IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume VI: The Rift


Chapter 32

Gathering


Wednesday, January 20, 2709

We make good progress after a real night’s sleep.  (We march under a madwoman!)  It gratifies me to see the respect that others now show Lufti, crazy or not.  (I had nightmares all night long.)  I order Kiril, as my second-in-command, to carry the leaf for the troop, and to not give it to anyone without my order.  (What does she think she’s doing, anyway?)  She chainsmokes and wheezes, trying to hide how she struggles in the thin atmosphere, and I pretend not to notice, savoring my own smoke’s rugged sweetness.  (We’re doomed.)  If Kiril wants to slap her own face in slapping mine, that’s her business.  (Yet who else can we follow, out here, in the middle of nowhere?)  The birds almost sound hopeful to me, this morning, and the sun glints off the mica in the rocks like a sprinkling of magic all around us.  (I sure as blazing hell don’t know where to go, what to do next.)  I can sometimes glimpse Tanjin, a shadowy presence, marching just on the barest edge of sight.

 

Thursday, January 21, 2709

I dream of my wedding.  Kief gives away the bride.  I toss my greenfire bouquet while he laughs and claps, and good riddance.  And smiling Tanjin lifts my veil with two good arms.

“Attack!” Baruch shrieks.  Gunfire, shouts and screams rip the silence.  I roll to my gun, scramble to my feet and start shooting, as others do the same, rattled by the recoil pounding my naked shoulder, shivering in the cold and the rage and the fear, bare feet bruising across the rocks as I run after the retreating enemy.

They flee faster than I’m prepared to go so ill-equipped. I whistle us back.  Teeth chattering, we return to camp, to warm clothes and a chance to count the living.
            No casualties?  Not even wounded?  “Baruch, you saved a lot of lives tonight.”  The boy flushes with the first happiness I’ve seen in him since his father died.

We pack up quickly; those soldiers are still out there.  Plainly we got all the sleep we’re going to get tonight.  But I hold out on the leaf awhile, while we still have at least a little bit of freshness to us.

“It’s okay,” Lufti says.  “I lost all time and sleep in my great god ride.  It does me little good to lie upon the ground.  Even when I close my eyes I see and see and see, straight through the lids and past the stars and on into the secrets.”

My mind wanders.  Time somehow feels slippery to me, loose and floppy, like the edges of an open wound.  It’s nothing, just lightheadedness.  Time is time; you can’t change what happened, only what might happen tomorrow.

Or can you?  Something in me says something could change, the opportunity hasn’t yet closed completely.  Maybe I could will the undoing of all my errors, or at least the main one.  Maybe I could bring Tanjin back!

Or...go further back still?  Undo the entire mess, perhaps?  What if I could fly back through the years to the moment that started the entire revolution?  What if I could create a life where Tanjin and I could have that farm, with no thunder of violence on the horizon, no human bones in the furrows fresh-turned by the plow, just birdsong and the lowing of cattle and wind that rattles softly in the corn?

“We’ll all get our chance to make the corn grow,” Lufti murmurs in his sleep, upon my back. 

(Incense’s eyes look moon-huge in the steam; she drops the muskmelon soap that she’d been lathering my back with.  I grab the tub’s slick edge before she drops me, too.  “Drowwwning in warm, fray-grant, sillllky wa’er” I say, “no’ a bad way to go, but...no’ ready yet, m’dear.”

“Sorry!” she cries, and leans me against her wet shoulder, reaching around me to continue washing me.    Then she murmurs in my ear, “Did you just think what I thought?”

“Alllways.”

Carefully she turns around and I lean on her left shoulder.  I can return the favor this way, first washing half her back, then shifting where I lean to get the other.  As I soap up her skin she says, “The wound in time has not yet healed completely.”

“Stilll a win-dow oppa...tunity.”

“We could make a change for the better!”)

Lufti wakes me as I stumble drowsing on my feet, singing softly in the dawn, a jumble of rhymeless words riding on his eerie tunes.  I want to call a halt, but I look where he gestures with his head, and watch the thin column of smoke in the distance; I cuss under my breath; I thought maybe we could catch some rest by daylight.  I give myself orders; I strap on the flit and take off into the sky, not bothering with the wings, my shoulders still sore from sheer tightness of the muscles.  What’s the enemy going to do–throw rocks that high up?

