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Part One
Feed My Sheep

The supply caravan of old Soviet-made trucks threaded its winding way along the narrow ribbon of pavement through the northern Caucasus Mountains. The Georgian Military Highway had fallen into disrepair since the Posleen invasion had thrown all Earth into the turmoil of war. However, it remained the best route to Grozny, once capital of the Chechen Autonomous Republic and now one of the few remaining strongholds of human resistance in the northern Caucasus Mountains.


In one of the middle trucks sat Dr. Nanuli Tamarashvili, a retired pediatrician lately of Gori in the Republic of Georgia. That market town on the Mtkvari River was notable primarily for having been the birthplace of Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, who under the name of Stalin had ruled the Soviet Union for nearly thirty years. But Gori was gone now, fallen to the Posleen landing that had taken Georgia's central valley, and Nanuli had lost her family along with her home.


The hard seat wasn't the best place for a woman in her seventies, but Nanuli had plenty of experience with privation. She was old enough to remember the dark days of the Great Patriotic War, and more recently she had pulled through the privations of the civil war after the fall of the Soviet Union. Her old bones might ache for days when she arrived at the forward base overlooking the ruins of Grozny, but she wouldn't let it keep her from seeing to the patients who were waiting for her arrival.


In the meantime she had Gamsakhurdia's Georgian translation of The Lord of the Rings to occupy her. The rhythm of reading aloud to Soselo helped to take her mind off her growing soreness.


Soselo was a quiet boy who made Nanuli think of her grandsons, who had perished in Gori and in the flight to the mountains. He rarely spoke, which was hardly surprising when one considered that he and his father Beso had been literally one jump ahead of a hungry Posleen when they'd encountered the caravan's Cossack outriders. After her own experiences in the flight from Gori, Nanuli had a good idea of what the boy probably witnessed.


It hadn't helped in the aftermath of that fight when the Chechens had wanted to abandon the two refugees as deadweight who would only eat up valuable food and give nothing in return. To save her fellow countrymen, Nanuli had drawn on all the status afforded her by her age and her medical degree. Even now she heard more than a little grumbling among the Chechens, and it was spreading to the other Muslim nationalities.


And we can't afford a split along religious lines when we Caucasians are barely holding out against the centaurs.  


A sudden bang ahead brought Nanuli to full alertness. Gunfire?


Beside her, Soselo ducked, whimpered in terror. Someone in the truck ahead of them cut loose, sending bullets ricocheting off the rocks on either side of the road.


Voices shouted in several languages for the shooter to stop. The agreement among the caravan's members was to use Russian as a common language, but Nanuli knew that one's native tongue penetrated better in adrenaline-heated situations like this.


Beso looked up, growled through gritted teeth. "Trust the ragheads to blow a whole clip on a shadow. We'll be lucky if they don't shoot one of our own."


In front, the Chechen fighter riding shotgun glared at him and spoke in heavily-accented Russian. "What you say? Talk so I can understand."


Beso flinched, looked away from the Kalashnikov the Chechen had pointed at him. In his anger he'd used his native Georgian, and his tone was sharp enough that the Chechen had to know it was uncomplimentary. And probably took it personally.


Nanuli's medkit was already in her hands when she raised her head to get a good look at the situation. No sign of an attack. but Beso had a point about friendly fire. Not to mention whatever had caused that first bang. Possibilities ran through the back of her mind, along with the most likely injuries to go with several forms of mechanical failure, from a burst radiator hose to a broken axle or drive shaft.


Beso was just helping her over the tailgate when one of the Cossacks heeled his horse over to them. Although he carried a Kalashnikov slung over his shoulder, the traditional Cossack saber and whip hung at the belt of his cherkessa.


Nanuli's eyes shied away from the string of claw-tipped Posleen thumbs that dangled from the high cantle of his saddle, trophies of past encounters. "I was concerned there might be injuries." Russian came awkwardly to her tongue.


The Cossack, Grisha, nodded although his lips curled downward in a tight frown. "Yes, Doctor, but it is dangerous for you to be walking about by yourself."


