IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume VI: The Rift


Chapter 24

The Changing of the Year


 

Friday, January 1, 2709

Midnight.  The same elders who assessed the sky for Christmas give us the nod, now.  This time, the moon having waned some days from the half-point, it has to rise a certain number of fingers up into the sky, making the never-thawing peaks below it glow a chill blue-white.  Only those familiar with the heights on the horizon can say how many fingers.  And only they have digits of the proper width to tell.

Middle of summer and the night feels bitter cold.  We move towards battle better equipped than formerly, though, what with so many contributions of coats, blankets, ponchos and serapes.

(Last year I spent New Years with the family.  Uncle Salim brought his whole four-generation brood, and the home-brewed barley-beer.  My little sister’s husband had an accordion. My nephew danced with a glass balanced on his head, squatting so low in his kicks that he seemed a child in height; the glass splashed some but stayed put.  Hard to believe that half of them have died.)

I rise, straightening slowly, shoving myself upright against my body’s protests.  I accept my aches as an appropriate preview of the hell awaiting me.  I always thought it a trite sentiment, to hope to bring as many of the enemy with me as I can; I never guessed what it'd feel like to actually mean it.

(Last year I spent New Years losing my virginity–oh, terrifying joy!  I thought for sure that lightning would strike me down the very next morning.  But when the sun shone clear and warm, I figured God had bigger fish to fry than me.)

Makhliya assesses me where I lean against a boulder.  Without a word, she reaches into her skirt pocket and pulls out a leaf.   I can read in her face that she thinks this the worst thing in the world for me—in the long term.  But I take the greenfire anyway, staring evenly at her staring at me.  We both know the score—I’m in no shape to fight otherwise.  The bitterness of the leaf tastes sweet to me, as the energy tingles down my throat and up my brain and soon I can muster up the soldiers that Cyran has assigned to me.

(I have no idea how I spent last New Years.  But whatever I did, Jamila still hasn’t forgiven me.  Oh, she’ll be sorry when I’m dead, that she never even told me!  Or maybe not.  Maybe I’d better not find her after my tour of duty.  Maybe, if I live through this, I’d better keep right on marching into another life.)

Makhliya gestures Suleya forward.  The woman doesn’t look me in the eye when she gives me her rifle, softly says, “Protect Baruch and Rogan for me, please!” and hurries away swiftly.  I see that she has made a patchwork red cross on her coat, front and back, and I ache for her.  Does she have any idea how useless that is?  I won’t be the one to tell her.

I swallow down my displeasure at the band under my command–Cyran has ordered mostly children to take the lead.  But e has the unenviable job of seeing the most strategic course, regardless of instinct.  Our child-warriors have survived this long only by mastering stealth.  Let the lead-footed farmers and miners and ranchers follow after we’ve expended the element of surprise.

(Last year I spent New Years down in the mine, where it’s always midnight.  Gabir smuggled in a couple bottles of the homemade stuff.  We took a break then and there, thumbing our noses at the boss and all his foremen, and didn’t get any work done that night. The day-shift was too hung-over to notice.)

As we get our gear together, I take out the cigarette packet that Alysha gave me, tap one out for myself, and hand another to Kiril.  She glares at me, but she lights it up.  “Smoke fast,” I say.  “We have some ways to go before the enemy can smell our tobacco, but not forever.”

(I spent my last New Year’s scouring a rich man’s trash for anything that I could take home to feed my family.  When the wife saw what little I brought home for our “feast” she wept and struck me, and said that I had to make up to the boss, say anything, do anything, just get hired back again.  I couldn’t tell her that he fired me because I punched him, because he’d gotten me alone behind the cannery, promised me a raise, then yanked down my pants and tried to use me like a whore.  I just looked at her, and the hungry kids, and I nodded.)

Ready to roll.  Except that I still move like an old woman.  I catch Makhliya before we head out and say, “One more leaf.  I am, I mean I really am beat.”  She nods, face expressionless, and pulls out another, this time much more slowly, which I slip into my mouth before Kiril can see.  I remember the dust that D’Arco offered me and swallow back a throatful of bitterness.

(Last New Year’s me and the rest of my band snuck into a farmer’s root cellar, just to get out of a thunderstorm, and oh my Lordy what a mass of food he had down there!  Piles and piles of potatoes, cabbages, squashes and turnips, bags as tall as me and twice as heavy full of beans, a barrel of beer and another of cider, a big-ol’ round of cheese the size of a small table, whole shelves full of a dark rainbow of preserves, and hams and sausages hanging from the rafters–oh I thought I’d died and gone to heaven!  And I thought for sure the farmer’d shoot us when he came tramping down the stairs, but he just shouted, “Happy New Year!” and opened up the tap himself.)

