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A Bump In The Road
They are nocturnal little creatures, unaccustomed to the light of day, which will find them tangled in the covers of Grandma’s king-sized bed, sleeping off another round of juvenile debauchery.
Gramps ( that’s me) can be found at night with them, or sitting outside in the dark, as I am doing now, sniffing the air occasionally to make sure the little darlings haven’t finally managed to set the house on fire, and taking a healthy walk, from time to time, to referee the occasional hair-pulling, screaming wrestling match over possession of a particular toy or video game.
But it’s quiet tonight - too quiet, really.
Freed for the time from my Grandfatherly duties, I went to bed much earlier than usual last night, but found myself rousing in the early hours of morning, to make a cup of coffee and sit outside in the cool darkness, as I am doing now.
I find I miss those little stinkers, and the usual calm discussions over what is whose and who was playing with it first.
I guess I enjoy too much the 0 dark thirty requests for scrambled eggs and bacon, toast cut into triangles with the crusts cut off, chocolate milk in Ninja Turtles sippy cups, and waffles smeared with peanut butter.
With the youngest, a spitting image of her lovely Mother, Mickey-Mouse shaped pancakes at 0200 was our thing. She would slip quietly out of bed, when she and they would visit, careful not to wake Mama, and her tiny self would sneak quietly to the kitchen, where she’d find Grandpa waiting.
We’d pour the batter just right, to make the head and ears.
After we finished our repast, we’d spend a pleasant hour or so, quietly talking, and building fairy castles out of simple building blocks, airy soaring structures that were magical to our eyes, if to no others.
Or we’d color, sometimes. She was always better than me at staying inside the lines.
Then it would be back off to bed, none the wiser.
I miss that tiny midget. It once was just she and I, but eventually, it became something of a happy tradition for us all, and I am a rich and happy man.
I hope they come back soon.
I had a dream tonight, just barely waking. A line of trucks were stalled on a narrow, steep, climbing mountain road, with a steep drop on one side, and a cliff face on the other.
No way back, only forward, but there was a problem somewhere up ahead.
Maybe that was what woke me, some symbolic image of a memory from the past. I don’t know, but I know that it immediately brought to mind a person whom I haven’t seen in many years, and a regrettable moment in which we both were involved:
Me and Johnny were sitting in the cool beer-scented darkness if the club, lit mostly by the vary-colored neons of the adverts behind the bar.
A raised stage lay before us, empty on this particular night, but where, often, live bands would play; Philipino, mostly, the lyrics sounding strangely-accented to our ears, but faithful renditions of current popular songs anyway.
On nights, such as this one, when no acts had been booked (they were reserved mostly for the weekends, when business would be brisker, and this was Tuesday), a huge, wall-covering back-projection screen was turned on and brought into play.
The place, who’s name, sadly, I don’t remember, had a varied repertoire of music videos (some of which I’ve never again seen, though I’ve searched extensively in recent months) that were available upon request.
We had a sweating pitcher of Mojo’s sitting between us, which we had been sharing. It was a combination of various liquors, and some fruit juice, as I recall, which brought a pleasant, tingling high, unlike straight beer or liquor, and could produce a not-unpleasant tingling in the findertips, or a strange numbness in the tongue and lips. It was rumored to contain absinthe, but I never really knew.
Different places mixed theirs differently, with varying results. Some seemed very watered-down, with hardly any alcohol at all.
This place was one of our favorites. The offering in the pitcher was dark as old blood in the dim light, behind the droplets of condensation sliding down the outside of the glass. They mixed it strong here.
The place was kept always dark, and had a certain quiet, shadowed midnight atmosphere that went well with the feelings produced by the blood red drink. Together, it all set the proper mood for the watching of the smoky vids, and for their enjoyment, especially on a quiet night such as this one.
We had spent some time earlier at another popular venue. It was, appropose to where we now were, a loud, brightly-lit, and boisterous place. I remember it being constructed cantilevered on a fairly steep hillside on one side of the street, and the door reached by means of a wooden walkway - railed, of course, in deference to the alcohol-related propensities of its clientele.
It was a nightspot favored by SNCO’s and above, but we lesser brethren were welcomed, as well, as long as we children behaved ourselves.
The 1st Sgt here reigned supreme. He was a hulking mountain monster of a man, with an affable, somewhat approachable demeanor, but with some certain hard to describe something added to the mix.
The brotherly, fellow-men-in-arms smile did not always completely match the eyes, and was not always sincere. When summoned before him, the darkness of that gaze compared to its unmatching corresponding smile could be a fairly accurate guage of just how badly you’d fucked up this time, and whether you’d better start running now, or would be better served to take what was coming and not prolong the suspense.
This smooth-headed towering trident would take on all comers in a nightly push-up challenge, the gauntlet known by all to have been flung in perpetuity, when His Majesty was in residence.
All comers of all ranks were welcomed, no challenger feared or disdained. The assembled spectators, gathered ‘round the edges of the hastily-cleared space in the center of the worn wooden floor, under the bright lights, could become raucous, spilling golden nectar from their heavy mugs as they placed bets and loudly chanted on their favorite.
His contemporaries rarely accepted the general set challenge, and then only in fun, being older and more assured of their place in the world.
For some juinior Marines it could be a matter of solemn severity. Some would train with Olympic fervor, preparing for confrontation with this deity who strode supreme among us.
A challenge to a god was not to be taken lightly by a mortal man. To emerge victorious would be to take one’s rightful place in history and in legend. To suffer defeat would be to invite unending ridicule.
We had witnessed one such bout earlier on this night. But the contender bowed out early (collapsed), and it, though hotly contested for a little while, had not been much of a show.
His cornermen had picked the poor Cpl up, and patted his bowed back, and rubbed his poor humbled head, as it hung in shameful defeat, as they led him to a needed chair.
Top, to cheers from his promoters, had continued on, unphased, and seemingly never tiring, until we grew bored, and decided to leave, when the count had reached an absurd level, and looked to continue indefinitely.
He was apparently warming up for the next man to have cojones of sufficient girth, weight, and substance to step into the ring, and, from the looks on faces all assembled, that seemed unlikely on this particular evening. And so, we had taken our leave, and made our way back more toward the center of the ‘Ville, to our current venue.