Nanuli started to protest, then realized how right he was. A doctor was too valuable to risk running about unprotected. And her old bones might well shatter from a simple slip and fall that would only bruise one of these young fellows.


Much as it hurt her pride, she accepted his offer of escort. She walked beside his stirrup as his horse ambled along the column of halted vehicles. At least everyone had gotten stopped in time; she saw no fresh dents on fender or bumper, and the people within showed no sign of injuries, just boredom festering into frustration.


Grisha noticed the latter as well. "Enough sitting around. Top off your tanks, all of you."


From the vehicle climbed men of every nationality of the Caucasus: Chechens, Circassians, Inguish, even an Armenian. They pulled the big gas cans from their mountings over the vehicles' rear bumpers and set to work.


Nanuli kept a close eye for any injuries. At least the war had made tobacco almost impossible to get, so no one was smoking while handling gasoline. But there were plenty of other ways to get hurt.


As soon as she arrived at Ataman Masuyev's command car, she saw the blown-out tire that had sent it sliding into the rocks at the side of the road. The fender had crumpled like tinfoil, but she didn't smell antifreeze, so it should be just superficial damage, and they could drive away as soon as they got the tire changed.


Ataman Masuyev thrust his head out an open window. "Good, you brought the doctor. Isaak took a knock on the head."


Nanuli bit back the urge to point out that she'd come on her own initiative and Grisha had only escorted her. Antagonizing the Cossack ataman would only delay getting to Isaak, and concussions were not anything to trifle with.


Although what can you do, with no air evac, no hospitals, no neurosurgeons?  


At least the ataman's vehicle had a wide running board which made getting in much easier for old bones. Within, a thin, hawk-nosed young man half-reclined across the back seat and cradled his head in his hands. He moaned each time the vehicle rocked.


"Hello, Isaak." Nanuli spoke slowly and distinctly, her voice pitched low to avoid irritating him.


The young man looked up, blinked. No sign of bleeding from the ears or blackening around the eyes, so he shouldn't have a fractured skull. The pupils were dilated evenly, which meant he shouldn't have any brain damage, although she didn't like the dazed look in his eyes.


She looked directly into those dark eyes, hoped that he wasn't from one of the nationalities who could take direct eye contact from a woman the wrong way. "Do you know what happened to you?"


He rubbed at his scalp, said something in a language that she couldn't follow. In addition to Russian and her native Georgian, Nanuli also knew Svanuri and Megruli, but those two were about as closely related to Georgian as Polish or Bulgarian was to Russian. Whatever Isaak was speaking, it didn't sound at all familiar.


"Isaak, I don't understand you. Can you speak Russian?"


He nodded, slow and careful in the manner of someone favoring an injured part. His "da" of affirmation was shaky, but at least he'd successfully switched languages. However, the mental shakeup of being injured could make one forget a second language.


"Do you know where we are?"


Isaak looked over Nanuli's shoulder to the open door behind her. "In the mountains."


He left gory in the nominative plural instead of switching to the locative plural as he should have with the preposition v, but she didn't know his pre-injury level of skill with Russian grammar. Not all Caucasian languages had as complicated a case system as Georgian. More significant was his quick look to check, and that over-general answer. He should know that they were on the Georgian Military Highway, just south of Vladikavkaz.


"So how is he, Doc?" Ataman Masuyev's voice boomed loud in the enclosed vehicle.


Nanuli gestured for him to keep his voice down, stepped over to speak to him without Isaak hearing. "He has a concussion. A mild one, so he will recover, but only time will heal him, and until then he will need rest--"


"Damnation, woman, I can't afford to lose my only comm tech." Masuyev jabbed a thick finger at her. "That Jew-boy's too good with electronics for this kind of crap."


Nanuli flinched. She'd suspected that Isaak was one of the Mountain Jews of Dagestan, but she hadn't expected so crude a confirmation.