I hear the music long before I see or smell the camp.  Now we use the former “Signing off-duty” signal to say, “trap”–the meaning that it will have for us forever after.  Sanzio D’Arco’s down there, and I remember how he relaxed discipline to cozen us before.

(Last year I spent New Year’s in boot camp, carousing with a whole battalion of my new best friends, astonished to hear our thrice-cursed drill sergeant singing his drunken lungs out, as happy as the rest of us, and I felt good, so good, to know that I finally belonged.)

I lead my folks the long way around towards the rear, but we won’t go the whole way.  Sanzio will expect us to get directly behind them on the road, if we don’t waltz into a frontal attack.  I can smell disturbed earth that way–not the pounded dust of too many boots on a dirt road, but unearthed soil that till now hadn’t seen the open air–land mines, curse him!  But here, though the ground seems less hospitable, we can still herd them forward into the arms of the rest of our own army, or back into their own handiwork.  And the band plays on.

(Last year I spent New Year’s hiding for my life in an old hollow log, shivering and hungry, praying with all my soul that I’d find Cyran’s Children soon.)

Alysha has brought another band around to the other side, on Cyran’s orders.  And now all we can do is watch.  She won’t shoot until she hears gunfire, per our arrangement.  I won’t fly over the camp–Sanzio will watch for that.  Instead, strapped into my flit yet unencumbered by phony wings, I float up to the top of a lone sponge-tree, gingerly holding onto a branch in between the thorns more to steady myself than support me.  I can see much better from here.  I see the musicians in the center of camp, and some men swigging from bottles around them, but I don’t think they’re the same bottles that we sent them.  And I see the barest tips of gun-barrels poking from the seeming-casual piles of sleeping-bags and gear on which they lean.

(Last year I played for the Sargeddol New Year’s Ball, all spiffed up in a starched new uniform that scratched when I moved, with sleeves much wider than the more practical field-wear–sleeves that interfered with my fingering, till I pushed them back, grown accustomed to the rough ways of the barracks.  Only when the Major turned purple and all the ladies blushed in unison did I realize the enormity of my gaffe.  But nobody could reprimand me while the music played.  I tell you, I played so many encores that night I thought my fingers would split on the strings!)

I drift back down to the ground, cat-foot it to my people, and whisper, “Come on!”  We’ll strike the periphery and implode in on them.  Just over this rise...

WhuPWHIRrrr!  One of my kids flies foot-first up into the air, caught in the kind of trap that we’d set back in Cumenci–strung up in another sponge-tree.  Only this time her momentum hurtles her into the thorns, and she sticks where she hits, screaming.  Of course I have to fly up to try and free her.  Of course they’ve posted snipers to watch for that very thing.   But in the dark–but no, we have no dark!  Explosions burst around us, as men hurl molotovs made of the selfsame liquor that we left for them, lighting up the night and slashing us with flying glass!  So the sharpshooters have at me, and I have no recourse save to shake my head violently to whirl out my long hair like a puff of smokescreen so very glad that I felt too tired to braid it up proper!  And sure enough, I feel a couple bullets tear right through it–so very, very, very glad that I’ve gotten so skinny!

I cut the girl loose–somebody I don’t recognize–and it takes several hard yanks with my heart in my throat to pull her from the thorns, with her screaming in my ear every time, but I get her loose and drop with her bleeding in my arms.

But the gunfire tells Alysha to close in on the other side.  And at my signal Kiril takes the rest of my band forward, out of molotov-light, while I take off to hide the wounded girl till we can get her back into camp, once I’ve assessed that her wounds don’t bleed all that much.

“Put me down,” she says.  “I can fight.”

“You sure?”  I can feel her shuddering in shock.  But when she nods I don’t argue.  Spongetree’s astrigent; she might really be up to it.  And if not, here’s as good a place to die as any.  So I swoop down long enough to get guns for both of us, and join the fray.

We shrill battle cries as we run in shooting, looking ghastly in our blood.  But the girl I rescued doesn’t make it very far before a gunshot takes her in the throat.  I keep on fighting–she killed two of theirs before going down herself, so that’s good enough.

In short order everybody runs out of bullets with no chance to reload, so our rifles become clubs and we batter each other like maniacs.  And nobody thinks, just brute reflexes swinging dodging roaring swearing kicking shrieking in pain.  Nobody thinks save me–and I can’t stop.

I see Sanzio in the distance. Our eyes meet.  The blows rain down on me and for an instant my mind goes back to his torture and I almost start to curl in on myself–but no, I can hit back!  I pound several soldiers away before I can look beyond myself again.

