IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Party, Courtesy of Stovak
Tuesday, August 11, 2708, continued
Bright firelight plays with the texture of the chapel walls as I wipe grease off my fingers onto my leggings, high up under the skirt where the stains hopefully won’t show. Rich spices linger on my tongue, a full belly anchors me on the good side of life, young ones surround me that I helped to feed, and I cannot recall feeling more contented than this as I recline on my sleeping-bag to gaze up at the stars a-twinkle in the fragrant smoke.
(“In Toulin and Borta,” I read in the galley lamplight, “You may pick your teeth at table, and in fact you will find, in the wealthier households, a small, silver implement provided for this purpose situated to the left of your spoon, at the table setting.”
Jake asks, “And the less wealthy households?”
I scan ahead. “They use disposable wooden toothpicks, and usually carry their own.”
We could all study this much faster individually, but sometimes it just feels right to slow down and study all together, dry and cozy in the kitchen (sorry, galley) while the boat rocks us gently on a friendly sea. A fine fish dinner rests in our tummies, the dishes can wait, and the anchor will relieve us of sailing-duties till the morning.)
Marduk wolfs his ration (expanded for the occasion) with eyes that gleam in the dim red light, while Aichi trots out her own little dance of joy, laughing to the sky with a cookie in each hand. The smuggler passes me a mug of some exotic tea, after pouring one for himself, as adaptable as any of the hardy souls in his profession. The Abojans have joined us out here, bundled up in furs, their cheeks pink with the cold, but smiling as they distribute the food like servants, making sure (of course) that Kanarik, nestled in Damien’s adoring arms, gets her double portion. Kanarik reaches up with an embroidered handkerchief to wipe the piskisaw from Damien’s soft young beard.
(“At the end of the meal, the polite Toulinian dips a portion of his napkin into the finger-bowl, and dabs at his mouth with it, even if his lips are clean, and then thoroughly rubs his hands with the same cloth. This implies high standards that can perceive grease or stickiness not apparent to the eye.”
Wryly Jake says to Don, “Wiping your hands off on your pantsleg doesn’t count,” just as he catches Don in the act. And we all laugh together.)
“A song! A song!” people cry as they push Damien to his feet.
“I can’t!” he protests laughingly. “I am much too full to sing.” Everybody boos and someone throws a cookie wrapper at him, but it just lands in the fire and burns and he laughs all the more. “Okay—Okay! Will a story satisfy you?”
“Yes! Yes! Tell us a story! Quiet, everybody—let him tell his story.” When all falls still except for the crackling fire and the flapping of a flag made just for us (equal silver scales on a field of green) he begins.
“Let me speak of Ro Jo Raymos—now there was a fighting man! You wouldn’t know to look at him, so they say. He didn’t have much height to him, and not much mass, though muscle and bone and guts and heart and brain made every ounce of him, nothing left over for sitting easy. He fought with his brains and could outmaneuver a soldier three times his weight.” Cyran interrupts with coughing, but it sounds productive and mild, much better than it has been.
Damien waits him out patiently, and then continues. “He liked nothing better than a good read, and it told on his eyes—he wore glasses so thick they could deflect bullets—take care, Lufti, or you’ll need glasses, too!” Lufti blushes and grins; he’d been tearing through the Abojan library like a wildfire. “See, Ro Jo came came from a well-off family—you might have heard of Raymos Lumber; he’d been the heir, till they disowned him for his politics. But before that they bought him things like glasses and books and such—he didn’t have to become one of us, he just did it because it was right.”
A few people fidget and I feel like I can almost read their minds: “Would I have done that? Would I want to let go of privileges so that others might have them?” Good, Damien—let them think of that. I catch a glimpse of Hara beaming off to one side.
“Ro Jo had a friend name of Kuncheng Lai, a mountainfolk man taller than the usual run and longer-limbed—like you, Deirdre.” The bard nods my way. “Oh, but he had a wicked smile and the most knowing eyes!” Like yours, Damien, twinkling in the firelight. “What little Ro Jo didn’t know about fighting Kuncheng did. Kuncheng said few words but wry ones to the point. Not to call him sullen or anything; he just found the whole human race too humorous for comment. Where someone else every bit as smart as him might have despised the whole silly lot of us, he’d just laugh and love us all the more.
