IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume VI: The Rift


Chapter 23

New Year's Eve


 

Thursday, December 31, 2708

By arrangement, with my coordinated help, every rebel band pools whatever liquor they carry or have access to, and leaves it in plain sight on the road ahead of their respective government troops.  Those behind armies send scouts on ahead for the task.  Most, I’m sure, will not fall for it.  But even if one in ten does, it will give us the advantage.  We shall close in on the stroke of midnight, every troop at once, and thus ring in the New Year.

As I topple to the ground a final time my heart sinks, remembering an old superstition.  I hope to God that this doesn’t presage how I will spend the whole of 2709!  Then I remember that I have no right to hope to God.  I sigh, resigning myself to another long year.

(“A new year, Zanne” the lady sighs, shivering beside our makeshift fire, surrounded by snow packed and piled into a windbreak around our band.  It troubles me, just a wee bit, that she remembers my name yet I have already forgotten hers.  “Is this how I shall spend 2709?”

I throw another fragrant bough on the flames, which eat the needles up first of all, sparkling and sputtering, flaring brightly on the weary woman’s face.  “Warmed by a fire of your own making?”  I smile to mask my own weariness...and a worrisome touch of confusion.  “Doing something about your future, refusing to be helpless?  I should hope so, darling.”)

I stagger over to Cyran’s command station and make my report, leaning against the nearest boulder.  And though I fight to mask it I feel so helpless, for the armies of the enemy seem so vast.  They even haul heavy artillery, and some of the oxen have died from pulling it up the slope.  I try to sound encouraging when I mention how our folks made good use of the abandoned cattle.  I try to tell myself that greenfire nerves make everything more frightening, after the glory of it wears off, especially when you haven’t had any all day.  I try to recapture that early-stage glory but I am just too spent.

Cyran hears the ache in my voice.  “It’s over, Deirdre.”  I flinch, at first thinking that e’s talking about our chances.  “You’re off duty for now.  Go get some rest while you can.”  If I can.  I hope I can.

(“It’s over!” the loudspeakers blast in the night, echoing off the cliffs of brick walls that the message-truck rolls past, repeating the same message.  “Corriebhai Colony is safe once again!”  Shivering and hungry, I lean against a building’s rough breast, wrapping a discarded blanket full of holes around me, still stinking of the garbage that I pulled it from but I am so past caring.  “Telepaths are no longer a danger to us all.”

 Everyone has to believe this recorded message, because it comes in the voice of Prime Minister O’Malley—a known Chapelbodlian in good standing; he would not lie.  I also happen to know that he’s a Til-trained oracle, for which I will try to forgive him much.  “We are releasing all internees for the New Year without parole.  You may pick up your loved ones at your local community prisons on January 2, after we have fed and treated them for the unfortunate necessities visited upon them.  Thank you for your courage in this difficult time.”  And the truck with the loudspeakers grinds on to another neighborhood.

I don’t feel courageous.  I burst into tears that I can’t afford in the cold, sobbing with relief.

“Young lady?” a woman’s voice calls out from a bright rectangle above me.  I face up to the window framing a chubby matron with a kindly face, shivering herself to open the glass and lean out.  “Are you okay?”

“I will be,” I say back.  And knowing how this people values honesty, I also say (now that I can) “I’m a telepath on the run.”  The window closes.  Well, at least at this point she won’t report me.
            But then I hear steps coming down a staircase, and now a door opens, spilling golden light before me like a road to paradise.  Mouthwatering odors waft out with the warmth.  “Come on in, dearie.  I just cooked up some Good Luck Curry; we have enough to share.”)

I smell some sort of cabbage stew.  Kiril gestures me over to a bubbling pot.  I can’t help but smile, saying,  “What are you doing up so late, girl?”

“Makhliya authorized me to cook a dinner for you instead of doing guard duty, and Cyran confirmed it.  Now I’m going to make you eat it if I have to sit on you and pour it down your throat.”

“Don’t worry—I’m so hungry I might eat the pot and spoon, too!”  She grins and ladles out a bowl.  I feel a little bit of hope return with every mouthful.

(“A new year,” George says with a sort of weary hopefulness.  The “All Seasons Guaranteed Dome Tent” that we bought in the Winsall’s hometown crowds us; though advertised as fit to sleep six, it had not reckoned on people of Jake and Don’s size, and Wallace is no small man, himself.  But at least it holds in all that body heat, and the small, acrid, “tent-safe guaranteed” chemical heater, imported all the way from Tambour if the label tells the truth, helps, too.

“My mother used to say,” said Wallace, “That however you spend New Year’s at the stroke of midnight, that’s how you’ll spend the whole year after.  She would give me a little sip of kusmet, then, so that I would have a merry heart.”

“And a fuzzy mind,” I can’t resist saying.  “No wonder half the world fumbles through the rest of the year!  But no, we keep that custom, too.”

Don says, “We have no liquor, though.”

Jake says, “Nor would I want any.”  He wriggles into his sleeping-bag.  “I’d rather go to sleep.”

I tease him, “Oh, so you plan to sleep through the coming year?”

“Not quite,” he says, peeping over the quilted rim.  “I plan to dream through it.”

Don says, “The wind in the pines sounds almost like the ocean, doesn’t it?”

“Indeed it does.”

He works his own way into his bedding.  “Then I shall, hopefully, dream of sailing, with my wife by my side.”  And soon his gentle snoring does, indeed, have the cadence of the sea.

Wistfully Wallace murmurs, “With his wife by his side,” before retiring, himself.

George and I play cards awhile, before sleeping in our turn, winning and losing chocabees back and forth by the heater’s glow, but which one won at the stroke of midnight, if we even made it so late, we’ll never know for sure.)

Tanjin gently shakes me awake, just as I ordered him to do when the time would come for it, but I cannot help but groan, even as I roll over and reach for the rifle next to me—which isn’t there because, as I foggily remember, I beat it to a pulp on Christmas.  “Lie still,” he says, pressing his hand against me.  “You don’t have to stand up just yet.  You’ll go dizzy if you do.”  And he stares out to where elders watch the moon, raising their hands to the horizon to measure how far it rose.





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