moment to lose. I checked once more to be sure I had a bullet in the chamber, and then I carefully fitted a scope to the top of the rifle.
Lyarreh walked at my side, silent as a cat. Twice, as we set out toward Jack, she held out her arm and barred me just as I was about to step on something loud. Her face was haunted and severe. This was a battle, much like others we had fought together.
I leaned around a tree at the edge of the family's large clearing. It took me a moment to find Jack. There was no sound, and he was still. He was sitting up and facing almost away from me -- a perfect target. I lowered myself to the ground and put my sights on him.
I saw Jack shudder, saw his head bob down slightly. His shoulders slumped, and he lowered the burden he had been clutching to his chest. It was the daughter, fifteen years old at the most. Her face was stiff with fear as he gently laid her head down on his knee. I saw blood on his hands as he stroked her hair. When he turned his head to look at her, there were tears on his face.
He said something to her as my crosshairs settled onto the side of his head. I breathed in, and began to exhale very slowly, very slowly, to keep my aim steady. The shot was there. But when the time came to pull the trigger, I couldn't do it.
Jack's anger was gone; the disquiet of the forest was now mourning instead of fear.
As I lay there, frozen with ambivalence, I heard Lyarreh stand next to me. "I go," she said quietly.
"You will guard me from here," she said.
"I cannot, but will try," she said.
I wavered for a moment, wanting to look up at her. Then I focused my eyes on Jack again. Nothing had changed. My breathing caused my sight to wobble; and now there was a tremor in my hand. I did not want Lyarreh to go in there. "Tell him not to move," I said.
I felt her walk away, but did not hear.
Both of Jack's hands cradled the girl; his guns were nowhere in sight. A moment later I saw Jack's head turn. Again his mouth moved, his words too soft to hear.
Lyarreh's voice barely carried to me. "Be still, Jack," she said. "Please be still, and let me mend her."
Jack's face twisted into a grimace. "I didn't mean to shoot her," he said in a choked voice, barely audible. "She came at me, and wouldn't listen--"
"I come," she said, "I take her. You must be still, Jack."
Jack's jaw trembled. "Is he here?"
"He is watching, Jack. Please be still." I saw Lyarreh enter my little picture. My heart froze as her head passed behind his. She gathered the girl up and gently carried her away.
One of Jack's bloody hands lingered on the girl's face as she was taken from him. All was silent for a moment. "They won't go back, Alan," he said loudly. "Not even if I do. Why would they? They're scared now--"
"That's right, Jack," I said. Then I felt like an idiot, and raised my voice. "That's right, Jack. Don't turn around. Put your hands on your head."
Slowly Jack complied. "I didn't mean to shoot her," he repeated.
"I know that, Jack," I said, my crosshairs describing tiny ovals on Jack's skull. "But you did."
"You're still going back?"
"I am," I said. "And you're coming with me, one way or the other, Jack."
Lyarreh began to sing softly. Jack's head turned toward her.
"Levin will have me shot if I go back," he said.
"You'll be brought before a court-martial," I said. Then I hesitated. "But you're right."
"You should do it here," he said.
Could I pull the trigger here? I wasn't sure. Everything in me cried out not to offer yet another insult to this place. "We're dead men, Jack," I said. "There's only one choice we can still make."
Jack nodded slowly. Then he stood, and he came with me.
"You're here to be witnesses?" Levin asked, amazed at the sight.
"We will witness and we will be a part," Lyarreh said.
Levin nodded slowly. "You understand we will hold a trial, and then if he is judged guilty, the tribunal may turn him over to you, or may punish him. That is how we do these things."
"We understand," she said. "But we ask no punishment. He must fight. All are needed. We know this."
Levin shook his head. "The tribunal will punish him. He has committed murder and he has endangered the lives of all humanity. He will be punished."
There was a storm of whispering among Lyarreh's friends. I looked out of Levin's window. The afternoon sun hung low in the sky. "It's almost sunset," I said to Levin. "I have to get back to my company. Request permission to do so."
Levin, distracted, barely noticed me. "Granted," he said.
I looked at Lyarreh briefly as I turned to go. She was in animated conversation with her companions, arguing some point that left her no attention to spare. I wanted to say goodbye. I wanted to tell her that I did care for her, how badly I wanted to have her near me. War and peace were blurred in my mind; I wanted her at my side in both. But my world had become a small and cold place. There were two things in it. There was inevitable death, and there was Lyarreh, who would depart before that.
The final struggle beckoned. It was real and she was an illusion. I walked out of Levin's office without saying goodbye.
Outside, I saw hundreds of people going about their work, and the sight of them filled me with calm. They were not fleeing in terror, or huddling in corners, or abandoning themselves to a last flirtation with pleasure. One last choice, I thought to myself with grim pride, and you all know how to make it...
I went into the makeshift stable and requisitioned one of our two horses. It was an hour's ride to my command, and I would be lucky to get there by sunset. I led the animal out to the road and climbed up. I looked back toward the base and watched for half a minute as a cargo jet roared down the runway and turned west. For an instant I wished I was on it, instead of heading for battle. Then I turned away.
Lyarreh stood in the road, her eyes fixed on me. "You did not wait," she said.
A thousand reasons leaped to mind, all good ones, but when I opened my mouth, I said "I'm sorry."
"Do not ride away from me," she said. "I have said I cannot think of that."
"I don't want to," I answered. "But there are people down that road who are waiting for me. I can't let them fight and die alone."
"But if you should live?"
If I should live? That was a dangerous thought. "Then I would dream of you every day, and wish you were still here."
She looked at me, unblinking. "I remain, and a few of my people with me. Tomorrow the elders will break the mirrors, and then we can never go back."
My breath caught. "You're staying?"
She nodded. I suddenly felt unsteady in the saddle. I wanted to leap down and embrace her -- and just much as that I wanted to take her back to Levin's office and send her away. It was one thing to dream of her here with us; it was another thing to tie her to our fate. With Lyarreh and her friends, we might have a chance. Everywhere else in the world, the spark of man was about to go out.
I swung one leg back over the horse and stepped down. With half a shake of my head, I said, "I don't want you to die here."
"Far from now, in my hope," she said. "Very far. But it will be here. I will never go again. Do not ride away from me, Cap-tan."
"Alan," I said. "My name is Alan. I swear I won't ever ride away from you."
Her eyes softened and she gestured at my horse. "Then this you will not need," she said. She turned and spoke to it in her language; with one hand she tapped its forehead and then pointed to the stable. Slowly, the beast began to walk back to its home.
"It's almost sunset," I said, pointing east. "I have to get to my--"
She took my hand, silencing me. The wind grew quiet, and the world somehow smaller. I saw the forty-seven men of my company camped on a hillside six miles distant, preparing for battle. They were an hour and a half away on foot, but now it seemed like just a few steps would take me there. Lyarreh turned to me and clasped her other hand over mine. "We are near to them, Alan," she said. "Magic does many things that are greater than battle."
"I would like to see those things," I said. I heard different sounds now -- birds calling high above us, a dog barking playfully near the airstrip, the cry of a baby from within a musty tent. Somewhere on the base, two men promised that they would meet again in the morning, and sealed their bargain with grim laughter.
Lyarreh smiled. "We will live through the night," she said, "and then I will show them to you."