(Source of fan art.)
Bane receives disturbing news from Talia in my next installment of INTO THE FIRE.
The next day Nehru took men down the mountain to acquire more ammunition from the Pakistani supply chain. In anticipation of the attack, the rest of Bane’s command fortified positions—rifle pits dug deeper where the soil allowed, reinforced with sandbags; and where the ground was less forgiving, the sangars were strengthened with even more rocks and debris. Bane risked sniper fire to personally inspect the forward positions located below the crest, ensuring each had the best possible line of sight down the mountain. These defensive positions would not be manned until after the artillery bombardment had ceased. Then once the Indians began their painstaking ascent, half of Bane’s force would occupy this elongated line, providing defilade fire upon the attackers. The second line of defense was closer to the crest, concentrated on the flanks, allowing enfilade fire into any Indian forces assaulting the first line or pressing toward the bunker’s main position.
Bane’s fingers twitched restlessly whenever he considered the other Pakistani outposts to the north and south of him. If any of those collapsed, this post could easily be flanked. He would need to have a steady man on the radio, staying in close contact with the Dras region to their south and the Batalik region to the north.
For several hours Pakistani artillery shells screamed over their heads, seeking out the Indian batteries hidden behind the mountains across the valley, using coordinates Bane’s men had called in, thanks to Nehru’s reconnaissance. Hopefully the Pak gunners would find their targets before the Indians could redeploy their howitzers.
By mid-afternoon the guns fell silent. Bane took advantage of the lull and ordered an early supper cooked for all. Best not to have his men fighting on empty stomachs, particularly when it was impossible to gauge when they would next have an opportunity to eat, especially a hot meal. The men ate outside in the crisp mid-May day, the sun slipping in and out of high, racing clouds of white. Conversation was light and easy, interspersed with some laughter, as if this day were like any of the other mundane ones before it. Bane’s satisfied eyes swept across his men’s faces. All had been in combat before, close combat. He had no doubts about any of them.
Barsad sat among them, finished with his meal now, and happily lighting up a cigarette. Earlier in the day he had volunteered for Nehru’s detail down the mountain, no doubt as eager to acquire tobacco as he was bullets. Bane grunted to himself. He would not begrudge Barsad’s habit today. Whatever it took to keep his sharpshooter’s fingers steady.
Deadshot. The nickname had followed Barsad here from the NLI. Bane himself had propagated the moniker among his men, knowing Barsad secretly enjoyed the notoriety. Of course the tribesmen had immediately demanded proof of the American’s skills, and they had just as quickly been satisfied beyond all doubts.
Bane considered what Nehru had said yesterday about his relationship with Barsad. He was unconvinced that Barsad held him in as high esteem as Nehru said. True enough, they shared the usual bond of soldiers, and he certainly would miss Barsad’s company should they part ways, but who could say if Barsad felt the same way? Bane could not imagine Barsad sharing such thoughts with any of the others. Not when he wanted to nurture his reputation as a cold-blooded killer.
Having finished his meal and replaced his mask, Bane headed into the bunker to replenish his analgesic. He also transferred several days’ supply from his pack to his various pockets. That way if a shell happened to destroy the bunker and his drug supply there, he would still have enough to last him until he could acquire more through the usual channels.
Once back outside, he took one last tour around the perimeter, at last assuring himself that he had done all he could to be prepared.
The Indian artillery opened up late in the day, sending Bane’s men scrambling for cover on the reverse slope of the mountain. Only a handful of men remained in forward positions to report on any infantry massing in the valley below for an assault, though Bane figured those preparations would not occur until just before dark.
The Indian gunners dropped shells all across the mountain, though many shrieked beyond the crest to fall into the valley below. Several reduced the outpost’s smaller outlying buildings to rubble before nightfall, but the bunker itself fell victim only to a glancing blow that crumbled one rear corner. Hugging cover on the reverse slope, the worst Bane’s men suffered were a few minor wounds from flying shards of rock from the closer strikes. Any craters left behind by the barrage would make convenient foxholes.
