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|Downhill all the way|
Downhill all the way
- Well I walked through the desert, the man says we going home
- Well I walk through the wilderness, of sand and thorns
- And dead men's bones, And dead men's bones
"You know what you were saying about us being armed and them not wanting to take us on? Well, I think they might fancy their chances."
Jee stood on a hilltop with Ren, Chang, Kun and Zhao. The valley sloped steeply down from where they stood, heavily forested in its upper reaches, giving way to the fresh earthworks and fortifications of a new Earth Kingdom base on the banks of the broad river. Every one of the men gazing down at their destination looked haggard. Behind them, on the hill top, men had simply flung themselves to the ground, not even bothering with fires or tents.
Zhao was leaning heavily on his crutch. "Well, we're here now..." he said, an unfamiliar tone of entreaty in his voice.
"Some of us," bit back Jee.
"We can't go back," Zhao murmured. Every man shook his head. On that they were agreed. "So we go on. We need to get the men up and headed down the valley. We can't have the Earthbenders thinking this is an attack."
A rumbling told them it might be too late.
"We need to surrender..." said Chang. They were like men sleepwalking, thought Jee. Every thought, every action required the greatest effort and seemed to unfold over an age.
Zhao was tugging at the grey wool blanket Jee was wearing as a cloak. "Jee. Jee..."
"What is it?"
"Wave it. The blanket. Like a flag."
He tried. To either side of them, great walls of rock rose, hemming them in.
"Maybe it's not obvious we're trying to surrender. We should have woven a flag from your frosty locks..." sniped Jee.
"Shut up. Tie it to my stick. I'll wave it."
"But you'll fall over."
"Well, prop me up then.."
The rock closed over their heads.
Two men stood on the bridge of a Fire Nation ship. From where they were moored, they could see a sprawling camp around the fort on the headland.
"So what about this group of prisoners that wandered out of the wilderness?"
"A rag-tag, some half-dead... a handful recovering from torture. There's no appetite for making men like that suffer more than they have already."
"Torture? I don't suppose you know anything about that, General Fong?"
"Why no, I wouldn't have the faintest idea, Firelord Zuko. A horrible word. One I wouldn't like to hear bandied about in less discrete circles. We don't want to stir up bad feeling, sully the new era of forgiveness."
"I see. So provided we do it.. discretely, I get to take them home with no questions asked, and we forget all about that horrible word."
"I think I can shake hands on that, Firelord."
Some of the men had wept with joy at the sight of their captors, who had herded them like stunned cattle down the hill.
"How many did you set out with?" The questioning was surprisingly benign. After rounding them up and housing them in a stone barrack block, the Earth Kingdom Captain and had sought out their leaders. Even as he questioned them, vats of soup and rice were being taken round the exhausted men.
"Four hundred and thirty two," said Ren.
"But there are less than four hundred here. Where are the rest?"
Every face was etched with the horror of remembrance. Eventually, Zhao spoke up. "They.. didn't make it."
The Captain looked soberly at him. "Oh. I'm.. sorry to hear that. Hard country, out there. But why didn't you just stay at your prison and await release?"
Jee was becoming impatient. "Because then we would all have died."
"Well look, you've obviously had a hard time. I've sent word to Recovery Headquarters. Firelord Zuko has been visiting the operation, and you'll be going home in his convoy. In the mean time, there are Waterbending healers who will tend your wounds, and you can rest and recover some of your strength."
Zhao straightened up, gave an Earth Kingdom salute. "Thank you for your kindness, Captain. We weren't sure what to expect."
The Captain returned the salute. "Well, that's the Avatar for you. If he can forgive, then we all can, and hopefully the world will be better for it."
As he left them to their supper, Jee spoke. "Hope they're all like that fellow. You think Firelord Zuko will be so forgiving as the Avatar, Captain Shi?"
"Hmmph," was Shi's only reply.
"Well, I think I'll head to the healers after supper and see if they'll sort my feet out. I hear they've got hot-tubs!"
Zhao's brow knotted.
"Come now! You can't seriously be thinking of passing up an opportunity like this!" said Jee.
