IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Flight from Cumenci
Monday, June 15, 2708
We all wake as one sometime before the light, hearing all the jeeps that grind their way up the winding mountain roads. In silence we gather up our bundles for the journey...and discover that, under cover of the noise, some of our number have stolen the last functional vehicles left in Cumenci to flee without the rest of us. So we strike out on foot into the bush--rebel soldiers, pregnant women, arthritic old men who can barely put one foot in front of the other, and all the strong and scared young men, with their farm tools trying to pass for weapons on their shoulders and their children clinging to their legs. A dog howls in the scent of fear all around; the howl breaks off into yelps as his master tries to silence him. We should've gone long before this, but the people wanted to spend one last night sleeping in their own beds. Kief said they could.
I lead my band off into the night-fragrant jungle, followed by Mori and his family and several dozen other citizens, with Malcolm bringing up the rear, machete in hand. This can't work--we'll leave a trail so broad that a blind lapdog could track us. I raise my hand, fingers together, and fan them rapidly out, three times in quick succession. To my relief at least half of them recognize the signal for "scatter", and the rest have soldiers of mine to tug their elbows and whisper in their ears. They know their own woods better than I do; this could turn out better than I fear. We keep in touch with each other's locations by whistling the trills of the Romeo lark with just one note off.
We go where jeeps can't follow, up over roots the size of dragonettes, ducking under boughs with the girth of angel's arms, weaving between trunks as stout as temples. I can hear some of the citizens huff to carry more than they should've packed along, but there's nothing I can do about that now.
I hear the first shots. I whistle, "Keep moving!" I hear a scream--someone over in Kief's quarter, I think. Hair crawls on my neck but I move on like I heard nothing more than a monkey's howl.
I hand Pomona across a creek to her mother as the next shots ring out. I whistle the call that we just made up the other day to tell the mosquitoes to cover our backs, and so Kiril steals away from me. I don't turn around to watch her climb into the trees; she makes no more sound than a parrot taking flight.
Sharane parts the vegetation with gentle hands, as silently as if she'd been a guerilla her whole life long, with her girl clinging tightly to her back. The blood-tinged glow of dawn pours into the woods slanting from the east, streaking us with light and dark. I can see every move we make as though framed in the enemy's sights.
Another shot, another scream. Sharane hands her daughter a twig to hold in her mouth; she tells her in a whisper to bite down hard every time she feels like crying out. Silent tears run down Pomona's face, eyes red and tight with fear, but she doesn't so much as whimper.
Automatic fire--screams on our side! "Run!" I shrill the tune like the flushed-out vine-hen taking wing. Only in the jungle do we have any chance of putting distance between us and them. We kick off sandals and scramble where only bare feet can take us, never mind the rips and scrapes. People toss aside their prized possessions to claw through foliage that claws back. They'll have no trouble tracking each and every one of us!
Then Damien risks his life to sing out, full-throated:
"We, the lush, ungoverned wood,
Shall thrive where no one thought we could,
Shall strangle harm and shelter good,
And overgrow our own again!"
Shots ring out in his direction, but he laughs wildly as they miss. But we can't count on that anymore. These aren't drunken soldiers, caught off guard, who pursue us. Who knows how many will fall and die, left for the rainforest to bury?
Yet the forest doesn't seem to fight us anymore. Did you work some magic for us, nephew of a sorcerer? Or do I imagine this, do I just have confidence now to slip between leaf and thorn, while soldiers stumble in our wake? But more shots ring out, another of us falls. We've got too damn many for guerilla travel--they can pick us off like a flock of sheep! And already we begin to tire...
Little Aziz thrashes through the brush to me. "From Kief," he says, and slips me a bronzy leaf before running to the next one down the line, whistling for them to signal him back. Greenfire leaf, they call it around here. I chew the tongue-numbing thing without hesitation--I'm gonna outrun those gun-totin’ sons of shame any way I know how!
I whistle a different signal. Lufti, Aichi, and Damien shinny up into the trees as fast as monkeys, fire down on our startled enemies with sudden accuracy, then swing away from branch to branch with bullets tearing up the vines behind them. They drop crashing back down to where comrades catch their gasping little bodies and drag them on till they can catch their breath and make it on their own. Our mosquitoes join them, their cover in the upper reaches blown by the gunfire exchange.
“Where’s Aichi?” Lufti cries out suddenly.
“Hush! I don’t know!” I hiss at him, pulling Kiril along against her wheezing. “Keep running!”
I whistle another tune. Chulan screams like a panicked peasant girl and peels off to the left. Only she would know how to put that seductive tone into a squeal that would send the baser kind of soldier running for his booty, forgetful of his feet...
