“And why I am here?”
“You, Sergeant Susan Stackhouse, US Marine Corp, First Reconnaissance Team, bear the Ruby Slippers. You are the Chosen Warrior of the Seven. You will lead us in the final battle against Russell and his forces for dominion over Creation.”
The Rainbows End: Gimme Shelter (Let It Bleed)
“The fuck you say!” I reached for my gun on the table and leveled it at her head again. My finger was squeezing the trigger but before I hit the sweet spot that would stop her horrible words she raised her hands in surrender.
“If this is your final answer, if this is all you are capable of Susan Stackhouse then kill me now, because this is over. Oz is over.” She bowed her head then and continued to sit there, hands in the air.
Did she know that my training, the very training that I was falling back on now, prevented me from shooting a surrender? Did she know what she was doing or was it karma again? Was I about to get fucked because I still clung to the idea that what I did could matter more than death? Was I about to get fucked again because she was now placing herself in my hands, asking me to save her?
Was she the one that I could save?
“FUCK!” I screamed, jumping up and sending my chair back skittering into a pile of debris that used to be my Gran’s kitchen. Claudine, the self-proclaimed Good Witch of the South kept her seat and her hands raised in submission.
I wanted her to make a move, any move that would free me to blast away again, but she was still, and I was FUBAR. My mind was racing trying to apply logic to crazy and at odds with my training. Adapt or die.
Was dying an option? Of course it is, some dark slick voice slithered through my brain. You can’t shoot a surrendered prisoner but you can shoot yourself, and really wouldn’t that be best? You are broken, Stackhouse, and they want a warrior. They need a warrior, and they have mistaken you for one. End this now and let them look elsewhere for what they need.
It would be a mercy.
It would be the waste of a bullet, Stackhouse. I closed my eyes, Vic wasn’t here. I knew that, but I knew that was her voice just the same. You took an oath. Remember you useless coward? You took an oath! Say it now, bitch. Remember who you are!
“I, S-Susan St-Stackhouse, d-do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.” I lowered my gun then.
Adapt or die. I took a fucking oath, and if what Claudine was telling me was truth, then my country was in danger, too. Fuck me and my nightmares. Fuck me and my cowardice. Fuck karma. I took a fucking oath! I threw my head back then and screamed, loud and feral as I harnessed the part of me that wanted to run away. I called forth the part of me that had once been called The Ice Princess. I called on the strength that my Marine sisters had given me and the strength that the Corp had worked into the soul of me.
I also pulled in the sky blue of my savior, now dead, according to this witch. He had healed me in my darkest hour, and the intel that I had now told me that this improbably crooked place had been his life’s blood. This had been his land, and I owed him one. For that alone I would stand until someone took away my legs.
I owed him one.
I took an oath.
I turned to my prisoner and took a deep breath and closed my eyes. Until I found out that what I now knew was wrong, I would serve this cause, his cause, my cause and I would burn down any fucker who crossed my path.
I would save them one at a time if I had to, or all at once, whatever it took, because I took an oath and I owed The Great King Eric Northman for a night in Phuket when my world was so dark I never thought I would ever see the fucking light of day again.
I took Gyl’s advice, and pocketed my logic as I embraced the crazy. The rest would sort itself out as I we moved forward.
The Ice Princess opened her cold eyes in what had been her Gran’s kitchen and looked at Claudine.
“I need weapons.”
Outside, Claudine called out, “It’s all right, you can come out now! The Warrior has arrived!” The bushes all around the side of the yellow brick road shook and out came tiny people, men and women with small swords, sticks, rakes, and hoes. “Munchkins! Come forth,” she called again and after a few moments three dozen of them stood before us in formation on the yellow brick road.
Were they fucking kidding me?
A small man, slightly taller than the rest with a huge handlebar mustache came forward and stopped before us, bowing. “Claudine,” he greeted her before rising and looking at me with no small amount of disappointment and disdain on his face. He was disappointed in me? Right? Embrace the crazy.
“Susan, this is the leader of the Munchkin Rebel force, Mayor Osgood Threwnoght, III.” I looked at him, probably much the same way he was looking at me. Then I stowed that shit, remembering that when in the enemy land the greatest of resources were the locals.
“You were part of the forces that turned back Pamela and Katrina and fought Russell into a truce?” I asked.
“At your service,” he said, smiling slightly. I looked in his eyes then and saw kindred. This little man had seen some shit go down. This little man had the same shadow that I saw in my own face when I looked in the mirror. This man had tried to save someone, too, once and had come up on the short end of that stick just like me. I bowed to him then. In a strange land with strange people I still knew a brother when I saw one.
When I rose he smiled at me, and motioned me to follow him. A short time later we were gathered around a fire in his camp, sharing a meal as he filled me in on the terrain and his troop locations. The handy little fucker even had a map of Oz.
