IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume III: Responsibility


Chapter 37

The Travails of Women Warriors


Tuesday, July 7, 2708

I look where Cyran stares.  There, beyond a spur of the same mountain that we nestle into, a thin stream of smoke spirals upward.  I smelled it in snatches before, whenever the wind changed; I just didn't want it to register.

"It's time," Cyran says.

How softly the winds of winter moan between the teeth of the mountain range.  Should anyone wonder why I shiver?

"Tomorrow," I say.  "Tomorrow before dawn, so the children won't see."  And saying that, knowing how unnatural it would look to them, I feel in my bones the unnaturalness of it, myself.

I go over in my mind what raw materials will come to hand to build what I will need.  I tell Cyran, “Put me on firewood duty tonight.”

* * *

          (Well, as Laurel Thatcher Ulrich said, “Well-behaved women seldom make history.”  I remind myself that a court martial is not a sentence, merely a trial.  I powder my nose as assiduously as if I prepare for a date, line my eyes and paint my lips.  I wink at the scanty little shaving-mirror, standard in such cells, and bless my lawyer for providing me with make-up, after Minnie flat refused, telling me that painted hussies always come to a bad end.

          As the final touch, I put in the diamond earrings that I’d sent for, unaffordable to any of the families of those who judge me.  I frown for a moment, reminded of a date with a man now dead; I wore these earrings for him.)

I fall back to rearguard for some thinking time, but so does Alysha.  So we pass a cigar between us; the only warmth that we can share.  And still the cursed thing reminds me of Kief, with its brandy-soaked richness incensing the air for the unburied dead.

"I got an idea," Alysha whispers to me.

"Yeah?"

"How to make our own bazookas.  Have to steal welder's masks to use 'em.  Have to get straight branches of the whitebough tree—they're hollow, you know—and smooth them out real fine inside, and..."

"Hold it.  You should tell all this to Cyran."  No reply.

(I didn’t kill Jordan, I remind myself grimly, lighting a cigarette.  The officer who sent him on a suicide mission did that—unofficial punishment for an affair above his station and below the age limit.  That moment, I think, inspired me to enlist, to show them all—but only after studying abroad.  I’d resolved to leave this backwards country till I could return and impress them so deeply that they couldn’t turn me down.  Daddy’d sign for anywhere I chose to go at that point, even early enrollment in a boarding school, just to escape the sight of me, after I disgraced the family name.

I know where he moved, for what it’s worth.  But since he has never seen fit to send me the address, I pretend that I do not.  And I have spared him further by enlisting in my mother’s maiden name.  Rise or fall, let my reputation be my own!

The guards come to escort me; I nod to them pleasantly and permit them to flank me on the way to the courtroom.  Ladies are not supposed to smoke and walk at the same time.  But officers do.  It might help if they forget that I am a lady.  I need them to judge me as if a man gave my orders.  Maybe.

On the other hand, I could not resist palming tacks from a corkboard on the way to my cell after breakfast (nobody ever searches me as they ought to, shy boys) and pressing them into the soles of my boots while I waited, so that now my steps make that click, click, click which men associate with high heels.  Foolish vanity, but we all must keep our spirits up.  They will not know quite what bothers them.  I restrain myself from grinning, the very picture of propriety as we enter.  Oh, I’m a bad one, all right!

And bad girls smoke while walking.  And so do good generals.  They must make up their minds for themselves which way to see me—I concede nothing.)

The silence stretches.  Alysha takes the cigar from me, puffs on it for a few steps, taps some ashes off, and passes it back.  "Can't do that," she says finally.

"Why not?"

"'Cause e'd make me direct the building of 'em."

"So?"

She grips my arm and leans her head close, whispering "I'll teach my idea to you.  You tell hir all about how to make bazookas."

I inhale sharp smoke and exhale slowly.  "I can't do it, either.  Til policy."  My chest hurts trying to smoke at this altitude.  "Here, you take the rest of this."

"What Til policy?"

"Agents can't teach the making of weapons—even if our lives depend on it.  We can only use what comes to hand, or what the locals already know how to make."

"You mean all this time you could've..."

"No.  I couldn't have."

"Didn't you teach the Cumencians how to make explosives out of kitchen stuff?"

"Nope.  Damien did that.  He's got all kinds of formulas memorized in songs."  I could have taught them how to throw ammonia in somebody’s face in self-defense, but no recipes to make it into something else.

