IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Monday, June 29, 2708
"...They've got thick and cuddly wool all over," Mori explains to Pomona as he braids her hair after breakfast, "and they bleat in sweet and quivery little voices.” He pauses to tuck her serape closer around her as a faint dust of snow begins to blow, though the air’s too dry for more than that. “But they need our help to guard the baby llamas and to lead them to springs and meadows for their food."
We prepare for the day in the scant shelter of a patch of scrub-forest: hardy and twisted little trees, like ancient and stunted children next to the rainforest giants that we've known—children who can survive damn near anything, like us. Miniature drifts of snow collect here and there, lace and scallops around the bases of the trees, or catch in some of the thicker clumps of frozen grass. They pose no hindrance to our march, and will probably melt soon, anyway, for we’ve entered a thermal belt between the icy peaks and the cold air basins below.
I put my brush back in my pack the instant I finish with it. Around me people roll up their bedding as soon as they crawl out of it. We have learned to never leave anything about...just in case. I smile to myself; wouldn’t my friendclan sibs be surprised at how neat I have become!
"Can I have my own pet baby llama?"
"Maybe in the spring. I'll see what I can do."
"Sorry." He combs more carefully, his big hands trying to learn what her mother's knew by heart.
"And the mama llamas—can I ride one?"
"I don't know—you might get a chance."
"Oh, good!" I look on her dimpled little face and marvel at the deceptive resiliency of childhood. She should do just fine—at least till the time-bomb of her trauma blows up in adolescence.
Kiril comes around to hand out bean wraps in stapleseed tortillas. “A good trick, this,” she tells me with a wink and a smile. “No dishes to wash after, just the bean-pot, and I can turn the griddle-stone upside-down before we go and let the worms lick it clean.” Ants more likely, I think; worms don’t like grease, but I don’t tell her that. “We can always find a griddle-stone.”
Mori lifts the ribbons of a luck-doll over Pomona’s head and slips the doll into her shirt, then caresses her cheek and stares at her. Her hand touches her breast and the doll under the cloth. "Does mommy live in this?"
"In a sense. But nothing done to it can harm her."
"Good," she says, then draws it out again and plays with it, making it dance up and down her arm.
"Soldiers!" Kiril shrills and we abandon our breakfast to crash through the underbrush in flight. Mori grabs my gun and pack for me, to shoot behind us and cover our retreat Goodbye bean-pot, I think inanely.
Then we double back and grab wrists, shoulders, garments, hair—anything we can drag out of the path of death; the village-children don't know what to do if we don't smack 'em in the right direction. We shove the smaller ones ahead of us and curse the older ones to make them follow. I snatch up Pomona and hoist her onto my shoulders where she won't hamper my arms as I help the rest to flee. She grabs up wrenching handfuls of hair in tiny fists and won't let go. All around me short legs battle through the weeds and brambles.
How’d they know? How’d the soldiers know?
"Noooooo!" Lufti screams as loudly as the one hit when a bullet smashes a kid down into thorns. And his screams go on and on—but the thorns don't hold, the body keeps on tumbling downhill, thumping against the rocks and trunks to spatter a bloody trail, till he rolls on over a cliff beyond our reach. He—oh God have mercy.
"Get going!" I jerk Lufti by the arm and drag him as fast as we can run, my fingers locked hard and angry on his elbow as he sobs. "Save your breath to run—he would've."
"Shut up!" He'd wailed so grievously I'd thought Kiril had bought it and my heart still shakes in my breast—but there, she rides safe in Malcolm's arms as he brings up the rear, bracing her blowgun on his shoulder to shoot her darts behind us. His great legs pound like a stampeding dinosaur, but the muscle in him used to carry more than this; I satisfy myself that he can keep up, then whistle orders to stem the chaos of our flight.
"Keep fighting, Gaziley," I whisper under each gasping breath, "Keep fighting, trip 'em up behind us—don't think you're off the hook with us just yet, kid!" Tears spill down my face for the boy with the painted jaguar eyes, but I scowl as fiercely as he would’ve and keep on moving, pushing Lufti till he can pull together and run on his own.
Then I hear a man shriek behind me in the sound of tumbling rocks; I glance back, catch a glimpse of soldiers peering over that cliff we’d left behind, and I feel an evil grin spread on my face. So Gaziley got himself a little company—well done, lad.
Oh ghosts, all my ghosts, fight for us, I beg you! Ohhh, Lucinda, Fatima, Miko, Aron, Imad, Mischa, and now Gaziley. Oh Kief, even you—did you really care whether you lived or died, wouldn't you have done the same as me? Fight for Chulan, Kief, fight for Ambrette and dear little Aichi who always loved you, if not for me. Oh invisible band that runs with us, hover over us and see us safely through!
The child weighs on my shoulders like all the world's woes, yanking at my scalp with every jolt like she'd pull my brains up by the roots. I see another child, and another, fall. Cumenci children all, though, so far—thank God! And forgive me, God, for thanking you.
