IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume VI: The Rift


Chapter 38

Merchant Caverns


Tuesday, February 9, 2709

(Wallace stands over the dust-blanketed bed, cap in hand, regarding the bones of Julian Weatherbent, fingerbones still wrapped around a coral scarf.  Hoarsely he says, “He had nobody to take care of him in old age, and nobody to bury him.  No wife anymore, and no son.”  Outside we hear the steady thunk of Jake and Don digging in the soil that I thawed for them, carving out a grave next to that of Muriel Weatherbent.

I lay a hand on his arm.  “He made his choices, Wallace.  He could have left the island for the mainland and started over, maybe even married again.  He had a boat—he could have gone to another country completely if he’d wanted to.”

“No, he couldn’t.”  As we speak George comes up silently, folds the blankets and the sheets around the body, and starts to sew them up; easiest way to move the loose old bones.  “Not being who he was.  He would hold the course.”  And Wallace scoops his father up in his arms, made light by time, out to the plank awaiting by the grave, torn from a now-useless shed.  “He didn’t take to change.”

“We can always change who we are,” I say to him, but catching George’s eye, as I follow them out the door, into the raw and blowing weather.)

Cold and warm.  I feel cold air move across my face, but warm quilts pile over me.  I feel strangely clean.  Not rested, but resting, a good thing, I guess. It feels like it should be good.  Maybe it is.

I can sit up.  I can see the new clothes that I wear, a mottled tiedye of blue and gray and white: sky-camouflage.  I can eat whatever they give me: small dabs in a cup every hour to accommodate my shrunken stomach.  They’ve been doing that for awhile; I just haven’t bothered to open my eyes.

But now I do.  I can look about me and take in my surroundings.  Another cave, very broad, very horizontal, and plenty of headroom, though so much wider than tall that sometimes one feels like it hardly offers much at all.  I study the striations that arch over and around me.  The geography must incline to that general pattern, folds of metamorphic rock thrust up into the sky; I’ve seen it before somewhere. And nothing but sky greets my gaze out there in the long slash of opening.  Everything in here echoes faintly, almost unnoticeably.

The place looks well-organized.  It has shelves and chests and bureaus arranged as makeshift rooms; their condition shows that they have weathered in this not quite indoors, not quite outdoors existence for years on end.  The cave has a kitchen equipped to handle large numbers, full of mismatched crockery and baskets of food, utensils, or what have you.  The cave holds many, many crates.  It has a privy crack that I have some vague, embarrassing memory of visiting under escort, and probably other offshoots as well.  And somewhere I hear a rumble of water underground.  I’m sure I’d appreciate it all much better with a bit of leaf, but I sort of know without asking that nobody’s going to give me any.

And by some miracle I don’t mind.  The body wants it, the body begs for it, but something happened better than the leaf.  I’m not damned anymore...am I?  I feel like coming back to life. I don’t quite remember what might have left me feeling that way.  I don’t ask for this miracle to make sense–it’s not supposed to.  I just prop myself up against some sacks of nuts or beans, I’m not sure which, burlap wrapping so many round, hard little things that they add up to soft, and that doesn’t make sense, either, and I don’t care.

I climb to my feet, pulling a nearby fur-lined robe over myself as soon as I leave the quilts.  The stone feels chilly to stocking-feet.  My legs shake for a moment under me, the muscles in pain, but then I get them right and totter to the opening.  Quite a ledge extends beyond our perch, as wide as any rich man’s veranda, though ragged at the edge.  And beyond...

Oh my lord what a view!

Mountains, ice-silvered mountains, sparkle in the setting sun as far as the eye can see–and most of them below us.  That’s what takes my breath away–I have never gone so high without a flit.  That’s when I realize that my nose aches from breathing in the cold, thin air.  Because I see the perpetually snow-capped peaks of those few spires that approach our height, to the left and right.  And beyond them sky, so much sky!  Pure, dizzying blue above the drifts and seas of cloud that blush in rose and apricot below my feet, lapping around the mountains like a misty tide hurled up against steep islands!

My breath clouds too, ragged exhalations, my Mountainfolk lungs working their hardest with the limited material at hand.  And suddenly I smile–my ancestors evolved precisely for this, right here.  My hands press against my ribcage, feeling it expand and contract.  Something, at least, works just as it should.

(Oh my mountains–Oh my beautiful mountains!  Too long have you teased me, just out of reach. But now, as I pack my gear for the climb of a lifetime, I tremble with the thrill of the greatest mountain of them all, beckoning me at last, to explore all of her mysteries.  Here are the pitons, and here are the ropes, here are the grappling-hooks, and I will tame you, my lovely, or die in your embrace at the attempt.)

