IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume VI: The Rift


Chapter 36

A Song of Koboros


Thursday, January 28, 2709, continued

(Whatever it takes.  Koboros needs me.  The patients weep and moan, the wounds stink of my failures, each red streak or swelling of infection writes out my incompetence for even the illiterate to read, and the weight of every dead body crushes down my shoulders.  If I don’t manage to get some sleep tonight, still more will die, and everyone will know that it’s all my fault.

If only I could stop dreaming of my mother’s finger!)

We won the battle, but not without casualties.  Six of my trainees flunked their first test.  Another in a sling barely passed.  And one in a stretcher might not survive transport to Koboros.  I have died six and three-quarters times, and no mountain could bear up the weight of my shame.

Yet the survivors laugh and clap me on the back, shouting, “We did it!  Everything you said worked!”  And we toast each other in great draughts of hysteria, giddy on it, punch-drunk silly and chortling over everything even as our feet tangle on our weariness.  They survived because of me.  I live through nine rebel soldiers, because they have me to thank.  I guess that makes me more alive than dead.  Mathematics of war.

Soon cold water and a chill wind on our nakedness sobers us up as we seize the opportunity of an oasis to bathe.  A little trickle of a waterfall darkens and enriches the color of the rocks it spills over, into a full-fledged stream.  Greenery softens the margins of the icy mountain brook that curves between the granite blocks–even where it’s only moss grown shaggy upon rock  To the delight of many new recruits who still have a sense of modesty, a tall island of boulder separates part of the brook into two broad sections, shallow enough for the sun to take a bit of an edge off its chill; in no time they designate one side male and one side female.

Lush grass thrives in every stony crack, along with many an herb that Rashid has taught me about.  I pass the knowledge on to Makhliya as we gather them to dry upon the stones in the parched summer air, stepping gingerly with our bare feet.  The most healing herbs always come from the harshest circumstances.  “Like us,” Makhliya says, but I haven’t really felt like a healer in a long, long time.

I savor the bonding moment.  Cyran plans to send Makhliya on ahead by the main road on a donkey’s back, with no visible weaponry: nothing to see here, just another pregnant peasant girl plodding her way to her personal Bethlehem.  Apart from the delicacy of her condition, e wants her to set up a medical station at the other end and wait for us; we’ll need it by the time we fight through, slowed by evasive maneuvers as much as by combat.  Others important to infrastructure will also melt into the common citizenry to make their way more discreetly than the rest of us.

Not me.  Cyran values me too much as a warrior, now.

After cleaning ourselves, we attend to our clothes, smacking them against the wet rock scrub-boards that nature provides, kneeling on the slippery moss.  I hear the same slapping sounds on the other side.  I wish we had somebody to put a tune to that rhythm!  It would make the labor lighter.

I notice that Cyran washes on our side, shivering and blue, hir nipples tight upon the tiny, goose-bumped breasts.  The little nub between hir legs hardly shows as a paleness in the private wool.  I glance down at my own chest, corrugated with ribs; Cyran looks more like a woman right now than I do.

Nothing will get the blood out completely.  Yet we can fade it to a pale hazel stain, and work the stiffness out.  At least it won’t stink anymore.  And my weathered, off-black clothes don’t show it much at all, just a faint mottling, like the spots upon a panther, that you can’t see except up dangerously close.

Now we lie upon the sun-soaked rocks while our clothes dry on another with the herbs.  Ambrette helps me fan my hair out on the stone, while I note without comment a new pink scar on her arm–glancing shot, probably didn’t need more than field-care.  I also see the wrinkles on her belly, hips and pancake-breasts, no longer plumped out to meet the local taste in whores.  I glance over at Nishka; the burns on her breasts don't look so horrible anymore, just a lot of spots and mottling.

I lean back, then, and soon see only sky.  We feel the summer in the sun when we lie too low for the wind to trouble us.  Oh, rest, rest, rest!  Even on bare granite it feels so good.

I watch the circling carrion-birds overhead, graceful dardies, angels of deliverance.  Few people know that most Biblical references to eagles actually mistranslate vultures–for the wise in Egypt and the Middle East regarded the vulture as the bird of mercy: the carnivore too kind-hearted to kill, the deliverer who cleared away the bodies that no one else had a chance to tend.  Oh, lift me up on vulture wings!  No, on second thought, I’ve had enough of wings.

Next to me Cyran lies, staring up at the same birds.  “What are we going to do about Lufti?” e asks.