"Could you have saved some of our lives if you told us everything you know?"

"I...I don't know."  Our training doesn’t include weapon-making.  But I could have figured it out.

"I could kill you for not sharing, Deirdre.  I could just sort of accidentally bump into you right on the edge of this cliff."

"Why don't you tell Marduk how to make the bazooka, and let him get the credit?"  Silence again.

(The charges against me drone on and on.  I stifle a yawn, prettily.  Men deliberately delivered up for the enemy to butcher, blah blah blah.  The prosecutor speaks with passion, as if he knew each and every one of them personally.  The truth is, they would have embarrassed him to share the same room.)

"He is the reason you can't tell Cyran, isn't he?"

(Besides, they all signed up to give their lives for the Charadoc—as I have, myself.  I took them up on it.  So would every officer in this room, if they thought things through.

Can I get them to do that?  To think?)

She smokes the cigar down to her fingertips, then tosses the glowing butt into the icy void beside us.  "It's not that simple, Deirdre.  He'd know.  It'd eat at him, knowing I came up with something he couldn't."

"I dunno.  Seems to me his kind forgets pretty fast that an idea didn't come from them.  I think Marduk could easily convince himself that he invented the bazooka from scratch."

"But then he'd start finding fault with me again, wouldn't even let himself know it'd be on account of me being smarter than him.  He's fearful bad about not letting himself know what he’s thinking—oh, it just gets so complicated!"

(My turn, or rather my lawyer’s, to teach these gentlemen what they won’t let themselves know—that we slew more rebels in one month’s time than we had all year, thanks to my little trap.  And a woman came up with the idea.

“You should pin a medal on her chest!”  Ouch—bad choice of words.  Now he has them thinking of my chest, and the physical act of laying hands there to deliver the medal.  I can see the men in front of me squirm and can hear the rustle of fidgeting behind me.  I don’t betray the least acknowledgement of the implications.)

I say nothing for awhile, just listen to my boots hushing through the snow.  Then finally I ask, "Why do you put up with him, Alysha?  One word from you and Cyran would be happy to send him to a different troop."  Maybe one on a suicide mission, I can't help but think.

"I love him."  She says it like saying, "I hurt so bad I wish I'd die!"

"Do you?"

"I do.”  We walk several steps before she adds,  “Nobody else could love me the way he does.  No one else would have me.  I'm just too smart for my own damn good."

Not in everything, my poor, dear sister in arms.

(Or maybe the lawyer did exactly right.  The mind could interpret the body’s restlessness as doubt, not wanting to examine real reasons too closely.

Indeed yes!  For comes the verdict—absolved in all particulars!  No medal-pinning today, but I’ll take whatever victory I can get.

I stifle a deep sigh of relief.  For all its annoyances and cronyism, I really don’t belong anywhere else except the military.  I’ve seen too much to faint at dances in a petal gown.)

          "Look at those clouds over there, on the horizon," Alysha says and points.  "Bet you three cigars they've got a blizzard in their bellies.”

 

Wednesday, July 8, 2708

Softly I steal forth in the paling grayness, a ghost, a dream amid the sleeping shapes half-guessed in the predawn light,.  Cold sharpens the perceptions left when sight grows dim—the keenness of the perpetual wind that ruffles the warm and gentle fur against my face where I draw the poncho hood in close, the tightness of the leggings that I have finally learned to tie correctly, the gnawing of the belly that has no time for breakfast, already regretting the lunch that I gave yesterday to Damien and Aziz.

I slip away into a twisty stand of trees that catches the windblown snow.  I dig in a drift where I buried what I wrought in secret the night before, the lashed-together pine-boughs so fresh that their resins yet perfume the air when I press it close to strap it on, for I have fashioned it into the body-hugging form that few besides myself can master, even among those experienced in this craft.  I pass bindings through discreet slits that I also made in my poncho’s leather, fasten them tightly, then swing down the struts on their homemade pivot-hinges, and lock them into place to give my legs support (but not too much—I'll need some flexibility) hard twigs bundled against my thighs (fastened by way of slits also button-stitched in my skirt) not quite reaching the knees. 

