and the Soldiers
by Dana Beehr
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
“You’re condemned to fight with us,” Ironhand said, lookin’ pleased as a fox in a henhouse. “Since you have trespassed on our sacred ground, you must join us in refighting the battle for the rest of eternity.”
“What, like, now?” Ambry asked in confusion. All the soldiers were narrowin’ their eyes and puttin’ hands on their muskets and sabers, as if to say, See what you got yourself into, little girl?
“Yes. Now!” boomed Cuthbert. “Because of your trespass you are doomed forever, Ambry Silverstrings, to join our curse and take part in our ancient battle from now until the end of the world.”
Now Ambry was beginnin’ to feel just a mite discomfited, at the Generals’ words and at the way the ghosts were all eyein’ her. “Not to be impolite,” she said with a curtsey, “because it looks like you got a mighty fine battle here, sirs, and I enjoy a good flagration as much as the next orphan but, at this moment, that jest don’t quite sit right with me. As it so happens, I am otherwise engaged, as they say, and truly told, I really ought to be goin’ now —”
“There is no ‘goin’ now,’ Ambry Silverstrings!” boomed Cullen Cuthbert. “You’re trapped here, and I say you’ve got to join us!”
“And I,” added Ironhand, givin’ another o’ those thin smiles.
“Again,” Ambry said, shiftin’ uneasily, “while it seems like you’ve got a mighty fine battle goin’ on here, I can’t just drop everythin’ and run off to join the army. This war were over long ago, and it don’t do no use to pretend it ain’t. I have plans and places to go and be. Your war ain’t nothin’ to do with me—”
“Why, Ambry, how do you think we felt?” Ironhand asked, gesturin’ behind him. “Every one of these here lads and lasses had lives and families before the Lords of the Grasslands drafted them across the plains to make war for you ungrateful river folk.”
Cuthbert nodded. “And every one of these boys and girls here had plans and ideas before the Empress took them away to go fight for her against the ruthless depredations of the Grasslands barbarians. Why do you think you’re so special that you ought not to be drafted too? You should be proud,” he added, “that you’re bein’ given a chance to serve your Empress in death!”
“Wait a minute: I have to die to join your army?” Ambry started backin’ away even faster, for the more she learned about this the worse it sounded.
“Well, of course, Ambry Silverstrings — or, should I say, Private Silverstrings,” said Ironhand. “We’re an army of the dead. How on earth can you join us if you aren’t also dead?”
“So you see, Miss Silverstrings,” Cuthbert thundered, “you’re captured. You’re goin’ to be impressed into our army!”
“Or better yet, ours,” said Ironhand, glowerin’ at his opposite number.
Ambry scowled. “I don’t know how much use I’d be, seein’ as how I’m no soldier—”
“That’s what Basic Training is for,” Cuthbert said, drawin’ his saber. “None of my boys and girls were soldiers before they were drafted. Now hold still, while I get this over with.”
And here he made as if to stab Ambry in the heart. Ambry shied like a horse spyin’ a snake and called out, “But wait! How do I know whose side of yours I’m a-goin’ to join? Seems like I should know at least whether I was goin to be wearin’ the blue or the brown before I joined up with you.”
“Why, you’ll be fightin’ for your Empress, of course,” said Cuthbert as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.
“You’ll be fightin’ for the Grasslands o’ course,” said Ironhand at the same moment.
The two generals fell to glarin’ at each other. “I said Empress,” boomed Cuthbert.
“And I said Grasslands,” said Ironhand ferociously.
Seein’ her opportunity, Ambry put in, “Well, I don’t want to be the cause of no problems here. Since you can’t decide, maybe I’ll just be on my way—”
“Not a chance, Silverstrings!” Cuthbert said menacingly. “You just stay right there.”
Ironhand nodded. “Let’s not fight about this, Cuthbert,” he said to his rival. “Kill her first and then decide whose side she’s on afterwards.” He swung back to Ambry. “This won’t take a moment.” And he raised his own weapon.
Now, for a ghost saber, that blade looked awful shiny and sharp, and Ambry had to admit she didn’t much care for the thought o’ growin’ more closely acquainted with it. She was castin’ her mind about desperately. “Wait a moment!” she cried.
The two generals stopped and looked at her curiously. “Yes? Now what is it, Private Silverstrings?” Cuthbert asked.
“Well now,” she said, thinkin’ as she went. “If you two fine gentlemen say I’ve got to get drafted into your private little army, well, then I guess I gotta. After all,” she said, sighin’, “lots of other folks went to fight in the army too, and they didn’t wanna, and I guess now it’s just my turn. Way the world works, that’s all.
