and the Soldiers
by Dana Beehr
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
Then she started up faster’n a hound dog after a squirrel. “I must have just nodded off! Haven’t done that in a long time, not since the last time I had some o’ Thunder Sally’s patented snake liquor!” And her hands went to her fiddle first and her coin second, for that was always her custom after wakin’ up in a strange place.
When she found them both safe, Ambry heaved a huge sigh of relief, then sat up and looked around. First thing she noticed was that the old man who had been polin’ the boat was gone. The boat was pulled up in a cove Ambry had never seen before, with thin-trunked silver birch trees, their yellow leaves whisperin’, the floor carpeted with beech leaves as yellow as those above. More leaves floated on the water’s surface, specklin’ it with yellow stars.
Ambry had never seen this section of the river before. That was a bit confusin’, seein’ as how she prided herself on knowin’ the river like a rat knows its den. But she also knew how the river was always changin’ and was never the same twice. ’Twere one of the things she loved best about it.
She took out her fiddle, and stood up carefully in the boat. She was startin’ to get a mite concerned now, because, not seein’ where the man had got to, she was thinkin’ of river pirates. She had never heard of no pirates on the stretch from Fallen Tree to Stonewater, but there’s always a first time.
She called out, “Hi! Anyone out there?” But her calls just ran off to play around the old tree trunks and never did get back to her.
“Hello? Anyone?” she called again. “I’m Ambry Silverstrings. Anyone friendly?”
Nothin’, but the wind whisperin’ among the beech leaves, seemin’ to laugh at her. Ambry was startin’ to get a mite disturbed now. Fiddle in hand, she jumped over the side and splashed into the water.
Still callin’, she waded ashore. “Hi, you out there?” Her feet rustled among the leaves till they caught on somethin’ and near went right out from under her.
“What’s this?” Ambry wondered, and she leaned down to take a look. Then she jumped back in a flash, scareder than a snake-spooked horse.
What Ambry had stepped on was a bone. A human bone, fee-mur, I b’lieve it’s called. Never did have too much schoolin’, myself. A leg-bone. And as she looked beyond it, Ambry saw there were other bones: foot bones and arm bones and hipbones and rib cages and skull bones and spine bones, all of ’em so covered over with leaves that you couldn’t hardly see ’em till you knew they were there.
Ambry’s knees knocked together, and her blood just about turned to ice water. “What is this place? What happened here?” she wondered. “Pirate massacre? No, I know I woulda heard about somethin’ like that. Did they die in the Great Shakes? But the River weren’t nowhere near here back then...”
For the Great Shakes had happened a hundred years ago. The river got up out of bed and shook itself, just like a dog shakes himself off when he gets out of the water, leavin’ puddle-lakes all over both sides. And then the River had sent itself dancin’ into a new route all the way down to the Mouth.
Ambry was scared to go on and scared to stay where she was; almost as if by magic, her feet started carryin’ her deeper into the clearing, stepping over skulls and ribs and leg-bones and hipbones, and all the while she was shiverin’ so hard she felt like she were goin’ to fall right over. Presently she began to see other things: a shiny silver buckle, a corroded dagger, the barrel of a musket. And then an idea came to her.
“Why, I know what this place is!” she declared. “This here’s the site of one of the battles back in the days of the Great War!”
Anyone that knows anything about History knows about the Great War. It happened long and long ago, between the Empire of the Center and the Outer Grasslands. The Grasslands got to thinkin’ they didn’t care much for our Empress and decided to send a few soldiers over to her to tell her so.
The Empress thought ’twouldn’t be neighborly not to send out a welcoming committee. Well, they met at the River, and fought it out there, and then they all went home again. Never was too clear on just who won, myself. We River folk didn’t have much use for neither the Center nor the Grasslands back in those days. Still don’t, as a matter of fact. The River don’t care none; she just keeps flowin’ on and on to the Sea.
Anyway, when Ambry realized this, a deal of her fear subsided. After all, everyone knows the most terrifyin’ thing in the world is the unknown. She put her hands together and just about clapped for relief. “I wonder which battle it was though?” she asked. “I ain’t never heard of no battle on this part o’ the river, though there were some big ones down by the Mouth, that’s for sure.
“But look” — she pointed — “there’s the uniform scraps: blue cloth for the Empire of the Center and brown leather for the Grasslands.” And just as she were leanin’ in to take a closer look, a great wind arose in the trees.
Tree limbs creaked and groaned and began to moan against each other. A cloud rolled across the sun and a chill came into the air. Tendrils of mist began risin’ from the ground, curlin’ like smoke or fog on a chilly day, and Ambry heard a voice cryin’:
“That’s right, Ambry Silverstrings. We’re the soldiers who fell in the War, all of us, over a hundred hundred years ago. Our bones lie here to this day, and you’re trespassin’ on our graves!”