Bane had Gami, the radioman, with him, periodically reporting in to central command. More importantly, he listened keenly to reports from other outposts, some of which were also weathering a storm of artillery. Like them, the others were merely hunkering down, awaiting the ground assault. He also kept in constant contact with his men in the forward positions, Barsad among them. Though concerned about the danger such an assignment presented his friend, he also wanted the outfit’s best eyes watching what was happening in that valley.
Finally twilight slipped along the valley below Bane’s position, though the sun still played along the tops of the mountains. Lights would be winking on in the distant town of Kargil; Barsad would be seeing them now. Bane wondered about the civilians. Were they terrified by the thundering roll of artillery bouncing back and forth off the hills and mountains? Were they as disturbed as the streaking flocks of birds that had sped through the skies earlier? Had the Indian army warned them? Bane assumed as much, for he had seen a steady stream of refugees along the highway in the past few days.
As evening shadows crept up from the valley, the last volley roared from the Indian guns, rolling on and on, reverberating with one final, defiant growl. Bane—for once pleased about the mask’s muffling effect on his hearing—waited for several minutes to ensure this was the last. He glanced at his watch then at the sun over his shoulder. The blood-red orb had already begun to slide below the western ranges, luring the darkness ever closer to him. He sighed in pleasant anticipation. Even after all these years away from the pit prison, he still felt most comfortable when surrounded by night; it felt like Melisande’s soothing blanket thrown over his shoulders. The darkness belonged to him and he to it. Let the Indians come.
“We’ve got movement on our front,” Barsad’s voice crackled over the com.
“To your posts!” Bane ordered over his radio.
The mountainside came alive as his men rushed up the slope. They paused just before the crest, waited, looking over their shoulders at the dying sun, then when it fell beyond the mountains and no longer threatened to silhouette them, they hurried forward and along the flanks to their assigned positions. Bane and Gami entered the bunker which would serve as the command post.
The night was long and cold for his men out on the mountainside as they vigilantly watched through night vision goggles the painstakingly slow progress of the jawans climbing up the steep slope. Machinegun fire laid down by Bane’s men further hampered the advancing troops, many of whom would have little experience in high altitude combat; these would tire quickly and slow the others. Even if acclimatized, it would take them hours to scale the heights, and by the time they could reach even Barsad’s position, they would be exhausted, too exhausted to be effective.
So Bane waited patiently, urging the night on in the hopes that morning would leave their foe stranded and exposed on the mountain slope with no way up and no way down.
The Indian troops had progressed only some eighteen hundred meters by dawn. With the rising sun in the faces of Bane’s men, he expected the enemy to try at least one last push to secure higher ground, but instead the advance completely stalled. In concert with machineguns, Bane’s men used mortars and grenade launchers to further hamper and discourage the Indians. And although artillery came to bear once again, attempting to suppress the firepower of Bane’s men, none of the ground forces advanced more than a few dozen meters during daylight hours. By the following morning, the mountainside was once again devoid of Indian forces.
“We can thank the mountain sickness,” Nehru said over a steaming cup of coffee outside the bunker.
“Yes, as we expected,” Bane nodded. “Those men are used to the heat and lower altitude of the Kashmiri Valley, and their commanders have not had the luxury or foresight to allow them time to acclimatize. Most of them lack cold-weather gear. No doubt some suffered frostbite last night.”
“Time is on their side, though,” Barsad said. “If we aren’t reinforced or relieved, they’ll grow stronger and adapt while we grow weaker.”
Though Bane frowned his displeasure at Barsad’s comments, he knew all too well that his friend was correct. Their force numbered less than fifty, and though they held the advantageous high ground, untold days or weeks atop this mountain would wear down his men, especially now that the enemy had begun an offensive. The first assault had failed, but another would come soon; perhaps as soon as tonight. With this in mind, Bane left only a skeleton force in the forward sangars and along each flank, then rotated men periodically so everyone had a chance to return to the bunker to eat and rest in relative warmth until the next, inevitable attack.