“But it makes me sad that I’m not goin’ to be able to play my fiddle for audiences no more. I am hailed, you know,” she said with no trace of false modesty, “as the best fiddle player all along the River, even if you folk haven’t heard o’ me. So if you’d spare a poor fiddler girl a kind moment,” Ambry said, takin’ her fiddle from her back, “I guess what I’d like to do is play one last performance. Just sort of a farewell to livin’.”
The two generals looked at each other, with Cuthbert’s mustache all bristlin’ and Ironhand frownin’. “What do you think, Ironhand?” Cuthbert asked.
Ironhand shrugged. “Let the girl play. It’s been too long since we’ve had any fiddle music around these parts, and it might liven up my bones.”
“All right then.” Cuthbert turned to Ambry and gestured expansively. “Go ahead, girl. Play your final performance for us. Just make sure it’s a good one.”
“All right, and I do thank you, gentlemen.” Ambry bowed. “So, given that this is a battle of the Great War I stumbled into, I’d like to see if I can’t play some o’ the songs from that war.” For though the war were a hundred and more years ago, the songs were still floatin’ along the River, caught in the current like a tree branch streamin’ for the ocean, as the river folk say.
Once Ambry began, she played every army song she had ever heard right then, and some she just made up on the spot, for as she always said, “If there’s a song I can’t play, that just means I haven’t heard it and played it yet. And if a song don’t exist, well then it should have.”
She played the songs as only she could, for not for nothin’ were she known as the Demon Fiddler, the greatest fiddler ever born. ’Twere Ambry, after all, that had fiddled the sun right down out o’ the sky; ’twere Ambry Silverstrings that had won a fiddle contest with Old Man Splitfoot, and why, compared to all that, captivatin’ an army o’ long-dead soldiers weren’t no problem at all.
Ambry started with songs the soldiers would sing on the march to keep their feet movin’ and their spirits up. The ghost army were laughin’ and singin’ along, rememberin’ the past. Next she played camp songs the boys and girls would sing as they sat around their fires at night, mendin’ their equipment, cookin’ their grub and gettin’ ready for the morrow.
After the camp songs, she played the battle songs, songs to stir the blood and boost the courage of men and women as they charged into battle. The soldiers’ eyes lit up, and old Cuthbert and Ironhand began puffin’ out their chests and snortin’ as if they were goin’ to race into battle right there.
Once she had ’em all fired up, she played songs of victory, songs the soldiers might sing on their way home from battle, all waitin’ to get back to their mothers and sweethearts, and she could see hearts lift and chests swell fit to burst.
They were all as proud as peacocks and the two sides began jostlin’ and eyein’ each other. It looked for a moment as if the great Grasslands War was a-goin to break out again, started just because of her fiddlin’, right then and there.
But that was what Ambry had been waitin’ for, and ’twas right then she changed her tune. For now Ambry set herself to playin’ all the laments the war had produced. She played sad songs of mothers who had lost their sons, and fathers who had lost their daughters. She played songs of sweethearts forever separated by the war, of men and women whose darlings were dyin’ far from home.
She played songs of loss for soldiers who had seen their comrades die, songs of strain and hardship and songs of longin’ for home and peace. She played of defeats and routs, of pointless bivouacs, and forced marches, of weariness, tedium and terror. Most of all, what Ambry played was grief.
Well, before long, there wasn’t a dry eye on that field or wouldn’t have been, anyway, if ghosts could cry. Cuthbert was blowin’ his nose with a sonorous honk, and even Ironhand, hard-bitten fella that he was, was wipin’ at his eyes with a handkerchief. And that’s when Ambry changed her tune once more, playin’ songs of peace.
She played songs of mothers receivin’ their sons home and fathers receivin’ their daughters home, of husbands and wives returnin’ to each other. She played songs of healin’, of plowin’ and plantin’ and springtime and happy days.
Those songs she played then, it happened, were some o’ the best songs ever to come out o’ that war. Some o’ those songs were new to the poor bony old soldiers, ’cause they wasn’t written till these folks were long dead, and nobody had come to play for ’em. But the words came straight from Chira’s heaven, and the soldiers loved ’em all. Ambry played as only she could, playin’ so well the ghosts on the battlefield could almost see their homes as if they were right in front o’ their own eyes.
They saw their own mother waitin’, and their own house and yard and brothers and sisters, for that was Ambry’s way, and her fiddle’s way, I might add. Couldn’t no one listen to one o’ Ambry’s songs without bein’ moved by it. I swear, if Old Man Splitfoot himself had been on the field that day, he’da fallen to his knees and started cryin’ for his mother himself! And when she had finished, she lowered her fiddle and looked to see how they’d taken it.
