The sun pressed down relentlessly on the advancing column of fighters making the exhausting climb up from the valley floor below to the drier ridge above. His own throat dry and parched, He was leading the column up a trail that was flanked on both sides by scrub brush hardy enough to withstand the demanding environment, and from a tactical perspective providing limited observation of the immediate surroundings and steep precipices on both sides. From a military perspective, not good.
Looking back down the valley he spotted the support aircraft still a fair distance below, but closing fast. The whomp-whomp sound of their rotor blades was barely discernible, but immensely reassuring. The enemy they were pursuing had aquired a costly, but prudent respect for the power of air support and usually withdrew when these assets joined the fight. This was an ideal location for an enemy ambush, but with the approach of the armed gunships, foolhardy. Sufficiently reassured, He turned his attention back to to the now relative safety of the ridge-top objective. WHomp-WHomp-WHomp-WHOMP. Blinding debris whipped up by the rotor wash tore at his clothing. The sun pressed down relentlessly parching His throat. But, they’re here. We’re safe. Give the troops a breather.
And then, it happened.
First came the sound akin to that of a large flying insect going past at very high velocity followed closely by the supersonic snap of another round passing uncomfortably closer. Both came from the right. Instinctively He knew where the next round would strike. He lunged off the trail into a row of shrubs to his left. But the bushes gave way and He found himself sliding uncontrolled across the loose shale down towards the precipice as a burst of automatic weapons fire snapped angrily above his head miraculously missing him. Desperately he sought to grasp anything that might arrest his slide toward the edge, but to no avail. As the sounds of the growing battle filled his ears and increased in ferocity He suddenly found himself propelled over the edge, free-falling towards the tree tops far below.
For what seemed an eternity there was blessed silence.
With relief he floated as if flying. "I survived. I'm alive!"
With a final sigh, He welcomed knowing the pain was over ...
The impact was sudden and wrenching. As if provoked by the intrusion, tree limbs and branches pummeled and tore at him attempting to break his bones, gouge his eyes, tear his flesh, strip away his weapon. Breaking through the upper canopy his fall continued. Adrenaline pumping, He felt no pain but knew injuries were being sustained. He slammed into the lower canopy. The onslaught continued. This time stripping away his combat helmet. His last and best head defense. It was all a confused blur. He could no longer protect himself. He was nearly unconscious when he struck the ground. The sounds of the battle returned, but faded as the warm dark enveloping fog descended. With a final sigh, He welcomed knowing the pain was over. It was time to rest.
“So, how did this wounded warrior come to be here and what if anything should I do about it?”
Squatting at the far end of the sunlit cottage She eyed her charge intently. Already two thirds of her small family had been consumed by this war. When her husband and son joined the militia they promised to return in time for the harvest. That was two seasons ago. In her mind She knew they would never comeback. In her heart She nurtured a dim flame of hope that one day both would return. The farm was small, but with only one person to work, things were very difficult. And now this.
She was following the creek that ran along the base of the cliff, returning from a bartering session at an adjacent farm, when confronted with the near-dead creature in military garb crumpled across the trail. Immediately on guard, She cautiously retreated to a safe vantage point to assess the situation. The war raged all around, but no battles had been fought in her valley. “So, how did this wounded warrior come to be here and what if anything should I do about it?”, she thought.
Ultimately, She behaved as if she’d encountered an injured animal, hearkening back to the days of her youth running free in the forest during that brief moment when she was allowed a childhood. Childhood, a small chapter into which one sometimes inflicts an entire lifetime. In this She found the inspiration to save this creature and brought him home to be nursed back to health. This was her nature.
Everything changed when She appeared
In the beginning it was very difficult. As a precaution her first action was to burn his uniform and bury his equipment. Thereby erasing any obvious connection to the war. The creature had several broken bones, scrapes, and contusions needing attention, but the greatest challenge was providing nutrition. The creature that She now tentatively named "The Stranger" lay semiconscious and delirious for days at a time requiring force-feeding during those spare lucid moments.
...she played a dangerous game
Of course She had interests that transcended simply caring for others, but it was only after embarking on this new challenge that She became aware of the depth of her own loneliness. Caring for The Stranger satisfied the nurturing aspect of her nature. Accidentally, She rediscovered her joy of life. She also knew she played a dangerous game.
Although presently wounded and vulnerable this tiger will one day regain its strength and free will. Would she then become his first meal on his ascendancy back to his proper place at the top of the food chain and return to the war? She sought guidance through Dau-Chi but the answers were inconclusive on the matter. Again, She was on her own.
Born the youngest of four and the only female, She had never known a kind life. Even at the moment of her birth the midwife consulted the Dau-Chi and predicted She would be an “unfortunate woman”.
The Dau-Chi and predicted She would be an “unfortunate woman”.
This prediction was fulfilled all too soon. When still a young child both her parents died when their craft sank during a flood. Unless other family stepped in, as the oldest female She was expected to shoulder the responsibility of taking care of her siblings. She stood that test efficiently and with honor, but at terrible cost.
Because She was the female-head-of-house she was not free to marry until one of her brothers married. At that point the new bride would assume female-head-of-house status and duties. She waited expectantly for the announcement of engagement of one the three older brothers. That moment didn’t arrive until the youngest of the three finally married, but by that time She was past the age when most females are expected to marry. She knew her prospects were dim. Once again, an unfortunate woman.
As his midnight’s of unconsciousness grew shorter and times of lucid meanderings increased, He gradually built an awareness of his circumstances and surroundings.