IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
The Battle of Cumenci
Saturday, June 13, 2013, continued
Nightfall--the guerilla's hour. Check our equipment. Sandals secure--no weak strap to break and cause a fatal stumble. Machetes and knives--we hand a little bottle of jojoba oil back and forth to soak flakes of sandstone in as the soft scraping sounds of sharpening pervade our camp. Guns, for those who have them--Kief breaks his rifle by firelight, cleans and oils and reassembles it with an impressive economy of motion, while Lufti watches closely and follows every move. I get Aichi's pistol in perfect order for her. I have no gun of my own to prepare; Kief says I'm much too good at improvising on the spot to waste a weapon on me.
Aziz and Bakr finish up on teaching some of us the mysteries of the blow-gun. Now their pupils dip the darts into the wicked toad-brew that we conjured up a couple nights ago. Do I worry about how they'll do after so little training? The Cumencians design the darts to hit spider-thin monkeys and other small game; all of a man's a target, and a pinprick anywhere on him, even through the thin stuff of the Charadocian uniform, will suffice to weaken him, disorient him and, if he’s small enough, take him down outright. "Just don't inhale," Kief says over his shoulder, and everybody laughs.
Ambrette gives Lucinda the machete that she'd sharpened up for her. I hand Aichi the gun and walk over to them. "How you doin', Lucinda?"
"Fit to kill," she says with a toothy grin. But she hasn't been recovering as fast as I thought she would, and it worries me.
"Just stick close to Ambrette--I want you to live long enough to lead us in battle again."
Ambrette clasps my hand and says, "Don't you worry, honey; I'll take good care of her." Her plump little hand feels so soft in mine, even though lines of lost weight already crease her young skin. I smile, trying to believe her, as I help her bury the coals of our fire. With quick efficiency we stash our gear under bushes, in hollow trunks, under stones. No government soldier will find this particular needle in the rainforest haystack, if we have to scatter and can't regroup for days. They might hamper their backs with packs full of gear and their movements with long supply-trains, but guerillas can live on nothing when we have to.
"Kiril, you're with me," I tell her as we head out. I don't have to say it, with the distribution of the troops agreed upon ahead of time, but she grins from ear to ear as she runs up to me, her braids flying and her blow-gun in hand. As I pin her braids up out of the way for her, into a little knot atop her head, Damien swings a rifle onto his shoulder, just like a man, and he joins us; his aim has improved much since the day he rode shotgun for us after Kanarik fell.
Now Lufti and Aichi trot up with grim brows and tight-clenched jaws, eyes too haunted for their age; it does not escape Aichi that the "booms" go both ways, that she could die just as easily as kill, that she needs just as much courage as any of us to go out there tonight. Sloe-eyed Gaziley straps on his machete and his knife and carries a blowgun, besides. He walks over with Bakr at his side; it suits Kief's humor to send me the older of the Toad Brothers, but I must give the kid a chance, regardless.
"Kief says you're not a nun," Bakr says with a goofy grin.
"Nope--just celibate till freedom rings throughout this proud nation of ours," I say with, I hope, enough pomposity to wipe that leer off his face. He nods, appropriately sobered, and says, "Lead on, Sister Deirdre." I think I'm going to hate that name.
My band splits off and takes the trail down towards the westward side of Cumenci, while Kief's band heads east. Trail! No regular army would find its way through here, wading through the vegetation, climbing over and under and in between, as native here as the jaquar and the snake. It's not sap that we clean off of our machetes at the end of day.
Up the airy mountain...We feel small as we twist and turn through the giant trunks and dart beneath leaves broad enough to cloak our shoulders--and small feels good, right now. Down the rushy glen...Small enough to go where the musclebound soldiers find all pathways blocked, small enough to slip between their defenses, small as bullets, small as darts. They daren’t go a-hunting for fear of Little Men!
I feel good, much better than I expected, after the meal we had earlier today. Not that we all couldn’t use much, much more; we didn’t break our fast so much as crack it, and that too long ago. We step through branch and vine with hunger-lightened heads, but we have shared enough to hearten us, to make us glad of the ghosts that drift beside us, invisible to all but hearts, glad of the blessings of God all around us like the evening mist, glad of the forest’s deep love.
"We, the seed trod underfoot
Shall send a secret, deepening root,
Shall rise a green, unnoticed shoot
Abandoned to sun and rain..."
Damien hums it very faintly, then catches my eye with a wink and keeps the silence. But now the song falls like a seed indeed into all our hearts, sprouts and takes strength there, uncoiling broad leaves of verse after unsung verse as it grows inside to its entirety, sends tendrils to thrill all through us until it takes over and the avenging power of the jungle fills us, and we move with the jungle, not against it, and I can't get the tune out of my head and I don't ever want to.
"We, the wanton, wild vine,
Shall thicken, strengthen, intertwine,
Shall tangle path and sharpen spine,
Made tougher by want and pain!
I can smell the smokes of Cumenci now. I can hear the stroke of ax on wood, the slosh of buckets drawn up from the well, I can hear voice call out to voice—raucous-sounding, already raw with chaummin. They don't even pretend to keep discipline on Saturdays anymore.
And then I hear the ascending trill of the Romeo lark--the real lark and no rebel’s imitation--who sings for us only at night, and I feel as though the forest herself rises up behind as rearguard, covering our advance for us. How can my heart feel so light when I march to such a grim business as war? Yet our feet keep the beat to the song that we don't sing, and I find myself smiling, for we shall do well tonight, to rescue the man that we have all come to love. Yes, we shall take pride in that much, at least!
