IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume VII: The Burning
Influence on the Young
Friday, March 12, 2709
Damien, Lefty, Nishka, Hekut, Baruch, Kiril, Marduk and myself shoulder our packs and begin the long climb down the tunnel, when Lufti blocks our way. He has bought himself some eyeliner and plied it thickly, till his eyes look dark and predatory, and his long hair has gone wild without a brush for days. He says no word. I stand there dumbfounded for a moment, just staring at him, at how his tangles reveal, in tiger-streaks, the darker brown beneath the surface, sunbleached hair.
Kiril steps forward and takes his hands into hers. “We have to go, dearheart–the revolution needs us.”
Still saying nothing, he extricates his hands, picks up a pack hidden behind a rock, and shoulders it. He turns fierce eyes to me.
“Lufti,” I say, “You’re not safe with us. The smugglers will let you stay here as long as you want. They like the rocks that you find for them.”
“Safe, safe, safe!” he mocks. “Am I a pie? Am I naught to you except a wad of bills to burn? But we all go up in smoke to bring the luck down, down from the mountaintop, sweet star-rain and diamonds on the leaf–do you think my ash too dirty for your use? I want my part in making the corn grow tall!”
I feel a palm upon my shoulder and turn to face Father Mykolas; his hair has grown into a velvet fuzz, kind of a bronzy color when clean. I ask him, “Do you understand what he’s saying? Can you get across to him that he can’t come with us?”
In his gravelly voice he answers, “Alas, dear lady, I understand too well. His heart will break if you and Kiril go into danger without him. And I mean that literally, I’m afraid. His heart would shatter here as surely as if a bullet tore straight through it.”
“Couldn’t you, uh, medicate him or something, to reduce the strain?”
“Unfortunately, none of us would know how to gauge the right dosage–if any–that his condition could tolerate. No, I’m afraid that all roads lead to danger for Lufti, and it may well be that none lead very far. Yet I think that your road leads farthest for him, and holds the least amount of suffering.” Then his brows draw down as he murmurs, for my ears alone, “He is what you made him, Deirdre. Perilous or not, he falls to your responsibility.”
I look at the boy again. Lufti has grown again, taller than Kiril, now. Involuntarily I groan at the thought of carrying him.
Father seems to divine my thoughts. “At least you won’t have to bear him on your back. Makhliya says that he can travel on foot at a reasonable pace. Walking, in fact, might do him good.”
Marduk puts in, “I can carry him if it comes to that, Deirdre.”
And Nishka adds, “And I can take my turn.” They both look on Lufti with love and pity in their eyes, and that something extra that inflames a soldier’s gaze, glad of a reason to avenge something, to make it all make sense.
“I am-bu-late!” Lufti insists, whirling on all of us. “No horses wander in my realm, not even the gentlest fire-eyed mare, but honest feet that feel the rocks for loot. Can you carry a star upon your backs? I blaze a lot farther than you know! I shiver bullets at the speed of light and none come near me till the ending of the dance.”
I look to Father Mykolas. “He’s gotten worse,” I say helplessly.
“Yes. Worry about separation has done him no good. He might get better again with you and Kiril at his side. He won’t without you. Believe me, I understand these matters. The world has more fearsome things in it than war.” I nod, barely, but Lufti sees and steps beside us, pack on his shoulders.
Cyran comes by to “review the troops” before we set off. One brow rises briefly at the sight of Lufti, but then e takes it in stride. First e eyes Marduk up and down, saying, “This is a test for you, you know.” and Marduk nods, but as soon as Cyran moves on to the next he shoots a glance at Alysha.
Cyran straightens the strap of Damien’s harp slung over his pack, telling him, “See everything, Bard. And make it live forever.” To me e murmurs, “Keep an eye on him for me, will you?” I had been trying to ignore Damien’s recent behavior with the female recruits, but Cyran won’t let me suppress it; it mingles in my mind disturbingly with Bijal’s report on some of the things that Rosebud told him.
E lays a hand on Hekut’s shoulder next. “Looks like you’re growing into quite a doughty soldier, lad.”
“Aye, Memsir!” Hekut pulls himself up proudly. Gratifying, how this respectful title in Tilianach has entered into their language; maybe my impact hasn’t been all bad.
“Just make sure that you keep in mind what kind of world we’re fighting for. Grow into that, too, if you can.”
Cyran doesn’t say a word to Lefty, just holds out hir hand. Sheepishly the man rummages in his pockets, and delivers over a comb, a pair of dice, a nail-trimmer and a pipe. When Cyran still stands there, tapping hir foot meaningfully, Lefty turns red and adds four denar and some change with the few fingers of his other hand. He says, “I’ll have to owe you the gum. You won’t want back what I’ve used.”
“I’ll hold you to that, Lefty,” Cyran replies with a wink. “You’d better live long enough to pay back every cube.”
“It’s a deal!” Lefty says, grinning.
Nishka grins, too, when Cyran ruffles hir finger along her bangs. “These could use a trim, soldier. Keep your eyes clear and your feet grounded, and share a little of your common sense with the others, will you?”
“I’ll do my best, Memsir.”
Next e pauses before Baruch. “And your good sense as well, lad. Learn from your elders, follow orders, and trust that sometimes your officers know more than you do—but don’t hold back your insubordinate tongue. I’ve seen it come in handy now and then.”
“Yes Memsir!” Baruch responds with a surprising grin that changes his face completely. For an instant I glimpse who the curly-haired boy could have been without the war.
“Kiril,” Cyran says affectionately, lifting up her chin. “Do you have any idea how much you have impressed me? I wish that every soldier in the Egalitarian Liberation Front had half your wits about them.” Again e turns to me. “For God’s sake, woman, teach this girl to read!”