To my knowledge, the monster never lost.
Johnny had seemed to have things on his mind of recent, and had not been his usual cheerful self. We were friends, although not of the most intimate variety. He had chosen not to divulge what had been on his mind, and I felt it not my place to pry. We all had ghosts, and goblins sitting on our shoulders, whispering things in our ears that we didn’ want to hear. Sometimes we preferred to keep things to ourselves.
But tonight had been a good idea. He had seemed to loosen up somewhat, and the usual carefree, half-mocking smile was more back in place.
Fleetwood Mac had been playing on the big screen, cuts from their “Rumours” album, which had not been out for very long, at the time, and was, along with others; such as Jackson Browne’s “The Loadout”, and “Breakfast in America” by Supertramp, a current favorite - the music of our time.
Stevie Nicks had performed the title cut from the album, so appropriate to the time and place and moment; her smoky voice and weaving hands casting their enchantment upon us to the heavy base back-beat of the drums, staring big brown eyes with their ancient dark knowledge reaching deep into our souls as she wove her sultry gypsy spell.
We two had been entranced, as we always were. I think that we were both more than a little in love. I think that all of us were.
We spoke briefly, as smitten young men will, of the unlikeliness, bordering on impossibility, of one day meeting her, and how awesome that would be.
“I’d eat the peanuts out of her shit” Jonnny fervently averred, with a lingering, wistful sigh.
I glanced at him in some amusement. I’d been thinking more along the lines of an autograph, and maybe, if the gods smiled, a few minutes’ conversation. But to each his own.
“I know what you mean” I agreed, however.
We requested it again.
The journey up into the mountains for training began early the next morning, as it always did.
As was usual at that time of year, the coming heat we could already imagine upon our heads and shoulders. The humidity was even higher than usual, due to dark clouds that hovered overhead, and trapped the moisture within the smothering atmosphere.
Already, standing in properly spaced ranks along the sides of the road, our faces dripped with sweat under our heavy loadout of packs, gear, and the varied weapons that were the specific tools of each of our individual specialties.
We ‘51’s had it better than most, our tools, though with somewhat comparable lethality, much a more bearable burden than those of 81’s and heavy guns.
Though switched out often, the weight of the various unassembled parts of their means’ of lethal destruction were a heavy load to bear, and wore a man down. As usual, they looked a little more gloomy even than us.
None of us were looking forward to this, and would be elsewhere if we could. We had been down, and up, this road before, both literally and figuratively, and we both hated and feared it, in equal measure, with a refined passion.
Some of us glanced at Olsen, where we had ensured that he was placed near the front of our Plt column, our particular section of this long, winding snake of gloomy young men.
We wanted to try to ease his travail what little bit we could.
He had a previously undiagnosed medical condition - I don’t remember what it was called - that affected his breathing under labored circumstances, and made ordeals such as the one upon us even more arduous for him than for the rest of us. He had apparently gotten a waiver to permit him to stay in, or at least to finish his enlistment in this his preferred field.
Had it been any but he, we might have suspected a tendency toward malingering, but he never did, or tried to get out of a single hump. In fact, he had steadfastly refused so when the offer was extended.
He was one of us. He belonged to us. We belonged to him. Where we went, he went. What we did, he did, no matter what it cost him. That was the way of it, and it was his way. He didn’t want to let us down.
The jeep was in the middle of the road, at the center of our column, in its usual place. Though Doc never road it (he was one of us, too), he had access to its cargo; additional medical supplies, and extra water for the suffering men who were his cherished responsibility.
There was a spot kept cleared on one side of the cramped backseat enough for a single man, for any who could no longer make it along the way. With Olsen’s example always in front of us, and, I think, as a good part of the reason, I don’t recall any but he ever availing themselves of it, and he only of necessity.
I glanced at it briefly, and determined that my ass would never touch that seat. I can say without boasting that it never did.
I, like the rest of us, would rather endure torment - and torment it sometimes was - than to appear weak in the eyes of these other young men on whom I depended, and who depended on me.
Call it pride. Call it determination. Call it loyalty. Call it fear of being cast out of the good regard of those whom you loved and respected, and of seeing a little hint of pity or disappointment in their eyes. Call it what you will. It was the way it was.
We shifted our packs higher on our shoulders, and tightened our straps. Still, we knew, that it’s weight would be oppressive, and that it, and the confinement of the worn, tattered flak vests that we wore, would, more and more as the day wore on, make it seem to be harder to breath, or to take a desperately sought lungfull of air.
Many of those vests were vintage of a recent desperate conflict, and some still bore uneraseable stains upon whose origin we chose not to speculate, lest we think too long on those that we, the new wearers, might one day add to them.
The order to move out was given from the far-flung head of the column and passed down to us. Break time was over, and the workday had begun.
A special treat had been granted us to add to our misery; retaliation for recent transgressions that I won’t mention here.
In truth, I don’t recall specifically what they were at this particular time. There were many, and on many different occasions. We were a hard-headed bunch, and could be prone, from time to time, to a degree of wildness, and our own brand of casual, unmalevolent evil.
Our CO, in conference with the Battalion Commander, had requested permission, and had it granted, that we be “tail-end Charlie” on this hump., and ‘51s would be bringing up the rear.
Which meant that we would be running half the time, closing up the gaps that would inevitably appear due to the accordion-like nature of a large column of men in constant forward motion.
We would do it, cursing all the while, and blaming it in what we felt an uneven pace set from the front.
The first part of the route of March would be downhill. This was a blessing, for it permitted us to loosen up, and prepare mentally, as well, for the ordeal to come.
It would then wind along the flats for a while before beginning to gradually climb, and then turning off and snaking along the winding, ever-steepening road up into the mountains, which comprised a major portion of the route, and which we loathed and dreaded.
One element that made the ordeal a little more bearable was that by the time we reached the turnoff, the layered blisters on our feet would, for the most part, have stopped oozing and bleeding, and would have dried enough to begin to merge the molested skin of our feet with the material of our green wool socks. This would reduce the troublesome slipping, sliding sensation inside our leather boots each time we took a step.