Over the following ten days, the outpost came under fire nearly every day from artillery. Infantry attempted two more attacks, one during the day and one at night. Bane knew that every failure to dislodge the defenders here and at other points along the LOC taught the Indian high command valuable lessons, the obvious being that frontal assaults—even with far superior numbers—were too costly and nearly pointless.
Late in May, Bane awoke to the roar of jets. He rushed from the bunker in time to see two MiG-21s soar in from the east, early sunlight flashing upon their wings as they banked and headed south.
“Headed for Tololing,” Barsad said to the other men who had gathered to watch the Russian-made fighters grow smaller. “Won’t waste their time on us…yet.”
Bane grunted, a hundred calculations whirring in his head. “I wouldn’t worry too much about the IAF. This altitude will diminish the accuracy of their weapons and adversely affect the jets’ performance.” He nodded toward one of his men. “Khatun, deploy the SAMs. Those fighters come back this way, we’ll make them regret flying so low.”
Though Bane’s men waited eagerly for a chance to fire one of the surface-to-air missiles, the MiGs did not fly over again that day. The next, however, they returned. The men cheered later when word came over the radio that a MiG-27 had suffered engine failure and crashed, then an NLI unit had brought down a MiG-21 with a stinger missile. The following day, another stinger took down an IAF attack helicopter.
“That will be the end of their low level flying,” Barsad predicted. “They’ll leave us alone.”
“Us, yes,” Bane said. “But there are other targets they can hit from higher altitudes where SAMs can’t reach them.”
“Supply lines,” Nehru said.
“Yes.” Bane glanced down into the valley behind their positions. “So while we have the chance, Nehru, send a detail with the mules to get as much food and ammunition as can be carried. No doubt it will be our last chance. Send only two men—we can ill afford even two.”
“We run out of food, we can always eat the mules,” Barsad said with a grin.
In sudden fury, Bane crumpled the letter in his hand. Violent anger propelled him to his feet and out of the bunker. He stormed away from the small cluster of crude buildings, ignoring the questioning glances of the handful of men unloading the fresh supplies from the tired mules. Thankfully Barsad was not among them, for Bane did not want his friend to witness his momentary lapse of control.
Bane paced some ways down the reverse slope, the letter still clenched in his grip. His breath rattled through the mask, as jagged and broken as his thoughts, jetting clouds of vapor before him. He had left the bunker without his coat, hat, or gloves, and though it was early summer, the temperatures at this high elevation were still low and would drop lower still once the failing sun slipped beyond the western range. He stared at it now, cursed it because he could, and though he was not normally a profane man, right now he needed to curse something.
His boots crunched across the rocky soil as he paced back and forth, hands balled into fists, trying to regain his composure. This was not the time or place to be distracted by things over which he had no control. No control! How he hated the helpless feeling. He should be there, not here. He should be there.
As his steps gradually slowed, so too did his respiration until at last he stood still, his hard gazing raking across the jagged mountaintops toward the sun, soon to set. He needed to refocus. He needed to get back to the task at hand. Nighttime here was the most dangerous, the most inviting for an attack. Others were depending on him. Lives at stake. What this letter contained was not life or death. Yet to him the news had seemed just as grave, for it signified a finality, the complete realization that whatever hope he had held onto about regaining Rā’s al Ghūl’s favor was fruitless.
“Hope,” Bane remembered the word being thrown at him like a weapon by a fellow prisoner in the pit, a man who had mocked Bane’s dream of escape, a man whom Bane had eventually killed. “Like a cloak wrapped around you,” the Vulture had sneered, “snug and warm, but then the cloak turns into a snake that squeezes the life from you.”
Slowly Bane opened his grip and compelled his fingers to straighten the sheet of paper back into readable shape. Before the distant mountains could steal away the light, he read the contents of the letter again. Talia’s small handwriting. Not as neat as usual. No, the words were written quickly and with harsh strokes, belying her own anger. How he wished he had been there to comfort her, to focus on her emotions instead of his own.