Still, it wouldn't be productive to remind the Cossack ataman that the polite term for a person of Jewish faith or descent was evrei. Instead she spoke in her level doctor-to-angry-parent voice. "Since Isaak is your best comm tech, you will not want to endanger him by pushing him before he's recovered."


Masuyev growled, but before he could say anything, there was a strange wailing cry from the tail of the caravan, followed by gunfire and the scream of an equine in pain.


"Dammit, we're under attack." Masuyev grabbed Nanuli, pushed her down. "Get out of the way, woman. I won't have you killed playing the goddamn hero." He grabbed his own AK, stuffed it out the window and looked for something to shoot.


The roughness of his action forced a gasp of pain out of Nanuli, but she didn't think he'd done her any real injury. Much as the rough handling affronted her dignity, she realized that he was right about his need to protect her from her own foolish heroism. There was simply nothing for her to do but stay under cover as best she could until she was actually needed. Even then, at her age she could hardly play the battlefield medic running under fire to the side of the wounded.


Still, she could make herself ready. Even from her vantage point, she had a decent view of the caravan, of the yellow shapes moving up the road behind them.


Posleen.


Only why weren't they firing their weapons? Nanuli remembered the hiss-crack of Posleen weapons all too well from the fall of Gori, from the flight to the mountains and the terrified days of running through the Likhi Range and into the Great Caucasus, a flight that had taken her to the inaccessible fastness of Upper Svaneti. Here she heard only the rat-a-tat-tat of Kalashnikovs being fired, now in disciplined three-round bursts, and the occasional pop of a Nagan pistol.


She noticed a set of field glasses in their case beside Isaak's sheepskin hat. An inquisitive glance to him and he gestured for her to go ahead. Maybe she was taking advantage of his infirmity, but she consoled herself with the knowledge that she had no intention of placing the priceless equipment in any greater danger.


She focused them on the lead Posleen, then readjusted the focus, unable to believe what she saw. They weren't firing their weapons because they didn't have any, just their bare claws. They didn't even wear gear harnesses.


Yellow fluid gouted from a row of holes that stitched across the alien's chest. All four legs buckled under it and it fell sideways onto the rocks at the side of the cracked pavement. Its toothy maw opened in a gape that might be pain, or just muscles relaxing in death. For certain other muscles were relaxing, since the mountain breeze carried a fecal stink.


The next Posleen paused to swivel its head toward its fallen comrade, gaped and ran a thick pink tongue along razor teeth as if trying to decide whether to start eating the available corpse or continue the attack on the humans. That hesitation cost the centauroid its life, as a shot blew right through its vulnerable eye and sent pinkish brain tissue fountaining out the other side.


The firing continued further back, along with those high keening cries, but Nanuli couldn't see anything for the vehicles and the granite outcropping around which the switchback bent. Somehow it hadn't seemed quite so sharp when she'd walked it with Grisha. She could only hope that Soselo and his father were faring well. Masuyev certainly wouldn't let her go back to check while the fighting was on, and when it was over, her first priority would be tending the injured.


Nanuli's ears were still ringing from the last shots when a bearded man banged his fist on the door. "Dmitri Petrovich! Where's that doctor of yours?"


The moment he spoke Nanuli recognized him, and immediately wished she hadn't. Mahmood Dudayev was a Chechen, but unlike most of his people, he did not practice the Sufi branch of Islam. Rather he was a Wahhabi, and fiercely proud of the time he had spent in a training camp in Afghanistan with a pan-Islamic militant organization, before returning to the Caucasus to fight the Posleen. He also had a big thing about purity, and according to his notions of it, just so much as talking to a woman outside his kinship circle was polluting.


Damn, but she hated the way that man would talk to whatever male she was near, instead of speaking to her. She pulled herself up, squared her shoulders and looked him straight in the eye. "I am Dr. Tamarashvili. Where are the injuries?"


Mahmood tensed, started to swivel his head over to look at her, only to suppress the reaction and keep his attention on the Cossack ataman. "They're strung all up and down the road. Cuts and bruises for the most part, but Vartan took a ricochet and Akhmeti got it real bad before we could take that last poska down." He used the derogatory diminutive of "Posleen" that the Cossacks had started.