Ren chipped in. "You more than most. You could be well again. Get that knee sorted out, and the arthritis. Maybe even the seizures."
The twisted hands were wrung. "The healers are all from the North Pole. I spent months there. Someone is bound to recognise me."
Jee exchanged a worried look across the table with Ren. "Look. I know it's hard. But this is the end of the line for Captain Shi. It's going to get out. It would be much better if you came clean while you still have the chance."
The hands raked through the silvery hair. "You don't understand. I've been subjected to the justice of two nations. I just can't go through it a third time. I can't."
"But this is different. The war is finished..."
"No!" The mismatched eyes blazed. "I did too much. Everyone else might be forgiven, but there is no one, no one, who would lose any sleep over my fate. You think Zuko will forgive me? You think he will let me live?"
Ren interjected. "His father still lives."
"Lives! It is hardly a life, if the tales are true! And that is his father. What am I to him? Less than nothing!" The tired, tortured eyes clamped shut. There was no sound from him but the forced regularity of his breathing. His hands became fists, the knuckles deathly white.
"We would speak out for you. Any of the men would."
After a moment the eyes opened, their expression quizzical, almost disbelieving. "You would?"
"Of course we would."
There was a deeper breath, as if he had let go of something. "I had thought of... disappearing. No one would grudge me that now, would they?"
"No," Jee sighed. "I can't argue with you. It's not going to be a medal parade, going home. But... look at you. Where will you go? How far will you get? And when all is said and done, you were given a second chance. Why? What was it for, if not to try to do the right thing?"
"Do the right thing. And how is doing the right thing going to help me here?"
"Zhao, it doesn't work like that. You can't just do right only when you think it's to your advantage. You have to do it in every situation. Or at least, the ones that matter. You can pull the wool over Zuko's eyes, but you can't fool the spirits."
Zhao placed his hands on the table before him, seeming to study them for minutes. "Alright. Alright. I'll... hand myself in, tell them who I am."
Jee recognised the look of resignation on the other man's face. "You want to talk about it?"
Zhao chuckled. "You'd like that, wouldn't you? You're an old gossip, Jee."
"Look, I'm serious. Is there anything?"
A derisory look. "You think I might not get another chance?"
"I'm fine, Jee. But thanks."
"You don't want go to the healers first?"
Zhao shook his head, smiled wryly. "Might as well get it over with. Besides, I might get more sympathy in this condition."
Jee stood and saluted. "It has been an honour to serve with you, Admiral Zhao."
Zhao returned the salute. "Strangely, no one has ever said that to me before. Thank you, Captain Jee, Captain Ren. The honour has been all mine."
"This... is Zhao?" The disbelief in Zuko's voice was surely audible to everyone on deck. "Are we..." He cast around the assembled onlookers, ".. quite sure there hasn't been some mistake?"
"That's what he claims, Firelord. That he is Zhao," said the guard gruffly.
"Well, I can't see anyone claiming it unless it were true. And Jee? Where is Jee?"
One of the group of prisoners stepped forward and kneel, head to the deck. "Firelord." The man was greyer, thinner, but the same.
"Welcome home, Captain Jee. This is him?"
Jee looked up, wearily. He nodded once only. "Yes, Firelord. He led us out.."
Zuko cut him of with a raised hand. "Thank you Jee. I will hear from you in a moment." His gaze returned to the tableau directly before him. "For goodness sake, stop standing on his neck. Let me see his face."
The man on the deck winced as they yanked his head back by his hair. It was the dissimilarities which stood out initially: the eye, the hair, the expression of mingled fear and resignation; that of a man both haunted and defeated. Only after they were processed did the likenesses start to emerge.
Zuko spoke quietly. "I wouldn't have believed it. But it is him." He glanced back to stern, at the slowly receding harbour. "I think we are far enough out to spare Fong's blushes. Have him cleaned, clothed and fed." He directed his gaze to the man on the deck, "Then, you can tell me all about your big adventure. And don't leave anything out."
For the collective works of the author, go here.
|Journey and Return|
|Light reveals - Getting up is easy - Coming Round - Reparations - Evasions and Maneuvers - Peace, and how to get there - Downhill all the way -Going Under -Thin Ice|