In that perception beyond the named senses I can feel the power throb in the magentine crystal secured directly over my heart, as vividly as if my own blood pulsed in its crimson depths, I only appear to shiver from its snow-chilled touch.  The carved-in cross embraces the wires that hold it into place and carry the indescribable energy throughout the chassis.  Oh, Fatima, see how well I use your gift!

A flit they call this thing, in the land that gave me birth, another life ago.  A device by which a natural levitator like me can fly.

Now, to the ever-present cliff that winds up the mountainside with us, spiraling abyss always to the left of our road.  And now, that frightening, heady moment when I let my toes hang over the edge, when my mind knows what I must do, but my body shudders in ancestral memories that human beings don't fly; I feel the sense of danger surge through me, turning into something wild and fine in my blood.

Now off!  Plummet down, down, sky and earth tumbling 'round and 'round my freefall like some riddle that I must answer well or die, till I master the flit and swirl upward again, a snowflake on the wind, a witch upon a broom, in control of my flight to the astonishment of all my instincts!  Now I fly straight and true and the sharp-edged embrace of the branches thrills me more than kisses as I swoop over slopes, down into a graben, up over the crag beyond, and the sun climbs full into the sky.  Higher and higher I scale over the mountains as only birds have done before.

Oh, I spin for joy!  I had no idea that I had missed this so!  The wind freeze-burns my eyes to slits of concentrated ecstasy.  My hair whips all about me in a frenzy, a dance of exaltation.  All my blood tingles like I breathe in draughts of wine, all my thoughts laugh!  Pines blur together far below into abstractions of life, green glory in love with the world that it holds close, on a backdrop of pure white snow.

Trees, oh how I love you!  Boulders, cliffs and rivers of the Charadoc, I exult in you!  Oh, bliss, bliss, bliss, silver as the mountain-breath of frost, cold-thrilling as I soar far, far away from all human trouble, dissolving myself to a zephyr.  Chill splendor.  I have come home.  No wars up here, no needs, no men.  Home.

* * *

          (My own aide drives me home at last, in my own jeep, as the wind tangles my hair and I sigh with relief, for in the next few miles I have no need to care about appearances before judgmental eyes.

          I pull the tacks out of my boots and toy with them.  Sharp.  Tiny.  Rather like rebels.  If I tried to crush them in my grip I would hurt, not them.  But it wouldn’t kill me.  Eventually I will find the right hammer to bend their points and render them harmless.  I put the tacks in the glove compartment.

          I glance over at the stolid block of a man who drives my jeep.  Typical grunt.  Yet...his eyes always look lost in thought, and worries have permanently furrowed his brow.  Have I underestimated him?

          Or does relief just make everything outside the military prison seem sweeter, deeper, fraught with meaning and purpose restored?  Today home means an urban base, far from the action—martial or legal.  I sigh, wearier than any march could make me.

          We slow to stop briefly at the checkpoint.  I salute back at the man doing homage to the stars once again upon my shoulders, and now we drive slowly enough that I can work to comb some order into my long, blonde curls.  Somewhere a drill sergeant shouts familiar orders at recruits new to the drill, but they all know by now to shout back, “Sir!  Yes Sir!”  I can hear the tramp of their synchronized footfalls echoing off the buildings.

          Tomorrow home will mean the battlefield, and we shall have no buildings, just our tents and our guns between us and the enemy’s bullets.  Tomorrow I will deal once more with straightforward combat, far from stuffy courts and insidious tongues.  I can hardly wait.)

          (“Darling, must you turn our home into a battlefield?” I make a great show of tying up my long, blonde curls out of the way, strand by strand as Merrill removes every breakable object and throws pads over the rest.

          “No time for that!”  A cushioned staff thumps into my rump, making me drop the comb.  Hair falls into my face.  “Assailants won’t wait for you to take a beauty-break.”

          I scramble for my own staff and fight back, hissing-mad.  He never loses his cool.

          “If my wife’s going to take a mission without me,” he says, unwinded, “I insist on making sure she’s combat ready.”

          “You idiot!” I aim for his head, but he counters just in time.  “It’s a desk job! For a diplomat--I’m going to a posh, high-tech country, not some godforsaken war zone!”

          “That’s what Deirdre thought.”

          “Deirdre?  Have you had news?”  I lower my staff and he thumps me in the side.

          “Keep fighting!  You’re rusty.”

          I make three quick moves that disarm him.  “Talk to me, husband, or your library becomes garden-mulch.”

