IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume V: Sharing Insanity
The Victory of Kiril
Sunday, December 13, 2708, continued
Miles upon miles of forest stretch out below me, menacing and full of secrets. Flight holds no pleasure in it anymore; the lightness doesn’t feel so much like freedom as it does like the vertigo of illness. And it comes so hard, so hard! I feel my heart pound with the effort, I feel muscles pull in my neck as I strain forward, stretching out my head in the concentration of trying to will myself onward, and my thighs ache on their branch supports.
It doesn’t help that I smell the camp before I see it—odors, today, of nothing so wholesome as campfires and oxen. I hold my prayer-cloth over my nose—I don’t need this! (Everybody else gets the bellyache, today. Everybody!) But yes, Kiril delivered. I witness the tiny men crawling like insects beneath me, or writhing on the ground. This should make for an easy, ugly fight.
(Through the tent-flap I watch Doc stagger from soldier to soldier, clutching his own stomach, unable to straighten, while he tries to do something about everybody in camp getting sick at once, till at last he crouch-stands helplessly in the middle of the whole stinking, moaning camp, tottering when he tries to turn and survey the disaster all around him.)
I fly back and land among my young ones hidden in the forest. “It’s time, I say.” (It’s time—no putting it off any longer. I crawl out of my sleeping-bag; I must be the strongest one left. I pick up the sharp little paring knife that I’d hidden some days before. I go over and shove Doc over easily. I make sure that he lands on his side when I tie his hands, and I scoop out a pothole for him to vomit in, while he curses me with something more like horror than anger in his eyes. He’ll live through the food poisoning, if nobody kills him.) She must’ve used staph bacteria; anybody who’s ever trained in a ship’s galley would know about it. It’s the easiest and quickest, but also the mildest form of food-poisoning. We’ll have to move fast, before the soldiers recover.
(I move as fast as my own sickness will allow; I have much to do. He screams when I slash the back of his thigh, so loudly that I nearly drop the knife, but I tell him “It’s for your own good, Doc!” and I make myself finish the job while he keeps on screaming and clawing at the ground.
After I hamstring him, his screams start to sound more like moans and crying as I paint red crosses in his own blood all over his shirt and pants and even on his face, twisting him this way and that before I settle him back on his side, so that no matter which way he tosses the others will know to spare this one, to let him live and spread terror in the enemy forces when he tells them all he’s seen.
He bleeds a lot. Oh God, that’s too much! I run to the nearest tent and grab a poncho and shove it against the wound. When pressure and elevation don’t work I finally have to ask him how to make a tourniquet. Gasping, gritting himself to answer, he tells me what I need to do with the strip of poncho that I cut off to do it. I find a stout twig in the grass close at hand, and I don’t even ask whether a ghost of a medic on his side or ours led me to it. By now I’ve got his blood all over me.
After the final knot, I bring him a waterskin and put it in his reach, and then find a clean blanket to spread over him. “I only cut one side,” I tell him. “You’ll still be able to walk a bit, enough for a doctor’s life. You just won’t be able to march. You’ll have to muster out.” He makes no reply, just stares at me and pulls the waterskin to himself. “I never wanted you for my enemy.”)
Our missing guerillas have rejoined us after all, somewhat the worse for wear and not without wounds, but still alive and on their feet, thank all our ghosts! I wish I had time to give ‘em a good looking over, but if they say they’re combat-fit I’ll have to take them at their word for now.
One of them, Dosh, volunteers to stay behind and take care of Lufti, but I put skinny little Daia to the task—who knows what muscle we’ll need if someone doesn’t sicken all the way? After all, they’re recruiting tougher, poorer soldiers these days—some of them must have built up a resistance to food poisoning just to have survived.
(I walk over to the chaplain. Should I let him survive? I hesitate, knife and twine in hand. Then I stare coldly down at him and say, “You’re not a real priest—you told too many lies.” As I walk away, leaving not a mark on him, he cries ungodly words out after me.)