“He’d die in Koboros,” I say, surprising myself with my certainty.  “He’s taken against the place; his damaged heart couldn’t stand the emotional stress.”

“He’d die with us, too” Cyran replies.  “He can’t keep up with war.  Maybe we can settle him onto some sympathizer’s farm.”

“He’d leave and follow us.  He’s made his choice, Cyran.”  I swallow a lump, and say what I don’t want to hear, myself: “Any way you look at it, I don’t see him living to full manhood.  He might as well choose the company he dies with.”

I hear a sussuration–Cyran’s shrugging shoulders sliding on the rock.

“Maybe he’ll surprise us,” I say more to myself than hir.  “Aichi did.  He might still serve the revolution, and he might last longer than we expect.  The world’s full of  chance and changes.  Maybe he will grow up.”  I lean up on an elbow and look at hir.  “Besides, can you honestly tell me that he’s any madder than Daba’oth?”

“Daba’oth doesn’t have a bad heart.”

“How about Father Man, then, with most of his fingers missing?”

Cyran’s blue eyes stare up into mine.  “Lufti might make it, at that.  He seems to have some sort of blessing on him, like Father Man does.  Who knows what he’s capable of?”

“He’s a potential oracle,” I tell hir.  “If Lufti survives the revolution, we should persuade him to go with me to Til, for training and healing.  In the meantime, his hunches have already saved my life.”

Cyran sits up.  From the back view I can see hir ribs, too, hir vertebrae, the sharp-cut waist above the pelvic bone; this war hasn’t gone easy on hir, either.  “Let’s go check and see if our clothes have dried.”

* *  *

            The road seems easier, fresher, wearing clean clothes on a clean body.  Mountain flowers quiver in the wind between the rocks and birds dart singing in among them.  I almost feel my melancholy lighten; at least it feels more like “melancholy” than frank depression.  In the distance I see corries leap from rock to rock, glancing our way warily before returning to their business of grazing on the sparse mountain grass, climbing higher and steeper than we’d ever want to, their silhouettes lofty and innocent between us and the sun.  Our weapons can’t shoot so far, and I feel perversely glad, though I’d like a bit of meat that wasn’t salted half to death.

            Delicate notes shiver on the air.  I almost thought it birds at first, but I know now all the calls in the Charadoc and this tune shapes more like the melodies of men.  Harpstrings sing in the distance, I soon realize, but come closer with every step.

            Now a voice sings out, deeper and more steady than I remember, but oh I know it well!

 

“One autumn day in Koboros,

When fruit grows sweet and lovers meet

To pledge their hearts for coming snows,

To share their blankets’ warm retreat,

 

There came a crackle and a smoke,

A flashing light, and orange bright

Glowed on the stones, the dawn invoked,

For soldiers thought to give us fright.

 

They lit a fire in Koboros,

Fair Koboros, sweet Koboros!

They lit a fire in Koboros,

But our stones they cannot burn!

 

The cattle bellowed, chickens screamed,

The children cried as mothers died,

The arcing spark-trailed missiles streamed,

Explosions roared, nowhere to hide!

 

Yet hiding didn’t cross our minds.

Our guns we raised, our rifles blazed!

Through smoke we marched, our homes behind,

Though roof and cote and shed they razed.

 

They lit a fire in Koboros,

Fair Koboros, proud Koboros!

They lit a fire in Koboros,

But our stones they cannot burn!

 

We fought, but bullets found each man,

Each woman brave, each helpless babe,

The battle ended, scarce begun,

Yet one boy reached a cave.

 

They lit a fire in Koboros,

Fair Koboros, sad Koboros.

They lit a fire in Koboros

But our stories they can’t burn!

 

He shot the soldier chasing him

Then went in deep and fell asleep,

Exhaustion, grief, despair and grim

Resolve his dreams to steep.

 

While soldiers searched for more to die,

Then rolled the brave into one grave.

They thought them all now dead must lie,

But they overlooked the cave!

 

They lit a fire in Koboros,

My undefeated Koboros!

One bard survives from Koboros

And my songs will always burn!”

 

            “Damien!” Several of us cry at once.  And there he comes around a boulder, riding on a mule, strumming a harp with the fire of his village in his eyes.  We run to him, and all of us who know him must embrace him, taking the harp from his hands to do a proper job of it, half-knocking him off his feet and thoroughly tousling him till he looks nearly beaten up by our affection.