          He sighs and plops down on the couch, his feet on the mat protecting the coffee-table.  I join him and he sighs, putting a sweaty arm around me.  Gates, but I wish I didn’t like his scent, sometimes.

          “Word has just arrived that the Charadocian embassy has stood empty for months, and they’re requesting a replacement ambassador.  When pressed their ambassador here admitted that bandits or something took Deirdre hostage and Jonathan vanished in search of her.”

          “Months?”  I pick up my comb and start working on my hair again, now tangly and damp.  “What took them so long to send word?”

          “Apparently these ‘bandits’  keep robbing the post and otherwise tying up official channels.  If you ask me, the Charadoc’s trying to hide what looks like a full-scale revolution going on.”

          I consider this.  “Bad for business, if word get out.”

          “And for diplomats, if it doesn’t.”  Then he takes my hand and says, “I don’t want you to breathe a word of this to the rest of the Friendclan.”

          I nod.  “Jake’s been a wreck lately.  This would make it worse.”

          “And anything we’d say to Don would go straight to Lisa, which would go straight to Randy, which would go straight to Jake.”

          He stands, stretches, and picks up the wretched staff again, so I do likewise.  “Besides,” he says, “Maybe it’s nothing.  Maybe we’re getting news out of date, if the mail’s that bad.  Perhaps they’re both safe and sound by now.  Deirdre and Jonathan can take care of themselves.  You, on the other hand...”

          I block his swing before he can finish his sentence.)

* * *

"Llama-herders," I report to Cyran.  I had no trouble finding where my troop marched from the condor's eye view, a dark line of moving specks against the white.  "No soldiers.  I think we're closer to our destination than we realized."  I had no trouble landing in a stand of trees out of sight, folding my flit back into my pack, meeting the others on foot. No, the delay came from loving it up there in the sky too much.

"You're late," Cyran scolds.  "It's past noon—we had to have lunch without you."  Good—more for the growing kids.  "It's your own fault, Deirdre, if you go to bed hungry tonight."  My head still feels miles beyond my stomach's complaints; I don't really care.  We start walking again, trudging upwards, ever upwards.

          "Listen to that wind!" e says.  "It's blowing in the storm at last, sure as death.  We've got quite a march ahead of us, today into night and tomorrow before dawn, if we're to make the traveler's cottage at the pass before the blizzard hits."  E turns to glare at me over hir shoulder.  "You'd better be up to it."

          I shrug, gazing at the mountains between those clouds and us, and factoring in wind currents in a way that e cannot.  “Friday,” I tell hir.  “I don’t think it’ll hit till Friday.”

 

Thursday, July 9, 2708

          “Hold up, Rashid.”  The serape that I gave him keeps tripping him.  “Here, let me pin it up.”  I kneel to fix the hem for him.  No use hoarding a poncho and serape both in a troop like this, though it makes the ground less soft for me at night.  “There.  Now you can unpin it in the evening and have a longer blanket.”  Especially not when this little healer gave his only cloak to a patient before he left Branko’s camp.

          Maybe I should have given him my poncho instead.  The poncho’s fur-lined and has a hood.  After all, I stole the rug I made it from; it’s not like I have any right to keep it.

          Not that my band would judge me, not with the regard they hold me in now, ever since I got them out alive from the Cumenci catastrophe.  Not since I killed Kief.
          Anyway, the poncho has legs dangling from it, the front two left over after making the hood from the hindquarters, and Rashid might have tripped in it even more.  Better that a tall person wear this.  No sense in sacrificing for the kids in ways that do no good.

          On the other hand, should I have eaten a full breakfast this morning, when others need it more?  My spoon just seemed to take on a life of its own, and I’d scraped the bowl empty before I’d even noticed what I did.  Got to watch that sort of self-indulgence. 

          I’ll make up for it come lunch, I promise myself.  No more of this going halves; I’ll find a way to give the others the whole thing.  Cyran said to be a mama lion, but what kind of mother am I if I don’t feed my cubs?

          Yet already I feel so hollow that the wind seems to blow right through me.  How long can I...enough  of that!  Jeez, Deirdre, such entitlement!  Would you rather sit out the war in a petal-dress, bored at Soskia’s socials?  Which kind of woman are you, anyway—the silly debutante or the lioness?

          God, I wish sometimes the troop would judge me!  Spare me the trouble of doing it myself.



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