IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume VI: The Rift


Chapter 27

The Black Advance


 

Wednesday, January 6, 2709

No peace all night long, all night long, all night long, and every muscle feels it, greenfire notwithstanding.  Our enemy must run on greenfire, too, and hang all orders to the contrary.

Good.  They have no experience.  They shoot wildly at the sound of every scrabbling lizard, at large birds overhead, at the wind snapping a rare tree’s bough.  Come dawn, we can watch them running after the sight of us too eagerly to seek shelter, and so we pick off several before the rest wise up and dive behind the rocks.

This is my Hell, and I like it, I burn with it, and you poor fools don’t know the damn territory!

Kassim, Baruch and Rogan cheer when they hit their targets, and just keeps on whooping and laughing as we run, bringing more bullets to rain down on us.  I smack Kassim in the mouth to shut him up, and kick Rogan, hissing, “Do you want your boy to live or not?”  Not all of our own have experience, either.

(Word comes to me that some of the dogs in my service have resorted to the rebel’s drug.  I feel disdain.  But I will reprimand them later, after they have wrung the maximum usage from the vice, when it finally starts to backfire on them.  I will pretend, for now, that I don’t know what goes on under my nose.

I stick to the road, myself, with the supply-train.  Unlike Layne, I have nothing to prove, no need to climb to the front lines.  I find myself enjoying the slow pace that the ox-carts impose, watching the countryside roll on past.  I stare up at the striking, Pagan shapes of rocks, like old idols half-erased by ages of harsh weather–or maybe half-carved, time’s work in progress.  I smell sharp herbal scents on the air, the harsh conditions toughening and concentrating the essence of every living thing out here, as pain is wont to do.  I hear the marching of the men and the growling of my engine as blessedly muffled; I wonder if all the artillery-fire has deafened me a little, and I find myself okay with that.

            I feel this elevation, a sublime sense of having gone beyond the reach of such temptations as the greenfire.  No drug could compare!  For I experience the pleasure of extremity in virtue, of having successfully pushed myself past the brink of sordid self-preservation.  I have gained supreme confidence in my ability to sacrifice, and doubt myself no longer.  Surely no one who willingly suffers so much in the name of patriotism can stray too far from good.)

 

Thursday, January 7, 2709

Snipe and run, snipe and run, chew leaf, snipe and run, swallow bitterness, run, spit, snipe and run, bullets ricochet off rocks with sparks, snipe and run anyway, two more rebels fall, not ones I know, snipe and run and the cold air gets so thin, so very, very thin!

(I drag Jake out of his blankets, and then Wallace and George.  “What is wrong with you people?” I rage at them.  Don raises his head from the pillow, blinking stupidly.  “None of you three have eaten for days!”

Wallace mumbles, “Penance,” while George says, with a wild look in his eyes, “She doesn’t eat either.”)

            The leaf doesn’t work so well, anymore, anyway.  (Why can’t I remember whether I chew it by the gram or grain or ounce?)  What I could really use, what lies cruelly, mercifully beyond my reach, comes in powder form, and from the enemy’s hand.  The enemy who understands me so well.

(I can hardly move today, hardly think. I just go along for the ride, let the regular officers give whatever orders they see fit, pretending to oversee them, but really I just grind along in my jeep.  Pity the poor foot-soldiers up there who have marched beyond the supply line’s reach!  I gaze out as far as I can, wishing that I could see some sign of them, but the jagged landscape defeats my sight within yards.

Bad strategy, overextending beyond the lines–not like Aliso at all, she who normally manages her tactics like a budget-cautious housewife.  I ought to say something.  Yet it was I who pressed her to hasten on so hard.  Well, Charadocians are resourceful–we shall see what comes of it.)

Saints used to fast for visions, fast themselves to death sometimes, expiring in ecstasy.  But I don’t feel holy, and the only visions I see are ghosts half glimpsed in the corner of the eye, who can no more rest in peace than I myself, mile after mile through eternity.  Haven’t bards told of such hunting ghosts before, culture after culture, era after era, in a kind of galloping hell?

“Eat,”  Tanjin insists, and hands dried fruit up to Lufti riding on my back.  After a few swallows himself, the boy pushes wrinkled stickiness into my mouth.

“No more!”  I  soon protest.  “Do you want me to cramp up on the run?”

“But I only gave you two!”

(Don and I picked up some good, self-heating cans from the last village that we passed through on our way back to the harbor.  “Eat!  You can never do enough penance.  It’s not on you!”  I pull the heating-tabs, popping one after another.  “You can only make a stab at half-assed reparations and trust God to cover the rest—and you can’t make any reparations when you’re too weak to crawl out of bed—it’s halfway to noon!”  A savory steam fills the tent.

“Really?” Don asks, rubbing his eyes.  “Oh yeah.  Dead of winter an’ all that,” and he snuggles back down.

“You can sleep,” I say to him.  “You drove us late into the night looking for some sorry excuse for an inn that wasn’t there.  But the rest of you...”  I shove cans in front of them.  “Here.  George, I know you like lamb stew—I’ve seen you wolf down enough of it.  Wallace, here’s your chowder—tomato based, as you prefer, not the creamy stuff.  Jake, you get the ham and beans, same as on our last hike—you do remember our hike?”  He nods, reluctantly, yet I still see the love in his glare as he grabs the warm can.

