IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
In the quiet of Debriefing Room 12, ruffled only by gentle electronic notes, Deirdre and Justín flinched at gunfire and explosions, the grinding of gears and the skidding of tires, and the repeated thuds of psychically following minds and bodies down a fatal cliff. And then they took deep breaths again, in the peace that follows fear outrun …
...deep breaths that pull in as much of the thin mountain air as possible, grateful to Jacob Keller for the gift of outsized lungs. Chulan keeps up easily, saying nothing for the moment about really being Chinese. Roped together, we cling from rock to rock, just below the road, precisely where nobody would look for us. Wisely, for we sometimes hear the beat of footsteps, hooves, and the creak of cartwheels above us, and once we heard and felt the rumble of a jeep (have you built more of them, Soskia?)
And boy do I ever wish I had a bit of magentine! But Chulan never complains, even without the traces of levitation ability that I can still summon for corrections, even when she nearly stumbles and I grab her wrist, rocks falling far below.
She smiles shakily as she gets her footing back. “I trust you,” she says. “As long as you’re in the lead, I know I’ll be all right.” Damn but I hope I can live up to that!
It took mere minutes to race away from the Cumenci roadside stand, but it takes ages to rock-climb back. At last we can clamber up over the brink onto relatively level ground once more.
The barkeep’s wife runs to us first of all. “They’ve taken him! They’ve taken the fat man!”
Her husband follows close behind. “For questioning only,” he tells me. “The dentist told me it won’t be for long—he has rich friends who can afford lawyers.” He blinks for a moment in awe of such power. “He winked and said he’ll be back to filling teeth in no time.”
I nod. “So I won’t worry if he doesn’t turn up for awhile. Did you see where the others went before we led the army off?”
The woman points to an almost unnoticeable gap in the fragrant groves. “Right down that way.”
Chulan smiles. “That’s Fatima for you. She can find an animal track like she was born in the woods.” Then she turns and winks at me. “Come to think of it, she was.” We go down the same way, soon immersed in a wild, green world, rustling with its own language, leaves giving signs about us to each other, the birds reporting on our doings. I breathe a sigh of relief; I finally feel safe.
In no time at all Chulan finds the rock upon rock that Fatima uses to signal her whereabouts. We’d have missed the intersecting coney-path, otherwise. There the rest of our band huddle in the ferns, their eyes gleaming from out of the rainforest shadows, before they rise to greet us.
I notice a rubyberry smooch on Damien’s cheek. He notices me noticing and grins abashedly. “From our hostess,” he says. “Women just can’t resist a bard.”
“Bards need keepers,” Kanarik says with a wry smile.
Immediately Damien takes her hand. “Anytime you want me on a leash, say the word, and I’ll wear it gladly.”
She giggles, saying, “I already have one on you…” she draws a circle with her fingertip over his heart, “right here.” And Damien just stares into her eyes, pressing her hand to his breast.
“Come along,” I interrupt. “We’ve got a hard road ahead before breakfast.”
I lead them over the brink, with more rope provided by our good host and hostess. If I thought the trip down unsettling with just Chulan and I, adding three more nearly triples my worries.
But soon Damien sings to hearten us, just a whisper barely heard, slipped into a long, quiet gap in the traffic above us, when we hear naught else but the wind.
“I would climb a mountain for my love, I would climb a spire,
Hide her in a cavern up above--I will never tire.
Even Maitreyya, if you hid her on its height
I would find her in the ice caves sparkling bright!”
Suddenly, in the power of the music, the drama of the stony landscape inspires us towards its heights and depths, and the far-off keen of the landgulls beckon. And I stop worrying. My hands and feet know exactly where to go, as do the hands and feet of everyone behind me. We climb for love—of country, of each other, of the ballad of Damien and Kanarik—and who can argue with love?
Some people think of the gardens of Darvinia when they speak of romantic settings, dewy and soft with flowers. Others will speak of a tropical beach, basking in its warm and gentle winds. But for two soldiers, a bard and a dancer on the hungry edge of young, nothing speaks of romance like the Mountains of Fire.
We barely reach the jeep when Fatima starts up a fire for cooking. Soon we feast on perishables with savage enthusiasm, tucking them safely behind our belts before we need to even think about refrigeration. We finish off a whole cabbage between us, fried up with an entire squash and links of goat sausage, stuffed down with fresh slabs of bread and butter. No feast of Soskia’s could compare!