“Kuncheng Lai wore his hair clear down to his butt and liked to let it fly around loose when he could. Stupid thing to do—got him nearly killed more than once, when the enemy’d get a fistful or two—take heed, Deirdre!” Everybody laughs, knowing my vanity about my hair. “But I suppose even brilliant people need to gets stupid somewhere in their lives,” he says with a wink to me. “Anyway, it did look grand, whirling around him in the fight—as our Captain Deirdre knows too well!” I grab up a handful of hair and hide my face in it as the laughter swells.
“I told you Ro Jo’s glasses could deflect bullets—they did just that. A bullet that should’ve drilled him to the brain skipped right off the glass and ricocheted back towards the enemy line. Of course it gouged out the lens, and left it warped and useless. After that Kuncheng always fought to Ro Jo’s left, guarding his blind side. Ro Jo never went on any guerilla missions alone after that. And he lost his sense of distance, which made him no good for dart or arrow or throwing knives, but he could shoot just fine.” I see a boy with a bandaged eye nod his head. So many of us have lost so much. But rebels keep on. You just keep on.
“A year or two passed like that,” our bard tells us. “They got it down real good, fighting side by side. It worked out especially since Kuncheng was left-handed, anyway. It’s like God made them to match in battle. But wouldn’t you know it, a bullet took out the right lens, too. That one shattered the glass, tore up Ro Jo’s face something awful, and left him blind as a rock, for the glass hit both eyes. But still alive.”
“Sinnnnews and Mussssscles, alive, alive oh!” Father Man sings out suddenly, then falls to giggling to himself.
“Uh, yes. Very much alive and strong—but how could he fight? It took some time to let his mess of a face heal, but he didn’t muster out even then—people still needed him, with those well-read brains of his.” Lufti sits up straighter, looking solemn. “As soon as he could get on his feet again, he’d hang onto Kuncheng right in the thick of battle and shout, “What’s out there?” and Kuncheng’d tell him, and he’d say just what to do. Ah, there was a general, Ro Jo Raymos! He could map it all out in his head and strategize, same as if he could see like you or me.”
Damien warms his throat with a good, hot cup of tea, then continues. “Nothing lasts forever, of course. There is no love on Novatierre that doesn’t see bereavement, soon or late. One day, in a pitched battle out in an open field, Ro Jo heard Kuncheng break off in the middle of a sentence with a cry of pain as a shot rang out, and Ro Jo felt the hot blood gush on him. He toppled onto his friend and felt no pulse, no breath upon the lips, and then I guess he must’ve fainted or something, but whatever the cause, friend and foe alike took them both for dead, wondering if one bullet had pierced the two at once.”
Damien pauses, and we wait, sensing that the story doesn’t end there. “The rebels despaired and fell back. Soon the enemy flooded through the line, trampling our dead and screaming like maniacs at the thought of good men routed by their guns.
“They completely surrounded the duo before Ro Jo snapped back to himself. He pulled a machete from his dead friend’s sheath and another from his own belt that he hadn’t used in awhile, and he just had at it, all around him. The rest of the rebels wanted to come to his rescue but they didn’t dare draw near, for he couldn’t tell friend from foe, he could only hear where people moved, so he’d move a little faster and mow ‘em all down. Oh but the blood flew that day, arcing out around him like the devil’s ruby necklace in the setting sun! And the rebels took heart, and stormed right back into the army’s teeth, and drove them back, and robbed their tents, and took their own turn shouting out their triumph!”
A few hands clap, but Damien hasn’t finished. “As the sunlight failed and the firelight took over, Ro Jo’d swing his blades and contact nothing. He stumbled around a moment, looking for men to wreak his vengeance on, but all lay dead around him, sacrifices piled up for Kuncheng’s sake. Then he just stood there, a forlorn silhouette against the bloodstained glow. He dropped his arms and let his people lead him safe away.”
Damien’s voice drops low. “Some say he never did muster out, that he continued to fight blind, would let his folks throw him into a knot of soldiers with his blades held high and hack his way out again, till someone on his own side’d call “Halt!” and gather him up again. Some say he still fights for us now, and Kuncheng by his side, and they say that in the spirit world his eyes see keener than ever, that he guides us through fog or dark or any other blinding thing, the same as Kuncheng used to do for him. We never fight alone. We have no blind side. The enemy can never win, because not even death can defeat us.”