            Grinning, the bard turns to Cyran and says, “I hear you have a war to fight?  Mind if I join you?”

            Cyran bursts out laughing and pushes us all aside to take hir turn embracing, thumping the life out of Damien’s black jacket.

            “Where’s your motorcycle?” Kiril asks when the commotion settles down.

            “Ran out of fuel,” he says cheerfully.  “It only took taroleum, and supplies have seen disruption of late.”  He shrugs, scratching his beard.  “It’s time we parted anyway; the noise hurt my ears.”

            Cyran frowns.  “I didn’t order any attacks against taroleum shipments.  All military vehicles run on stapleseed.”

            “It’s some commotion in another country, from what I hear.  Nothing to do with us.”

            I frown.  Plenty to do with me, though.  The transoceanic shuttles fly on taroleum—that’s why there’s only three stations.  And if it just got rarer still, I’m going to have a devil of a time getting home.

            Damien yawns hugely.  “Tell me you’re going to camp soon, Cyran.  I’ve had a long journey.”

            (The black pall cut out the light all day long.  I thought at first it just came from another city burning, but it smells different, familiar yet changed and grown grotesquely.  And the cloud’s much darker than the smoke of wildfire; you can barely see the red disk of the sun.

Now, at twilight, I watch the glow competing with the sunset that flashes underneath the hem of murk.  Over there: pillars of firelight, swirling and shuddering.

And now I recognize the scent.  It smells like a shuttle station.  The taroleum refineries have caught fire.

I sigh, and feel the miles in my feet.  Istislan has its own refineries, though this will cut the supply in half.  There’s always been talk about developing the infrastructure for more in the Plague Belt itself, where taroleum comes from, but nobody’s really too keen on the idea.  So we can expect considerable jostling, politics and maybe even violence, to fill in the power void of who gets to take over a juicy piece of the trade.

I scan for a place suitable for my band to loot some dinner and retire for the night.  It’s not my problem.  I’ve got my hands full right now.  Let some other agent worry about it!

Then I sigh again, deeper this time, and my entire body aches from my soles to my scalp.  And just how are these other agents supposed to get here to fix it?  It will have to fall on any who happen to already be in the west.  Especially any agents from Fireheart Friendclan.

And they will all look at me.  And they will all know that I failed, that I’m the reason why the refineries of Vanikke went up in smoke.)

(Jake sniffs the night air.  “What is that?  It doesn’t smell like a regular forest fire.”

Wallace lays down the sail that he was stitching in the lantern’s glow.  “You’re right, my boy.  It smells like...like gateways closing.”  Then he frowns, puzzled with himself.

George stops scaling the fish that he’s supposed to be helping me prepare for our supper.   “Something creepy,” he breathes.  “Something creepy that I did.  I’m the reason that this happened.”  I shudder; sometimes I really do not like traveling with three oracles.

But then I pat his shoulder.  “No reason to take all the blame on yourself, lad.  Whatever’s happening is much too complex for that.  Now let’s finish up before we all faint from hunger.”

Jake nods and joins us to help.  “Randy’s not wrong,” he tells the boy.)

I spend a quiet evening in with my husband, trying to ignore the creepy things happening all around us.  I did not see anything scurry out of the corner of my eye, or if I did, it must have been a mouse. I don’t hear anything outside except the wind, and it certainly doesn’t have voices in it.  If the curtain stirs , it must mean a draft somewhere.

Suddenly the lights fail. I fetch a flashlight.  My husband calls me into the other room, in the dark.  “Is that a human finger?” he asks, and points to something stuck in the old bay window.  He wants me to shine my flashlight on the thing.  Just as I prepare to, however, I look beyond it, out the window.  A man in a red flannel shirt stands out there, staring at us.  I can’t make out anything in the dark except the homicidal gleam in his eyes.

My own screaming wakes me up. I find myself outdoors, in my bedroll, and feel disoriented for a moment, then recollect myself.  Tanjin’s eyes wouldn’t look like that!  He must’ve symbolized something else.  Something inside me.

            Lufti stirs between me and Kiril, sleepy eyed.  “It’s too late,” he murmurs muzzily to me.  “You cannot save him.  No one on the other side can, either.  He swallowed the ring, I fear. He married the violence, but he thinks it’s a sweet and flaky pastry, that he’s tucked the other stuff away.  Tanjin won’t go there to him.  Tanjin has had enough.”  Lufti rolls over.  “Poor fellow–he should have thrown it finger and all into the nearest volcano.”




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