Nanuli retrieved her medkit and pulled herself to her feet. A bruise on her hip complained at the movement, but her leg bore her weight, so Masuyev's push hadn't broken the bone. She'd just be sore for a while, and in the meantime she had patients to tend. She gritted her teeth and climbed down.


"Take me to them. Akhmeti first, and then Vartan." She hoped she wasn't making a mistake putting the Armenian second.


The men were already dealing with the dead Posleen, cutting off each centaur's right thumb as a trophy, then shoving the rest of the carcass off the side of the road. The stink of Posleen blood and feces filled the air. And more than a little human as well -- even if no one had died, some of them had obviously lost control of their bowels in the fear-filled moments of the firefight.


"Ekh, what's this?" One of the Circassians lifted the head of one Posleen, careful not to let any of the blood from the throat wound smear his red cherkessa. When he twisted the creature's head, a feathery crest ruffed up from the long serpentine neck.


"Looks like a God-King." His companion, a Kalmyk to judge by his Tatar features and the style of his wooden-scabbarded kindjal, curled his lips in a thin smile of admiration. "Only where's his little saucer-thing?"


"Hard to tell." The Circassian slid his kindjal out and set to cutting the God-King's head free. Such a trophy would command much honor, since God-Kings were hard to take intact. Their saucer-shaped personal ground-effect craft had a habit of exploding when hit, taking out not only the God-King but most of his honor-guard.


"They must've been desperate, coming at us like that without a single gun for the lot of them."


"That or ferals. Although I've never seen ferals work together like this. Wonder if you can have a feral God-King?" The Circassian twisted his trophy free with a crack of bone snapping.


As it turned out, Akhmeti was beyond help by the time Nanuli arrived. One of the Chechens had tried to stop the bleeding but the bite gashes on the Adzaran's legs and right arm were simply too deep. Perhaps tourniquets could have saved his life, albeit at the cost of his limbs, but those would have needed to be put on within a minute after he'd been attacked. Now, whatever of his skin wasn't covered with a soup of red and yellow blood had turned white from blood loss. No pulse at wrist or carotid, and if she'd taken time to get the cuff out, probably no blood pressure either. Even now she probably could've saved him if she'd been in a hospital and could transfuse as many units of blood as it took, or if she had some of those GalTech medicines they'd talked about in the first hopeful days of preparation against the invasion, medicine the mountain peoples had never received.


When she shook her head, all three of the Chechens around her frowned. One of them even reached for his kindjal, until Mahmood extended a hand in restraint. Were they angry that she had given up on their co-religionist, even thinking that she were abandoning him so she could save her supplies for a fellow Christian?


No, she couldn't back down, not when they could not afford to waste scarce medical resources on one already beyond mortal hope. She had to make it clear that she was a doctor first, and acted only on the basis of which patient would benefit from her attentions, irrespective of nationality or religion.


She rose and faced the Chechens. "I'm sorry, but I can do nothing. His soul is in the hands of the Lord." She'd intended to keep her voice hard to forestall argument, but it wavered at the end.


Christians would have crossed themselves, perhaps even removed their headgear, but the Chechens merely bowed their heads, spoke in their own language, their voices harsh with emotion. She made out nothing but "Allah," the Muslim name for God the Father.


Odd, to see these hard men so emotional. We're all coming down from the adrenaline rush of combat. 


Which meant that she needed to get to Vartan quickly, before shock could set in, perhaps kill him where he might otherwise have survived. A word to Mahmood and they were walking down the line of stopped vehicles, past men repairing friendly-fire damage, women tending minor wounds. At least her time teaching first aid had not been wasted.


Nor had it been wasted on Vartan. She noted with relief the pressure bandage on his thigh to control bleeding, the elevated legs to help blood flow back to the heart. Beso sat beside him, face dour as always, but posture attentive. Soselo had even ventured out of the truck to get a better look. For a change he didn't cringe in terror at the sight of the Posleen corpses. Might the sight of humans wiping out an entire squad of them have served as an anodyne to remembered trauma?