“Our intel is that The Wizard has his weapons stored here,” he said pointing at the mountains at the edge of Gilliken country, north of what was labeled The Emerald City, which I knew was once Eric’s city and served now as Russell’s stronghold. “Also he has a cache here,” again he pointed this time to the South of his city at the foot of another mountain rage in Quadling Country. I took another bite of the stew that Mayor Osgood had provided, not the least bit hungry but not knowing where my next meal was coming from the soldier in me demanded I eat to be strong. After swallowing I turned to Claudine.
“You said you were of the South,” I pointed at the map. “How is that Russell has a cache of weapons in your land?”
“You must understand, Susan, this war has turned brother against brother as the residents of Oz seek to survive. I do not rule in any land, I serve the Sacred Seven as Protectoress and guide the residents. Our King was our ruler, and now technically, Russell holds dominion over us all. No land is without loyalists to his cause.” She hesitated then and I waited to see what was on her mind.
“Russell holds some power of his vassals. It’s more than fear that binds them to him in these dark times. There is some magic afoot that holds his minions to his sway that we have not been able to identify and stop. It’s a blinding madness that leaves devastation in its wake at the merest flick of his wrist.”
“What is the population of Oz?”
“I don’t know exactly, but roughly thirty thousand souls.”
“And how many are under The Wizards power?”
“More than half, we believe.”
“You believe?” She looked down then at the ground.
“Some are hidden, they pretend to serve the rebellion but are really spies for The Wizard.” That made sense, after all Claudine had a spy in the Emerald City that had warned them of Russell’s weapons.
“You have no means to identify who they are?”
“No. We have ferreted out some, but we never know for sure until we turn our backs and feel them press the blade close to our ribs. Often then it is too late and the damage is done.”
“What do you do when you catch one?”
“We question them to learn what we can and then…” She didn’t need to finish. In a war there was no time for prisons and courts of justice. That always came after the war was won. “The uncertainty makes it difficult to trust and to plan. That is why we need a leader from a place where Russell could not have reached. That is why we need you, Susan.” Mayor Osgood stepped around the fire then and came to stand in front of me.
“Had The Great King Eric lived, you would have been made our Queen. We need you to be that now, even though he is no longer here. This battle or another like it would have fallen to you either way. Will you lead us, in The Great King’s place?”
And there it was.
Claudine had been more delicate, and left me to wonder but I had assumed and agreed under that assumption that I was the woman in Phuket. That The Great King Eric had been my Eric. Now I had confirmation, of a sort.
“The Great King, describe him to me.”
“He was tall and fair of hair, with eyes of the sky. He was a good man to the bone, fair and kind to all. We loved our King,” Osgood said, still pinning me with his gaze and demanding my answer.
“As did I.” I reached up from where I was crouching by the fire and placed my hand on Osgood’s shoulder, squeezing gently. “I will fight for you in his place, Mayor of Munchkin land. I will fight to the death to protect what was his. You have my word and my oath. I am at your service.” He looked deeply into my eyes, considering my words and then he placed his hand on my shoulders.
“And you Susan Stackhouse, have my word. I will fight for you unto my death in the name of The Great King.”
“In the name of Eric,” I told him, my heart burning in my chest like a bonfire.
“In the name of Eric!” the chant went up through all the munchkins and I felt at home for the first time since I had left Iraq. I had come home thinking I could run from who I had become and hide in who I had been but that had been logic on the crazy again.
I was a warrior, to the bone. It felt like I could breathe again, and I took a deep long one, letting that tension in my soul unfurl as I took in the clear clean air of Oz. I savored the moment because I knew that all too soon that air would be filled with blood and screams and the stench of death that I would be responsible for all over again.
I will make it count, I will make the sacrifice count! I swore it to Osgood, to Claudine, to Gyl, to Vic and Eric. Most of all though, I swore it to myself.
I would make it count.
We talked late into the night about where other rebel cells were hidden and how best to handle the weapons caches that we knew of, while we waited for further intel to reach us from the City. I looked at the map and asked them where they thought the best terrain would be for the standoff.
At first they didn’t understand the question. They were adapted to guerilla fighting, attack and run, but I knew that our enemy wanted us and that gave us a tentative advantage. They would come to us no matter where we were, and to finally end this one way or the other we had to face them en masse and let the bodies fall where they would.
We could choose the best place for that to happen. It was the only thing we had going for us, a potential tactical advantage. After much back and forth Osgood and Claudine agreed on the Enchanted Forest in Winkie country that ran up against the edge of lands of the Emerald City.
First, if we had solid intel of where the weapons were cached it meant he would have to move them great distance for the final fight and second the poppy fields that stood between the Emerald City and the Enchanted Forest would present a problem of crossing. We could put our backs against the field and set up teams and traps in the woods.
