IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
The Chapel of St. Teresa
Sunday, August 2, 2708
It takes little time to reach the pass that we're supposed to guard—a magnificent piece of God's architecture. Higher peaks stretch up beyond ours, perpetually clad in imperial white. Yet by some trick of the mountain-channeled winds, the ravine below the road (and to some extent the land up here) experiences what they call njeri summer—a brief flashback of comparative warmth before the final blizzards of the season. The snow-sparkling peaks preside over a wild defile that funnels the winter seepage, the spring melt, and what little rain falls in summer, into a rushing gorge festooned with all the greenery that I thought we'd left behind—my soul sings to once again see so much lush vegetation spilling down the mountainside, there below this stony road among the mountain bones: those curling vines, those broad-leafed trees.
It must flower in spring. In summer the falling fruit must perfume the land, the air must hum with bees, the bushes thrash with the lucky wildlife that finds its way to paradise. Or maybe it keeps such even temperature that it has no seasons, like the lowlands, like maybe I could climb down right now and eat my fill of fruit. The land to either side, of course, remains as rocky as ever. Even so, the beauty swells almost painfully in my heart. Until this moment I hadn't realized that I believed I would die before ever gazing out on jungle once again.
This is my home. I can feel homesick for different parts of it. And yet, I find, my eyes water with love for these mountains, too. I breathe deeply the thin, clean air, and I feel a weight slide off of me. I am a good agent after all.
No. I am a good soldier, a rebel of The Charadoc. Til didn’t assign this to me—I did, by myself. And weight of a different sort settles on my shoulders.
Beyond the gorge I see a road that winds precipitously around the slopes across from us. We, too, make our way on a road of crushed stone, plowed ages ago into the flanks of the mountains. Over there, way above that waterfall that gushes from a cave, the two roads merge into one, into the pass that leads to the troubled lands of Stovak. Hara calls the cave the world's highest grotto.
Ah, Stovak! Very little open trade goes in and out of that country after...how many years of civil war? Which makes it a terrific base for smuggling, with the absence of any coherent system of regulation in that land of many ports, along the mild waters of the Gulf of Byssinia far beyond our mountains. And though we seldom speak of it, and the government mentions it not at all, both the rebels and the Meritocracy depend heavily on smugglers. I suppose that’s why Til hasn’t sent its agents there—so far. That I know of.
How rough, how rarely traveled is this road and that, by the good citizens of The Charadoc. Yet someone always sees to it that the stones of periodic avalanches disappear, that eroded embankments get shored back up again; work crews appear out of nowhere every so often, with picks and shovels and cement-laden mules. And some of them wear uniforms, and some of them do not. Till now it has been one of the few things that we can agree upon, the government and us: the maintenance of this pass, though we've never put it into words and they've never put it into writing.
Time for that to end. Poppies don't grow in the Charadoc, by nature and by law, but wounded soldiers still need morphine.
"There it is," Damien says, and points to an outcropping of stone and adobe in the distance. "The chapel that the Abojans are building for wayfarers." Wayfarers, huh? Is that what the pious Abojans call them? Well, I suppose that a smuggler’s soul has more needs than most—just as rebels do. “Not much further, a bit more of a climb to get there.” And so we climb, Malcolm bringing up the rear, but fitter all the time.
Here, high above the river gorge, the land basks in that sere but golden moment before the final snows. The thaw has bared patches of last year’s grass; it looks almost as mellow as summer in other lands, except for the cold. I don't mind hiking uphill in this tawnier stretch of beauty, amid the few brave and ancient trees that twist their way upslope to stretch out thin, green fans of needles to the sun. Is that a softening of the air I feel, the first faint breath of spring? Illusion, Deirdre, a trick of njeri summer; we've got months before the coming of the rains to warm and moisten the cracking ground. Snow could fall again at any time; and sooner or later must. Still, I feel hopeful today.
"Look, from the other road!" Lufti shouts—I whip around, assessing what in reach could serve me for a weapon. "It's Cyran!" Oh. Oh. There, our leader and hir troops have passed the grotto and hasten towards us with the jerky-stiff steps of people who have already marched too long, but get their second wind from the sight of their destination.
The cries go up around me as I straighten from my fighting-crouch. "Cyran!" "Yaaay, Cyran!" "And look at all the troops e has with hir, too!" I look, and my heart sinks at the length of the line of the soldiers winding down the slope behind hir. As they draw near I recognize some of them as Cumencians—I guess not all of the kids took to the life of a shepherd, or else vengeance burns too hot in their hearts for the loss of their parents and their home. They must have tracked Cyran down. A few grim men and women march among them, too—Hamallans, I believe, by the clothing—but most, the ones I know and the ones I don't, are young, way too heartbreakingly young—as usual.
I have read of the horrors of other lands, of children kidnapped by rebels and forced to fight, forced to kill their own families, sometimes. It would make it all so cut and dried, so easy to choose sides if that happened here. But we keep wanting adults and the villages keep having nothing but children to send us.
Does that make it any less traumatic, that these little soldiers choose this, before they've grown old enough to choose anything sanely? Does it make us any less villainous for exploiting their young and ardent hearts? But how many more would die if we didn't? How much choice do we really have? Don't answer that, God, please.
We wait for them before making the final ascent to the chapel-in-progress. Cyran greets me with a hug so violent that e nearly knocks me into the gorge—I guess I must be back in hir favor. "We've had victories—nothing but victories!—since you and I last parted company. God smiles on us, for sure."
"When did you have the time?"