As time went by, the soles of our feet would toughen more, and we would become more adept in their all-important care. It was a priority, in that they were our means of transportation nearly everywhere we went, and must always remain in good condition.
As it was, some of us inevitably would, on reaching our destination, have to unboot and soak them for a while in our steel helmet before gingerly peeling them off, to remove as little damaged flesh as possible, and offering ourselves for Doc’s inspection. He would have done all that he could while on the march, during the brief hourly halts, but there was only so much to be done. Frequent changes of socks helped, but would not completely alleviate the problem.
We all packed plenty of changes if socks, if we brought nothing else, the newer the better, for the cushion, and many of us would wear more than one pair at a time.
As it was, Doc would monitor some of the worst daily, to check for healing or infection. Many of us would find ourselves limping for a few days, especially after the return trip.
The worst part of the trip was, as was the way, near the end, when we were all footsore and exhausted, and had sweated through our cammies a number of times, so that they cling wetly to us, sodden and saturated, but bringing blessed moments of cooling relief when a stray breeze passed by.
A long, straight stretch of road began to rise up before us in the distance, seeming to reach for the dark, threatening clouds overhead. We knew it, and hated it, and had been awaiting its appearance with consuming dread.
From a distance, it seemed, each time, to appear to our wondering eyes almost perpendicular, and was so steep that the Jeep had no choice but to labor slowly up it in its lowest gear.
This was where we watched Olsen most closely, though we all, throughout the march, had kept a close eye on him. He struggled more than we, but never fell behind or fell out.
And we all knew the rules - his rules, upon which he insisted: no help, and no special favors. The occasional concerned inquiry as to how he was doing would always be answered in the affirmative. An offer to help carry some of his gear would be angrily rebuffed.
But the hill was different. It was his hated nemesis. He had never been able to conquer it, though he would struggle up it in our midst, until he could literally no longer stand, and would fall flat on his face to the ground unconscious somewhere along its length. So far, it had happened every time.
But his rules were his rules. He would do his part, and carry his share of the weight, and continue to earn his cherished seat at the table, even if he died in the effort.
And so we watched, as we all struggled ourselves, and offered him quiet encouragement, and willed him to continue, step by labored step, as we were all doing, and hoping against hope that this time would be different, and that his ailing body, no match for the fierceness if his will, would not fail him, if only for this one time.
What a glorious day for him that would be!
But we knew the rules - his rules: no help, and no special treatment. He’d carry his own weight, or die trying. Nobody was to put a hand under his arm to help him along. Nobody was going to take his pack, or carry his gear.
None of us tried to manually force the issue. As reeling with exhaustion as he was, he was still capable of a punch in the mouth.
And, so, though we all loved him, we offered no assistance beyond quiet encouragement. Out of hard-won and massive respect, we extended no helping hand, but watched, and waited for him to fall. We hoped that, this time, it might be different, if just this once. We were betting on him to beat this monster yet.
We each knew that, if he were standing at our back, we need never fear anything coming at us from that direction.
We watched, and we waited, and we hoped.
He hit the ground hard, this time, with nothing to break the fall, though, with the steepness of the way, it wasn’t that far to fall. Unconscious, as every time before. The flesh might be weak, but the spirit was beyond willing. The spirit was unbreakable.
A halt was called, and passed on up the line. The extended column came to a halt, and we were ordered to fall out and take a brief rest as Doc tended to Olson.
Everyone knew about Olsen’s rules, and he wouldn’t be left behind.
Johnny and I laid down our weapons and shrugged our packs at the side of the road. We helped Doc get Olsen out of his pack, and got him up off the ground. He was starting to come around again, but was still groggy. We carried his rifle, pack, and tracker case, and helped Doc half-carry him, to the waiting Jeep.
Once he was settled, with Doc riding along to tend and monitor, word was passed up the line, and we continued on.
Johnny and I, forgetting our own misery for the moment, and he his troubles, glanced at each other, and broke out in matching exultant, amazed grins.
The stubborn bastard had made it three quarters of the way up this time. The last time he’d only managed half. He was going to beat this fucker yet!
As I think about how the jeep started it’s slow climb up what remained if that hated stretch of road, I am reminded with a smile of my Grandfather, in his later years, and how slow he used to drive in his advanced age, creeping along at a maddeningly slow pace, even on those infrequent occasions when necessity caused him to leave his little mountain enclave far behind, and venture out onto what passed for a freeway in our tiny corner of existence: a narrow two-lane road winding its way through our beloved ancient green-forested mountains, a steep hillside on one hand, and a steep drop off to the deep, slow-flowing, shadowed and sun-dappled green river below on the other.
Many times would I offer to drive, and allow him to sit in the passenger side of the beat-up old Chevy pickup (he would never drive any other make). I would suggest that I didn’t mind, and that it would allow him to sit back and enjoy the trip (hinting nothing of the exasperated thought in my mind that maybe that way we would get where we were going before the week was out.
I would be rebuffed each time. It was His truck, I was along at his sufferance, he was still the boss, he’d drive the way he wanted, and if I didn’t like it, I could get out and walk (it occurred to me, more than once, that I might get there quicker that way). We were both kind of stubborn. I still am. Maybe we both were always more alike than I’ve thought.
It was on one such venture on this road to nowhere that he was politely enjoined to, if he felt like it, and seeing that he obviously was in no hurry to get anywhere, and had time to spare, pull the hell over.
The young Patrolman requested the appropriate official documents. Gramps, without seeing fit to offer him a word, or even a disdaining glance, remove his faded, worn old brown leather wallet from the inside pocket of his old suitjacket. Unhurriedly, he opened it up and remove from inside an ancient, stained, dog-eared and faded yellow document on which the writing had faded so, over the passage of so many years, that it was barely legible. It had been folded so many times, and carried for so long, that it was in eminent danger of falling apart at the folded seams.
Nonchalantly, and gazing casually ahead, he passed it over.
The young Patrolman, in puzzlement, gingerly unfolded it, looked it over, glanced back up at Gramps in consternation and amazement, then back down at the document.
It must be said, in explanation, that Gramps had never had much regard for, trust of, or respect for, the rule of law, or for the representatives and enforcers thereof, even during the time that he had, tongue in cheek and fingers crossed behind his back, been one such enforcer.