And the mist began to rise and rise and curl and curl some more, into the shapes of ghostly men and women: hollow-eyed, hollow-cheeked, clad in tattered rags of uniforms, all bearin’ the wounds that had killed them: huge gashes, shattered ribs, smashed eye sockets. They were so ghastly that when Ambry got a good look at ’em, she darned near fainted from fright.
“Holy Chira, Goddess above,” she prayed rapidly, “please Mother Chira, let me shut my eyes and, when I open ’em again, all these things’ll be gone away. I ain’t never been much for prayin’ before, but, Mother Chira, if’n you could help me out now, I’d be ever so grateful and I swear I wouldn’t never do nothin’ bad again.
“I wouldn’t... I wouldn’t drink to get drunk no more, ’cept in port on a trip downriver, and I wouldn’t dice no more... All right, I would still dice, but I wouldn’t never bet no more’n I had on me, at least.
“I wouldn’t start no more fights ’cept if someone called me names or tried to take the lad I was kissin’, and I wouldn’t try to flirt with lads in port except maybe every other week... All right, every week,” she amended, after some thought. “Oh, and I’d stop lyin’ and thievin’ too. Maybe. At least, I’d stop lyin’ and thievin’ so much. If you’d just help me, Chira...“
And here Ambry opened her eyes. But unfortunately for her, Chira must not have been listenin’ right that moment, for rank upon rank of the ghost soldiers still surrounded her.
Ambry was shakin’ like a pastry-maker shakes a flour sifter, and her guts were churnin’ just like somebody was makin’ a mess o’ butter in her insides. She clutched her fiddle to her as the ghost soldiers drifted closer, brown to the left, blue on the right-hand side, and she in the middle.
And then they stopped. Out o’ the ranks drifted an individual from each side: a tall man with a slouch-brimmed hat in the blue of the Center and, for the Grasslands, a thin and wiry man with brown leather coat and brown, droopin’ moustaches to match. As scared as she were, Ambry felt there were somethin’ familiar about them, and as she got a closer look, her fears vanished.
“Why, I know you,” she said. “I seen your pictures in history books.” Ambry hadn’t never had any schoolin’ but, a few years earlier, she’d taken a trip downriver with a schoolteacher who had done his best to show her the rudiments of Readin’, Writin’ and ’Rithmetic. Ambry hadn’t been too interested in studyin’ the three R’s with him, but she had managed to learn few things.
“Why you,” she said, indicatin’ the man in Center blue. “You’re General Cullen Cuthbert. And you,” she said, lookin’ at the man in Grasslands brown, “you’re Old Bear Ironhand! So called a-cause they say you caught and killed a bear with your iron hand when you was no more than a cub yourself! There’s whole books about you two these days, I’ve seen ’em!”
At this the two men looked sort o’ proud; Ironhand smiled a thin smile, while Cuthbert drew himself up and puffed out his chest.
“They’ve got a statue to you, Cuthbert, down in the central square of Rivermouth! Nothin’ for you, Ironhand,” she said somewhat apologetically. And Ironhand gave a ferocious scowl, while Cuthbert smirked in a braggin’ way. “But I must say,” Ambry went on, “the two o’ you didn’t look quite so — may I say — tattered in the pictures I saw.”
For Cuthbert had a side of his head missin’, with a dirty bandage wound over his eye and under his big hat, and Ironhand had a gapin’ wound in his chest that had stained his whole brown jacket dark with blood.
“So you see us, Ambry Silverstrings,” boomed General Cuthbert. “You see us bearin’ the wounds that killed us. As we were in life, so are we in death. Not just us two,” he said, with an expansive sweep of his ghostly arm, “but all the soldiers of our two armies, who met and fought and died over this patch of ground, a hundred and more years ago.”
“Every one who fought, died,” said Old Iron-Hand in a raspy voice. ’Twere well known the fight with the bear had crushed his voice box. “Here we lie, the heroes of the Battle of the Yellow Ox-Bow. The greatest battle of the Great War.”
“Couldn’t have been that great,” Ambry said. “I never heard of it. I heard the greatest battle in the Great War were the last one between General Nan Jandy and General Bet Samuet, when Jandy beat Samuet so bad she went runnin’ for the hills.”
General Cuthbert looked disgusted at this, while Ironhand scowled even fiercer. “They would take all the attention,” Cuthbert said, and he scowled as black as a temperance advocate findin’ her liquor flask empty. “Why, the battles I fought were twice as important as the ones Nan Jandy fought! I got twice as many of my soldiers killed as she did, and that makes them bigger!”
