IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume III: Responsibility


Chapter 19

Biocost


Thursday, June 18, 2708

We've run into another road--near a crossroads, in fact, worse luck, which pretty much cuts this route off.  I prepare to turn us around when I see two horses galloping at speed, frothing at the bits.  And the red-haired demons that drive them--Yan and Yaimis!  I can see now that Aichi rides behind the front one, Damien behind the other.  I stare, entranced by the surging muscles growing closer and closer, and by the percussion of the gunfire as now Aichi, now Damien, fire behind themselves, and someone fires back.  Pretty little Aichi, her black hair curling in her face, brave Damien all the more handsome in his fear and his loops of dead men’s bandoliers.  I crouch there like a spectator to some drama on a stage that I cannot touch, like I've spent all the action in me and can't connect events to myself anymore.

The hindmost of the horses crumples down and Damien and Yaimis tumble off--that wakes me up.  I scramble through the underbrush to pull them both to safety as Yan and Aichi speed on past.  No words, quick, no time, just push the sluggard body, grab limbs and yank before the gunmen notice that they don't lie where they fell.

Now together we watch Yan and Aichi, rooting for them silently as the horse tries desperately to match hooves to wheels.  It cannot last.

But wait!  Another army jeep comes down that crossroads up ahead and Yan leaps clean over it!  Hooray Yan!  The pursuers head straight for one of their own, uncontrollably at that speed.  Oh good–they're gonna...

"Fatima!"  Damien screams, but we hardly hear him through the crash.  He leaps out and sprays bullets like a maniac before the stunned soldiers have time to climb out of the wreckage, and then he runs over to her side, the rest of us close behind.

Damn you, Kief!  She didn't know what to expect.  She ran right into a major mobilization without any idea of the hornet's nest we'd stirred.  Yet I know she crashed that jeep on purpose the minute she saw the horses.

"Pull her jaw down to clear her mouth," I shout after him, "But don't move her otherwise."  I run up and see that it wouldn't do any good, anyway, with the metal shearing her nearly in half, no way that I can see to stop the bleeding.  It creates just enough of a seal of its own to make her linger a bit, not enough to save her.  She shudders in shock and the cool weather doesn't make it better.

"D...Damien?"  She gazes up at him and smiles.  "Kanarik's safe," she says to the question that he doesn't dare ask.

She looks at me, then, and her eyes try to twinkle, till she grimaces in pain.  "Deirdre?  I...I stole something for you."  She coughs up blood, then gestures towards what remains of the glove compartment and through the sprung door I see something red or pink in there.  "...met another thief...not as good as me...fool thought it was jewelry."  I take out the palm-sized magentine crystal, cut square, grooved to all edges with a cross inlaid in silver wires.  A glance in the compartment shows me a spool of more silver wire, but before I can reach for it I hear the death rattle behind me.  I press the focus to my breast and feel the power contained in it.  My tears fall hot on my hands as I hear the others pull her from the wreckage.  My shivering fingers can hardly even move the necessary leaf to my mouth.

* * *

Shadows lengthen near the gardens of the rich--advance scouts for the night that stalks us.  My eyes feel so tired of peering into the dark spaces between leaves, looking for hidden assailants--I haven't closed them for more than blinks these past few days.

But I remember a time when I went for five whole days and nights without sleep and little to eat, riding on the front edge of a whole series of hurricanes to evacuate people—and I didn't use leaf to do it, either.  Of course I did come down with a walloping case of pneumonia as a result—how vivid the memory!  My old friend Merrill found me, as I recall, standing in an empty field in the rain, trying to remember how to concentrate enough to make my flit take off again.

I don't think it's been five days.  I'm not in that bad a shape.  I've felt better, though.  I can't remember when my hands didn't shake or my knees threaten to give out.  But at least I haven’t spent the whole time in an icy storm.  And pain can’t break my concentration anymore.

We slink from hedge to bower on the outskirts of the manor till we come to others from Cumenci cowering by the gate.  No old man this time.  Fewer  villagers overall, but still too many.  And no Lucinda.