Ambry smiled, for all th’ soldiers o’ th’ two armies were reachin’ out and huggin’ each other like long-lost brothers. Men of the Empire were leanin’ on men of the Grasslands; women o’ the Grasslands were huggin’ women o’ the Empire, and in all that cryin’ and sobbin’, well, somehow you just couldn’t really tell no more who was an Empire soldier and who was a Grasslands soldier.
The blue and brown coats were so mixed and mingled that it didn’t seem like there were any proper sides left. And glory be! Cuthbert, wipin’ his streamin’ eyes, looked at Ironhand, and Ironhand looked back at Cuthbert.
“Cuthbert...” Ironhand said, and stopped.
“Ironhand...” Cuthbert began.
The two of ’em shuffled around a bit, hemmin’ and hawin’, and finally Cuthbert said, “Ironhand...maybe, just maybe, it’s time to put this feud behind us.”
“Maybe it is,” Ironhand agreed after a moment. “It’s been two hundred years. After all,” he added, “why, my men and I kicked your tail, so I guess we can let it go.”
“Well...” Cuthbert said, “That’s not the way I remember it, sir.”
The two of them eyed each other for a moment, and Ambry was wonderin’ if she were goin’ to have to start playin’ again, when Cuthbert said, “Mayhap, Ironhand, we can... agree to disagree?”
“Mayhap we can,” Ironhand allowed at last. And then he offered Cuthbert his hand.
Instead, Cuthbert saluted and Ironhand saluted back. Then the two generals shook hands in a civilian way. And as they did, the soldiers set up a yell and a cheer.
Ambry grinned and said, “Well, sirs, now that there is no war, I guess I don’t need to be inducted into either of your armies?”
“No, Miss Silverstrings,” Cuthbert said, “although if you want to join, someone with your fiddle skills would be welcome any time in my army.”
“And in mine,” Ironhand said, smilin’.
Ambry allowed as how this was mighty fine of them, but seein’ as how she had an appointment to keep and didn’t really have time to die right now anyhow, she had to make her excuses and get downstream.
“Yes, well,” Cuthbert said magnanimously, “feel free to go. And if you ever want to return....” He turned toward Ironhand with a curious look. “Perhaps every year, instead of a battle, we can meet again on this spot and have... a peace celebration? A picnic, perhaps?”
“Perhaps we could,” Ironhand said, lookin at Cuthbert speculatively. “And seein’ as how you’re the author of our peace, Miss Silverstrings, we’d be glad to have you as our guest of honor, should you feel like returnin’.”
“Maybe I’ll do just that!” Ambry cried.
She took her leave of the two armies with much smilin’ and shakin’ of hands and many tears. Why, seemed like just about every one of the captains, lieutenants and soldiers wanted to shake her hand and tell her thanks for endin’ their long war. And when at last Ambry did head down to the docks and take her leave, promisin’ she’d return someday, she could hear the soldiers cheerin’ behind her and even startin’ to organize a game of river-ball.
The little boat was just where Ambry had left it, and she jumped in and took off downstream like a shot. She worried a bit about how much time had passed and whether she would be able to catch up with the Mother’s Comfort after all, but turned out the boat had held up in Stonewater, for its captain herself was sleepin’ off a drunk. When she caught up with the boat, it chanced no one had even noticed she was missin’.
When Ambry tried to explain where she’d been, nobody believed her. “My, my!” said the captain, slappin’ her haunches. “You’re mighty lucky, Ambry, the most I’d ever seen sleepin’ off a drunk was pink elephants!” And all the crew around her laughed and laughed, until Ambry, disgusted, gave it up.
Ambry told that story up and down the river for many a day, and most didn’t believe her, and of those that did, most thought she herself had been doin’ just that, sleepin’ off a drunk. But Ambry knew that what she’d seen hadn’t come out of a bottle, so though she quit tellin’ the story, she never forgot it.
The ghost soldiers themselves, so she learned, kept their promise. From that day forward, every year on the anniversary of their battle they played a game of river-ball instead o’ fightin’, and sometimes Cuthbert’s side won, and sometimes Ironhand’s side won, but the generals were good sports and took it in stride. Don’t know if they ever had that picnic, seein’ as how dead folk don’t get too hungry.
Ambry did return to the spot one day, as it so happened, and called on all the soldiers to come and fight for her, and they were glad to do so, as a matter of fact, because....
But that is another story.
Copyright © 2015 by Dana Beehr