Then, with halting, less-than-steady steps I make it to the edge.  I don’t know whether I have regained my levitation power or not.  I don’t know how much distance I could plummet and still use my powers to break my fall even if I do have something left.  And yet I feel so accustomed to ignoring fear–nay, chronic terror!–that my toes poke over the very brink before I stop, swaying on my wobbly legs.

(Nothing you can do will frighten me away, my darling, for I will mount you.  I will explore your ways.  I will reach your peak as no one else has ever done.  I will plant the Charadocian flag upon you, and the Peshawr family crest, and you will kneel beneath me, your king arrived at last!)

From here I can see the road that winds below. What a vantage to command it from!

“That’s the smuggler’s road,” Cyran says behind me, “We’re on the far side of the pass, by way of a tunnel that Father Man found.  Technically, we’re in Stovak, not The Charadoc anymore, though of course the mountain-range still holds the name.  Now come back from there, Deirdre, before we all lose our lunch just watching you.”

(At last, all dreary politics aside, General Aliso has secured the pass, and now nothing can hold me back from you, my beautiful Mt. Maitreyya, Queen of all Mountains.  And I will get the verification that all the world demands, to hail you as the tallest point in the world!)

I turn and look up, astonished at how much farther still this mountain climbs, beyond our little naval in her belly.  Good lord–where are we?  The vertigo makes me stumble, but Cyran catches me in time, and then I stare at all of my friends, gaping on in horror.  Among them I see Makhliya—oh, thank God!  Thank God she made it here alive!  Father Man must have whisked her to safety even as he did us.

As I hobble back with Cyran, e says, only a little shakily, “Welcome to Merchant Caverns!  Smugglers have used this cave for generations, for all manner of transactions before the final plunge into our country.  They still do, actually.  And they seem willing to favor us in future business, since we protect them from government patrols, not to mention promising to lift the more impractical bans upon their merchandise–particularly those bans set to protect the monopolies of a few Meritocrats who, for some strange reason, won’t be able to afford to pay nearly as generous a tax this year.”

(Here’s the thick alpaca socks, for frostbite threatens in the heights the whole year ‘round.  And here’s the ultra-warm long-johns of True Silk laced throughout with fine silver filaments, smuggled all the way from Rhioveyn by way of Stovak.  I’m sure Uncle Pio will forgive me for my little dent in his monopoly.)

Well, that explains why we seem to have become so well-provisioned of late.  “And the Meritocracy doesn’t know that they’ve taken possession of a now worthless pass?”

“I wouldn’t call it worthless,” Cyran says softly.

“Nooooooo!”  The man runs past so fast that I don’t recognize him at first.  Others tackle Damien right before he reaches the brink, while he wails and weeps and claws after death.  Now more join in dragging him back from the ledge, inch by inch, until the mob can grab both arms and each kicking leg, as he bucks and sobs in their arms.  “No!  No!  No!  No!  No!”  And nothing sounds musical about his rag of a voice right now, yet it wrenches my heart more than any ballad ever could.

For some reason, even in all the commotion, I hear Daba’oth murmur, “Why weep, O bard?  She waits for you in Koboros, in your own dear home, enthroned upon a song.  She will always await you there, with the child in her arms, until the hour of your reunion.”  I shiver.

Cyran shakes hir head.  “I shouldn’t have told people to wait till he grew stronger to tell him. I should have told him, myself, as soon as I heard the news, while he still lay too weak to do anything foolish.”  Cyran looks at me with red eyes.  “I make such stupid mistakes, sometimes, Deirdre, that I wonder why anybody follows me.”

I nod.  “I know how that feels.  What should you have told him?”

Cyran winces before he can bring his mouth to say, “Kanarik...” and then he can say no more, and I don’t have to hear it, I know the rest of the sentence, the rest of the whole story without another word.

I sink back onto my mat. I curl up tight, shut my overflowing eyes against the lying light, clap hands over my ears against the sounds that seem too normal, too matter of fact.  I can’t even think through as to why this death means more than all the rest combined.

Except, dear God, except for Tanjin.  And suddenly the great reservoir of nightmare emotions, dammed up till now with greenfire, breaks through and surges through me, through every inch of me, every tiniest unprotected cell of me, flooded to exploding with my tears.

            (God bless dear Layne Aliso, for opening up the pass, safe from smugglers, bandits, and rebel scum, and making my dreams come true!)






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