IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume VI: The Rift


Chapter 53

Last Rites


Monday, February 22, 2709, continued

Father Man holds the funeral Mass for Kanarik and the Abojans, as well as for all the rest of our fallen.  Damien found Deni Abojan’s embroidered shrouds in the storage-room, not yet sold, sewn in advance for herself and her husband.  He personally wrapped Kanarik’s remains in a couch-drape that General Aliso had discarded and a soldier had scavenged as booty and now shamefacedly surrendered up for this purpose.  The flowers and birds upon it look incongruously bright and merry.

The prisoners, too, listen in on the funeral, in chains or ropes as come to hand, forced to their knees at the appropriate times, their heads bared.  We strike them when they grumble about their own bodies still lying on the ground, scattered all about except where we have rolled them out of the way, swelling and stinking under the rising summer sun, but we don’t care anymore, oh we’re far past caring about smells.  All we can perceive is that pitiful little shape in its embroidered wrap, and the bulge in the middle full of stillborn promises.

Then Damien gets on the camp loudspeaker and sings first the praises of the Abojans, brave old souls who sought no privilege for the wideness of their sleeves, of the beauty spun from Deni’s fingertips and the kindly cameraderie of Hara.  Before he finishes I even see a few eyes water among the prisoners, though most still glower with resentment.

Then, his voice swinging into the fullest of his talent, Damien sings of his bride, Kanarik the Nimble, her tenderness and grace, her courage and devotion, her legendary dancing, and his soul-bursting joy at the privilege of marrying her.  And Lufti gets up to dance before Damien, and it nearly stops my heart--the boy seems so much like her when he sways and twirls that even I wonder if Kanarik’s spirit informs him how to move, as he mimes out every word in flowing measures.

More prisoners pay attention.  The heart wants a good song in adversity, to make life bearable again, and they’ve hit bottom.  Besides, these young men can understand a love song; most of them have fallen in love, if only with a fantasy of the future.  Some of them seem almost surprised that they can relate.  Others still look sullen, resisting the treachery inherent in the thought that a rebel could have feelings like their own.

Meanwhile, Damien’s song of Kanarik moves on to his hopes in his family, his joy continuing to grow with the swelling of her belly, everything that he ever wanted for the child yet to be, nurtured under the umbrella of their love, until someday, as elders, they should watch the playing of their grandchildren.  And we all, every one of us on both sides, even the most callous, yearn for that same life, postponed by war...

Shattered!  He sings of bullets ripping through his dreams, of General Aliso gunning down a pregnant, one-armed girl, then ordering the shooting of the old people while she goes back to tea.  His voice drips pain like blood.  Now even the hardest prisoners struggle to keep their faces impassive, while the rest of us sob unabashedly.  Damien’s power has grown with practice, and if he ever moved us with tragedies of long ago, the force he packs into a ballad of his own great grief ravages us like the bullets pierced our own hearts when they struck hers.

Now his voice sounds harsh, yet all the more commanding, as he sings the wickedness of those who would toss the bodies of a mother with her baby into a garbage-heap, along with the corpses of the elderly, plundered naked, to rot there in the open sun where rats can chew, while kitchen peels and offal pile over them.  Darkly now he sings of curses on those who disrespect the dead, and how even their own corpses would turn on them if left to lie in similar fashion on Kanarik’s account.

Fear widens every eye, for Damien can sing up ghosts like nobody else alive, and Lufti can dance them up as though born and maddened for no other purpose.  Some of the younger recruits among the Meritocrats sob openly.  The tougher old veterans grit their teeth, trying to resist the spell, but can’t.  Not even Eric Dobson could strike a more compelling tune.  I feel afraid for them, myself.

But then his voice softens and turns to mercy, and Lufti dances to match.  The truly repentant can escape the curse.  Those who labor hard and docilely for their new masters can do enough penance to appease the ghosts.  Especially since we now can finally bury our dead properly.  And since we have decided to grant them the same privilege–despite the disrespect that they showed to ours.

The tune dies on the harpstring and the last echo fades. The wild-eyed dancer subsides to a military stance, straight and stiff, gazing out beyond this world, saluting warriors that we can’t see.

Rebels hand out shovels to the prisoners, undoing chains and ropes, and allow them, under armed supervision, to bury their dead.  And none of them dare try to escape.  For a long time we hear nothing but the thunk and shush and crumble of shovels moving dirt, the cries and ruffles of dardies driven off, the tunes of oblivious songbirds and the pitiless wind.

Afterwards we let their chaplain hold their own service, with their General representing everyone else, same as Kanarik and the Abojans did for our own.  None of the soldiers expect this of us, but just as we forced them to attend our service, so now we stand in respectful silence at the funeral for General Layne Estelle Aliso, and all who have hats remove them. 