The document that he presented was an ancient driver’s license, photoless, and filled in by hand, that had expired in 1944. We had been still at war, his Sons were in the Pacific Theatre, and Okinawa had not yet been invaded. At the time of its above-described presentation, it was 1984.
There was niether insurance nor registration, and I doubt there ever had been.
I loved that old pirate with all my heart, and I still miss him every day.
The clouds that had threatened opened up, and it poured rain for days. The notional training area became a slippery, sliding quagmire of brownish-yellow mud, the non-stop rain creating new ponds and lakes in the low places, and allowing what had been mere rivulets before to become raging, albeit shallow, muddy torrents.
We had been exhausted the day before, when we had stumbled wearily into the area. We were so hot, and so sweat-soaked, that one of the first things we did upon arrival was to take off our cammie tops and twist and wring them as one would a dishrag. The perspiration with which they were saturated fell in rivulets to the ground.
The bottoms, of course, were the same, and clung to our legs as if we had gone swimming in them.
As they started to dry later in the day, and the layered salt rings stiffened and began to chafe, we would wish for them to be wet again. Starting the next day, we would get our wish.
The skys opened up on the morning of the next, the second, day, and would continue well into the fourth. There was nowhere to be dry, though we tried.
I had been observing Johnny getting more and more despondent, and not his usual humorously sarcastic amiable self.
Johnny was a hippy/surfer sort of dude, in attitude and outlook of life, and Basic and the life so far had apparently done little to change that in him.
He still seemed like he would be more at home in flip- flops and baggy shorts, long hair in a ponytail down his back, a necklace of love beads hanging down his shirtless chest, than where we were now.
“What’s happenin’, baby?! and every sentence punctuated with “Dude!” would have sounded more appropriate coming from him than “Yes, Sir!” or “No, Sir!”
I remember one time when we were sitting listening quietly to some music in the rec room at the old barracks. We were leaning back in those old, battered folding chairs we had, with our feet propped up on another. We watched the lazy sunny afternoon go by outside the open door.
“Rosie” by Jackson Browne had came on, and had progressed to the lyrics “it’s who you look like, not who you are.”
Johnny looked over at me, met my eye, and, with a depth of thought and a wisdom not common to those of our tender years, said, with quiet assurance “That’s bullshit. Don’t ever believe it. All’s important is who You think you are, not anybody else. Remember that.”
I did remember that. I thought about it a lot over the years, and am thinking about it now. I have found it to be mostly true.
Something was bothering Johnny now, and I didn’t know what it was. When I finally asked what was going on, he didn’t have anything to say, so I let it go. He’d tell me if there was anything he wanted me to know. Maybe I should have been a better friend.
On the second day of downpour, I was going somewhere to do something, I don’t remember what, and came across someone sitting out in the open, hip-deep in a muddy puddle, calmly eating out of a can of c-rats spaghetti overflowing with rainwater.
It was Johnny. Concerned that he might have finally gone around the bend, I went back and asked him if he was ok.
“I been tryin’ to keep dry up in this bitch for two days now” he replied, without looking up. Everything’s soaked. I finally just said “fuck it” - just go with it, y’ know?” he said, fishing for another bite.
Just posted what I had by mistake, sorry. Will finish the tale.
On the afternoon of the fourth day, the rain had slackened to a steady light one, so we thought we might as well get something for our time, and Hardass took us out on patrol.
At one point we went to cross what was usually an easily wadeable slow stream that was now just about chest deep in sluggish, yellow muddy water.
We’d been here before, and there was a wide but shallow concrete spillway that made a good crossing point.
As we made our way across, rifles held high enough to keep them out of the muddy water, Johnny, who was ahead of me, disappeared. He must have stepped off the edge and found a hole, ‘cause he dropped plumb out of sight. All that was left sticking up was 3 or 4 inches of wrist, and one hand holding his rifle clear of the water, like the hand sticking up out of the river in the movie poster for “Deliverance”.
A couple of us hauled him up and out. When I commented on his quick reaction time, his only comment was, referring to his rifle, “You know how hard it is to clean this piece of shit.” He’d been having a bad few days.
The next day dawned clear, and the sun was back out. The streams in the immediate vicinity were still swollen somewhat, but not like they had been. There was still a lot of standing water in the low places.
The biggest problem was the mud. It had dried enough overnight to where it was this still slippery, clingy, claylike yellow muck.
It got on everything. Walking was difficult when you had a few pounds of mud clinging to your boots at any time, and your feet kept wanting to slide out from under you on any decent gradient.
I think the only time I’d felt dirtier than I did that day was when the girl I’d been dating for a while and I discovered that our Mothers were first cousins.
It was that kind of place - not heavily populated to start with, with extended family clans that had been there for generations and were intermarried to the point that you were related in some fashion to many of the people you ran into on a regular basis. We should have been more careful.
It could have been worse, I guess. We stopped seeing each other a couple of months after that.
The whole area was a mess. Still, we were there for a reason; to train, even though most of us had, by this time, lost any enthusiasm for it that we might have had left.
At one point during the day, Johnny and I had, by mutual agreement, decided to take a break. We had been practicing maneuver to assault, or some such, and were so disgusted with the way things had been going and with what we saw as the unreality of the training that we had found a partially dry grassy hummock to sit on for a bit.
Our Lt came over and asked what we were doing. Without getting up, we replied that we were taking a break.
He angrily pointed across the muddy, waterlogged flat in front of us and ordered us to assault a machine gun position set up in the other side of it.
We looked at it, and then at each other. The position was well placed at the top of a high, vertical cut bank with clear fields of fire in all directions, no cover whatsoever. The order made no sense.
Johnny looked up at the Lt and shouted “ And just how the Fuck are we supposed to do that?!”
I was shocked. I’d never heard him address anyone that way before, much less a superior.
I guess the Lt was, too, but it sure didn’t last long. Things went downhill from there.
They both had a long talk together in an office behind a closed door when we got back. I don’t know what was said, but I do know that Johnny started to get back on track not too long after that, and eventually became his old self again.
I can only assume that the Lt had had a hand in it. Maybe he’d found a way to help. Maybe he’d been able to give some good advise.
