War and History Fiction posted August 13, 2022 Chapters:  ...20 21 -22- 23 

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Karsa and Thais work through their feelings.

A chapter in the book Witness

Where the Thorns Grow

by K. Olsen

Karsa has returned from the front lines of the war for independence, malnourished and scarred. The regime forces have withdrawn, stymied by the trenches and the danger of the Burning Star.

Zosime leaned back in her seat at the low table, pipe in one hand as she looked over printouts of the battlefield. Life hummed through every corner of her little house, from the banging and chattering of the kitchens to the songs of the kids swinging on her porch. It was almost comical to watch the strangers try to talk over the cadences that we knew to speak around, to pitch our voices in ways we could be understood through the controlled chaos of nearing dinner.

I did not know what to make of them, these men who spoke the State's language with such thick accents. They were Jhaandi, from across the border, from a nation with more than enough quarrels with the government of Astera. Every motion of their hands, their bodies, their minds was so rigid. They dressed the same, cut their hair the same, even when they were trying to blend in. Then again, these were real military men, actual soldiers.

"You can see the progress the Burning Star makes," Gamal said. He was one of those rigid men, with a broad jaw and a receding hairline underneath his flat cap. His beard was trimmed short, just enough left that he thought he could blend with our people. "That is why the regime forces withdrew. They are being pressed harder and harder. Your people are a threat, but not the one in their faces. At least, not right now."

I glanced over at Zosime, but reading the old woman's expression was like trying to divine the depths of the open sea from riding atop its surface.

"Then we have an opportunity," Zosime said before pausing to puff on her pipe, regarding Gamal through the smoke with a smile. "This release of pressure is temporary, but we can take in a breath and train our people properly now."

"I agree," Gamal said firmly. "We should begin at once. I will give my men orders for the militia..." Everything about him was hardened, but there was something about it that seemed off to me. He was a man who knew everything there was to know about the battlefield, and I had no doubt he had seen combat. It was clear from the comfort with his weapons that he understood what they could do to someone. And yet...and yet...I wondered if he knew what it was to suffer as we had suffered.

We were so young, and though I had been hardened months before I came to Zelen, even I had my innocence shattered by the mines, the gas, the bombardments, the starvation, the cold, and the things people had done to survive. Things that had done to survive. My unit hadn't been the worst, even. There were stories, never told in the company of anyone aside from those on the northern front, of corpses that had been eaten in desperation when the cold months came. How could I blame them, knowing I had taken a shovel to an enemy for his ration pack?

We were children, carrying a world on our shoulders, hiding our tears as nightmares beyond any we had ever imagined played before us. It still didn't feel real, stepping outside of the horrors. I almost hated it, being at peace, because it felt like I was erasing some part of myself.

Zosime held up a gnarled finger delicately. "Captain Gamal, I appreciate your willingness to help," she said with that charming, guileless smile. "I am confident that the advice your men offer will be invaluable. But I would ask, delicately and humbly, that you remember that you are here as advisors. Not commanders."

"Of course," Gamal said quickly. Too quickly. It was shrewd and sharp. Watching him and Zosime duel with words, so pleasantly, was an education. It had all the ferocity of my debates with Agathe on the merits of certain authors, but the decorum of Sostrate's table manners. "What would you recommend, Zosime?" He had never taken to our familial titles for each other. It was too informal for a man like him.

"We will organize the units we have and select commanders from among them, those who have aptitude and will soak up your knowledge like sponges. They will have command over our people and your advice at their ears." Zosime puffed on her pipe again for a moment before saying, "Zelen must be seen as independent if it is to stay independent. If we lose what is cultivated here, the Burning Star will overrun those trenches in weeks. I will submit the names of the leaders we come up with to you, so you will know who to contact and begin with. Tomorrow morning."

Gamal smiled, but the expression didn't quite reach his eyes. "Of course."

Aniketos, Zosime's youngest son, poked his head into the room from the kitchen. "Mother, dinner is ready."

"Would you and your men care to stay for a meal, Captain?"

He tucked his cap under his arm and picked up his notepad. "Next time. We have too much to do before morning if we're going to really get everything underway tomorrow." He turned and spoke to his men in their language. I could see disappointment radiate out across the group: Aniketos's cooking was legendary, just like his mother's, and they'd already had taste enough to know what they were missing out on.

"At least take some bread," Zosime said. "I must extend my hospitality to such fine men, coming to help us in our hour of need."

Some fraction of Gamal softened, and I saw a flicker of something genuine, a reflection of Grandmother's own sincerity. "Thank you, Zosime," he said as he rose to his feet. "We will certainly take you up on that offer."