Nanuli knelt beside Vartan, checked his vital signs and then the injury. "How do you feel?"


The Armenian essayed a weak smile. "Well, Doc, I'm alive."


"You'd be a lot better if we could've gotten our fair share of all those medicines the damn Galactics promised us." Beso grated the words out, his Georgian accent making him sound even angrier. "Stalin would never have let those freaks treat us like this, or the capitalist running-dogs to take the lion's share--"


A click, and Mahmood pointed his AK right in Beso's face. "You Georgians love that thug--"


Good Gori native that she was, Nanuli reflexively bristled at the attack on the city's most famous native son, even as she realized she couldn't afford to even appear to take sides. "Gentlemen, enough." She looked directly at Mahmood. "Weapon to the ground, soldier." To Beso, "No politics." Much as she wanted to talk to her fellow-countryman in their common native tongue, she kept to Russian so Mahmood could understand as well.


Both men obeyed. Even if she wasn't talking about a specifically medical matter, she'd spoken with sufficient authority.


She returned her attention to Vartan, satisfied herself that his leg was properly tended. "It's a flesh wound, so you'll keep the leg. You'll just be off it for a few days, and then take it easy--"


A roar of shooting swallowed her words. There was no mistaking the sound of Posleen weapons; they sounded like nothing Earthly. If the earlier assault had been half-organized ferals, these were most definitely not. Nanuli looked up just in time to see a dozen of them coming around the last bend, weapons up and firing. Just behind them was one of their God-Kings on his silvery floating vehicle.


Worse, she could see more of them further down, where the road jogged back into view. Lots more, both God-Kings and their normal troops.


Mahmood grabbed her around the waist, said something too rapidly for her to follow, probably in Chechen. Before she could get out a word of protest, he half carried, half dragged her up the rough slope to a boulder that sheltered a sort of half-cave.


Nanuli watched the hopeless battle below. Posleen fell by the dozens from the concentrated fire of AK's and the pintle-mounted Gatling on the top of the APC at the front of the caravan, but a dozen more stepped over every corpse.


A truck burst into flames. The smell of burning grain rose from it. Whether the Posleen had hit the grain truck or someone had destroyed it to keep it from falling into their hands, Nanuli couldn't guess.


Her throat constricted at the sacrifice that grain had represented. The fields of Upper Svaneti were not overly fertile, but the Svans had given generously so that the fighters of Forward Firebase Grozny could eat, even if it meant hungry nights for themselves. Still, better that it burn than feed the enemy.


More trucks burst into flame. A few engines started, but with the Ataman's command car jacked up with a half-changed tire and blocking the road, there was nowhere to go.


Or at least nowhere survivable. Two more of the grain trucks and an ammo transport veered across the road and straight over the edge to tumble down the side of the mountain.


Please let the drivers have gotten out alive. Nanuli wanted to cross herself, yet the knowledge of Mahmood's presence beside her held her back from something so visibly Christian. God and the saints heard one's prayers whether or not they were accompanied by visible gestures. Even if the men didn't survive, she asked St. Michael that God not judge them suicides, but brave soldiers who died denying materiel to the enemy.


Already some of the Posleen were climbing into the remaining vehicles in search of raidable supplies. She heard a few more shots, then nothing but screams. A few survivors ran, but it was already too late for running. Long yellow arms plucked them from their feet and blades flashed.


There was nothing for Nanuli to do but watch. The back of her mind gibbered in horror, but her conscious mind went clinical, noted each wound delivered, each body part severed.


"We can't stay here much longer or they'll scent us." Mahmood's voice was a hot whisper in her ear. So much for being too good to soil himself by talking to a woman. "Right now they're too busy looting, and we may actually have a chance."


Up they scrambled, following the cover of stones and rhododendron trees as best they could until they encountered one of the narrow high-mountain trails. Nanuli panted with the unaccustomed exertion, but the memory of what she'd seen kept her going even as her old bones cried in protest at every movement.