More and more sponge-trees stretch up over the rocky landscape here.  And twisting bushes crack the stones with knuckled roots to eke out water-catchments, so splashes of green accent the pale gray stone and scoops of gravel.  The Charadoc offers so many different kinds of beauty!  And then we drench them all in blood.

I home in on the smoke, rising well beyond rock-hurling range.  I can taste it on the air.  They cook beans with cheese; suddenly I miss my breakfast.

Now I can see their camp.  The tents look irregular in color, makeshift, not government issue–rebels!  I dive down so fast that the wind whistles in my hair and my eyes stream tears, spiraling around the smoke.  Now I can make out faces...

Cyran waves up at me!  I sob–oh, to have someone over me again!  To not torture myself at every waking moment with doubts, regrets, the need to make decisions and the certainty that some at least must end badly.  Oh, e looks so beautiful, grinning up at me!

I land and practically topple into hir arms.  E leads me to the campfire, gives orders for my breakfast, and studies me while I eat.  When I try to talk between mouthfuls e silences me and tells me to concentrate on food.  E adds thick slabs of bread and honey to my meal, and a whole raw carrot, and makes me devour everything.  E looks thin, hirself, yet not for lack of provision.  The Egalitarians have never had it so good–as the escalation builds, everyone contributes what they can to us, rather than have the army take it all at gunpoint.  The Meritocracy has not taken into their calculations that fielding a much greater force than formerly has undermined the tolerance of the middle-classes to requisitions.

At last, with my bowl scraped empty, I make my report.  When I admit that hauling lead to all the troops left me incapacitated for a couple days e nods thoughtfully, frowning into the fire.  I restrain my tears when I tell of Tanjin’s death, but e looks up at me sharply when I do.  But I push on and finish my account.

“Can you teach others to fly,” he asks, “if we can get the magentine?”

“I’m not sure, Cyran.  I started training young.”  I quirk a smile.  “My first flight cracked my skull and broke a couple bones, but I had the best medical facilities in the world handy to set me right again.  Besides, few have the levitation talent, even in Til; still less have the ability to lift heavy things beyond themselves. I don’t see it as a practical option right now.”  I reach for one more piece of bread, and e pushes the whole tray towards me.  “But take heart–you’re on the right track, training telepaths–I often wish I had a useful dab of that.”

“You have some?”

“About as much as you have gender.”  E winces, but I feel too tired for diplomacy.  “Not enough to do me any good.”

E falls silent for a moment, regarding hir hands clasped upon hir knee.  At last e says, “If I’m going to use you up, I had better choose carefully how I go about it, to get the optimum mileage. I won’t make an airborne pack-mule out of you again–unless absolutely necessary.  You have too many other talents that I’d rather not waste.”

“I understand,” I say, tossing a sponge-tree twig into the flames.  “All agents get used up sooner or later.  It’s what we do.”

“Sometimes I wonder,” Cyran says, in a voice almost too dreamy with weariness for the bitterness in hir, “whether every meter of the Charadoc has some unmarked grave beneath it–theirs or ours.”

“Life uses us up anyway,” I answer. “We might as well decide how best to expend ourselves.”  I stand up and brush myself off.

E stares at my legs as I do so, for the wind betrays me by pressing my skirt against them.  “Lord, you’re skinny!”

“All the lighter to fly,” I say.  “Permission to return to my band, Memsir?”

“Permission granted, but I’ll want you in the air again soon after.  Send them my way–we’ll stay put until you catch up with us.  And then find other scattered troops to join us, too.  We control the trunk road for miles behind us, now.  It’s time to start gathering our forces together again.”

I nod, sigh, hesitate, then ask, “Will you give me what I need to do that?”

            (“We coullllld...” Zora murmurs into the pillow next to mine.

“But not tonight, my dear.”

            “Nooooo?”
            “No.  Not yet.”)

            (“Not today,” Jake murmurs as he takes stiff clothes off the line.

            “Not enough dew to rinse the salt out?” I ask.

            “Not what I meant.  Not today.  Not ever.”  And he has that look.)

It doesn’t take as much out of me—at least at first—to find our bands when I don’t have to carry loads.  I do have to wear the cursed, miserable wings, though, because naturally I need to also scout out enemy movements on the way.  I fly over battlefield after battlefield, not quite as raw as in my nightmare, but also not as fresh.  The dardies and the other carrion-birds have more than meat enough.

