IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume VII: The Burning


Chapter 3

Into the Unknown


Sunday, March 14, 2709

(I climb where no one has ever climbed before.  It just dawned on me.  No one else had any reason to go down to where the car crashed.  No one else had any need to climb up out again.  Perhaps no human being in the history of the world has ever clasped these rocks, or seen these formations up close.  That honor falls to me.

Me alone.)

I can hardly wait to leave.  I fidget through the mass led by the captive army chaplain, retained for that purpose.  It gives me no comfort, for I’m not sure we worship quite the same God anymore, though he tries to keep his sermon as neutral as possible, his head bowed, making no eye contact.  How could he understand about the layers of ghosts upon this place?  I take no communion here; my dead would surely choke me on it if I did.

As soon as it ends, we shoulder our packs and disappear between the hills.  Now we take a way that I have never set foot on before, though I have often gazed down upon it from the air.  That’s more than the rest can say, so it falls on me to lead my band across this high desert plateau.  From the air it looks absolutely barren, and straightforward enough to cross, but down here we see the verdancy that the monsoon rains have stirred to life.  We move through it carefully, hardly rustling at all, for fresh new leaves can mask old thorns.  But it does my heart good to see a greenery without any fire in it.

I wonder if Lufti picks up my thoughts?  For he caresses a plant (carefully) and murmurs, “God doesn’t speak in our burning bushes anymore.”

 

Monday, March 15, 2709

I have hiked through desert before, among the many other climes of Til Territories.  Different plants, though, different terrain, even the color of the rocks distinguished from the arid places of my youth.  Yet I feel like I’ve gone home and left all war behind me, hiking at an easy pace, chatting and laughing with the others when we pause for meals, or commenting softly on whatever seems most fair or noteworthy: a strangely swerving spire of rock, a contorted scrub, a flower, a herd of hind pausing in the distance to regard us.  I find myself wondering what Jake might think of this, or Randy think of that, or Jesse…no, not Jesse anymore.

Yet no one in the whole wide world knows precisely where we are right now.  No gun knows which way to point to find us, for the armies see no reason to come up here.  No orders can reach us.  Only the furtive little creatures spy us, the lizards and the birds and the furry things that rustle away as we pass, and they will not betray us.  The foxes have tawnies of their own to chase and will not trouble us.

(At last I reach my own sweet cave.  Home!  I look around me, smiling.  I start up the little stove and get some water bubbling for my tea, and suddenly tears surprise me.  I feel so glad to be here that I can hardly bear it, more glad than I once felt striding into the too-familiar family mansion.  I weep for happiness and also for grief, that I should come to this, grateful for a bare little lair in the rocks to shield me from my fears.

And yet...and yet, for love of Auntie, I climbed down a high and treacherous cliff, alone, in the middle of a lightning-storm, to pay my last respects.  I am no coward.  I just, for a little while, developed a phobia of guns.  It seemed impassible at first.  But I can scale it now, I know.  For love of Auntie Soskia.  And Pawl.  Jialong.  Mehti.  And love of country, too.

I know what to do, now.  I know precisely, now, how to go about it.  I have had nothing to do but think for quite a while.  All other obligations met, tomorrow I will act.)

 

Tuesday, March 16, 2709

I lie on my back and regard the stars above.  Oh, the heavens look thick with them tonight!  You don’t see them this bright in the misty Altraus coast. But up here, with only the thinnest veil of air between us and them, no city lights, no country fires, and few clouds reaching up this high, nothing competes with their splendor.

Lufti soon snuggles close against me, gazing up with fearful fascination.  “We’re in their country, now,” he whispers.  “I hope they have forgiven me.”

Absentmindedly I stroke his arm.  “It’s Lent, honey.  They must forgive.”

“And sparks must fly upward, no matter who spies down below.  We have to keep the fires burning.”  And he gets up and goes off with Kiril.  Sometime after, somewhere far off in the bushes, I hear a cry like a wounded creature leaped on by a fox.  But I know that that’s not really what I hear.

(Surveillance today.  Just surveillance, I tell my quivering knees, my too-tight shoulders as I cling to rocks and slip down the gravel in the cracks between them, trying not to make a sound, or at least no sound uncommon to these treacherous slopes, trying to stay as invisible as possible.

All too soon I reach that last tricky swell of rock, inch my way around it, terrified for a moment because for a brief, eternal period I can see the cave opening and know that anyone who chances to glace this way can see me…but nobody looks up from their routines.

Finally I nestle into a fold between that boulder and the final jut of earth before the cave itself.  From my perch outside I can hear them in there, so little stone between them and me, and the wide cave mouth within touching range.  I hear the stacking of crates, and the conversation.  “The second shipment so soon!” I hear somebody say.  “The smugglers have earned their pay.”

Have they indeed?  So the rebels didn’t just take this base over?  The smugglers collaborate?  Of course–how else would they know which car to attack?

Oh, I could chew through this rock right now!  I could drink raw lava, lap it up like blood!

Be a man, Cherone.  Slip in, hoping that nobody glances your way, dart behind the boxes.  Hold your breath while The Freak opens up a crate—don’t so much as twitch an eyebrow!  Smell the released chemical scent.  Listen to the talk of what these crates contain.  And read the labels closest to you, on the piles of gray tanks like a cache of giant’s bullets—so different and yet so useful.  Put two and two together and make your plan.

 Slip out again before the inspection comes too close.  Cower like a coney, sure, after it’s all over, and wait till the traitor heart stops pounding so hard, before making the perilous climb around the bend of icy stone, no chance to do anything so noisy as to drive a piton into rock.  Pray that the wind blows snow into the telltale footprints, pray that nobody looks this way, pray to have the nerve to do what has to happen next.)

 

Wednesday, March 17, 2709

Our path descends off the plateau.  We pass through cloud-forest, now, an abrupt shift from desert to dripping moisture.  Tonight we will unfurl sheets to gather dew, to drip from strings into the same vessels that we used to catch the rain before,  and so replenish our canteens.  I’m glad I had these made before we left, and gladder still that Til has taught me some skills, at least, that I can’t use for killing

And still we see no sign of human beings beyond ourselves.  My knowledge of the land grows less certain, but I have a compass and a general bearing; I need only figure out how to get from here to there without the slightest path.  Gravel still stretches between each growing thing, for what lives here gets by on mist alone, yet still it grows more thickly, comparatively speaking, than what we passed before.  Strange shapes loom in and out of the fog, and sudden rustles or flappings of wings burst out as we go, startling us as we have startled them.

“Sorcerers must live here,” Lufti says, his hand stealing to mine and holding on tight, and for once we all agree with him.

“What about it, Damien?” I ask our bard.  “Know any songs or tales of cloud forest magicians?”

“Something like that,” he says, his face gone as pale as it can get, “But I will not repeat them here.  They count it insolent to mention such things lightly in their hearing.”  And not another word can we get from him the whole day long.

(I have spent the whole day long lying on my mat, hardly able to squeeze the least movement from my limbs.  I have no sickness for excuse anymore.

Yet my nerve hasn’t failed.  Not that.  I crept into their very lair!  I know that I have conquered my fear.

It’s one thing to say that one wants to kill.  Oh, one can burn with the desire, and believe in it, but it’s another thing entirely to actually do it.  Unlike the rebels, I am not a beast.

But yes, now I know exactly what to do.)



 




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