Then Cyran bursts in on the camp with the main force, and gunfire goes off, and it’s all ours–all my band has to do is keep the enemy from reloading–which puts us also in the line of friendly fire.  We wrestle when we have to, we let blows knock us to the ground so that we can grab feet, trip them, drag them from the ammo-boxes, anything!  Some reach their bullets anyway.

A rifle-butt knocks stars into my head—I feel my body tumble head over heels and come to rest face-down in the dirt, and I can’t make it get up, though I still hear fighting in a distant way, sounds splitting my head like firewood, percussion after percussion.

At last I sit up, reeling without even climbing to my feet, in dizzy pain, but I wipe the blood out of my eyes and I see something that no one else can look up to regard.  Cyran and Sanzio D’Arco face off with each other, guns raised, aimed at each other like duelists in the middle of the camp, ignoring all the chaos tumbling around them.  I hold my breath, waiting for the inevitable shots, wondering who will fire first.

But neither do.  Both drop their arms in eerie simultaneity, glaring at each other, the light of burning tents illuminating the hurt, the betrayal naked in their faces.  And I just sit there and gape.

Cyran whistles the retreat even as Sanzio signals his trumpeteer to make the same call.  But we were winning!  And the government soldiers fall back onto the road with no land mines after all, just dug-up spots to feint us into the side-attack where the expected us.  And our people melt back into the wild, and none of this makes sense.

Who am I to question Cyran’s decisions?  E must have hir strategies in place, with intelligence beyond the portion that I’ve gathered for hir.  I can hardly even make decisions for myself after that thump to the skull.

Oh lord–I don’t want to go back to how it went the last time I suffered a concussion!  But this time I never went out completely.  I’ll have a sore head and some frustrating grogginess for awhile, probably nothing more.  Ever-faithful Tanjin soon fights to my side to help me out of there, my brain seeming to swell with pain till it feels about as wide as my shoulders.

Idiot!  My stupid long hair didn’t save me.  Sanzio must have ordered his snipers to come close and miss–he wants me alive, remember?  He must have heard of the grueling schedule I’ve kept.  He knew I’d be flying on more than levitation by the time we attacked.  He wants to make me a nervous wreck–to push me into greenfire paranoia.

Oh Kief, Kief, Kief!  I find myself sobbing uncontrollably, thinking of how his legend ended, but I don’t say his name out loud, I don’t have words left, just this wailing pain.  Tanjin doesn’t have to understand to hold me close, to let me lean on him.  I’ve tamped it down to sniffles by the time we stumble into camp, but I hear him tell Makhliya, “For God’s sake ground her–Cyran won’t argue with a medic.”

I lie on my slowly rotating quilts, that nameless girl’s blood still on me, turning ‘round and ‘round in pain, floating just a few inches above all the hurt in the world.  Did I really see Sanzio and Cyran staring at each other with that aching kind of love that makes you want to die?

I blink and see Lufti kneeling beside me.  “Stars burned in through your eyeballs and exploded out the back, eh?  Huh, I know what that’s like!”  He strokes blood off my face with a damp rag, his young eyes brimming with sympathy.  “We can’t be gods forever, you know.  Castor and Pollux must’ve figured out that I can read and name them, but they don’t know how much of their secrets I can spy out, too. Sometimes they have to climb down from the heavens.  Sometimes they just want a beer together, like old times, before everybody went to war.”

I have no possible way to reply to that, other than to smile at him, murmur, “Thanks for caring, lad,” and close my eyes.

(Last year, on New Year’s Eve, admittedly after a few drinks,  I stormed into the  private quarters of the Chief of Security, where at least I found him relatively sober and sensibly in bed, his purple mantle hung upon a hook.  I demanded a vacation, and if possible a transfer afterwards, one last chance to hang my own mantle up for good.  I waxed insubordinate when he grinned and shook his head, and when I ran out of cusswords in the Charadocian tongue I added a few I knew from Stovak.

He merely chuckled all the more, and said that I plied my trade far too well for a transfer, but he’d see if I could get some light duty for a little while.  So I took a month off, wishing I dared go visit my family, but instead I climbed a mountain, while the summer sun made treacherous inroads in the permafrost and turned all my footing suspect, climbed without back-up, till every muscle burned like purgatory searing my sins away.  I could happily have died up there–cheating the Rebels of my blood.

Instead I climbed back down, still quite alive.  They’ll have their chance someday, no doubt.

            And when I got back to my base the Chief went easy on me and gave me paper-chases for awhile.  Within a couple weeks he sent me off on a charitable mission, to find an ambassador’s wayward daughter.  He thought he’d given me a break, God rest his wicked soul, and then he died before I could return to tell him otherwise.  I never wanted the promotion in his place.)





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