Hell, maybe he’d just listened. Sometimes it’s easier to discuss some things with someone at some little remove than it is with people you’re closer to.
Of course, there was a price to be paid. The level of insubordination that John had displayed that day had to be answered for. He accepted that.
I think that this particular 2nd Lt, as inexperienced as he was, knew something already that some never learned: to provide good leadership to keep his unit running smoothly and effectively, he needed to concern himself with not only his men’s physical well-being, but with their mental well-being, as well.
Each man in a unit affected every other one. They were all a part of the same whole. For any one of them to be distracted by personal issues he was having to the point where he was not focusing on his job could spell disaster.
In the corporate world, such inattention might be measured by losses on a spreadsheet. In ours, it could be measured in lives.
So not much happened here. I’ve kind of talked this thing around in a circle, I guess, and went on longer that I had intended. I’m getting better at this tiny-fingers typing stuff, and can let my thoughts run away with me, I guess, now that I can keep up with them better.
Maybe I’ve said what I wanted to, and maybe it’s all bullshit. I’ve been told by a very reliable source that I’ve never had any shortage of that.
I guess maybe there’s a reason that I remembered a snippet of an otherwise unremembered dream about a column of trucks stalled on a mountain road, unable to move forward and complete their mission. Maybe I went to sleep thinking about something along those lines.
Maybe that was why my mind immediately connected it to the thing with Johnny. He had concerns that he obviously felt we couldn’t help him with, but apparently the Lt could.
Everyone can run into roadblocks, keeping them from moving forward, and we were no different. Maybe the simple meaning of this whole thing is that it’s important to have a leader capable of recognizing when one of his guys is stalled, and needs help to get moving again.
Maybe it’s advise. Maybe it’s more concrete assistance. Maybe it’s having someone in authority just give a damn enough to listen.
Mama just told me my little gremlins are coming back. Hot damn! I’m gonna’ go get some doughnuts!
Harvest’s Eve [Hallows 7]
A chill wind carried fallen amber leaves across the cobble stone streets of the capital. The first hints of winter were in the air though there was still some time before the first frost. Hellevi walked through the streets, dark thoughts whirling through her mind. The events of the morning were painfully fresh, humiliation still burning in her chest. On her way, the elf paused to watch street performers putting on a show for a group of gathered peasant children. The dancers retelling the same old tales year after year to reinforce the necessity of the yearly offerings to the Banished and instill respect for the divine in the youths. Hellevi silently scoffed at the performance before leaving. The Banished were a boogeyman to keep the peasantry in line. The offerings served as a convenient way for the church to skim grains from the peasantry so the upper echelons could dine in comfort and the lower ranks could survive the harsh winters. Hellevi was careful to hide her derision, lest she draw the eyes of the church however a single member of the crowd saw through her facade. A lone elf flashed a predatory smile, his short black hair and face hidden from view by a thick traveler’s cloak.
Reaching her mansion, Hellevi walked through the gates and made for her family’s ancient library. She needed a place to unwind while she plotted revenge and the dust covered shelves and silent tables were better company than any of her fellows. Unlocking the thick double doors, Hellevi stepped inside, her feet disturbing the dust that collected between her visits. With a flick of the wrist, Hellevi summoned flames and lit the torches that hung overhead, filling the large room with a flickering orange glow.
‘I need books on ceremonies, anything that I can use to overturn the king’s ruling. He has no right to take my title! My family has ruled this city for generations and that’s not going to change just because some greedy king has bitten off more than he can chew.’ Hellevi knew there was no chance for a military revolt. Her neighbors all circled about like hyenas, eager to pick apart all her family had built. Gathering up an armful of books, she began to read, letting time roll by. Finally, the hour grew late and Hellevi’s mind began to wander until she fell into an uneasy sleep in her chair.
“Do you know the story of Harvest’s Eve?” Hellevi blinked wearily, looking around the darkened room, only a few candles still burning.
“Yes, it’s utter nonsense.” Hellevi turned to look at the intruder and saw a plain elf standing beside her, his hand on a book she didn’t recognize.
“Perhaps, but it must have some small grain of truth? After all, the gods are quite real, no one would deny that.” The humbly dressed elf smiled, hands open in a display of harmlessness.
“What are you saying and why have you trespassed peasant?” Hellevi growled and the black haired elf put on a diplomatic smile.
“I simply took interest in your plight, after all you’ve no hope of winning against the king. He is the highest judge in the land and no amount of court politics will allow you to outmaneuver such a popular ruler.” The elf tapped the book his hand had been resting on and winked, his smile sending a shiver of fear down Hellevi’s back.
Hellevi awoke with a start, rays of morning sunlight streaming in through yellowed glass windows. ‘What an odd dream.’ Hellevi stretched, her back sore from sleeping upright. Beside her a book bound in jet black leather sat atop the dust that covered the table. Hellevi looked over the book, her heart catching in her throat. ‘That’s the book from the dream.’ She reached towards it cautiously. ‘Why am I so afraid? I merely left it here and it showed up in my dream.’ Hellevi shook off the unease and opened the book, curiosity pushing aside her caution.
The pages were stuck together, a dark black substance having seeped into much of the paper, however Hellevi managed to gently pry apart enough pages to get an idea of what the book was about. ‘To those who seek revenge upon the world, the Harvest’s Eve is perhaps the most sacred of days. It is the day they were sealed from the world and the day when one could call upon their services. Nothing is beyond their power for they rival the gods, but know that for every wish granted comes a price. They do not trade in prayers but rather seek to satiate their lust for blood through the wishes they grant.’ Hellevi felt some of the blank gunk chip off on her hands and realized it was dried blood. ‘So they’d grant a wish for bloodshed, then perhaps they’d be willing to kill a king for me.’ She thought before rolling her eyes and closing the book. ‘Utter nonsense, I’m getting carried away by a dream. I need some food and time to clear my head, I’ll have my revenge but a dream isn’t going to provide the answer.’