“But you said they burned the forests of Oz? Wouldn’t they just do the same here and kill us without even coming in?” Claudine smiled, and though she claimed to be a Good Witch there was nothing in her face at that moment that substantiated that title, in fact it was quite the opposite.
“The Enchanted Forest cannot be burned.”
“Why is that?”
“Magic,” she said, still smiling that chilly smile. I could come to like old Puffy Skirt, after all.
“The Enchanted Forest it is then,” we agreed and turned in for a few hours rest. At dawn our party would break. Claudine and her fellow witches would spread the word and gather the rebels to rendezvous there.
Osgood and his troop would head south to the reported location of weapons and first get confirmation of its existence and either destroy them or steal them for our use in the coming battle.
I would head north to the cache rumored to be in Gilliken Country so I could do what I had been trained to do, reconnaissance. Along the way I would spread the word cautiously and send rebels to the meeting point when I could, or spread disinformation for the enemy when the chance presented itself. When I found the weapons I would either retrieve or destroy them, same as Osgood’s mission.
That night, for the first time in three years, the bombs were silent.
When I rose we broke our fast on bread and cheese and I packed up the essentials that I would need before abandoning the old farm house once and for all. I had left the others breaking up camp and had planned to head out as soon I finished gathering equipment and supplies. I took only what I would need knowing I had to travel light and fast. I only had three boxes of bullets for the Berretta, which would never be enough, but hoped it would see me through to the cache where I might find more or perhaps other guns and ammo that would service as well.
When I came out ready to go I was surprised to see Claudine, Osgood and another munchkin I had seen in camp last night but had not been introduced to. Also with them was a large purple horse.
Well, you don’t see that every day. I took a step out into the yard and looked at them. After swearing my oath to fight in The Great King’s place Osgood had started referring to me as Majesty. At first, I had been shocked and then amused. My tag was the Ice Princess, so was Majesty really that different?
“Majesty,” Osgood bowed deeply before me and then rose to take a step to the side, placing the large purple horse directly in front of me.
“Majesty,” the purple horse echoed and extended one foreleg to bow his horsy head. Right, talking Animals in Oz. Right.
“Horse,” I said, just going with it. It would be over that much faster if I didn’t apply logic to it.
“Colbert,” the horse said, rising to stand in front of me. “I am The Horse of a Different Color. You may have heard of me.” Well, technically, I had heard of him since I was a child, but usually it was Gran’s way of telling me I was wrong about something. “Sookie, that’s a horse of a different color…” Gran would have loved this fucking place. I nodded my head again.
“We spoke of you often when I was a child, great and noble steed.” To my surprise Colbert changed from a somber purple to a deep shade of rose red. I could feel his pleasure at my response resonate from his chameleon change.
“You are too kind, Majesty,” his tone matching his color. I had made a friend. Who knew that could happen?
“Susan, Colbert will carry you on your travels,” Claudine explained stepping up now. “Also, Toto will accompany you as a guide and assist you as needed until we meet again at the rendezvous point.” I looked then at the little Munchkin hiding behind Osgood. She was very small, and looked to be very young as well, though I had a hard time knowing that their true ages might be. I knelt down. Our company had often employed translators in Iraq, and I knew that having one could be incredibly advantageous on this strange mission in a strange land.
“Toto?” I said and motioned for her to come forth.
“Majesty,” she said softly, bowing deeply before me.
“Why do you want to come on this trip with me?” I needed to know where her heart was. A translator would be golden. I home sick weepy child would be a dead weight that I could not afford.
“When I was a very small Munchkin The Great King Eric was passing through our lands and he stopped at our home for refreshment. I had been very ill and my parents feared for my life. The Great King stopped his troupe and summoned the Good Witch Glinda to attend me. He stayed by my side until my fever broke and then a bit longer to tell me stories and make sure I was well.” She looked up at me then, her brown eyes so sincere and so filled with love for her King that my heart ached.
I could see him in my mind caring for this tiny girl with the same tenderness he had used to care for me.
“He told me of his travels and the wonders he had seen. He was truly a Great King. I would stand with you against those who hurt him, if you will have me.” The last was said with a fierce determination that impressed even the hard warrior inside me. I might regret it, but I could not turn her away. Having Toto with me in this moment made me feel closer to Eric, and I needed that, more than I cared to admit.
“Honorable Toto, I take you gladly.” I smiled at her and rose to stand before the steed. “Noble steed, I take you gladly as well and I thank you both for your service.” If Toto could change colors I am sure she would have rivaled Colbert in his rosy bloom.
How in the Sam Humping Hill world did I get here?
Moments later I was on the back of Colbert, and Claudine handed Toto up to me so I could sit her in front of me. Colbert had no reigns and no saddle so I held tight to his mane as we started down the yellow brick road.