IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
The Battle of Mountain Maiden's Knees
Wednesday, July 29, 2708
"Do you hear them?" Cyran whispers to me.
"Hear them? I can smell them." I can smell their machines and cordite and their well-oiled leather—government equipped. I can hear the voices muttering among themselves as if no one but they could listen, though the sound ricochets off the rocks to us. I hear the struggling gears, the clanking equipment, even as we quickly muffle anything metal in our own gear with tufts of llama-wool. "Sneak past or harry?" I ask hir.
"Harry. We're far enough from Koboros by now to draw their fire."
"Split the troops?"
"And rendezvous at our destination. I know the way."
"Malcolm knows, too." E winks at me. "Don't let him get shot."
"I wouldn't dream of it."
“And so does Shermio, but I’ll want him traveling with me.”
“I’m fine with that.” I never quite bonded with the little elfin-eyed fellow—he’s too in and out all the time, I think, for anyone to get close to.
"Okay—let's do it," Cyran says. I gesture my troops to shear off from hirs.
The way of the government soldiers dips down between two limbs of mountain folded up to either side in rounded peaks. My troop takes a goat-path single-file, slippery with ice, dangerously thin for Malcolm and none too easy for us smaller folk. No one else would even think of coming up this way, high above a pass that opens up as wide as a whore for armies and their vehicles. But men who enter too heedlessly between Mountain Maiden's Knees do not live to boast of conquests. We creep along one stony shin as Cyran's portion scales the other, breathless in our silence, for nothing conceals us from sight except for our own drab colors and the carelessness of men who don't look up.
Words waft up, most of them blurred, the few that make it through left out of context. “...nobody...hormonal...stupid...frostbitten...” then a loud, barked, “You’ll do as you’re told!” that makes us all jump where jumping’s not a good idea. Then we strangle down our nervous laughter. Aichi holds a finger to her quivering lips, but she won’t hold it much longer if I don’t do something. I raise my hand in the signal for danger: first finger raised and the rest touching my thumb. That sobers them.
At last we reach the one outcropping that can afford us any shelter. By soundless gestures I position our gunners, tell our mosquitoes to take up slings and stones (since darts won't pierce a soldier's winter coat, or fly so far) and signal the rest to gather larger rocks. We find the biggest we can heft, by the Mountain Maiden's grace, cautious, cautious, fearful lest the slightest scrape should echo down the slopes.
Malcolm holds a rock the size of a child, as if it were nothing, and patiently awaits my signal. Aichi crouches to her post as if frozen to it, eyes widened but determined, hands ready on her gun, Lufti beside her with his own, his young brow knit. Kiril looks as hard as if the boulders spawned her, sling in hand. Damien appears no less grim, but you can read in the gleam in his eye that part of his mind stands back and watches for a tale. The toad brothers tremble till they brace their arms on the rocks to steady themselves, but I can count on them, I know, as accurate with slings as they are with blowguns. Ambrette looks half in a trance; her life has changed so much in a short period of time that I don’t know if it even seems real to her. And Chulan? She's done this so many times that it hardly means a thing to her anymore.
I wait. I wait. Cyran must make the first move—leader's privilege. I wait some more.
Gunfire! "Hold!" I whistle, a songbird far from home, but who down there would think of ornithology with rocks and bullets raining down on them? The government soldiers return fire in hir direction—uphill, against ghosts of movement in sage and beige and gray. My soldiers wince at every gun's report. "Hold," I whistle still. I can see Malcolm's arms quiver around his rock, I can see Aichi chew her lip in fear.
The government soldiers have entirely turned to face the slope that shoots and hails on them. "NOW!" I shout in human tongue. The screams rail up between our stereo percussion. Malcolm hurls death like some mountain giant and my own rocks quickly follow with Chulan's, down onto skulls of softer stuff, as Aichi cries "Boom!" through gritted teeth, tears streaming down her young cheeks but she doesn't duck back from the returning fire. Now Bakr and Aziz join Kiril to dart out from protection, sling stones, dart back in, and out again with new stones, as small and brave as David taking on Goliath. Now Damien fires coldly down with ice as sharp in his eyes as the fire in Lufti's glare. And I throw and throw, and each time I take up a rock I take my life into my hands, I risk hurling down there everything I am, everything I believe in, but I hate them so much by now that I don't care.