Twigs explode near my head from a rifle blast—a hot liquid gushes down my back! I clutch at the girl I carry, but nothing wounded her—the kid just wet her pants with fear. I laugh and keep on running; my laughter sounds grim and crazy even to myself.
We scramble from the thicket out into the sun. The trees grow sparser here, with frost-yellowed whipcord grass between. I spy Mori and throw Pomona to him; she stands a chance of running, here. My gun arcs back at me through the air, but when I catch it I wonder how many bullets he left for me, and how fast I could load on the run. Kiril hurries to my side, arms pumping with the blowgun in hand; she must've spent her last dart.
The grass reaches my thighs and cuts my legs where my gathered-up skirt exposes them—no time to tie on leggings this morning. Our shorter troops look like porpoises breasting the waves of grass.
"Split up!" Cyran whistles in birdcalls. "Deirdre's band—east. Alysha's—west. Mine—straight north." I veer to the right before e finishes, trying to remember that map e showed me. But how correctly do I recall the details? Even as I dash between the split rocks that mark the path that I’ve never tread till now, I wonder if it's the right split rocks? The way climbs as if to mock our desperate race, rockier with every jolting leap and slippery with frost.
I whistle a signal; Damien pauses to fire behind us, then I do as he runs forward, then Lufti, Aichi, Damien again, then as I drop back for my own turn I get a good look at the band that follows me. "Where's Mori?"
Breathlessly Damien says, "He still gets direction-whistles mixed up. He went north with Cyran." Makes no difference, I suppose.
The army gains on us—no more time to fire Parthian shots. I go back to the lead and we pick up speed.
"Watch out for the bridge ahead," Malcolm calls up from behind.
"I know—I remember the map."
"You don't know this bridge." Ohhh lord—one of those? Before I can hesitate, though, one of the twins buckles into the dust and dyes it with his blood.
"Run!" Malcolm and I shout simultaneously as Lufti grabs the surviving twin; The boy keens as we drag him along, a thin and eerie sound from that wordless throat, his red hair fallen into his wild red eyes that see nothing, nothing at all. I cuff him and order him to save his breath for the thin mountain air, all the while thinking, Yan? Yaimis? Holy Virgin—how can I even pray for him when I don't know which one fell? And the survivor will never, ever be able to tell me.
I barely see it in time, the crevice in the rock. I pull everyone up short; we scurry into its suffocating slot as fast as bugs while the bullets fly behind us. Malcolm suffers to push through the narrow opening behind us, but then appoints himself rearguard, laughing sourly. "They can't shoot around me," he explains, "and if they hit me, they'll have the devil's own time trying to pry my corpse out of the way." As we hustle ahead I hear him mutter, "Let's hope they're not stupid enough to try it."
Sheer stone hems us in to the left, sheer stone to the right. I slap the sides to propel myself, the thin air a wildfire raging in my breast. The children stumble on like automated exhaustion between the dentist and me. The crack in the stone jerks this way and that in a lightning-sketch of fission, wrenching our momentum. It dizzies even my sense of direction.
Then I hear the echoes bouncing up and down the rock walls towards us—voices, voices of men, pounding army boots, orders called in military shouts. They've found us out—only the twists and turns of stone conceal us.
How many bullets did I return to the mountains, exactly? Lucinda, please—you're something like a mountain-maiden, talk to them, heart to stony hearts, sister to sisters, persuade them to hide us just a little while more.
Now I see the opening. I rush for it, desperate for anywhere less claustrophobic, till I halt myself, gasping, frantically grabbing at the slippery rock walls, my foot poised on the brink of a crumbly lip of undercut sod that anchors, on creaking poles, the rottenest-looking bridge that I have ever laid eyes on, swaying perpetually in a blast of ravine-compressed wind. Children pile up behind me and thump into my back as I stare down, down, down, and the gale whips up from the depths to cool the wetness of my pungent shirt.
"Go on," Malcolm urges, not in any hurry to become a bulwark if he can help it. "You got anywhere else to run?" I could, I could fly, if I can just get my focus out of my pack that Mori's taking north. He just had to get mixed up and—Damn!
Well, it's anything but claustrophobic out there. I force myself to jump to the first solid board, hoping that all the children behind me can leap the same distance. How selfish, to long for flight, if it leaves the rest behind. I hear the patter of feet on the wood behind me, the bridge bucking with every jump as I watch my own feet swing left, right, left, fast as I can over rotten wood and frazzled rope before the gunmen can get here and pick us off at leisure with nothing between them and us but atmosphere. Gaps between the frost-slick planks betray the sight of birds who fly far, far below, and the ropes to either side leave plenty of room for falling.