Only when nightfall made further progress impossible did Mahmood finally pause, set up a makeshift camp in the shelter of a rhododendron grove. He built a tiny fire, no more than enough to drive away the chill of autumn in the high Caucasus. They could only hope that the smoke would not attract further Posleen.


Nanuli tended their sore and swollen feet as best she could with the supplies in her medkit. She didn't even remember grabbing it up, but she still had it. But it was not much, and with the loss of the caravan she could not replenish it until they encountered some remnant of civilization.


* * *

The next morning they started at first light, after carefully obliterating all trace of the fire. At least now they could moderate their pace, even pause long enough to pick and eat a few wild berries that grew along the trail, or drink from chill mountain streams. Not much nourishment, but enough to keep them moving forward.


Time and again they glimpsed movement along other trails in the scrubby forest. Wild animals for the most part, but sometimes Posleen moving by twos and threes, their heads swiveling with alertness. No ferals these, for they carried their strange weapons in the unmistakable posture of one ready to use them.


"They're learning to patrol," cursed Mahmood after hiding from the fourth or fifth such near-encounter.


Once Nanuli thought that she had glimpsed some of the local mountain folk, but Mahmood had stopped her before she could call to them. "They aren't moving right for humans. We don't want to attract the poski."


Nanuli wanted to respond that they certainly weren't moving right for Posleen, but decided this was neither the time nor place to argue with Mahmood. Still, she would've liked some human company, and even more a decent night's sleep in a bed.


The worst thing had been finding the bones, still fresh and scarred by bite marks. Much as Nanuli wanted to believe they were merely animal bones, she could not mistake the attachments of the thumb tendons on the humerus for anything non-human.


"Posleen ate him?" Mahmood scratched out a shallow grave with makeshift tools.


"Teeth aren't right." Nanuli pointed at a clear impression of a single bite in the softer part of the bone. "Posleen teeth are all alike, pointed like a crocodile's. These were made by a mammal's teeth. See the incisors here, the canines, the bicuspids and molars back here."


"Bear, then, or maybe some kind of cat."


Nanuli shook her head. "Jaw's too short." A memory came back to her. "Just like in Ushguli." At Mahmood's blank look, Nanuli explained. "It's a village in the highest part of Upper Svaneti. Last winter, people started disappearing from one of the four settlements. Then their bones started showing up with bite marks like this. That's when Colonel Granidze called me to examine them."


Nanuli swallowed hard at the memory it brought forth. "One of the refugee families, former Communist Party officials from southern Russia or Ukraine, were luring people into their home and butchering them, then scattering the bones in hopes that we'd assume that wild animals or Posleen got them. Sometimes they sold cuts to their neighbors as 'pork.' Granidze, he was a Security colonel rather than regular Army, tried them and sentenced them all to death by firing squad. Lined up the neighbors who'd bought their meat and put AK's in their hands, made them shoot the whole family, even the boy--" Nanuli's voice squeaked and failed.


"It was necessary." Mahmood's voice was hard as stone. "Cannibalism is a stench unto Allah and destroys the fabric of society. It must be punished, visibly and decisively."


"But a twelve-year-old boy?"


"Twelve is old enough to know right from wrong." Mahmood's tone cut off all possibility of argument.


In silence Nanuli laid the bones in the shallow grave and helped Mahmood pile a cairn of stones over them. Since they didn't know whether the victim had been Christian or Muslim, each of them spoke over the grave in hopes that one of their prayers would lay the soul to rest.


By the time they were finished, the sun had given way to gray clouds that covered the sky and cut off the peaks around them. Soon the first fat flakes were falling.


She almost didn't hear the cry of the Posleen, its harness caught in the branches of a mountain oak that suspended it too far up to retrieve the weapon it had dropped in the snow beneath it. However she definitely heard Mahmood's shot, which went straight through the alien's vulnerable eye and blew right out of the top of the head.


"Help me butcher this thing." He slung the AK, reached for the kindjal at his belt.


