IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume VI: The Rift


Chapter 45

Think Like a Conqueror


Sunday, February 14, 2709, continued

Dawnlight ahead, and a draft from the freer air of our cavern, signals the ending of our road.  In its grayness I slide Lufti down off of my aching back and I tell them all, “Here’s where we part company.  Lufti, can you walk the rest of the way?”

“Yes, but...”

“No buts.  I can fly, I’ve got Til training, I can fix things.  I know I can.  I’ve got to go back.”  I don’t even know myself what I mean by “I can fix things,” but I won’t tell them that.

Kiril practically jumps off Marduk’s back to grab me.  “You haven’t eaten!  You won’t have the strength!”

“The hills teem with rebel armies waiting for Cyran’s orders.  They’ll feed me.”

“Yes, and the longer they wait, the more supplies they use up.  The smugglers can’t get to half....”

“Then all the more reason to field them while they can still march.”

“Deirdre, you’re not...not without Cyran’s ord...”

“What does Cyran have officers for, if not to take care of such details for hir?”

“Slow down!”  She shakes me; I push her away without even thinking.  She stumbles backward; her face couldn’t look more woebegone.  “Deirdre, you’d forget to eat even if they do have food.”  The hard young face melts into tears before my eyes.  “And you said you’d never leave me.  You said!

“You left me!  I shake two fingers at her.  “Twice!”  Her eyes widen and her mouth drops open, but I’m not about to let her off the hook.  “I told you I’d stay with you till you felt ready to go it on your own and you did so I don’t owe you squat.”

I turn to leave, but she grabs me.  I whirl at her, but the sight of her face douses my anger as fast as it inflames.  I hug her to myself, crushingly, as she cries against my chest.  “Whatever you’re planning,” she sobs, “it’s a suicide mission.  Suicide counts as leaving.  Even if you don’t love me enough to stay for me, at least stay for the Revolution.”

I turn her face up to mine.  “I love you more than you will ever know.  Don’t take it so hard, honey–I have tricks up my sleeve that you’ve never even heard of.”  If only I can remember them.  “We only part company for a little while.  All promises aside, I’ll come back because I want to.  I want to fight by you and Lufti.  It’s just that you can’t fly.”

“But what if you die?

“Then I’ll come back anyway, and fight for you any way I can.  You know that, Kiril.”

At that she gets hold of herself, pulls back, nods, and wipes her eyes.  “I will watch for you.  In the flesh if you can manage it.  If not, visit me in dreams.”

“Fair enough,” I say, but before I can turn and leave, I see Lufti flying back down to us from the tunnel’s opening as fast as his feet can go.  I hadn’t even realized that he’d left, but Merchant’s Cavern of course now lies only a few steps away.  He carries an armful of bread and sausages, cheese and baskets of fruit and nuts, and a jug of pome-juice and even a palm-nut balanced in there the size of his head.  “Feast before a fast,” he pants breathlessly.  “Feast for fastness.  Fly fast to the fastness in the sky.”

So there we sit, in the tunnel with a little bit of light spilling in from the distant cave mouth, me and Kiril and Lufti, and Damien and Marduk and our ghosts, sharing a final meal together before I depart.  They urge seconds and thirds on me, and though I have no appetite for it I comply, just to be with them, doing something other than killing or running for our lives, something basic and universal.  And oh, their grimy faces look so beautiful to me, a-glow in that dim light–hungrily I pull the image deep into myself, a treasure that I can carry wherever I go, as light as thoughts are, something that will not burden me even when I grow so tired that my very skin seems a weight.  Even Damien hums a few soft tunes for us, sad and sweet and promising something beyond all sorrow.  I know that as long as I live, and I hope afterwards, I will remember this meal.

At last I stand, laughing, saying, “Any more and I won’t fly–you’ll have to roll me down the mountainside!”  And they laugh, too, and stand, and pick up the empty wrappers.

We go up.  None stir in our base but the guards, and they know us.  Quietly we make our way to the cavern’s wide mouth, for I’ve decided: I won’t go back by the tunnel, with the other end compromised. I slip a leaf into my mouth and chew contemplatively.

Then Lufti takes Kiril’s hand and nods to her.  She braves a smile, and says, “I just want you to know, Deirdre, that Lufti and I are going to try again.  As soon as I heal up from the miscarriage.”

I stare at her, aghast–and so does Damien.  “Kiril, no...no.  Child, you are way too young!”  We don’t even know if she has a wide enough pelvis for a full-term birth.

But Lufti answers before she can, “The poor will promiscu, Deirdre, that’s the way of it.  The mayflies must soar, yes, soar while we can, and mate bravely amid the fireworks and smoke and all the glaring stars, and sow the seed for revolutions yet to come, even while the gunpowder burns off our wings.”  Oh lord, I don’t know whether he’s a lunatic or a poet, but I hug them both again, fiercely, then spit out my wad, shove them away and throw myself off the ledge.

Whereupon I proceed to tumble head over heels in freefall.  I hear Kiril’s scream and the shouts of the boys while views of snow, rock, sky and distant pine forest flip madly around me and all of the food that I ate churns up like it wants out right now!

Then, just as I hear Cyran’s alto bellow join the general uproar, the food and greenfire hits my bloodstream simultaneously, glycogen goes where it needs to, and I whip my body into flying position.  My nausea abates as I adjust in an instant to my chosen element.  I curve my plummet up to soaring once again, and within minutes the voices above me become the voices below as I spiral over them, laughing at Cyran: e’s gotten so steamed that e’s actually jumping up and down while e shakes hir fists at me.  I can’t understand a word you say, memsir: I guess I’ll just have to give my own orders for awhile.

So I swoop up over the first range and glide down the other side, seeking out those thermals that can extend my energy, and sure enough, the summer-baked stone sends up plenty to buoy up my flight and cut the chill.