I leave my flit still strapped to my chest with the leg-supports folded up. It feels like a breastplate, but bullets could go right through the twigs. It takes forever to push through the woods on foot with my band, through every grabby claw of the last few brambles, every weed, every branch like an arm thrown out to hinder us, till I feel hot and scratched and mean, with insects buzzing ‘round my sweat. “No rest for the wicked,” Jonathan used to say when I was a little girl—so what else is new?
(Today is Sunday—it dawns on me that I’ve made everybody throw up their communion wafers, that the whole camp has become one big blasphemy. Then I clench my fists and remind myself that they don’t deserve the Holy Eucharist. Bible says if you take communion with sins on your soul you could get sick, you could even die. I remember that in a sermon once, from some priest other than Father Man, preaching on the ship for guests and crew alike. So this was a place of blasphemy before I poisoned anybody.)
We circle the camp; some of the kids gag at the smell like they’d been poisoned, themselves. I can’t let them think too much about it—I yell “Charge!” and they fold in on the crawling men from all sides, shrieking like alleycats, pouncing like starved wolves. Some men have the strength to stand up and shoot; I look over the shoulder of the man I’m putting out of his misery and I watch Nayal fall dead. Nearby Dosh kicks a man down and slashes his throat with a savagery that belies the tears streaming down his face—no one could find any glory in a battle like this.
(I go back to our tent right when the shooting starts; more people than Doc scream now. Calmly I fold all the pretty dresses that Sarge had made for me, and pack them with the other nice things, while Sarge moans in his own fouled bedding; his writhing around makes the curtain billow between us.
Suddenly he rips the curtain down, tearing the tent-roof to do it. “You!” he cries. His face looks waxy-green, and he hasn’t shaved today. “You did this to us!” I don’t say a word, I just take the fat stack of papers out of his chest to put in my bag. Who would’ve thought that paper could weigh so heavy? “How could you do this to us after all we’ve...”
“I HATE you!” I drop papers everywhere when I clench my fist and turn on him. “You starved my mother to death, and my father went hungry, and me too with him, and because he couldn’t...he...you made me go to sea to get beaten and raped—yes, raped! And you killed my friends, and you drove my boyfriend mad, and you...”
“But I didn’t do any of those things! I had nothing to do with...” I stab him before he can say another word, to stop that hurt look in his eyes, but the look stays there the whole time, while I wipe the knife off and gather up the papers again, and I try not to look while he dies, but I do.)
One street-tough stands in the center of the camp, shooting in a circle all around himself, hardly bent at all. (A bullet tears through canvas above my head as I gather the papers up again. I hear Sarge make some gasping sound like he’s trying to say something, but I don’t turn to listen.) I whistle for the others to take cover while I leap to the sky above him. (I don’t care about bullets anymore; I wonder why I ever cared. I just chase after papers whirling around from every gust through the rip in the canvas and the open tent door.) I whip through the air in crazy gyres, barely dodging bullets that tear through my great cloud of hair, but this time the hair works to my advantage, confusing his aim on the black-clad body somewhere in the tangle. I twist and move my limbs so he never knows where to shoot next, and I thank whatever God made the greenfire bush that I’ve grown too skinny to make a decent target. I keen out a hawklike whistle that must sound like a jeer, but while the soldier fires up at me, Hekut pounces right into his arms and takes him out.
(I find the last of the papers. I know numbers, if not letters, so I can put them all in order, page by page. Numbers tell you the precise price and measure of everything—how many cigarettes you can buy, how much sugar to add to the butter, how many bullets will fit in a gun, how many of theirs die to how many of ours. If you render everything down to numbers you don’t feel so much, you just add and subtract and you can figure everything out.)
As I fall back to earth I count our dead—not bad, considering how many of the enemy we took out—a whole company, newly refreshed in its numbers—a good day’s work. But then I get close enough to recognize faces. (I look over one last time, and he’s still got that look in his eyes, lying there dead.) We knew these soldiers—knew them! How could anyone else understand?
