IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume I: Welcome to The Charadoc!
MORSELS IN THE DIRT
Monday, March 23, 2708
I lie very still in my hammock, listening to Marduk and Alysha whisper to each other, silhouettes in the dim glow before the dawn.
"I tell you, 'Lysha, that village is ripe for the picking."
"No! Cyran made it very clear to me. We have to get the hostage back to base without incident." (The alarm, already? But I forgot. Today is Marcie's birthday.)
"Nobody'd fault us for gathering a few supplies along the way."
"We've already got all that we can carry, Marduk. What's the point?"
"Nothing." (You don't understand, Alysha! I used to live in that village.)
"Nothing!" (If I slip out of bed, very, very quietly, I can get at least half of the housework done before she even wakes up.) I hear his footsteps move, then the sound of an empty sack slapping the ground. "Anyway, we don't have all that we can carry, not anymore. We run out faster than you think, Alysha."
"You're right," she murmurs, almost moans. "I know. Better than I want to know. But Marduk, even if we could raid them, we're supposed to keep the villagers on our side at all costs--we can't just go around robbing villages and survive."
"I'm not talking about the villagers themselves,” he shouts, “I mean the filthy rich families that lord it over them!" Then he mutters, "Well, maybe a few of the villagers--the ones who deserve it."
I hear a breath taken, a word not said, then, "Is it because you haven't had a chance to kill, Marduk? Not since we left Alcazar?"
"Leave me alone! You don't understand anything!" And he thrashes through the brush to get away. (My father knew who stole farm-tools to arm rebels. So they burst in that night, with our great hog of a master leading. They overturned the dinner table; all the soup ran steaming across the floor. I watched it sink into the clay, leaving only slippery vegetables underfoot, and the savory scent of herbs. I remember how my stomach growled, because we hadn't eaten yet, and we'd had so little, all day long. My stupid, stupid stomach!)
I hear Alysha follow Marduk through the foliage to a place even nearer to my hammock, but a great moonberry bush hides me from them; they have forgotten all about me. "I'm trying, Marduk--I want to understand." (After all, even maids should celebrate their birthdays. And Marcie has done such wonders with this house--she really has a decorator's eye.) "It's just, you have to understand, Marduk, we've got new recruits with us; they haven't even had the first training on how to fight--even if I didn't have orders from Cyran, I couldn't risk raiding a village with recruits so green."
"Strategy! That's all you can think of, all the time--Alysha, you've got a machine for a brain."
"That's not true! Hold me close, Marduk, and I'll show you it's not true." (Then The Hog took mother, right in front of father, there in the mud that the soup had made of our well-swept floor. I remember a bit of carrot sticking to her shoulder.) (And what Marcie can do with carrots, broth, and a handful of herbs! I swear that woman's a wizard of the kitchen.) "Hold me close...why, Marduk, you're trembling!"
"Get away from me!" My hammock rocks when he shoves her into the moonberry-bush. (And then they tortured her, right in front of all of us. They tortured her to death. I cried and cried, but Father held me back for fear that I'd be next.) (A maid like that, she deserves a little extra, don't you think? It won't kill me to sweep my own floor once in awhile.) I listen to Alysha sobbing in the dark as the first birds of dawn wake up. I hear a softer, muffled weeping, too, but that couldn't be Marduk, could it?
(And it's not like polishing a mirror is torture or anything. I rather enjoy playing housewife on a morning like this.) (Because next they took my eldest brother, took him just like Mother, and then tortured him, too, till I had no brother left. And then my eldest sister, always with The Hog taking first turn, the violence inflaming him so that he became insatiable, the light of our cookfire burning in his eyes. And then they took Bertilla, the next in line. And all the time I cried so hard my throat burned like they’d scalded it, too.) (Oh, I do hope she likes the lace kerchief I bought for her. She'd look pretty in it on her way to church.) (I can't forget the screams, I can never stop hearing all the screams, they went on and on, they go on inside me, still, they've never stopped.) (The little embroidered rosebuds suit her perfectly.)
Then I hear Alysha make herself go rustle among the supplies, getting ready for the day. She doesn't have to fix breakfast for us every time we get it, but for her being a commander means becoming a hard-eyed mother to us all. (When they grabbed my sister, Marcie, when she looked at him with those big, dark eyes, Father actually wet his pants. He lost it, lost all control, he fell to his knees blubbering names like they'd ruptured something in his throat and he couldn't stop sobbing out names, every rebel-sympathizer in the entire village--all the people who'd trusted us.) (She's such a lovely young lady, with that melting gaze of hers, but she always looks so sad! Maybe I can put the roses back in her cheeks, you never know.)
Hard-eyed mother, indeed. I know as sure as sunlight that this breakfast will be smaller than yesterday's, as surely as yesterday's filled less of the plate than the one she’d served the day before. It keeps on going like that, and even if Marduk's wrong he's also right.
I lie there listening to the birds crescendo with the increasing light, a sound so purely beautiful that it pains me to hear it. My eyes water on the verge of tears--how can birds still sing in a sinner's world like this? And why so melancholy over a little lover's spat, or an argument of generals, or heaven knows whatever it was? Can anything like that outlast a trill upon the air? (I heard that the others killed father for a traitor shortly after, the families of those he’d killed by naming them. I don't know. I didn't stick around long enough to find out--that's when I ran away, six years old and a rebel already.) (Yes, I think a lace kerchief is just the thing to brighten her up a bit. She certainly deserves it.) (I'd heard of some new guy named Cyran, would take in kids like me. What good are grown-ups, anyway?)
I decide that it's time for me to wake up, too, and pretend I didn't hear a thing. I yawn loudly and stretch, and tumble out of the hammock as far as the chain permits, to relieve myself somewhere other than the poisonous moonberry bush. (Alysha has narrow eyes, but just as dark and with the same long, long lashes, but her lashes look pale, so that's okay. If her eyes had black lashes I don't think I could keep myself from gouging them out.)
Tuesday, March 24, 2708
We crouch as still as thieves while Rashid examines the fungus in the little scoop of rock, growing on fallen twigs and conifer-needles; we hush as though he stalked prey that we might scare off with a sound. We have climbed above the clouds, stretched thick and pearly over the valleys below--high up enough for the conifers to take over, but the cones haven't yet opened to release ripe seeds, worse luck. He pulls up one of the mushrooms: a club-thick stem in gray-browned white with a little button of a cap. Carefully he sniffs it, and then, even more carefully he nibbles an edge.
"Well, it's not gourmet fare, but it's edible." He gathers more and passes one around. "You won't find these stuffing seafood in the restaurants of Sargeddohl," he says with a laugh. I break off a piece of one and nibble at its toughness; it tastes like wheat paste with an edge of slightly rotten sweetness. "But let me make one thing clear. Don't anybody--anybody--gather mushrooms without me checking them out before you eat them. Lots of good ones and bad ones look nearly identical."
We'll need every morsel we can get. The vegetation dries out up here, even in monsoon season. Kiril has developed a permanent low-grade wheeze, and I want more air, myself. A lot more rock than green up here--we climb into hungry land.
Rashid hands the rest of the fungi over to Alysha, hanging his head as though he took the blame on himself for not finding better. “Boil it awhile,” he said. “Sometimes it upsets the stomach raw, and the fibers need softening, anyway. And then we should all drink the broth, as well, because some nutrients go into that, too.”
(After the revolution I will never work again. I will never march again. I will become rich and have lots and lots of servants. I may not move, ever again. I will sit in one place and eat fine food and grow very, very fat, and listen to musicians play whatever music I might choose. And no one could say that I can't.)