Softly Damien whistles us to halt; we have reached the clearing's margin. Quickly I gesture our blowgun-bearers, our "mosquitoes", to their positions, the boys fanning out to the left and right, Kiril behind a tree right in front of me, for they must fire first to soften up the troops for us. She puts only as much of her head beyond the tree as she must to expose her weapon, and she takes careful aim. The darts take time to work on beasts as big as men; our victims might think themselves merely stung at first, they might attribute their whirling heads to the bottles in their hands. I hear the sharp exhalations as Gaziley, Bakr, and Kiril send out their breaths of death. Positions change a bit, new targets sighted. Blow again. Shift once more...again! If all goes well, we have now rendered nine soldiers unfit to fight, though they don't know it yet.
"Hey, what the hell is...oh Jesus!" They know! Somebody found a dart. "Oh sweet mother of God I'm gonna die!"
"Charge! Now!" Damien, Lufti, and Aichi fire as they run. I grab a gun off a man writhing like a bug and frothing at the mouth. I feel his fear as my own till I blast the top off his head and catch my breath again. Before I can get up from my knee I hear boots run behind me; I twist around and fire, fire, fire, I watch them fall and I grin, because they won't fear again, either. Now I scramble to my feet and shoot anything in a uniform, each buck of the gun against me nothing like the jolts in my head as man after man dies--what's happening to me? And after the jolts, relief. Go ahead, ghosts--shoot right through me as you die--I like the feeling! It ends for you, and you, and you, right here, in Aron's town.
Click. No more bullets? God save me! I run for shelter bent so low I could pat the ground, diving behind a wall around a little yard; Gunfire pins Kiril and Lufti down—they can’t join me. My heart beats like crazy as I gulp after air, and every muscle in me quivers like a hiding rabbit. I hear military-issue boots crunch closer and closer.
A door slams open as a woman kicks a corpse rolling out the door, his throat slit and his face surprised. She quickly strips his bandoleer and throws it out my way, then darts back in and slams the door shut tight again. It falls halfway in the dust, but I scramble for it, rolling under a sudden new burst of bullets just in time, scuttle back behind the wall to frantically stuff as many bullets as I can into the magazine. Kiril sees her chance to join me and dives in quickly, blowing dart after dart to cover me, as fast as she can take breath and shove the feathery little things into the hollow reed. And the brave men of the Charadoc fall back, more afraid of the maddening poison than of the bullets that can kill them more surely.
Now out again, rejoin the fray! Damien knows the way and we follow him, our boy-general of the hour. We dart from corner to corner, bending around to shoot at soldiers, ducking back with pounding hearts. I hate it I love it I never felt so alive so close to the brink of death! That broad building over there, with the balcony-shaded porch all the way across--that's the Master’s Manse that they have turned into headquarters and commissary. That's where they keep our Malcolm caged. The door slams loudly shut in the night as hell breaks loose in the village streets.
Because more and more soldiers fall to blades and bullets not our own. The entire village has risen up! Gaunt-faced men and wild-eyed women loot dead soldiers and toss guns and bandoliers between them, diving behind corners and trees and anything that comes to hand. And out again they run, giving us cover. They might not have the training, but they make up for it in zeal and numbers.
I think we're actually going to get through this alive--every last one of us! For it's Saturday night and the army’s bullets go wide. My crew takes the lead, for Damien knows the way and I've got the best sharpshooters in the whole troop short of Kief himself. And not just them--Gaziley leaps forth again and again like some whirling thing of blades who scares the troops so badly that some have dropped their guns; his ocelot eyes burn brightly with their fear. I see Bakr, terrified but determined, bury his knife into some screaming man's belly, then stumble back too shocked to reclaim it. I finish it for him; another frightened soul fleets away from this world.
Five men to the right rally, come charging at us with blazing guns--automatics, Lord have mercy! We scatter, eyes blurred with fear; we crouch behind barrel and well and oil-press, terror thick in our throats...till we turn and watch those drunkards hauling back their wounded without a shot of ours--the fools shot their own men! Oh glory to God and all the saints--our ghosts fight well for us today!
Cover Lufti while he reloads from my bandoleer. Advance. Shoot. Hold fire as Kief's folk come in from the other side. Advance. Let Lufti and Aichi cover me as I scuttle crouching to the commissary door and I swear I’ll never pick a lock so fast in my whole life!
“Out of the way!” a man roars. I reel to the side as a Cumenci man drives an army jeep crunchingly right through the manor door.
Rush in, before the balcony can collapse on us! Spray the drunken soldiers, bleeding falling into their food as the women shriek and dive still shrieking back into the pantry. I hear heavy things scrape up against that door to block it as I pick the lock on the cage and Malcolm cheers, fist punched up toward heaven and his eyes a-gleam! I see him shove teeth into his mouth, then tackle a buttered baguette with a triumphant whoop, more power to 'im.
Wham! Something propels me face first into trays of sharp things and I skid across the table. I twist around mid-slide and swing my legs under the table on the other side, then upend it into the face of my assailant. But ol' Whitesleeves recovers quickly and shoves it back, the legs coming at me, but I wrench it from him and charge him with it. That leaves me caged on three sides by table-top and legs, and he makes it quickly around to take advantage of this, but I slip past him before he can blink, the table crashing to the floor. He stumbles into it coming after me, but recovers swiftly.
Then we have at it by fist and foot, throwing each other into food, slipping on the blood, and he has the gall to grin as I smash a bottle and come at him with it, since he stole my gun in the tussle, but as the muzzle jabs my jaw I twist aside in time, so that the powder burns my cheek yet the bullet draws no blood. Now I drive the glass home, but he, too, dodges just short of gutting, but at least I left that monster scarred. He staggers back, clutching his side, and I grin, myself, to see his torn and bloodied shirt. I move in for the kill, but just then he throws something and CRRRRRACK!