We have our own opinions, unvoiced, but I’m sure her spirit hears our musing anyway.  She did a damned fine job of giving us a run for our money, until her own side destroyed her.  Personally I think that she’d been right all along; I shouldn’t have been able to defeat her, not in the shape I was in, if they hadn’t left her even worse.

And no, she doesn’t actually look like Zanne anymore.  A leaner face, pointier chin, a lankier body, larger eyes, and yes, her roots have just begun to show in the parting of her hair: ash brown.  Did she even have a friendclan to miss her?  Or did she fight, in the end, all alone even with an army nominally at her back?  I don’t think that the joy with which she fought me came entirely from a narcotic, for it flashed from her before the muras took effect.  For a second there she seemed to see me, or at least what I represented, as practically a friend.  My own eyes water; I catch the sympathetic glance of a prisoner and he nods, slightly, reluctantly, my way.

Afterwards we herd the prisoners into a makeshift corral, with their tents and more harmless gear inside. We even provide the prisoners with the wherewithal for a wake, pouring Aliso’s choice collection of wines, intermingling indifferently, into rubber buckets with the handles removed, for we don’t dare trust them with bottles.  We set a guard all ‘round so as not to tempt them to any folly, but really, we don’t expect any trouble from them now.  Tomorrow we will send them out to work off their indentures upon sympathizer farms.

We don’t feel like any wake, ourselves.  We got our share of that last night, and we feel too worn for more.

For my own part, I don’t help out with anything.  Who needs an officer who can’t think?  Folks seem to know what to do without me ordering it–irregulars still have some advantages over drilled soldiers, after all.  I sit on the torn-up ground with my back to a wall, just staring at the shifting shadows on the cliffs and mountain-peaks.

After a time, and after many shouted orders fired off in all directions, Cyran finds a moment to sit down beside me.  “Remember what I said when I told you that you looked too sorry for hell?”

“I do.”

“Well, consider the sentiment doubled.”

“You also called me a moron, as I recall.”

“Aye.  That I did.  You earned it.”

“I’m inclined to agree with you.”

“I wish the rest of my officers would suffer a touch of your idiocy–that shift off the road turned the whole battle.”

“I suppose I still have a few brains left.”

“I’ll want you to hold onto them.  Since you’ve apparently decided to declare yourself off-duty today, I’m making it official.  You’re grounded.”

“Didn’t you already try that?”

“”Yeah, but this time you’re finally ready to hear it.  Your marching-orders are to head back to Merchant Caverns later on for some serious rest—by way of the wounded carts.  And I mean it, Deirdre.  Don’t make me shoot you to force the issue.”

“I won’t argue.  Don’t feel like it.”

“Good.  I’m glad to see that you listen to your commanding officer sometimes.”

“Thank God we’re not government military.”

E gets up, dusts hirself off, and sketches a salute with an ironic smile.  “Carry on soldier,” e says.  “As you were.”  And e leaves, calling for somebody named Ruby, and I continue propping up the wall.

            (Farming–ugh!  Dung on my feet and straw-chaff down my neck.  How could I have sunk so low?)  (Farming–what a relief!  I thought they’d torture us to death.)  (Well I have come full circle, haven’t I?  Didn’t I join the army expressly to escape the farm?)  (Oh, I’ve missed my Daddy’s fields so bad–this might almost feel like home.)  (But, but I’m a city boy!  I don’t know diddly squat about farming!)  (I wonder if my farmer will be open to suggestion?  After all, I made good grades in Agronomy before going back to The Charadoc to serve my country.)  (I bet they’ll work us to death and throw our emaciated bodies in the compost when they’re done with us.)  (I hope I get some salt-of-the-earth fellow over me, with a fat, laughing wife who loves to cook.)  (Slavery?  Are they really talking about slavery?  For someone of my caste?)  (Maybe I can persuade my farmer to set me to accounting instead.  Better for him and for me.)  (You know, it’s going to be hilarious to see some of these slum-rats trying to get by in my world, after all the razzing they’ve given me for being such a hick.  I can’t wait till one of them tries to milk a bull!)  (I’ll play docile for now, but once I get onto whatever mud-splat they’ll send me to, I won’t do a stitch of work.  I won’t!  That would be treason, wouldn’t it?)  (Farming, huh?  That sounds kind of peaceful.  I could use a little peace.)  (God, I’m scared!  Will they whip us, do you think?  Will they brand us?  Put rings in our noses?)  (Bosses, gang-leaders, jailers, officers, slavedrivers, what’s the difference?  When have I not had somebody giving me orders?)  (Oh, I’m looking forward to this–I’ve always daydreamed about the simple joys of the rural life.)  (Pigs and chickens and cows?  Oh my!  Do cows bite?)  (At least I won’t have to worry about bullets flying at me anymore.)  (Of all the ignominious ends!  I wanted to go out a hero!)  (Maybe it won’t be so bad.  Maybe it’ll feel sort of like camping.)




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