IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Tuesday, July 21, 2708
Downslope now, the going gets easier and easier, the snow dwindling again to small pockets of white here and there, as the lands become drier and drier the further we travel from the ocean's soft breath, peaks and more peaks between us now and the gentle humidity of the shoreward forests even on the rain-sides of the slopes.
Just as well—my left boot cracked wide open this morning, skidding on the scree, and the right one tore last night on a snagging rock, clear through the sole, the trophy-tanned leather too brittle for the strain. (At least my poncho came from a rug, cured for flexibility.)
So now my feet turn blue in sandals once again, despite the surviving bits of the old fur and leather tucked in wherever I can manage. I wish others hadn’t needed the tent-canvas before me. For the dry wind blows as chill as ever, splitting whatever skin we leave to its mercy.
Rashid has devised a kind of resinous grease to rub on all the exposed portions of our bodies, and that helps a lot. I do not feel like any kind of medic next to him; even Malcolm, with his doctorate, defers to the boy's practical wisdom, miles from the pharmacies and labs of the cities. I can see why Cyran wants him to head our hospital.
Now we pass between frost-cracked boulders in lieu of forest, our feet slipping on gravel, carefully sidestepping that peculiar mountain cacti that grows as woolly as corries against the cold. Now our path levels out, and gradually begins to climb again. Now we catch the first whiffs of smoke that promise an actual village ahead—Hamalla, I'm told it's called. Now we dream awake, scarce feeling our weary feet beneath us for thoughts of what must roast in such smoke, mouths watering and stomachs growling.
Neither starving mule nor corrie went far among so many. It's hard to keep the mind on dodging cacti and navigating the steeper slopes when I could swear those Hamallans just threw something raw and sizzling onto the grill, just out of sight but not beyond aroma's reach. Sausage, is it? I can smell, I can almost name the spices.
Now we march among the first buildings, the rough, brown blocks hewn from the native stone, with wooden doors and sills and lintels wearing ruffles of bright and peeling paint. Yes, march–for weary as we are, to suddenly have all these stranger-eyes upon us, taking note of our weapons and our scars, makes us throw back our shoulders and lift up our chins; without band or pipes our feet fall into synchronized rhythms, turning the entire dirt street into one great drum. Our steps echo off the walls that rise to either side—it builds till we sound like a thousand times our number! The noise ricochets to tramp down alleyways beyond us, as though our ghosts occupy Hamalla for us. Our gear jangles with jaunty menace, the tinkle of an angry tambourine, as the beat of our boots pounds deeply underneath.
We have come for the next round of our dance. Will they join hands in partnership with us, will they dance the Bailebelde through the scent of gunpowder, around the sparking, crackling danger in the streets? Will they keep the beat with us?
When the crowd gets about as thick as a small community like this can muster, we halt as one at a hand-sign from Cyran. "We have come to meet with the Don," e announces, "but we will first need to rest and make ourselves presentable to the dignity of your Wise One."
Hesitance, then a woman steps forward, leading the llama that bears her water-jugs. "I'm on my way back home; I can give you hospitality, if my neighbors will help with food," she says, then looks around pointedly. The others start from their wonder at so many visitors and make themselves busy with our needs.
* * *
(Mountain girls. How come I never appreciated their beauty before? I lay down my thambriy and my rifle, admiring the tough, lean legs that can climb up and down the slopes—hinted-at outlines under skirt after woolen skirt. Ah, but it feels good to sit down—and on a bench softened by a llama pelt! It used to annoy me, all the clothing on top of clothing that we had to wear to fend off winter, but I look at that apple-cheeked beauty who brings in the food for us, and I can imagine all too well peeling the wool back layer by layer like the most exquisitely wrapped package, all the way to the suede-soft skin beneath, a-tremble with a beating heart.
Think of Kanarik! What kind of man are you, to look at other women that way, when your own darling fights for her life just a few marches away?
"They tell me that you're the troop bard," she says to me—directly to me! Her smile toys with me, her hips swing playfully as she talks. "What's it like to be a soldier?" she asks with a sparkle in her eyes. "What's it like to be a bard? What's it like to be both together?" I can't answer her, too hungry to think straight.
Slowly she tears a hunk of bread off of a loaf and extends it to me, hot and fragrant from the oven. Our fingers brush as I receive it from her. I eat it slowly despite my need, savoring each sweet mouthful, imagining that she might smell like fresh-baked bread if I got close enough.
She gives me a chance to confirm it. "It's even better dipped in beans," she says and sits next to me with a bowl of bean soup in her lap; we touch from hip to knee and our ankles bump. She guides my hand with the bread to the bowl that steams in her lap, dips the bread in, then guides it to my mouth. "See?" she says. "Isn't that delicious?"
I nod, swallow, say, "Yes. Yes it is."
"Soldier and bard. Both very powerful—two opposite powers, it would seem. It takes a strong soul to meld them together. Isn't that so?"
I try to distract myself with food, but that means dipping into her lap and it doesn't help.
"Isn't that so?" she repeats.
"It's, uh, difficult to explain. Some opposites fit together as well as...as..." My face turns red.
"As man and wife?" She laughs throatily.
"Uh, something like that." I reach for more food—I am so hungry!
"Something like? Not quite? Surely you're not thinking of man and mistress!" She grins shamelessly as her arm finds its way around me and our thighs press even closer than I thought they could.
"I was...actually, I was thinking...ah...that I couldn't have become a soldier without being a bard, and I couldn't become a bard without being a soldier. It's...I don't know how to put it into words..."
"A tongue-tied bard? Astonishing!" She feeds me with her own hands, making reply impossible. "As well say a soldier who isn't bold." Her eyelashes flutter as she asks, "Are you bold?"
I lick bean soup from my lips and say, "I, ah, suppose it depends on how hungry I get."
Ai, Kanarik—how I wish I had you here with me!)