Hellevi left the library and locked it behind her, making her way back into her home. The servants were already preparing breakfast, and Helelvi sat down to eat a lavish meal consisting of an omelet made with fresh eggs and cheese, wheat bread and a glass of steaming coffee. Rejuvenated, Hellevi caught the nervous glances her servants gave her and felt her blood boil. It wasn’t just her livelihood that was ruined but everyone who served her. Dwarven smiths, sculpters and brewers, Halfling servants, artists and cooks all would soon be homeless. The loyal service their families had given her own, generations of devotion thrown to the wayside by the king’s decision. Without the funds provided by the city, she’d have to banish them from her halls if she wished to retain her ancestral estate.
She knew they’d blame her, they wouldn’t be able to see the truth. They whispered behind her back with daggers in their eyes. The king was appointed by the gods and no matter how high ranking or honorable, a noble wasn’t divine. The thoughts turned her food bitter and Hellevi left most of it untouched, silently waving a maid to clean up before rising to her feet and walking out into the chilly fall sunlight. The trees in her yard had turned a beautiful vibrant red and she watched them sway in the gentle breeze that blew in from the ocean. ‘It’s going to take a miracle to right things.’ Hellevi turned towards the library, darkness pouring out from the opened doorway. ‘I know I locked that door.’ Hellevi scowled and retrieved her sword from her room, the familiar weight of the blade comforting her.
‘Well if anyone’s broken in to my home, they’re about to provide me a little welcome stress relief.’ Hellevi grinned and moved in to the darkened library, calling upon her deep reserves of power and filling the entire building with light. Moving swiftly, she searched the entire building but found no one. Sheathing her blade, a disappointed sigh escaping her lips, Hellevi turned and saw the book she’d been reading opened to a fresh page, fragments of dried blood littering the table. ‘So they decided to read from my book did they? What did they see I wonder?’ Hellevi walked towards the table and peered down at the dirty old pages.
‘Just beyond the walls of Älvanärra, nestled away in a tiny cave is a temple, utterly unremarkable at first glance and yet it is perhaps the most sacred and cursed place in all the world, for it is where the true rights of Harvest’s Eve take place. Though the common folk imitate the ancient rites, only those cast upon the spot where the last of the Banished made their final stand has any true meaning. Grains blessed by the gods are sacrificed each year, the blessings restoring the seals that begin to rapidly decay on the anniversary of their final defeat. By lacing these grains with blood spilled in anger one who shares their pain can reach out to the Banished and bargain with them. But be warned all who would treat with them. Fresh salt taken from the ocean and blessed by the sun must be scattered once the dealings are complete or doom will befall all involved.’ Hellevi closed the book and glanced around one last time for any would be intruder. ‘What nonsense.’
“My lady!” A dwarf ran in, panting for air with his hands on his stubby legs for extra support. “The king’s guard are here! They’re saying you’re to be banished!”
“They said what?” Hellevi picked up the ancient book absentmindedly and scowled at the dwarf. “Don’t talk nonsense, take me to those spouting such slander!” Hellevi snapped and the dwarf nodded before turning and walking at a slow pace so he could catch his breath. ‘Why banishment? I haven’t even done anything yet.’ Hellevi walked through her mansion arriving in front of a group of knights, lead by a priest.
“Hellevi?” The priest snapped, leaving out her family name.
“Address me correctly or not at all priest.” Lady Hellevi of house Ironwood growled, her hand resting on the pommel of her sheathed sword.
“You’ve been credibly accused of consorting with spirits and demons. Your house will be seized at once, your non-heretical possessions transferred to your nearest living relative which is currently the lord Einar.” The priest’s eyes fell upon the blood encrusted tomb Hellevi held and she suddenly became aware of just how much it weighed. “Resist and you shall be found guilty on the spot.”
“Damn you and your black hearts! You all know this is entirely fabricated.” Hellevi shouted and the knights drew their swords in unison, their eyes hidden behind helmets of cold steel. “I’d rather argue my case to a judge then die on your swords.”
“A wise decision.” The priest smirked and motioned for the knights to seize her. Hellevi didn’t resist and was quickly dragged from her mansion out into the street with her hands tied behind her back. She didn’t even have time to compose herself before the knights unceremoniously tossed her into a cage atop a wagon allowing all who passed by the sight of their former lord in bonds.
Hellevi didn’t react at the jeers of the peasants or smug laughter of her rivals. ‘Don’t show weakness, once you do it’s over.’ She repeated the mantra over and over in her head, ignoring the vitriol washing over her. The anger she’d experienced only a day previously now paled in comparison to the loathing that had taken root within the elven noblewoman. She’d spent most of her life tending to her city, making sure grain got to those who needed it, taxes were payed and peace was maintained. She’d walked the streets, dutifully addressing the concerns of her people, only for them to turn on her in less than a day. ‘The king isn’t the only one who needs to suffer.’ Hellevi thought, darkness momentarily engulfing her, the carriage passing through the gatehouse of the prison her family had built.
‘At least my ancestors loathed the concept of an oubliette.’ Hellevi mused while being led through the prison to a cell facing the city street. She could hear carriages and people moving past but knew none would help her. ‘I’ve walked down that road before, the prisoners will claim anything to get someone to listen. Hell I remember one man claiming to be the king and he turned out to be a dwarf.’ Hellevi chuckled despite herself, ignoring the jailer slamming her cell’s door shut. She tried to call upon her power but the cursed stones inlaid in the walls prevented even the most powerful of wizards from creating even a spark. ‘Dammit’ Hellevi sat down on the bare cote, noticing she hadn’t even been given a blanket, a clear violation of the rules her father had set down for the treatment of prisoners within their city. ‘But it’s not ours anymore.’ Hellevi thought, pulling her legs to her chest and fighting off the cold that now constantly assailed her.
Hours crawled by painfully slowly and no one came to speak with Hellevi who sat shivering and starving in her cell. ‘Am I going to die of cold?’ She looked out the window at the orange sky, even the sun abandoning her. ‘No, I’m not going to die so easily.’ Hellevi glanced around her cell, hunger and thirst driving her desperation. The dark cursed stones stood out in the white gray walls and Hellevi realized if she could shatter them she’d be able to call upon her power. Scrounging around her cell she noticed the steel bolts embedded in the wood that made up her cot would do nicely, the wood would even allow her to use it as a club.