The faster we go the more wildly the bridge sways, and the wind doesn’t blow away the stink of a small girl’s fear on my back, it just chills the wetness till my shivering threatens my balance. The vine-ropes burn my hands as I run my grip over them. My eyes scan for gaps to leap, estimating by reflex where the bridge will next veer when my feet land on it. The way always seems to stretch upwards ahead of us, yet our weight keeps making our part sink, and sink further still.
I hear a crash behind me that ripples the bridge with its shock-waves, the splintering of wood and the curses of the fat man. I don't slow down enough to look back; as rearguard he blocks none of us—I mustn't think beyond that. Soon I hear him wrench his foot free, a jolt to all of us, and then I feel his rhythms and weight added to the convulsions of the bridge.
Sounds carry sharply in the silence between peaks. The far cries of birds, the wind whistling through the ropes, the tiniest whimper far, far behind me, the whispers of doubt. I almost hear voices that aren't even there. I don't hear gunfire, or the thud of army boots—yet. I strain for the earliest clue.
The gaps increase as we reach the center. I stretch my legs to meet the challenge, afraid to even think of what the smaller folks endure. I hear weeping behind me. "Don't slow!" I call to the troops. "We don't want to get trapped on this bridge under fire." Then I recognize the voice within those tears. "Kiril?" That's not like her.
"I want to go back!" she sobs.
"Too late," Damien says. "We're closer to the other side."
"This bridge kills!" Kiril wails like a storm cut loose. "It kills and it enjoys it!"
"Same goes for your fellow man, sister," the dentist growls.
Over and over Lufti mutters, cryptically, “Don’t listen to me! Don’t listen to me! Don’t listen to me!”
Now begins the real climb. The far end of the path rests higher than the crevice-way; our weight makes it as steep as a harlot's hopes, and the gaps begin to outnumber boards—or is that just my imagination?
A vine snaps in my hand—I lunge out over the ravine!
Without my focus I have barely enough levitation-ability to rebalance myself; I feel my heart continue its plunge clear to the river so far below that the trees beside it look like lichen. Thank God for what I do have! I pause long enough for one deep breath, then force myself on, shivering harder than ever.
The angle steepens further, the gaps widen, till my climb becomes like scaling a giant's ladder. Sometimes for lack of planks I shinny up the side-ropes, even as I hear them groan against the weight.
And then I hear, oh God forbid, another scream. High and frantic, it wails all the way down to sketch out just how far the distance goes, further and fainter and fainter till I can bear no more of it, I just rest my face against the plank before me, fists trembling on the ropes they grip, weeping silently into the winter-splintered wood. Yet another death under my leadership.
"Keep going!" Malcolm shouts against the blast. "We can't leave our weight too long at any one point."
Shakily I pull myself up the next length, and the next, and ask, "Who fell?"
"The other twin. I think he wanted to die." He pronounces it like a judgment. "If he hadn't lost his brother he'd have tried harder."
For the first time I dare to look back over my shoulder, my hair blowing in and out of my way. Against a backdrop of void I watch Kiril and Lufti, Aichi, Damien and all those Cumenci children struggling up the bridge with a set to their faces as bitter as a hatred of their youth. It's not enough that they must bear responsibility for their lives before they know enough years to understand it, now they must bear responsibility for their deaths as well.
"Anyone else who falls cheats the revolution of a soldier," Malcolm growls, "and will howl with the monkeys till the end of time." His face makes no apology—nothing else will keep them squirming up the cables between planks like little caterpillars, rope-burns reddening their bellies and their thighs where the fabric rides up and they can’t pull it back down, in the cold blast of the ravine.
Now I hear it—echo upon echo of boots ringing up from the stone. "Move!" I shout to my already tired troop.
My every muscle pulls as taut, as frayed as the vines with which I haul myself. My calluses bleed, as rotten as the boards. My hair tumbles into my face and blinds me more than half the time, and I can’t free a hand to push it all away, I just have to hope that I have something higher up to grab, and something higher up than that. The bridge eats my soul with trials; it leaves me nothing but itself.
Now I hear the guns! Are we...? Yes! We're out of range! But I can feel the new weight pile onto the bridge, shocking through my body like the ropes become my nerves. And the guns still test the distance between us...
I shove my hair away at last. I have the end in sight, but I don't believe in it. I still cross when I pull myself over the brink. I still cross when I help Lufti up, then Kiril, then the rest, one by one. I still cross when we move away, out of range from the other side. While Malcolm raises his machete and hacks into the ropes with a fury, while the bridge rattles and writhes like a dying thing, down to dangle over the ravine as a criminal we've hanged, I still cross the bridge. I listen dully to the screams of all those soldiers falling, down, down, down to where a part of me falls on down with them, for eternity, all the way to Hell which has no bottom ever. I will always flee from danger through danger, in suspense over death, nor will I ever believe in an end. The bridge kills, in whatever way it can find.
"Five bullets," Damien says behind me.
"Five bullets. You fell five bullets short."