I look for Kief to explain, but Ambrette tells me that he's off negotiating with the gardeners for our shelter.  I stare at her tear-stained face until she weeps again.

"I didn't know what to do," she whispers through her sobs.  "She, it happened so suddenly—she just cried out and half of her face died, half of her whole body—she fell over, she..."

"Stroke," I sigh, and sink down to the ground, finding my hands full holding my head--ohhh, Lucinda!

"...and so Kief had to shoot her."

"He what?"

"Shhhh, Deirdre!" several hiss at me at once.

"She couldn't run with us no more, Deirdre.  What else could he have done?"

"Let them shoot her.  She didn't have to fall to one of ours."  I lean back against a tree and hug my knees, rocking a little.  "She deserved better than that."  I saw.  They wouldn't have taken her prisoner, wouldn't have stopped long enough to interrogate her.  They already had what they wanted to know.  They didn't care about prisoners, those machine-following men.

I feel a big hand on my shoulder and look up into Mori's face.  I stand up and hug him almost convulsively and bite my lip to keep from sobbing out loud.  Thank God he and Pomona have survived!  (And when did we get separated?  I don’t remember!)

"She meant a lot to you, didn't she?"  Oh yes, say the obvious, because sometimes the obvious holds the only comfort we can get!

"She was my general," I sniffle, "and my friend."  I weep for Fatima as well as her, I weep at last for Sharane.  Ai, Fatima--what an end to your complicated life!  How can I lose Lucinda and you both so soon together?  Kief has much to answer for.

I look around me, stumbling a little as I turn.  Malcolm still lives--somehow the big man has managed to catch up with us without that great heart bursting; our flight, and his imprisonment before, have trimmed him down to less than I ever thought I’d see on him.  Loose skin hangs on him everywhere, but he’s alive, oh alive!  And he hugs Lufti and Gaziley wearily, trying hard to smile.  Bakr and Aziz, they march with us still, as well.  And Chulan, her face as wet as mine, sits in the dirt and leans against the gate.

“She began it,” Chulan says quietly, after I tell them about Fatima.  “Oh, Teofilo and Gaziley talked about it all the time, but it took Fatima to actually sneak out looking for rebels to take us in.”  Damien listens intently, memorizing everything.  “When she found them she talked me into joining her and the boys.  And then Lucinda...Lucinda, she...” but she breaks down sobbing.

Gaziley finishes for her.  “Lucinda couldn’t bear us going into danger without her there to watch over us.  She had it best of any of us, but she left it all behind.”  He looks exhausted without his make-up on.  Yet quietly but fiercely he adds, “She still watches over us.  Don’t ever doubt it.”

 “We’ve got to hang on,” Chulan husks.  “Lucinda and Fatima would want us to.  We’re still alive.”

Yes.  Still alive.  We could've done worse.  Like the Cumencians--they've lost half at least, not sharing our experience.  Could've done a whole lot worse.  A little herbal lore kept us alive against the odds, thank God for all His gifts.  I watch Aichi compulsively trying to stack pebbles with shaky fingers; she keeps putting them right back on top of each other again after they fall, and I wonder how much leaf they had to give her to get her here.

Malcolm shakes his head as he gazes around, his heavy face sagging and pale.  He says, "I've cost us all an awful lot."

"Not you," says Gaziley.  "We could've done things differently."

"Could I?" Kief steps into our midst.  "Since when have you become a master of strategy, Gaziley?  You can’t even shoot straight."  Somehow he has come through this not the least bit bent, as radiant as ever, though with a crazy, glimmery edge to him, his handsome jaw more chiseled than ever, his shadowed eyes so huge and wild they could hypnotize you if you didn't take care.  Anger quivers in him as he glares at Gaziley, but he keeps it under fierce control.  Still Gazi won't drop his own eyes.  The tension sings, till Kief strikes the gate ringingly and makes us all jump.

"Gardeners won't help!"  He spits contemptuously, and then growls, "They'll give us an hour to clear out before they set the dogs on us."  Dark, dark, the fire in his wide, green eyes.  His lip trembles like it longs to draw back and bare fangs.