Now, replete with a job well-done, and feeling quite pleased with ourselves, we lie in the underbrush, hardly making a sound past a burp. We wait, per plan, all day in delicious sloth and occasional snacking (whenever we find room) till we hear the grind of several army trucks, delivering supplies to the Cumenci garrison, right on schedule—from downslope of the village, though the sound echoes off of stony cliffs in all directions. (You have been busy, Soskia!) Using this audial cover, our barkeep will now unearth Malcolm’s car and drive it up to us, watching for Chulan’s sign of branch tied to branch.
We can only distinguish its chugs and wheezes from the general roar when it’s practically upon us. We pry ourselves up from repose to scramble out there and take over the vehicle and hide it once again. The barkeep doesn’t say a word, his face purpling up by now from all our blows. He just gives each of us a hug, then starts the long hike down. He can take the open road; everybody knows him around here, and the soldiers all drink deep.
* * *
(So--this is jail. Not too bad. Clay floor, stone walls, bars, standard Charadocian hammock too flimsy to hold me, scratchy olive-gray blanket, pitcher of water, a basin to wash in and a pot to piss in. I've slept on the ground before; it won't kill me. At least it won't if I can prop up against the wall all right. We're miles from the official state prison, so I could do worse, much worse. And maybe I will.
My stomach growls and whines. No breakfast, no lunch on the trip over, and likely no dinner tonight, the way things go. That won't kill me, either. I helped bury Aron--nothing much compares to what they did to that boy.
Metal doors slam open and boots march loudly in. Guards throw wide my door with as much clangor as they can possibly manage, and then they grab my arm and pull. I have mass on my side; I don't budge that easily. They have to push their gun barrels into me and tug again, so I let myself smile at them sourly and lumber to my feet and go where they lead, but they know and I know that they can't really make me move anywhere that I don't choose; if I provoke them to shoot me, they've got one big, difficult-to-dispose-of corpse on their hands and no information.
They escort me to a little office. There, behind a battered old desk he sits: the man who tortured Aron, in his blazing-white sleeves too full for him and his sorry attempt to grow a mustache. I've got him beat just by the bristles that I've grown in these past few days, and my size dominates the room.
"We have no chairs strong enough to accommodate you," he says to me. "You will have to stand." Oh, real scary. "How are your knees, Dr. deGroot?"
"Metal. Orthoscopic replacements. They're just fine."
He nods, impassive. "And your insulin schedule?"
"I'm not diabetic. You're fishing."
He pulls a letter out of a drawer and tosses it on the desk. "Donal deGroot--your uncle, I believe--is a very influential man. He put a delay on a major financial transaction just so he could arrange to have you deported rather than executed for your murder of Rezi Kourech."
"I have not yet been tried for any..."
"It may take awhile for the wheels of justice to grind your way, Dr. deGroot."
"If you so much as leave a mark on me, my uncle will..."
"...find himself in no position, very soon, to do anything about it." He pulls out more papers. "So much money--we had to investigate his financial affairs, of course. The transaction must take place, the bribes must eventually fail. Legally he can't back out. Brother Donal had to sign an interesting confession to gain admittance into the...peculiar...kind of monastery that he applied for." He looks up from the papers. "Tell me one thing, Doctor. Did you enjoy it?"
I lunge for him, but the guards beat me back with the butts of their rifles.
"Enough," he says calmly. "We must keep him as pretty as his loving uncle desires...for now." He steps from behind his desk, paces around me, eyes lingering on every obvious defect of my body. "Never mind, Doctor. We will find out all about that, later--what you enjoy, and what you loathe, and what, step by step, led you to become the gross and despicable monster that you have sunken to, capable of beheading a kid not old enough to vote in your own country."
"And what about Aron?" I ask, wiping the blood from my mouth. "How old would you say he was?"
His eyes burn at that, but he controls the suddenly-tensed muscles. "You have no right to say anything to me about Aron! You used that child—you and your cohorts put him in harm's way. You tortured his soul to death before he ever got to me." Calmer, he says, "Did you know that he regarded Cyran as a god?"
I shrug. "The Charadoc practices freedom of religion these days--at least for those with money."
With scathing loathing he says, "Ohhhh, aren't you the shameless one. Guards, take him to the commissary, to the special cage we've built. The one high up on its own reinforced platform, with an excellent view all around. " He grins at me mirthlessly. "I don't have to 'fish' very far, Dr. deGroot, to see your weakness. Someone as big as you can starve to death without any visible evidence at all."
As we walk down towards the mess-hall, what bothers me most is how good the blood of my own lip tastes to me now, already, when I have nothing else to taste.)