He and his men departed, walking not quite in sync. Zosime turned her head towards me, the beginning of cataracts in her eyes giving them a luminous, almost otherworldly quality for just a moment when they caught the sun. "Do you understand why I made that distinction, Karsa?"

I considered that carefully. "You are afraid they will take our independence, Grandmother."

"Not Gamal, but the men who sent him, yes. We are only tools to politicians and generals, and his country has an axe to grind with our own." Zosime shrugged. "He is a very practical man, a very grounded man. He is a man who does not understand what we seek to achieve or what on earth we are doing, thinking it is even achievable. People seldom dream outside the bounds of what they have experienced. If we do not guard our independence, Karsa, we lose our future."

"Thaïs should have been here for this meeting. She understands all of that better than I do." No one was more savvy about people than the former madame.

"I may have given her something to do that would keep her away from this conversation." Zosime extinguished her pipe in preparation for dinner. Already I could hear plates being loaded with food in the next room.

"Why?" I asked. My stomach gave no rumble, too withered and dead still from neglect, but the rich smells sparked watering in my mouth.

"Because I wanted to ask something of you." Zosime's eyes were gentle. "You have every right to refuse me. No one will think any less of you, not with everything you have been through since the beginning."

I swallowed hard, but said nothing.

"I want you to be one of the leaders we choose, Karsa Zafieri," Zosime said softly. "You are a competent fighter and you look after your people. Mnason said that you had a good grasp of tactics and you know what the costs and consequences of war are. If that spark of belief still burns as constantly and intensely in your heart as it once did, if you are not weary of the sacrifices we have so unfairly asked of you, I would like you to take that position. Only someone with an unquenchable fire in their heart will stand up to Gamal's masters when the time comes with the same ferocity that we must use against the State and the Burning Star."


Zosime shook her head. "Do not answer me in the heat of this moment, Karsa," she said gently. "Think it over and give me your answer tomorrow at the first hint of sunlight. I have a sick goat and I will be out in the shed anyway. These old bones rise early."

I closed my parted lips and looked down at the cup of broth in my hand. "I understand, Grandmother."

"Thank you, Karsa. Will you stay for dinner? I know you can't eat much, but a little bit of bread..."

I smiled faintly. "I would eat more than just a little, and then I'd be horribly sick. Besides, I want to talk to Thaïs. I haven't seen her all day."

"Much to her disappointment, I'm certain." Zosime reached over and caught one of my hands, ever so gently squeezing my delicate fingers. "Go see her."

"I will," I said as I took my leave, walking out the back door onto the hard packed dirt of the walk to the outskirts. I almost collided with the very woman in question, coming face to face with something I had never encountered before: Thaïs with burning eyes, lips pressed into a thin, furious line. "What's wrong?"

Thaïs turned away from me, throwing up her hands. Something in my chest throbbed when she stepped away from me, as if everything that I was hated even an inch of distance. "You have been back a day, Karsa," she said. "She had no right to ask that of you."

"Why?" I said quietly, following her as she paced like a furious tiger down the path. I put a hand on Thaïs's shoulder. "Why does it make you so angry? Because you know what the answer will be?"

She turned to face me, and for a moment I was seeing Thaïs as I had seen her in Seisa when the bombs started to fall and her world shattered to pieces. "Yes, because you would not be the Karsa I know if you stepped away from the fire," she said in a low voice. "Everyone is asking too much of you, Karsa."

"Not everyone," I said gently, touching her hand.

Thaïs yanked her hand away as if my touch burned her. "Even I am," she said, a certain bitterness in her tone. "They ask you to do the impossible and so do I."

"What are you asking me?"

She turned her eyes away from me, but I knew from the set of the her shoulders that something was brewing. "You know what I want."

The ache had become a stabbing pain. I did know, I could feel it in the bruising along my side where her thrashing nightmare had caught me with an elbow. I remembered the words that had ripped out of her throat as she sat upright in her sleeping bag.

Please don't leave me!

I had assumed Thaïs was still so asleep she would have no memory of it, nor of me smoothing down her hair and pressing her back into her sleeping bag. There were still more people than there were rooms, so we'd been sleeping with Brygos's goats. The straw was prickly, but a blanket over it helped and it had been absolute heaven after sleeping on my feet, particularly since it was only the two of us.

"We both know what you're going to say to Zosime tomorrow morning," Thaïs said harshly. "There is only one answer Karsa Zafieri has when her revolution calls her." She turned away from me again.

Never has there been a more perfectly agonizing purgatory than those few seconds where I felt her shutting me out so completely. I would have rather run across a minefield into razor wire and automatic fire than have to look at her back. "I want to stay," I said thickly, a thousand feelings surging through me at once.

"But you won't."