"Two more government patrols on the way up," e tells us breathlessly, rapidly. "We had to double back, and double back again, till I'm surprised we ever made our way forward at all, but Deirdre, we engaged them! We stole their weapons straight from their bleeding hands, after we whupped their arses good. We've finally built up to the measure of an army the match of theirs. And our numbers grow," e says proudly, gesturing to the lines that struggle up the slope. "Our numbers grow."
"They grow too fast," Alysha mutters behind hir. "We can't feed so many. And we fight less like guerillas all the time." She glances back at the troops that follow. "We’ve sent our share back to Rashid, before he's even had the time to set up properly." To Cyran she says, "You should send Malcolm to Koboros to help him right away."
"In good time, when things quiet down," e says, grinning as e surveys the pass and all the military possibilities. "There's been a bit of an escalation on the government's part; we may have to sweep a few bodies out of our way, first." E does not look at all dismayed by the prospect. "Nothing we can't do, of course."
I ask hir, "How did you manage to rejoin us so fast with so much standing in your way?"
E shrugs cheerfully. "I didn't say we slept along the road, did I? It soon became obvious that we had to make full speed to get here, no matter what the army threw into our path—beat them to it. They hoped to seize the pass before us." Then e laughs merrily. "But we did it! We got here way ahead of the Uniforms—they have no idea what they're in for when they try to take on the Egalitarian Liberation Front!"
I stare at the brightness of hir eyes, then glance over to Malcolm. He nods slightly to me, then says to Cyran, "Good job, sir—you're grounded."
"Mountain-grown greenfire may be sickly-looking stuff next to its jungle kin, but the miserly soil forces it to concentrate its alkaloids all the more strongly—doesn't it."
Cyran seems to wilt just a little. "Oh. You noticed."
"You couldn't have achieved what you did any other way."
I take Cyran by the arm. "I promised you I wouldn't make the same mistake that I did with Kief, ever again. You did what you had to do—an excellent job, that's obvious. Now it's time to rest, before the bigger battles ahead of us. Malcolm won't ground you for long."
I talk as soothingly as I can, but hir glare sharpens as e asks, "Is this the medic in you talking—or the commanding officer who would take my place?"
"The commanding officer who's humble enough to listen to the full-time medic at my side."
"You dare to mention Kief to me, after what you did to him!" E flips hir arm away from mine and stumbles back a step, hand straying towards hir gun.
Malcolm steps between us. "I would never mean you any harm, Cyran—you know that."
The general begins to tremble and the light dies a little in hir eyes. "I—I guess you've got a point." E sighs, hir hand leaves the gun, and hir shoulders sag. "I'll try to get some rest tonight, after we set up camp." Malcolm holds out a hand and raises an eyebrow. Cyran sighs, surrenders hir guns, then turns to hir followers and says, "Deirdre's troop can guard."
I let out the breath I held. "Well, since you're off-duty but in no shape to rest just yet, would you care to check out the chapel with me?"
E grins again, disconcertingly like nothing happened, and says, "Why not?"
They look like ruins, the rubble of this unbuilt church, some remnant of a history not yet written, a future antiquity. We move through the blocks and piles of building material, the half-raised walls, the scaffolding for campaniles to climb towards heaven, the sunken floors that hold the church like the ground had cupped its hands, reminding me of the chapel that I grew up with. What they've built of the steeples so far point up towards God, yet not so high as to feel out of reach to grubby souls like ours.
And here I can find, chiseled in stone, the names for the various side-chapels. St. Christopher who, real or not, will never die so long as travelers need a walking-companion in the spirit. St. Adra the Wanderer, the young girl who had quietly set out one day from her father's house in Sandurste, and walked from community to community with her healing powers and her wisdom on every day since, till dying of old age. St. John of the Eagle, John the Visionary, whose gaze could leap past mountains all the way to Heaven and back again.
And in the fourth corner, the largest, in pride of place as the patron of this church...of course. Fatima had been a friend to the Abojans, they told me late last night, their maid before she found her vocation, their inspiration always. She'd met her fiancÚ through them, such a nice family, they'd had no idea he'd turn out the way he did. So here they began the chapel for St. Teresa of Avila, hoping someday that Fatima could visit it. Deni had clutched at her heart with one withered hand to learn that the girl will never kneel here in the finished building, certainly not with knees of flesh. The rich don't take comfort in ghosts the way that we do.
I go into that space. Wind blows through the unglazed windows and no roof arches overhead, no holy rites have consecrated these stones as yet, no candles flicker before any portrait of a saint. Even so, my heart searches out for some scrap of holiness here, anticipating—hoping in—what will be. The rubble hurts my knees to kneel on it, but I do kneel and I pray for Fatima.
I pray then for Lucinda, Yan and Yaimis, Gaziley, Bakr, Sharane...and Kief. Whether you forgive me or not, Kief, I wish you well. May my prayers ease your journey, wherever you go, whichever path you chose in the instant that my bullet tore this mortal path from you.
Am I forgetting anyone? Imad—how could I omit you, who died so well? Madame, who died the best you knew how. Miko, I mustn't forget you, either, first of all my ghosts of the battlefield. Mischa, Yeshu, I commemorate you, too, and commend your souls to God. Cantimar, whom Malcolm told me died. The amputees I labored on, fallen at the college wall. And Aron, oh Aron, don't ever let me forget you, my dear little protector! I tell off a litany of my dead while the rocks bite into my knees and the wind whistles in through the lancet windows above. I come out just in time to catch Cyran exiting the chapel of St. Adra, hir eyes not meeting mine.