And here, far from earshot of anybody, I whoop for joy!  Whoa–no ride in Amsi’en Amusement park comes halfway close to what I just survived!  My heart pounds clear to my ears.

As I fly I hammer out a strategy, link by link.  Yes, I think I know what to do, now.  Back to Abojan Pass.  But carefully, carefully, remember the artillery that can point straight up.

I swerve around a natural stone dome with a spike jutting up from it, looking almost human-made, and I can’t help but wonder if the Mountain Maidens shaped it, if they dwell inside that mountain, those dangerous, fey creatures, ever ambiguous as to which side they might take.

A thought comes to me, and no sooner thought than it becomes action:  I fumble at a knife at my belt, undoing it as I tumble for a moment, spinning head over heels again but this time at a safer distance from anything that I could smash against.  Once I free it, I catch myself to hover the best I can.  Unsheathed, I let the blade drop down, down, twisting for miles through the air with glints of morning sunlight, to fall somewhere into the snow on the mountainside, there to rust, and the rust-water to eventually trickle down in between the stones, returning the iron to the earth again.  The mountains can wait for it; it’s what they do.

I right myself, circling over the view of the downward-flipping blade.  I think that losing weaponry in time of war counts as sufficient sacrifice to perhaps move the Maidens to my side, to not demand a tithe of the iron in my blood.  At least I hope so–I need all the allies I can get.  Cyran would curse me for this if e knew that I lost a weapon on purpose, but hey, I’m not on hir favorite’s list right now anyway.

I fly on.  My nose burns with frost.  Next time I will request a ski-mask.  It’ll save my skin the pummeling of drying winds, too.  I laugh, suddenly–that sounded like a Zanne-thought!  I wonder how she fares, my friendclan-sister–wherever she fares.

Gloves wouldn’t hurt, either.  And goggles–maybe I could get goggles, preferably polarized against all of this too-bright sun.  I do appreciate the sky-colored camouflage of the clothes they gave me, what the thorns have left of them, but the bloodstains sort of ruin the effect.

It takes awhile, a three-leaf journey, getting lost a few times while threading through the unfamiliar peaks, but I’ll know the way better next time.  Night falls before I reach the pass, but with the moon just a day from the full it hardly matters.

The pale rock glows below, and the deep, black shadows make the topography remarkably clear.  The sides of the pass angle steeply down, slabs of the once-horizontal formations toppled over on their sides by some horrific cataclysm, making a sharp gap as though some titan had cleaved the mountains with her axe.  The Charadocians account all passes as sacred, in one way or another; what a pity the Abojans never got to build their chapel at the mouth of this one.

I feel a thrill to plunge down until rock-faces rise up to either side of me, dangerous-feeling even though quite separated enough for safety.  My hair streams behind me, as I feel the pent air rushing past, my fingertips outstretched, now brushing one side, now the other. But I must pass swiftly, for the moonlight marks me as a shadow against the reflective stone.

Out again–and there it lies!  The Abojan mansion, now surrounded by the tents of the enemy.   Searchlights waste power directly over Aliso’s base, but that’s not precisely where I mean to go.  Instead I circle the hills and peaks around it.

Where...where can troops come through...where?  The same topography that hid us before now would trap us.

I can’t help but wonder if my brain functions as it should.  Maybe a few night’s sleep now and then haven’t quite caught me up.  I feel like I miss something obvious.  Oh well, maybe it’s best if I borrow someone else’s thinking, anyway.

For instance, how would General Aliso think?  A graduate of the best military education that money could buy, acing out all the male candidates that custom would have put ahead of her, she doubtless knows her historic battles.  Alexander the Great comes to mind, in his mountain campaigns–a commander with a feminine twist to his thinking and a champion of women’s rights–who else would she turn to for her role model?

How did he deal with a pass held by his foes, again?  Oh yeah–he had his engineers build a horse-scale staircase over a different point.  Not much good, is it?  Obviously our ragtag army doesn’t have one engineer among us.

Or don’t we?  That’s how Aliso would think, distinguishing between those with degrees and those without.  But would the finest engineering training in all of ancient Greece, thousands of years ago, fall so out of reach of relatively common knowledge today?  After all, we have miners among us, well-acquainted with how rock holds or fails.  And we wouldn’t have to build it fit for horses, either.

That’s fine for getting up–how about down?  Again, Alexander comes to mind.  He conquered Bird Rock by sending ten mountaineers to scale the supposedly unreachable fortress. The populace woke up so alarmed to see soldiers on their walls that they surrendered immediately, unaware that the mountaineers couldn’t afford the weight of armor or weapons.  Again, that’s how The General would think, resolving not to be fooled again.  But we would have scaled a staircase, not sheer cliff, and could rappel down the cliffs we did find, on the other side, with all the weight we’d want to carry.  For that matter, some of us can fight without weapons–the ropes and rappelling hooks would more than suffice!

That would make us sitting ducks on the way down–we’d have to plunge killer-fast.  But hey, maybe not—peasant clothes come in the same colors as the rocks themselves.  With such natural camouflage, it might take them awhile to even notice us.  Risky, admittedly...so, war isn’t?  I spare a glance to my own garb.  The bloodstains don’t matter, if I blend in with stone, not sky.

            I soar again, rising up above the mountains once more.  On to find our pockets of rebellion!  Surely by now I have the authority to tell them my plan without Cyran’s direct agreement.  We must find the most seasoned miners in every camp, and put them in charge of engineering operations.  Alexander made one wide staircase–I’m not sure how many little guerilla staircases we shall make, more like ladders, perhaps, at least in places, on a much smaller, simpler, swifter scale.  A lot, though.  One way or another, we will get our army across.

 




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