"You can't eat Posleen." Nanuli reached for his wrist. "The protein's incompatible. It'll rot your brain out."


"In ten, twenty years. I've heard the reports too." Mahmood twisted clear of her grasp, slid the tip into the soft skin around one of the Posleen's shoulder joints and cut. "If we don't eat something we'll never make it to shelter. You're almost collapsing from hunger already, and I don't see any berries or wildlife around here."


It was all Nanuli could do to choke down the chunks of slimy yellow flesh as Mahmood cut them from the carcass. She gagged and only by sheer willpower did she keep from throwing it all up.


Mahmood scooped up a fistful of snow and used it to wipe the Posleen blood from his beard. The next fistful he stuffed into his mouth.


"Don't eat snow." At his frown, she raised her voice. "That'll kill you now. Lowers your core body temperature. Melt it in your mouth and only swallow it liquid."


He looked dubious, but obeyed when she demonstrated the technique she'd learned from the Svans. It took patience, especially when she wanted nothing better than to wash the foul taste of Posleen flesh out of her mouth and a fistful of snow came to little more than a spoonful of meltwater.


Before they moved on, Mahmood searched the dead Posleen's gear harness, removed several pouches and tied them together for Nanuli to carry. The sheer weight nearly made her knees buckle.


"It's hardly twenty kilos, old woman. My grandmother carries that much every day." Mahmood brushed the clinging snow from the Posleen's weapon. "I'll go ahead and tote this. I may have to get the gunsmith at Grozny to do the conversion, but if I can do it myself once we find some shelter, I'll use it and you can go with the AK."


Nanuli realized what he intended, shook her head. "No, I am a doctor. I'm sworn to preserve life, not take it."


"All right, but you're still toting it, even if you won't use it."


Within an hour the snowfall had grown so heavy that they could scarcely see beyond their own arms' length. Nanuli's feet grew numb in her thin boots, and the gloves that had been sufficient for a trip in the safety of a military truck proved grossly inadequate. She tried not to look at Mahmood's bare hands. They'd be lucky if they didn't lose more than a few digits to frostbite.


"We can't go on." Her voice came in ragged gasps from the effort of forcing her way through the deepening snow, even in a path broken by Mahmood.


"We can't stop until we find shelter."


"Leave me, then. I'm just a burden on you."


"No, I will get you to Grozny or die trying. I have sworn to bring them a doctor." He took her firmly by the arm and led her onward.


Nanuli's consciousness became reduced to the process of putting one foot in front of the other. In their exhaustion they almost stumbled right by the entrance to the tunnel. In fact, they only noticed it because Nanuli's foot took that moment to slide out from under her. At least the snow cushioned her fall.


As Mahmood helped her back to her feet, she noticed the dark area. "Is that a cave?"


"I don't know." The Chechen's voice wavered, the first time she had heard him display uncertainty. "Let's look."


The opening was carefully faced in concrete, so there was no question of it being a natural cave. Inside, they found a smooth wall leading inward. Renewed hope enabled their numb feet to carry them down it.


And straight to a dead end. Nanuli thought it was a door, although in the dim light she could find neither hinges nor latch. They'd come so far, only to find shelter just beyond their reach. Exhausted, both of them slid down to collapse against it. With her fading consciousness Nanuli saw movement, but she no longer had enough will left to respond.


 


 


As he grew old, Stalin decided that it was time to choose a successor. He summoned to his side two chief members of his Politburo, Malenkov and Beria. He called for two sparrows to be brought, and bade each man to hold one.


Malenkov held his so loosely that it squirmed free and flew away. Beria, determined to show that he knew better than this fat toady, held his so tightly that he crushed it.


Irritated, Stalin ordered his guards to bring him a third sparrow. Taking it by the legs, he carefully plucked its feathers. In minutes the poor creature lay shivering in his hand.


"To hold something, you must make it helpless and dependent upon you." Stalin held up the bird for his cringing sycophants to see. "See how it is even grateful for the warmth of my palm."


 


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