And it works! We've got them on the run! I cheer like a demon and shove a whole avalanche of rocks to smash down upon their heads, sparks flying as they skip off granite on their way. Defiantly I override the ache in every thrust, riding it, riding that wrench of muscles as though I could send it, too, down to shatter bones and will and all resistance. Ambrette screeches at all the men who ever hurt her as she hurls and hurls her granite chunks. Now I scramble to fetch bullets to Damien and Lufti and Aichi, skittering over the slippery rocks to drag bandoliers from our piled gear. Now I throw more rocks, and the bullets whiz back past me and I don't care, living or dead I'll keep on fighting them, I'll keep on, I'll, I'll, I'll...
* * *
I must've completely missed the moment when Bakr died. I gaze out over the glory of the setting sun as a fitting send-off for the boy, then down at the shadowy figures way below, sprawled in their own frozen blood, no one of their own left to bury them. The wind that streams continually through that pass ripples the rags of their uniforms and ruffles their hair in a mocking imitation of life. Nor do we have the strength to do the decent thing for our enemy, their ghosts be damned. A haze of exhaustion fuddles me like the aftermath of some wild party; I carry the hangover in my aching arms like rocks and I fear the moment when I will remember all the new reasons for regret.
We lay Bakr to rest by the light of the setting sun, with his blowgun in one hand, his sling in another, waiting on the bare granite for his cairn. Damien sings all the right songs, as I just stand there and wonder whether maybe Bakr might've made a decent date if I'd just given him a chance. Caring, patient, cheerful under stress—I'd overlooked these things. Up here you don't need inspired wit or handsome looks, you need a kind heart, forgiveness, and strong, dependable arms.
No matter. He didn't last very long past his tests of blood and fire, this brave young son of Cumenci.
We pile on him the rocks and soil stained with his blood first of all, and then the cleaner grit. Kiril wheezes as she helps to bury her comrade, but she does her part no less. Then I scratch his name upon a good-sized stone and hope that it lasts awhile, though who might climb up this way able to read it, I don't know. Snow begins to fall again, soon blanketing the grave, as it blankets the battlefield below, as though nothing violent happened here. And I can’t stop shuddering.
"We'll need to ask Cyran for replacement troops soon," Malcolm says beside me, "though there's advantages to small numbers, too."
Just when I thought the mountains couldn't get any colder, the sun goes down and all the colors of the world bleed down to black.
* * *
(Aichi scare. Dark, all everything dark—scary things in the dark? Maybe booms? Maybe soldiers in the dark, go boom out of nowhere, make Aichi just like Bakr, have to live in the ground every day, all days, always.
But Aichi did good, make soldiers stop, make angels smile. Soldiers don't hurt friends—Aichi make them stop. Except for Bakr—Aichi did bad?
Maybe Bakr now a ghost, out in the dark. "You didn't make them stop, Aichi!"
Aichi try! Try! Try! Aichi good! Angels smile!
But...Bakr cold? Bakr hate dark, cold rocks? Bakr maybe smell bad, old meat bad, hate to smell that way. Bakr angry with Aichi?
Aichi try! Oh God, Aichi try so hard be a good girl! Oh God help, hide Aichi from ghosts, oh please God, oh! Angels please smile, say Aichi did good!)
I wake to the sound of sobbing. I crawl through a tunnel of tarps, over huddled bodies that grunt at my passing, to a little bundle of blankets where I find Aichi cowering under them, her face all wet and swollen. She tackles me with a hug so close that I can hardly breathe. "Aichi scare."
I hold her, murmuring soft sounds into her hair as she cries against me, but I don't know what to say. That she has nothing to fear, that everything will be all right? That I can protect her from anything, that her guardian angel won't let her die? None of the usual words to comfort children work out here.
"Aichi did good?"
Oh Jesus—how do I answer that? What does she struggle to understand? "Yes," I finally say, and hope God forgives me for whatever confusion I visit on her soul.