It hurt because she was right. I already knew what my answer to Zosime would be, because it was the only way I would be able to continue helping in my current condition. I would have done anything for Zelen, my country, my people. The knot in my throat was so tight that I couldn't speak as she walked further and further down the path. The distance between us was growing into miles in the matter of moments.

I understood what she was doing. Thaïs knew how to protect her heart, and distance was the only thing that she thought would do it. "Thaïs, please." My voice broke on the plea and she stopped and turned, transfigured into some figure of wrath and absolute devastating heartbreak.

"I'm not going to hang my heart on a dream, Karsa!"

I approached her as if I wasn't afraid of the anger and hurt blazing there in her expression. How much of it was mine to bear, mine that I had caused, I didn't know. "That's not what I'm asking."

"Then stay."

"I want to."

"But you won't." Thaïs's hands curled into fists, her nails cutting into her palms. "You'll go to war again and this time you won't come back. Or maybe you will survive this rotation, but then there will be another battle and that will be the one."

"They need me, Thaïs."

"I need you!" There it was, the ragged break of anger and hurt in her own voice as she screamed at me. "I hate it! I hate you!" This time when she turned away and opened the distance between us into a yawning gulf, I couldn't move.

Thaïs was right. She was always right. Even now, I knew my answer to Zosime was not going to change.

The world blurred for me and I reached up numb fingers to touch the tears running down my cheeks. I couldn't explain why they had suddenly returned, when they had been gone for so long. I almost didn't know what they were except for the taste of salt. All those months on the battlefield when I had felt nothing at all, when all the hunger had vanished and the cold and even the recoil of a rifle...

Now I felt so much it was drowning me, the waters rising so high that they even tumbled from my eyes.

I walked to the goat shed on the outskirts with leaden feet. None of us had much. Thaïs would throw everything she had in her bag and go. Most likely, she would be gone by the time I made it back. I wasn't certain if that would hurt more or less than watching her pack and go. We would see each other now and again as strangers. That was how I had it built in my mind by the time I returned.

Thaïs was there, but not as I imagined. She was kneeling in the shed, her belongings scattered everywhere, her face buried in one of my shirts as she sobbed.

I knelt down next to her and pulled her into my arms, putting my forehead against her shoulder. "I'm sorry," I whispered, feeling every bit as broken as she did. Those two words would do nothing to fix anything, but I meant them from the bottom of my soul. It did nothing to ease the pain she was feeling, the grief I could hear clawing its way out of her throat. Maybe it had been easier to think of me away at war without seeing what it had done to me. Maybe this narrow miss with death made a fatal encounter seem inevitable.

I held her until the tears subsided into shuddering breaths, threading my fingers through her hair. "Thaïs, listen to me," I whispered softly. "I know and I'm sorry." I didn't know if she was too exhausted to pull away or if she was actually listening, so I forged ahead. "Hurting you hurts me so much." She moved to look at me, the shirt falling from her hands, but I kept my forehead pressed against her shoulder so I wouldn't have to see blazing eyes.

She said nothing.

I swallowed hard and steeled myself, looking up into a mirror of my own heartache instead of the anger I expected. "Losing you is like losing the sun. If whatever this is has to end, give me something the way I gave you that poem. Some little match to light in the dark that will follow."

Thaïs cupped her hand under my chin, bringing our lips together. I expected some bitter sadness in her kiss, maybe the emptiness of emotion moving away. Instead, she kissed me like she never wanted to remember how to breathe, fire and defiance and desire. Her other hand caught me by the front of the shirt, pulling me against her.

It left me stunned, dazed. I gasped for breath when she finally let us part, not at all expecting the ferocity in her expression. "This war can take your soul, Karsa," she said. "Death can take your body, but only I have your heart. Do you understand?"

"Always," I breathed, awed by the return of my Thaïs.

She held my hand over her heart. "And this stays with you. Always."

"Always." Even just to say it was like drawing in a new breath of life. "Always."

The sweetest of flowers can be found only where the thorns grow.

Karsa Mardas/Zafieri - protagonist, young woman and literature student turned dissident.
Thais - former madame of The Silver Lining who escaped the destruction of Seisa with Karsa.
Zosime - grandmotherly speaker for the local village, one of the driving forces of the revolution in Zelen.
Gamal - a Captain and military advisor from Jhaand, a rival nation to Karsa's homeland invested in the civil war.

Zelen - a large mountain valley region home to a Lathrai independence movement/revolution.
The Burning Star - an armed, fanatical religious movement opposed to both the government and the revolution by the Lathrai.

Lathrai - Current lower ethnic group of society separated by the Aristonian Laws, a racially-based subset of the legal code.

Iero - dominant ethnic group in Astera, holding governmental and law enforcement power. Conquered the Lathrai homeland, including Seisa and Zelen, generations prior.
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