They spoon up their food like truculent schoolboys, all three, but they do it under my watchful eye.  “Penance!  You’ll get your bellyful of penance in rehab and training when the time comes—why ask for more than the Good Lord sees fit to give you?  But it’s my job to see you all safely to Til, and I’m not going to drag in a sorry pack of scarecrows, not if I can help it!”)

            They all look gaunt.  Even Ambrette, and her dark-rooted yellow hair has grown as rough and brittle as a scarecrow’s straw.  Yet we keep on going, sometimes at a run, sometimes a stumble, shooting enemies behind us, in front of us, to either side.  They never give us a break.

            Oh my ghosts, receive our penance!  We didn’t save you.  Your blood stains us as much as any enemy’s.  We didn’t, we didn’t, we didn’t, our footfalls pound out the litany of our sins, each jolting through us like a lashing from the ground and every inch of it a grave.  Oh my ghosts, I dare not even ask forgiveness.  Just witness our vengeance upon your enemies and ourselves.

 

Saturday, January 9, 2709

(Looting a likely house, I leave the kitchen, drawn by the scent of lavender.  I enter a bedroom with drifts of snow on the sill and radiator from the opened window, the curtains swirling in the icy wind.   I come to a wet spot sparkling with shattered purple glass.  It must have fallen from the dresser recently.  It overlays the odor of rat droppings; no doubt one of the little beasts knocked it over.

Then I raise my head...and face a broken mirror.  Oh Gates, what kind of truth is this?  I stop and stare, horrified. 

What’s the matter with me, anyway?  I find a brush on the dresser, gray strands still in it from its last owner, and I savage my head with it, whining and growling over every tangle!  How could I have allowed this?  I am Zanne, Zanne, Zanne!)

I look at those who run with me, the sunken cheeks, the burning eyes, the jerky movements pushing harder, harder, harder, and the shaking fingers reaching for the leaf.  I look at the once fresh-faced boy who runs beside his father, the hellish change in him, so that now he looks like any other veteran child scampering after my lead.  How could I have allowed this?

Then grenades rain down around us, making the rocks explode to razor-shards that fly at us as we try to shield our faces and keep on, the very ground rocking beneath our feet.  How could I not allow it?  I didn’t—the government did.  Yeah.  Blame it on the government!

(I meet with General Aliso at the crossroad, before her final push ahead, unhampered by artillery or oxen-cart.  She acts cool and in control as always, yet her eyes look too dilated for the brightness of the sun.  In my trade I know all of the body’s little tells, and my heart sinks with disappointment.  How many others must I break in my drive to crack one renegade Til agent?

We have allowed evil into every crevice of The Charadoc.  We have saturated Novatierre in it.  How can it matter what acts of salvation happened on another planet?  We brought our unoriginal sins to this one, and no Christ died here, no savior aspersed this new earth with His blood.

Foolish of me, to act as though I’m the only damned soul in the world.  It doesn’t really matter what I do, to myself, to others, none of it.

Yet shame fills me to think these thoughts–and all the other thoughts that have coursed through me in these past days.  What folly, the exercise I thought could bring me back to holiness!  I can’t divine, myself, what I believe.)

“There’s palm-nuts up there,” Rogan says, pointing, as we refill our waterbags at a dirty little oasis, panting for breath in our brief respite.  Before I can say a word he starts to shinny up a trunk.

I whistle “To me!” but he doesn’t know the codes yet, so I hiss, “Come back down!  The enemy can see you up there!”

“The hell with that!” he cries, and shinnies up the faster. “My boy’s hungry—just look at him, a pile of bones!”

“Come down now!  That’s an order!”

“You’re not my master!” he shouts, now high enough to knock palm-nuts down, plunking and bouncing over the rocks.  The others scramble after them.  “I’m a bloody Ee Gally TARean now!  I don’t have any...” and the shot takes him before he can finish, sending him windmilling down from his height to hit the ground, and he doesn’t bounce, he just lies there with his limbs at odd angles, bleeding, his face frozen in a wide-eyed, slackjawed shock.

“Run!” I shrill, pushing his howling son before me.

“Let me down!” Lufti cries.  “I’ve ridden long enough!” and he kicks me hard getting off my back, grabs Baruch with both arms and guides him zigzagging into evasive maneuvers, muttering mad, brave comforts to the bereaved that make about as much sense to Baruch as anything else would right now.

Soon running takes too much breath for wailing, though tears stream steadily down the boy’s cheeks.  Yet I hear him, or think I hear him, murmuring, “No burial.  We couldn’t make him a Christian burial.  He will hate me!”

“He will always love you,” I counter.  “Your father died loving you.”

Lufti says, in short breaths while running, “We’ll eat the nuts...he got for us.  We’ll thank him for them.  We’ll make a luck-doll...from the husks...for you.  We’ll carve his name...upon a shell...and we’ll bury that.”  Then he stumbles over to me and falls against me, so I hoist him back up again.

Baruch wipes his face on his sleeve, and doesn’t say another word.  We just run on into the night.






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