We all can't help but moan as he paces there, glowering and muttering.  "Pampered bastards," I hear him say.  "We should've looted them while we had the chance."  He stops at a rifle lying on the ground; he nudges it with his toe.  "Better late than never," he says with a sudden smile as he reaches for it, then freezes to stare at the gun I've pulled on him.

"Never's best, I'm thinking."  I kick the rifle away faster than he can grab it, but I also see that he wears a pistol, too.  "The goodwill of the populace is absolutely the only thing that we can count on right now."

He straightens, plummeting from hot to oh-so-cool in a hurry.  "Is this a mutiny, Deirdre?"

"Maybe.  I guess so."  I didn't plan this--I never expected this to happen at all!

"Well, you damn well better make sure."  We stand there eye to eye for the longest second in the world, me hating him for looking so beautiful even now, smiling magically at me, before his hand flies to his holster and mine pulls the trigger, the recoil knocking me halfway off my feet...

...and there he falls, not some minion of the government and mine to shoot, not fallen to an act of war.

He grins up nastily at me.  "I...expected...this...from...you...Deir..." and then the gush of blood silences him forever.  Murdered.  No doubt about it anymore.  I murder.

"Let's clear out," I say.  "I know a canyon close to here."

Ambrette cries, "Aren't we going to bury him?"

"No time!  They've heard the shot."  No one buried Lucinda, after all.  I didn't bury Sharane.  I lead them downslope into the wild spaces that I'd traveled once before (guide me Sister Fatima, please, please, please!  I gave you rest, at least.)  We can run for quite awhile by the brook down there.

"But what about his ghost?"

"Shut up!"

* * *

(When the master asks about the noise I tell him that a bough broke in the wind, down in the orchard.  The man has no sense of direction about sound, what with his deaf left ear and all.  After I dab his fingertips with lemon-water, I step discreetly out of the way of the girls bringing him his supper, and quietly gesture a couple of the boys to come with me.

A fog rises up to veil our way.  The other servants look like gray ghosts in the mist and so must I.  Of course, from the manor window we look like nothing at all.  Good ghosts take our side this night.  We fan out around the gate till Charl stumbles on the body.

I bend down to see the face.  That one, huh?  Bad news, that kid--I never did like him, and his latest demands settled it.  Charl and Anton search his pockets for anything useful.  They find a few remaining bullets, a pipe, some brandy-soaked tobacco wrapped in an orange and yellow scarf with “Tumblebugs” printed on an edge, a half-used pack of matches, a pocketknife, three luck-dolls, a prayer-cloth for St. Michael, and a shocking variety of drugs.  Doesn't surprise me one bit.

We each grab a corner of his clothes and drag him off.  Nice fabric—too fine for his sort.  Ah well, rebels want to end all that, sumptuary laws and so forth, and I can't say as I blame them on that count.  I wouldn't be out here hiding corpses in the fog if I didn't see eye to eye with the Egalitarians on most things, much more than Meritocracy.  This one, though, must've gone too far, for his own kind to gun him down like that.  Can't say as I blame them for that, either.

          I steer the others to the smoky corner of the yard.  Over here, where we incinerate dead livestock and the butcher's offal.  “Burn him with his luck-dolls and his prayer-cloth,” I tell the others gruffly.  “We don’t a haunt on the grounds.”  Then, thinking a moment, I add, “Throw in the tobacco, too—better for him and us that way.”  Then, as they pile the tinder on him, I say, “Oh hell, just burn him with everything but the pocketknife and bullets—we don’t need those drugs.”  The sparks in the tinder start to stretch into flames, licking up the tinder, casting a lifelike glow to the young but ravaged face.

          The others look to me.  “Go on,” I say.  “Close down the house and then off to your beds.  I’ll stand watch over the fire.  Tell the master that a pig died, if he sees the flames and asks; he never visits the sty.  We'll add this poor fool’s ashes to the compost in the morning.”)



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