A Scent of Life
The agonizing sobs stopped. The forest was quiet, except for a fresh offshore breeze that teased the leaves on branches in the trees and trampled brush. Tall grass leaned over in rippling waves and pointed at the carnage inside the tree line whispering, over there and there, there too.
Raul stopped and hooked his damaged helmet on his battle pack. The scent of carnage filled his nostrils as he scanned the forest. First light of dawn eased a cold light through the gaps between trees illuminating a surreal scene. He strained to hear or smell his enemy.
The Dragon made his way past a torn body – a Cybrid. The second was not far away, also ripped apart with a fury that spoke of anger, hatred, and fear. Those deaths were especially brutal and made Raul’s stomach churn. He gave no mercy nor expected it. Still, the butchery got to him, choked his breath, and forced him to clench his jaw.
He saw the sitting figure not far from the last body. She clutched her sister’s head to her breast and rocked. Raul approached slow and reverent, not willing to challenge or disturb the figure lost in the ritual of grief. Just a few feet away, he recognized his love in her black suit. The helmet lay discarded on the ground like a severed head. Gauntlets, their talons sticky with coagulated blood, rested in the leaf litter palm up as if asking why.
Her hair hung loose and disheveled, matted with blood stuck to her cheeks and hiding her face. Raul knelt down and placed a hand on her knee as he looked into her face. She wore the honored beard of blood. She had killed in battle in a time-honored way. He didn’t try to speak; his voice clamped in his throat and tears clouded his eyes. She lived. His love was still alive. Dear gods below, at what price?
Gloria looked up at Raul. She spoke like she owed him an explanation. Raul knelt down next to Tamari’s lifeless body. He placed his hand on her ripped open belly and listened while he tried to cover the young Dragon Sister’s wounds from view.
“I told her to go to the horses and move back. She saw a Cybrid coming up on my flank as I engaged another one. She ran at him as he fired at me. She took the full burst to save me and ripped the bastard apart before she died.”
Gloria stroked Tamari’s face, leaned down and kissed her forehead to say goodbye.
“She was one of my best trainees before she returned home to her beloved Georgia. She was so selfless and brave. It’s my fault. I asked her to guide us to Tbilisi to the safe house.”
Raul moved closer to Gloria and took her head in his shoulder and wrapped his arms around her.
“She died a warrior in battle. There is no higher honor for us. If we die on this mission, let it be as she died with our enemy’s blood in our mouths and the fire of Dragons in our eyes.”
Gloria held tight to Raul and for a moment, a decade of pain, sorrow, and self-hate spewed out of her in wracking sobs. Raul lifted her head and took out his sweat rag and wet it with water from his water bladder. He wiped her face and hands then helped her to her feet.
“Come, my love. This forest is not friendly ground. Our plans have changed, and we need to get moving before they counter-attack.”
Raul watched as Gloria seemed to stiffen and choke down her pain. The cast of her eyes across the battlefield was no longer broken but resolute. The warrior ingrained in her genes and imprinted in her mind from years of training and fighting returned with the glow of vengeance in her eyes.
Raul could think of nothing to say until the words came to him. The words that echoed selfless sacrifice of soldiers from a period long gone.
“Theirs not to make reply, theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die.”
“I see you are a fan of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s elegy for the Light Brigade.”
Gloria’s tone seemed flat and unemotional to him. He reached over and helped her out of her gear and suit. She turned to him and spoke in a voice unlike the warrior and more like the oracle foretelling their future.
“Boldly they rode and well, Into the jaws of Death, Into the mouth of hell.”
Neither spoke as Gloria helped Raul out of his battle gear. They knelt down and removed Tamari’s clothes and put Gloria’s suit and gear on her body. Gloria then pulled on Tamari’s bloody clothes and gathered just a few things to take with her.
Raul went back to the Rebel he shot at the edge of the woodline and put his suit and gear on the Cybrid and put on the clothes he took from the body. He took the Cybrid’s weapon and an extra magazine then headed back to find Gloria and the horses.
“Scout ahead about 50 meters and wait for me. I’m going to have a last look around and try to hide our tracks.”
Gloria mounted the horse and held the reigns of the other two horses as she ambled off through the trees.
Raul waited until Gloria was out of sight and he couldn’t hear the horses. He knelt down beside Tamari and touched her face. Her lifeless eyes stared back at him as he spoke.
“Forgive me, Tamari. I have to ask one more favor of you. I need you to fool the Cybrids for a day or two to give us a chance to get away and up into the mountains.”
He patted her cheek as if she understood what he had to do. He took the Cybrid weapon and fired several shots so she couldn’t be recognized. He listened for any movement around him and satisfied he was alone; he did the same to the Cybrid wearing Raul’s battle suit. He headed off through the woods after Gloria.
They headed east to the Khobi River and washed themselves and their clothes as best they could. They remounted and headed farther up the river into the Kolkheti Wetlands. The tall grass and water at the edge of the swamp hid their tracks as they wound their way northwest to the foothills of the mountains. Twenty kilometers away they released the third horse to graze and continued their journey.
They rode through the heat of day staying in the narrow draws and canopied trees of the countryside. They rode through the night mesmerized by the sound of hooves echoing from the stone cliffs and boulders that guarded the path. Raul avoided lighted areas and signs of humans.
The next day, they rested in the shade of trees on a hillside overlooking the valley that dropped away into the blue horizon and jagged mountains. Finally, that night they found the remote ruins of a 5th-century monastery. Only a few walls and stone litter remained, but it was enough to hide them and the horses from view. They snacked on what remained of their rations and water and talked in whispers spare of words; more from exhaustion than the desire for security.
Raul looked up into the stars and paused to think before he spoke. “I believe we should make contact with a shepherd family or some remote village and get supplies. We need a change of clothes to something more subtle with fewer holes.”
Gloria looked at him with her piercing gaze illuminated by the moonlight. Raul loved how the starshine reflected from her skin in dappled spots that crawled across her body as she moved.
“Are you suddenly fashion conscious?”
Raul stared at her then they chuckled together. He was happy to see the old Gloria return. He lay back on the saddle and horse blanket as Gloria came over to him. She rested on top of him with his raised knee between her legs and kissed him hard on the mouth.
He didn’t waste any time responding. It didn’t matter they smelled as bad as the horses. Their bitter, earthy odor was like perfume compared to the death that seeped into their pores on the beach. Raul inhaled the mingled scent. She smelled, felt, and tasted alive, so damned alive.