‘I’m sure glad most commoners don’t know how to use magic.’ Hellevi thought and ripped apart the cot as quietly as she could and laughed. ‘Once I start whacking the walls, the guards will surely notice.’ Hellevi shrugged, realizing she really didn’t care anymore. ‘If the noise brings them over I can at least demand food.’
“My, my and here I thought you’d be in tears miss noble.” A familiar voice entered Hellevi’s ears causing her to flinch in surprise. Turning slowly, club clenched tightly she saw the black haired elf smile and wave in greetings.
“And why are you here? Are you a guard? No you carry yourself with authority. A noble here to laugh?” Hellevi eyed the elf, noticing he was wearing the same clothes he’d worn in her library with the addition of a heavy cloak.
“I’m merely a sympathetic traveler. Yesterday, when I saw you so full of despair despite being surrounded by such joy, I decided to lend you a hand.” The elf walked up to the bars that separated them and leaned forward, placing himself well within Hellevi’s reach. “I could help you escape.”
“What do you want?” Hellevi took a step towards the man and he raised a single finger warning her not to move.
“One of the guards annoyed me but it’d be boring to kill him myself. I’ll open your cell and you’ll fight your way out.” Hellevi considered the offer, it was better than nothing but there was almost no hope of success. “I can see you’re unsure so I’ll sweeten the pot, I’ll smuggle you outside the walls once you escape this building and even give you a horse.” A flash of lightning illuminated the darkened cell, thunder shaking the walls and rattling Hellevi’s teeth.
“Very well, I accept your offer.” A smile slowly spread across the man’s lips and he pulled a sword from his cloak. “I believe this is yours.”
“How?” Hellevi blinked and jerked upright off the stone floor she’d been laying on. ‘I was asleep?’ Her body was cold and wracked by hunger pains while rain poured outside. ‘What the hell just happened?’ Looking around her cell, she spotted the shattered cot, next to which her sword lay in its sheath. Gripping the weapon, Hellevi felt strength return to her, adrenaline doing its best to keep her body functioning. ‘Guess it wasn’t just a dream then.’ Hellevi looked at the cell and saw the door swing open with a long drawn out squeal. ‘Maybe I should just stay here and die.’ Hellevi thought briefly then stood up and stepped out of her cell.
She remembered the path out, and smiled. ‘They should have blindfolded me.’ Hellevi thought and looked at the sleeping guard watching her cell block. He’d done nothing but ignore her since she’d arrived. ‘That’s a warm looking cloak he’s got.’ Hellevi walked up to the elf and plunged her sword through his heart. The elf’s eyes flashed open before turning glassy, dying before he had a chance to react. Hellevi pulled the cloak off the corpse before it got dirty, wrapping herself in it and finally feeling some mild relief from the cold that had seeped into her bones.
‘He said he wanted me to fight my way out, he never said I had to be flashy.’ Hellevi recalled the layout of the building and began heading for the nearest guard post where food and water would be waiting for her.
Opening the door, the guards all paused, recognizing their former liege. Hellevi smiled before slashing through the neck of the nearest man. The room exploded into motion but Hellevi had already made her second move. Raising her left hand, she unleashed a wave of fire upon the surprised guards. They didn’t even get the chance to scream.
‘Nearly ruined the food.’ Hellevi thought, picking up the slightly chaired toast that had seconds before been fresh bread and took a bite. The smell of cooked bacon filled her nose and her stomach growled. The bread satisfied her hunger but her throat was parched and it hurt to swallow. Picking up a cup of steaming water, Hellevi chilled it with magic and quickly gulped it down, letting out a content sigh. ‘I feel alive again.’ Hellevi could hear the sound of boots rushing towards her location and realized how much time she’d spent surrounded by burnt corpses. ‘Better get moving or I'm going to die.’
Hellevi pushed opened the door of the guard room, lightning crackling around her hand and unleashed a stream of death on a group of five guards that had come to inspect the noise. The buzzing of electricity filled the air, quickly followed by the clatter of mail on stone, the bodies of her victims thrashing about in their death throes before going still. ‘I never thought I’d be so good at this.’ Hellevi stepped over the steaming bodies and rushed towards the exit. Fortunately, she’d already killed most of the guards in her section of the prison and arrived at the front gate still wrapped in the unblemished cloak of her first kill. Passing out onto the city street, she saw a horse tied up just outside the wall and smiled. The animal was wet from the constant down poor but was clearly in good health. ‘I wonder if this was left by my strange friend.’ She untied the horse before jumping into the saddle and jamming her heels into its sides, sending the horse galloping through the paved roads.
Reaching the gatehouse, Hellevi could already hear the ringing of the prison’s alarm bell. ‘Seems they discovered my breakout, how am I going to escape the city now?’ Hellevi looked around and saw that same black haired elf waving from atop the city’s walls. Below him, the gate remained opened and Hellevi saluted him with her sword before galloping to freedom.
‘Well, I’ve escaped but I’ve lost everything.’ Hellevi thought, her horse thundering down the well paved stone road into the farmland surrounding the city. ‘I guess I should head for the border and try to find a foreign backer willing to press my grievances.’ Hellevi pondered, not paying much attention to her horse which continued dutifully down the path she’d set it on. A sharp guest of chilly wind pierced her coat and carried water into her face, lightning arcing across the sky to reveal a massive bear barreling towards her. ‘Shit!’ Hellevi tried to bring the horse around but it reared up on its hind legs tossing her to the ground.
The bear collided with the horse at full speed, its claws ripping into flesh and breaking bone. Hellevi sprang to her feet and bolted, sprinting away from the road and into a small copse of trees just off the road. The bear’s head jerked from its dying kill to the elf, madness glittering in its eyes, frothed spit leaking from its mouth. With a roar it ran after Hellevi, gaining on her at a hair raising pace. Turning to fight, Hellevi once again summoned lightning into her hand and unleashed bolts of searing light. The bear ran through the storm, steam rising from its soaked fur coat. ‘It’s rabid!’ Hellevi ducked behind a tree and gripped her sword with both hands, channeling her lightning through the blade. The bear barreled around the tree, inertia and the wet earth hindering its turn and Hellevi plunged her blade into its flank, delivering wrathful lightning straight to its innards. With a gurgling groan the bear skid across the ground, wrenching Hellevi’s sword from her hands.