I laugh. “That’s the happiest order I’ve heard all year, Memsir!”
“I got the books!” Lufti volunteers, slapping his backpack. “Rubies bleed through every page–the best loot ever!”
Cyran then turns at last to Lufti, matching him eye to darkened eye, for the longest time with no words. Then, in an almost choked voice e says, “Take care of her, Lufti. Take care of them all.” Lufti straightens taut and salutes; I think with a pang about how mere months ago that would have looked like a little boy playing war.
To me e says, “I’m leaving you with the wisest children in my army, Deirdre. Don’t waste them, no matter how much you try to waste yourself.”
“I…I’ll do my best, Memsir.” And the burden of his words makes my bones even heavier.
“Carry on, then,” Cyran commands, and leaves us to check out a newly-arrived shipment of explosives. No sooner has e turned hir back than Alysha runs to us, face flushed, and throws herself into Marduk’s arms, kissing him feverishly, weeping. He embraces her back, but I can hear what he murmurs in her ear: “This is a test for you, too.” She pulls away from him, nodding, tears running down the sharp planes of her half-Mountainfolk face. Then she becomes quite efficient about helping Cyran with the inspection.
I pick up one of the lanterns left at the tunnel-mouth, and light it, and I lead them down with its bobbing glow. Soon the bustle of Merchant Caverns falls behind us, and we hear nothing but the echoes of our feet and memories.
(Rest in peace, dear Auntie. Remember when I was hardly higher than your waist, when you took me with you to the ski lodge, to trip over my skis on the bunny-slope and discover the mysteries of snow? Such a bright white, painfully cold, but packable, shapable stuff, so much fun! And you told me about higher mountains still, that stayed sparkling-snowy all year ‘round. And for the first time I looked up at peaks beyond peaks, and wondered what lay still further beyond those. You started the wonder for me, Aunt Soskia. You made me the mountaineer who could at least come to the rescue of your remains.
Oh Auntie, so many fears ride me these days! Me–who thought it an emotion for other, lesser men. Today I feared the very sound I made, with hammer on tent-stake, to dent your name and Miro the Chauffeur’s into the fenders, making imperishable markers for your graves. I feared the echoes, and who might hear them and come shooting after me–even though we have gone down to where no roads lead, miles from earshot of anyone.
But then I remember you pushing me down my first slope, on my skis, calling after me, “Be fearless, Cherone! You are a Peshawr–leave fear behind you and fly! Fly down the slope and feel the freedom, feel the thrill!” Oh Auntie, you had no idea how much my visits with you shaped me!
I will be fearless, Auntie. I will climb back up this mountain. I will learn whatever advantage I can of the enemy camp. And I will avenge you.)
Saturday, March 13, 2709
Abojan Pass. We own it now, not the Abojans, not the government, but the Egalitarian Liberation Front. Does that make us rich?
I walk through the mansion, but it doesn’t seem familiar anymore. Well, naturally, all that lush embroidery and lacework has gone for sale–more than half of it probably traded with the smugglers. But that’s all right; Deni intended to sell it for us anyway. Somebody with Spartan tastes has put up different drapes, in material way too expensive for anything so bland. The carpet has gone, and so have all the doilies and the tablecloths, the slipcovers and the trim upon the lampshades. I see the furniture itself, now, of decent wood, but never intended to stand naked, though the military before us wasted good oil on polishing it all. It all seems quite functional and efficient and even depressingly tasteful–for some other country.
I don’t smell Deni’s lilac-water anymore, nor Hara’s fine tobacco. Tobacco itself I do smell aplenty, of the harsh mountain leaf that we low-caste folk will roll when we can’t get better, and also the musk of many bodies, since our soldiers play a lottery every night to take their turns at sleeping snug indoors wherever they can find the floor-space.
And over all I catch the familiar odors of the infirmary, the antiseptics and the green-soap and the wounds. I could find it easily, listening for the moans. Maybe I should go over there, during our stopover, and lend a hand. But I have marched all day and will march again all day tomorrow, and so I go instead to find a patch outside within the erstwhile gardens on which to lay my mat.
(I find a good ledge on which to lay my mat, better than I feared. Does that mean that God favors my plans, or simply that He takes pity on me? Or maybe it means nothing at all except for chance.
The clouds look threatening again, but my sleeping-bag has a face-guard for inclement weather, and the mat beneath it keeps me dry underneath and insulated from the coldness of the stone. Once I secure myself into place for the night I have nothing left to do but ache and think and feel. I never before realized how evening banter with my climbing-mates fended off my awareness of these things. Now no one talks to me but the wind that whistles around my outcropping of stone.)
Lufti tugs my elbow before I go out the door. “Look,” he says, and points. I look. Someone has mounted a cushion-cover on the wall, framed in scavenged wood, but well-joined with a carpenter's skill. It shows, in Deni's needlecraft, the view from the front window of Hara's garden in the spring.
(I turn on my side, gazing out over the valley that I left behind, seeing how the moonlight coruscates off rock and ice, echoing the glinting of the stars in that black, black sky. And my peers think that they know what it means to have a room with a view!
I have paid too high a price for mine.)
I shouldn’t have come out here. I grope under my mat for the rocks that poke me. When you’re not crashing from greenfire you feel everything. But that’s not why I regret coming out here. Nor the cold mountain wind; I have warm enough bedding for that. It’s the dark. It’s staring out into blackness, a blindness with depth in it so much worse than the muffled sightlessness of a blindfold.
The scariest thing about the dark isn’t not being able to see. It’s the dread that once you get normal eyesight out of the way, you might see things with some other sense, things best left unglimpsed.
I can feel them out there. I can almost see them. If I was high on greenfire I know I would see them. Rank upon rank of headless soldiers, standing at attention, waiting for me to review them, to remember why their heads exploded.