“You think you have something to complain about?” growled Ironhand. “Why, I killed three times as many of my soldiers as Bet Samuet! My battles were three times as important as hers or yours!”
“Doesn’t hardly seem fair that those two generals are known as fightin’ the biggest battle when you two got more o’ your soldiers killed than they did,” Ambry said while the two generals were glowerin’ at each other.
Now that they were talkin’, her fear was gone. She leapt up on a stump and arranged her fiddle across her knees, just as if she were passin’ the time with a pair of old friends on a boat. “But why are you and your armies still here after all this time? Seems to me, you’d all want to leave and move on by now.”
The two generals both looked astonished. “Leave this place?” said Cuthbert. “Are you mad? Why, this here’s the battlefield we fell on, over a hundred years ago, defendin’ the empire from this barbarian invasion...” And he waved at Ironhand, who scowled most ferociously.
“Who are you callin’ ‘barbarian,’ Cuthbert?” Ironhand demanded. “You of the Center are the barbarians. You’re so barbaric you eat with four-tined forks instead of three!”
“Well, you’re so barbaric, you put your hats on the left side of your head ‘stead of your right!” Cuthbert replied, scowlin’ just as ferociously.
“Well, you button your coats right over left ‘stead of the other way around!” Ironhand said.
“Well, you use buckles on your shoes ’stead of laces!”
And the two men were bristlin’ like game cocks, while their ghost-soldiers muttered and scowled and shifted, so that it looked ’most as if the Great War were all ready to break out all over again.
“All that sounds very interestin’,” Ambry said. “’Course, I’m just a little river girl and don’t know nothin’ about no forks nor coats nor buckles on shoes. I don’t even own a pair of shoes, myself,” she said, stickin’ out one bare foot, black with river mud. “And as for hats, well, the only hat I know of is a good straw hat to keep the weather off, and puttin’ it on the side o’ my head that catches the sun the most. But you were tellin’ me why you were still out here?”
“As I was tellin’ you before I was so rudely interrupted,” Cuthbert began, glarin’ at Ironhand, “our soldiers fell on the battlefield in the Great War at the hands of these barbarians—”
Ironhand cleared his throat mightily. “That’s far from the way I see it, sir.”
“How do you see it, sir?” Ambry asked.
“The way I see it,” said Ironhand, “our Grasslands Empire was just takin’ back what was rightfully ours. After all,” he began, “the people of the River were originally subjects of the Grasslands Empire—”
“We were?” asked Ambry with real interest. “Wowee, I never heard that before! The only Empress I know is the Empress of the Center, sittin’ in her palace of gold on her Crystal Throne—”
“Quiet, you,” Ironhand growled at her. “We were protectin’ the river folk from the Center’s dastardly depredations!”
“I don’t know nothin’ about no depredations, sir,” said Ambry. “But does seem to me we folk of the River were doin’ just fine afore either of you came along, and can’t say as we’ve really missed you since. But what are you doin’ here, if I may ask, ’stead of restin’ in Chira’s Heaven, where all the dead go?”
And now the two generals seemed to remember what they had been doin’ originally. Cuthbert’s face grew long and somber. “Why, Ambry, as we said, we are armies that fell in the Battle of the Yellow Ox-Bow, on this very date so many years ago.”
“So we are,” intoned Ironhand, tryin’ to look as solemn as Cuthbert. “And every year on this day we are condemned to fight the battle again, from dawn to dusk.”
“Wow, that does sound right interestin’. Bet there’s crowds of people who would like to see such a thing. Someone ought to come and sell tickets!” Ambry said. “You could probably make a fair piece of money off it.”
“Really, you think so?” asked Ironhand. “How much money? Hundreds?”
“Oh, at least. Millions or thousands,” said Ambry airily. Ambry, who had rarely had two coppers to rub together in her life, wasn’t real sure what numbers like “thousands” or “millions” were, but she’d bet a hundred it must be a lot. “Sure, people would come for miles around to see it.”
“How many miles?” Ironhand asked, strokin’ his chin. “Because if you—”
“Oh, Ironhand, stop it,” growled Cuthbert. “We’re not here to grub for coin. We are here to refight the Battle of the Yellow Oxbow and, what’s more,” he added sternly, “by the terms of the curse laid upon us, anyone who stumbles upon our fightin’ is condemned to fight with us for all eternity.”
Now Ambry sat up real fast. “Pardon me, but what did you say?”
Copyright © 2015 by Dana Beehr