...right into one of the vine traps that we wove in the jungle in case we needed them some day. I hear the bloodcurdling roar of a frightened man sailing up through the air, right into the spikes that we hid among the leaves.
"We, the tall, unruly weeds,
Shall scatter even wilder seeds,
Shall land in soil where rebellion breeds,
From peak to vale to plain!"
Shut up, Damien. You made your point. Yet the music sings in me, seems to kindle the bitter power of the leaf, so that I run like a hero and leap like a stag. How can any soldier match us when we've nursed on the forest's own green sap, when the leaf-blood pounds in our hearts? But he shouldn't do this--he'll draw the fire to himself.
"We, the seed trod underfoot
Shall send a secret, deepening root,
Shall rise a green, unnoticed shoot
Abandoned to sun and rain..."
Shut up, Damien! I want you to live long enough to see Kanarik again. But he laughs again as the shots ring out. The kid's young and free and higher than the treetops, running on leaf and the memory of his own village's brave last stand. I whistle to him to go solo and reconnect later with any band he can, then I lead my own in another direction, as I sing to pull the shots away from him:
"We, the wanton, wild vine,
Shall thicken, strengthen, intertwine,
Shall tangle path and sharpen spine,
Made tougher by want and pain!
But Sharane gets the bullet, not me. I hear a loud huff but no scream, I see her teeth gnash against the twig in her own mouth as she falls. I snatch her baby from her arms, watch her eyes glaze over into death, watch her sink down into the weeds like a drowning woman as I run away with my head twisted back to witness everything, Pomona clutched to my breast and gasping in my ear as she follows her mother's example and struggles not to wail.
"Her ghost runs with us," I whisper into the little girl's ear. "She'll blow bullets off course for us. She'll sink into the soldier's drinks and make them taste too good. She'll always be your mother and she'll take care of you." Blood trickles from her lip, she bites down so hard on the wood.
A ravine opens up before my feet. I take the leap, but slip--we tumble down into it, me shoving the child's face into my breast and curling up around her to take the worst of the bruising for her. Then I scramble back to my feet, on up the other side, and keep on running, leaving some smears of blood behind me on the rocks.
Should I have split off, followed the ravine, hidden down there? I don't know! Too late to find out--my feet propel me like a bullet; I don't seem to choose my own course anymore.
No—I can't, anyway. If I split off Kiril may never find me. I have promises to keep.
Then I hear a man scream, "Poison! I've been poisoned!" and I shock myself by chuckling--just how long did it take him to feel the dart? One of Kiril's, maybe? I snap back into control with that good news. It's hard to stay down, anyway, with the greenfire coursing inside me.
I make swift calculations from what I can hear of boots thundering behind us, just where they land, how long at this pace before...now! I whistle a signal and Lufti fires a phosphorus charge behind him right into the explosives buried under leaves just as our pursuer's feet hit the spot. The jungle itself seems to roar and rise up, hurtling uniformed bodies into the sky. I knew that stealing those tracers would come in handy one day.
I throw Pomona to Mori and take off in another direction, singing a raunchy verse of the Bailebelde as I neatly leap over another trap and the gunman behind me doesn't. I hear snatches of "The Bullet Dance" to hail me as the soldier slingshots into poisoned spikes, but now the enemy sergeant calls his soldiers back, orders care in their maneuvers, and so soon we leap laughing out of range.
I run behind Mori now, gasping to catch up. Pomona's tear-streaked face glares back at me over his shoulder. I can feel it and I can't--I want to cry and laugh and scream and hold my breath--I don't own my own emotions, I can't name them, they just pulse through me with the surging of my heart and the pounding of my feet and the heaving of my lungs.
I recognize a sound behind me before I know it and swivel from the waist to fire behind me, not losing a step in the dance of Bellona, crazed with war. I throw myself into the foliage like one in love with the lashing boughs, I spring from stone like I could fly without a flit, I swing from vines as from a partner's arm, and I whistle another signal for a phosphorus bullet to ignite the next cache of home-made combustibles. Another fireball sails heavenward like an angry prayer.
I glance over my shoulder and up into the sky, glimpse the writhing figures made of flame, and then run on, whistling directions as I go. We have suffered casualties, but our numbers never drop, for the dead sail all around us in a protective cloud--no army can diminish us!
Nor do we tire, for Kief sends ‘round the leaf again. The soldiers have no cache of it set aside--their law doesn't permit it. They don't know where to gather it even if it did; the cities bred half of them and they don't recognize anything that doesn't grow in gardens. We don't tire; they send for reinforcements after reinforcements as we run all day and deep into the night.