I wasn’t going to tell you, the letter began, because I know it will make you as angry as it has made me, and I don’t know what kind of situation you are in right now; I especially don’t want to upset you if you are in a dangerous place, which I’m guessing you are since I haven’t heard from you since New Dehli. But I can’t keep it to myself, habibi; I know you will understand, as you always do.
Papa has taken in Bruce Wayne! He was able to find him in some God forsaken prison and bought his freedom. I’m sure that cost him a pretty penny, but you know Papa; he always gets what he wants. The very thought of someone like Wayne living in our home makes me sick. Papa is going to train Wayne himself. Can you believe that? Think of how much time that will take. I can hardly believe Papa would neglect his more important duties to waste his time with Wayne.
Something twisted inside Bane’s stomach. But he quickly berated his weakness. It was foolish, especially after all this time, to feel slighted by Rā’s’ decision not to train him when he had come to the League, instead leaving those responsibilities to Temujin. And after all, Temujin had been an excellent teacher. But of course it had not been just about the training; Bane had hoped to forge a close relationship with Rā’s, and he believed the rigors of endless hours of training together would provide the foundation for just such a paternal connection. But Rā’s had always kept him at arm’s length, so much so that Bane often thought Rā’s had never really believed in him, had expected—perhaps wanted—him to fail, providing an excuse to be rid of his charge, rid of the monster who had fallen in love with his wife but who had failed—like Rā’s himself—to save her.
Of course it will take months if not years to train someone like Wayne, the letter continued. He will not have the commitment that we have. No doubt he will fail, and Papa will see the mistake he has made. Then he will be forced to kill Wayne. I hope I’m there to see it. And when it happens, Papa will regret losing you. There is no one in the League as deserving as you to be second in command, to be ready for the day when Papa is an old man and will relinquish his position. Once his plans for Wayne fail, Papa will see the error of his ways, and I will be able to convince him you are crucial to the League’s survival and success. But until that day, habibi, I have no plans to see Papa; even if he travels to Switzerland, I will refuse to see him. If he wants his daughter back, he will have to take you back. That is my ultimatum to him. I’ve already told him as much.
Though her continued espousal flattered him, Bane still winced at these words. Talia was far too young to be wielding such emotion and power over her father. No matter his conflicted emotions about Rā’s al Ghūl, he would continue to caution Talia against such foolhardy plans. Yet Bane did, however, admit relief at the prospect of Talia avoiding Bruce Wayne. If Wayne was any sort of intelligent man, he would be drawn to the young woman, recognizing not only her external beauty but her exceptional acumen and maturity. How could any man resist his habibati? And like all men of wealth and power, Wayne would be accustomed to getting whatever caught his eye, whether he deserved it or not.
Bane realized his hands were clenched again, his fingertips forcing small tears in the paper. Admonishing his impulses, he smoothed the paper against his thigh.
I miss you so much, Bane. I hope you have been receiving my letters. I will keep sending them in the hopes that you are receiving them and that they make some positive difference to you. I don’t want you to forget me.
Now it was his heart that clenched, and he squeezed his eyes shut, unwittingly emitted a tiny groan. How could his love ever think he could forget her? He longed to call her, to write her, to assure her that she would always have him, that he could never for a minute banish the thought of her. Even amidst the storm of artillery shells, mortars, and deprivation atop this mountain, it was Talia who sustained him. She was his courage, his very reason to keep living. He would tell her this, all of this once this siege was over.
Distant thunder turned his attention southward. More shelling in the direction of Dras. Bane’s eyes narrowed against the diminishing light. He wondered when the next attack would come against his sector.
Carefully he folded the crinkled letter, frowning. Would he make it off this mountain alive? He must, he told himself. He could not leave Talia thinking that he could ever in this lifetime or the next forget her…or that he would ever allow Bruce Wayne to possess her.
(This story is also available at FanFiction.net, AoA, and NolanFans.com)