‘Is it dead?’ Hellevi looked at the bear, a reflection of firelight shimmering on her blade. ‘What’s that?’ Hellevi withdrew her sword from the corpse, blood pouring from the wound and turned to see a small cave entrance flanked by a pair of burning braziers. ‘No way, that’s too much of a coincidence.’ Hellevi began to laugh and walked towards the cave entrance, a well maintained path clear of shrubs and underbrush running through the small cluster of trees. Rain pounded Hellevi and with nowhere else to go she walked into the cave, still in disbelief.
Inside she heard fires burning and moved through the narrow passage in the stone, passing a small room cut into the rock. Symbols of the gods were scrawled along the gray stone walls and charms dangled overhead, chimes ringing in the storm’s breeze. Chanting reached Hellevi’s ears and she headed deeper into the cave, coming upon a large open room formed long before elves built their first city. Ten priests were preparing offerings while chanting around a massive pitch black obelisk. Hellevi felt a pull, her hatred resonating with the malefic energies that swirled around the sculpture. ‘If I wish for something that will provide bloodshed, it’ll be granted.’ Hellevi remembered the words of her book and looked over the priests. Three elven priests, one from each of the major tribes worked on beating the grains free from their stalks while a dwarf, halfing, lizard kin and orc tended the fires that filled the room with light and heat. Finally the last three priests belonged to the most reclusive of beings that not even Hellevi, a city lord, had seen before. A bird man ground grain into flour while a Goblin prepared a mixture of rock powder and water. The final priest was a Kitsune who was chanting solemnly while continuously casting a powerful sealing spell upon the obelisk.
‘Spill blood on the offered grain to gain an audience.’ Hellevi recalled and looked at the path leading down towards the priests. ‘I’m forgetting something but I can figure it out later, if I let them complete the ritual I wont be able to get my wish.’ Hellevi felt exhaustion slowing her movements but she was up against ten ancient priests who’d probably never seen battle. Conserving her waning magic, she charged down the stone steps to the ritual and impaled the dwarf while a scream of desperation forced its way from her lips. The chanting stopped and the priests all turned their eyes to the intruder, gazing upon the murder that had just been committed with shock. Before any could react, Hellevi struck down the night elf and Sun elf with a pair of well practiced swings of her sword.
“You’re all going to die, sorry.” Hellevi growled and pulled her sword free from the sun elf’s ribcage before slashing the halfling across the back as he tried to flee, blood splattering the black obelisk. Tendrils of black lightning began to ripple over the stone monument and the priests quickly resumed chanting while trying to scramble away from Hellevi.
“You must stop this!” The orc pleas fell on deaf ears, Hellevi’s sword sweeping through his throat.
“You’ll doom us all! Darkness will-” Hellevi split the Lizardkin’s head in half with a downward strike, brain leaking from his skull.
“Gods hear me! There is-” Hellevi whipped around, removing the head of the Birdman with a brutal horizontal slash.
The Goblin, Kitsune and Elf pooled their meager power and Hellevi brought her last remaining magical reserves to bear, forming a barrier around herself just in time to divert a torrent of flame. Charging forward, she erupted from the inferno and struck down the goblin and elf. The Kitsune walked backwards, his head shaking in terror before colliding with the obelisk. Hellevi pushed her sword through his chest, the blade passing without resistance into the obelisk itself, pinning the creature in place. Letting go of her weapon, Hellevi turned and dipped her hands into the bowl of grain, her fingers dripping with fresh blood spilled in anger. Turning towards the obelisk, Hellevi scattered the blood soaked grains across the surface, pelting the priests corpse with the defiled offerings.
“I call upon the Banished, I seek a wish.” Hellevi spoke, her mind nearly consumed by madness and desperation.
“And we answer the call.” Black ichor wept from the stone, a blob of viscous flood falling to the floor and bursting, revealing gears and writhing flesh that slowly took the shape of a being that wasn’t quite an elf. It was taller, and thicker with rounded ears and eyes burning with hatred. “Speak your wish elf, humanity does not enjoy idle chatter with those who would use us.” A mad idea sprung forth in Hellevi’s mind, a way to get what she wanted without daring a wish laced with malice.
“Then prehaps we can strike a deal instead? An alliance if you will.” Hellevi shuddered as the Banished moved its eyes over her carefully.
“Elevated stress, blood of several people and severe exhaustion, you are no haughty priest come to offer us little more than vapid promises. Perhaps a deal is in the cards, what do you have in mind?” The Banished’s eyes moved from Hellevi, looking beyond her towards something at the cave’s entrance. Hellevi turned to look and saw the flickering image of the black haired elf who’d given her the book and helped her escape. The image flickered before vanishing entirely and the Banished’s form suddenly became fluid, taking on the elf’s appearance. “I see, an elven noble trying to retake what was stolen.” Hellevi felt a lump of ice form in her stomach.
“You used me.” Hellevi whispered, the final betrayal hurting more than any that had come so far.
“Yes but if you set us free we will help you.” Hellevi stepped back but the Banished made no move to pursue her.
“What will you do then?” Hellevi remembered the warning in the book and she was certain she’d seen a large basin of salt in the room near the cave’s entrance.
“We will explore the changes that have taken place, scout out our enemies and then we will wage bloody war upon this world.” The being looked at Hellevi and grinned. “But we are not as cruel as our foes and we know how to reward our friends. Your city will be spared our wrath as will you, if you stay your hand and let the seal break. Your wish granted by your willing inaction.”
“And all it will cost is sacrificing the rest of the world.” Hellevi knew what she should do, what she must do, but was it worth it? She’d been betrayed by everyone she’d ever known, was now truly the heretic she’d been accused of being. There would be no reward for her, no, only cold hard justice in front of a roaring crowd.
“So what will it be?” The Banished asked, no sign of concern in his voice.
“You have yourself a deal.”
The last category is proving to be a challenge but that's fine, I'm enjoying it. I'll probably post it within a few days. If you liked my writing you can find my other stories here.
I keep thinking I should try writing a scifi then end up writing more fantasy... Oh well.