Rebels look up hopefully at me, expecting me to drop more food and ammunition on them.  Thankfully, most have the grace to mask their disappointment when I drop only messages instead.  They have wounds that the medic in me wants to land and bind, but I can only promise to see to them later, if they can get their fellows safe to Cyran’s camp; I know that not all of them will make it.

Government soldiers, when I find them, throw rocks at me; what I’d like to drop on them would not be ladylike at all.  No, that’s not true.  That’s the sort of insolence I want to feel, but really, I find myself torn with pity.  I’ve gone scared and hungry, without sleep or ammunition, and if they’ve done some pretty dastardly deeds, well, I no longer have any room to feel self-righteous about that, myself.

Then bullets whizz through my mesh of turkey-feathers and I feel heartily glad that I decided to wear the danged thing.  I laugh, spiraling upwards, wasting no more pity on my foe, illogically delighted to learn that their supply-trains have started to catch up with them again.  Now I can feel no shame in killing them later.

By sunset I fly on back to Cyran’s latest camp.  Clouds below me flush with gold-rimmed coral rose, an endless, rippling sea of lava color between the peaks like islands.  I would enjoy it more if I didn’t have this moulting mess weighing down on me.  I wonder if we can improvise a lighter version?  Maybe shoot down some dardies for raw material.  These wings need replacing anyway–too many bullets have passed through them.  Cyran can call me skinny all e wants, but e’s not the one glad to make a narrow target.

I wonder how long I’ve shaken like this.  Then I wonder how long since I’ve not shaken, and why I haven’t noticed till now.  Yet I don’t feel wired anymore when I chew the greenfire leaf that Cyran gave to me, just normal, put back together again.  And that’s a crying shame.  It also occurs to me that I probably could have used a meal at noontime; any of our bands would have given me food for the asking.  It just didn’t occur to me to ask.

Now comes the part that really does take a lot out of me.  I land, wriggle out of all the bound-up branches, and join Makhliya in the rounds.  Her pregnancy has become unmistakable by now, but she doesn't let it slow her down.  The wounded lay in rows, waiting for whatever we can do, shivering as much as I do in their blankets, and they smell just like a battlefield.

There is just no nice way to debride and cauterize old wounds, let alone do amputations.  Some of the recruits still have some flasks of farm-still hooch, coarse-grained distillations that make chaummin taste like rare liqueur; we give it all to our patients.  The smaller ones pass out, and that’s a mercy; they alone get any sleep tonight.  For the bigger folk must scream, though I hope that what little liquor we can afford them numbs them at least a bit.  The screams bounce off the rocks that shelter us, reverberating till it sounds like the bloodiest battle in the history of the Charadoc takes place right here.  Maybe it does.  I’m too tired to tell.  Certainly we have enough carnage to qualify for something.  I miss Malcolm’s strong arm with a cleaver.  I do whatever takes the least finesse, and Makhliya fine-tunes the rest.  Her hands don’t shake.

 

Friday, January 22, 2709

            Dawn pales the night before we settle the last of the wounded in.  Makhliya goes to catch some sleep while trainees tend the most basic needs in the makeshift moving hospital, before I can round up more troops to rendezvous, bringing in more wounded with them.  Because that’s what I have to do next, willing myself to fly again.  I know it before Cyran even wakes up.

            So I chew the day’s first bitterness till the aches fall away just enough that I can push myself once more into the cold emptiness of sky.  And once again I begin to feel the glory of what I do, elevated above all battlefields.  No, it’s just a mist of what I used to feel, but I cling to mists, I drag myself along the wisps of clouds, trying to refresh myself.  The glory is in sacrifice, I tell myself.  Sacrifice.  Lovequest.  Sacrifice.

 

Saturday, January 23, 2709

            I find myself swerving away from a band that staggers off from yet another stinking, gory mess.  I don’t want to add any more wounded, I don’t, I don’t, I don’t!  Then I curse myself and fly back, and tell them where to go, and promise to treat the injured among them when I land.  And I shake so badly that I can hardly launch into the air again.

 

Sunday, January 24, 2709

More of the same.  Always the same—the aches, the smells, the flights, and at night the screaming, till the chill gray morning light.  An Italian saint once dreamed of Hell as a place where its inmates froze exactly as they were, forever and ever.  We move, we repeat the motions as in a tedious dance, but looks can deceive; the damned remained locked into the same tired old damnation.






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