I didn’t know the newcomers—maybe I should only look at the newcomers. I stare into the eyes of the man that Hekut killed, and I shiver in the morning sun. It doesn’t help—I could’ve known him, given time. I turn to Hekut—then I quickly turn away. I did not see anything. I did not. I didn’t see him lick the blood from his knife.
(I waste time staring at Sarge, then I turn back to the chest to see if there’s anything else I should steal. I see the fudge. I stuff as much as I can into my mouth before the battle can come my way. Papa would want me to have it. Papa should’ve been the one to give it to me. Papa is not Daddy.) I scan about for my next enemy, but after a few more shots the battle dies out surprisingly fast. We can call it a victory, I guess. (But I can’t keep the fudge down, not in this horrible, disgusting, sickening camp where everything goes wrong even when it all goes right and Sarge still has that damned look in his eyes and that’s how I’ve got to remember him for the rest of my life!)
Now there sweeps through the camp a silence so breathless that even the birds fall still in fear at what we’ve done. No more gunfire, no more moans of pain, and the place already smelled like death before we even got here. Only the leaves rustle all around us, and I must restrain the imagination that would tell me rumors of whispers in those leaves. (I don’t know for sure what Sarge was trying to say. I can’t. I couldn’t possibly guess.)
Tanjin doesn’t say a word, just taps me on the shoulder and leads me to the man covered in crosses of blood, lying in a pool of more. He doesn’t speak either, only hisses sharply with pain when I bend to tend his wound, only to find it tended already, and with obvious intent. I can ease the tourniquet now, for just a bit.
And the silence still holds us, muffling even our movements down to something gentle. A reverence has fallen upon us all, a backlash to the obscenity that passed for battle here. Or maybe it’s just a weariness that drains the voice from us.
Nishka watches me treat the enemy, then wordlessly fetches a stretcher from the med-tent to bear my fellow medic out of here; we shall leave him on the main road, with water, where carts pass practically every hour of the day—the road that lies a whole lot closer than the enemy ever knew. She finds the stretcher, and on the way back she steps over a corpse, glances down, then stops and looks at me. I go over to see what caught her attention. A chaplain, it turns out. The crosses on his collar were too tiny to spot in the rush of battle.
“Bury this one,” I say in an undertone, but heads turn to hear me speak at all. “Burn the rest. Hang their dog-tags on a branch over the ashes—their families will want to know.”
Someone says, “But our own families never...”
“Don’t make us as bad as them!” and my voice sounds as harsh as a gore-crow’s to my ears. I look around for more wounded to attend, and do my work. None of the rest of the enemy has survived to treat, as it turns out. Dosh and Nishka carry the medic to the road.
(The whole camp stinks of the communion they couldn’t keep down, and it is proper, it is just what everybody deserves. I don’t think I’m ever going to take communion again.)
“Kiril!” Tanjin cries. I see her walk out of the leader’s tent, a bloodstained white nightgown billowing around her, as she struggles with a heavy bag. I run to her but soon see that none of the blood comes from her. She pulls a big stack of papers from her bag, leaving raw red fingerprints on it, and shoves it at me before I can embrace her.
“Here,” she says. “Cyran will want to know. The rest is mine.” and she glares till I blush to remember our last meeting.
“I never left you,” I say to her. “I diverted my whole band to stay with you.” She won’t budge. There’s more than one way to abandon someone.
“You all look hungry,” she says. “Food’s in that tent over there, but you’ll want to eat it upwind.” And then she sits down in the dirt and I suddenly see how pale she looks.
“You’re sick!” I cry as I kneel down beside her. “Here, let me help. What happened to you?”
Now the eyes positively burn with ice. “I had to hold the soldiers still till you could recover, Deirdre. I had to get really, really sick or the doctor wouldn’t believe me, wouldn’t say, ‘Don’t you dare move her, Sarge!’”
I can only stand at that, back away from her, then order the disposal of the dead and the looting of the camp. May God or the devil or somebody deliver us from ever having a victory like this again!