IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
VII: The Burning
Thursday, April 22, 2709
We fashion a stretcher and the older ones among us take turns helping to carry Nishka. By no means does she hold any excess fat upon her person, but she grew up on a dairy and got all of the calcium she needed, growing to her full height at an early age, and my lord but she has thick, dense bones! I bet there are fat girls out there, somewhere, twice her girth and half her weight. My foot throbs with every step; I fight to show no change upon my face.
Chaska insists on taking a turn. I hover nearby to step into her place if she needs me to, for she has not acquired much in the way of muscle in a sheltered life, but though it takes no time at all to make her bare her teeth, to twist to try and change position, to sweat and whine a little under her breath, yet she pushes on doggedly and will not let anyone take the poles away from her until the sun has gone a full hour's span.
Good. She has a loyal heart, then, and determination. Grit counts for more than physical prowess, and can take its place in a pinch. I had worried that she might bolt us at the first chance to get her old life back, but she doesn’t ask for privilege even when we offer it to her.
Kiril still has not spoken. I don’t feel too surprised. She feeds herself and tends to all her own needs, and sometimes looks at Lufti or me with something like awareness, in a hollow sort of way. I don’t try to hurry her into speech. I wouldn't blame her, in fact, if she never spoke again.
And the rainforest still looks as beautiful as ever. Here no autumn chill ever reddens leaf or cheek. Here the flowers still bloom at random intervals. Nothing has changed since last we came this way. Except for us.
Damien asks, “Do you know what today is?”
“No,” I say, expecting him to share some legend, celebrated in secret in the hills by those who know. “Tell me.”
Hoarsely he answers, “The anniversary of our initiation.” And I stumble, just for a second. I hope they blame the foot.
My voice catches, too, when I say, “One year. We were all such different people just a year ago.” And I glance, achingly, at Kiril and Lufti, walking with their arms around each other.
“Those of us who live,” says Damien softly.
Braulio nods to hear us. He has no idea what we're talking about. But then I can only guess at the changes that he has seen in far less time than that.
Those of us who live. I remember the rest. Mischa. Imad. Branko. And oh Kanarik, our dancer! Couldn't you make it one full year with us?
“The baby,” Damien says thickly. “That night—I thought I made her that night. But that couldn't be. It must have been some later night. She would have been born in time, if I...if I hadn't missed.”
Night falls long before we reach our destination, but we continue on in the dark. My feet remember everything. We come out from the jungle shadow for a brief interval, into country too stony for much in the way of trees, although I see a small copse over there, on that hill, black against the stars. Yes. That place. Where I first beat a man to death. It seems so easy now; my hallmark, in fact.
We find the creek by its sound long before we wade into it, careful not to leave footsteps on the sand to one side. The water rushes cold around our feet, trying its best to drown out the frogs and evening insects with its liquid notes. The rip in my boot leaks; I try not to think of what the dirty water does to my bandage. Those of us who carry the stretcher often need the others to catch us when we slip on the mossy stones. A stream of stars above us follows the water's course, hemmed in by trees in silhouette against them to either side, and starlight streaks the shivering water below.
When we reach the crack in the rock we all bunch together, alternating on opposite sides, balancing the stretcher on our knees as we sidle forward with our feet pressed to one side and backs to the other, trying to find different ways to hold our packs, as each in turn becomes uncomfortable to the point of pain. And the night goes utterly blind. We have very little to say, but we can’t help, sometimes, to make little sounds as the strain builds up. My sore foot fairly roars, now, though I try to bend back the toes on that foot, but with everyone so uniformly uncomfortable, my unseen grimaces don’t draw attention to myself.
“I am so sorry!” Nishka moans suddenly. “I am soooo sorry to put you all through this!”
“Oh yeah,” Kuchi snaps, “like you waved your leg around from the tree or something, calling out, 'Here I am, boys—shoot me!'” We all chuckle at the kindly sarcasm, Nishka included, and the strain lets up on our hearts, if not on our bodies.
Something about the laughter frees us to think past the pain. Lefty manages to start a cigarette up (I wonder if he bummed a pack off Barrahab's maid?) By its glow Nishka hitches back her skirt and kicks up her good leg, shouting, “Woohoo!” and we barely hold down our laughter enough to keep her stretcher balanced. We pass the cigarette around, juggling our packs gladly to do it. Even Kiril partakes, and I'd be the last one to stop her tonight. When we finish that one, Lefty lights another. The nicotine feels good in me, like I've breathed in my minimum daily allowance of humor and can go on for a while longer, now.
We all groan and chuckle with relief when we reach the place where we can set foot down to rock beneath us. Even Kiril smiles wanly. We shoulder our packs again, and take up the stretcher in hands better off for the break. Darkness falls around us again when the cigarette goes out, but we can handle it better now.
Soon we enter the glow of Petro's many lamps, illuminating the whole spectrum of rugs and blankets, cushions and curtains, sometimes glinting off of metallic threads in the weave. Most of my crew look around in wonder for the first time, but Kiril clutches Lufti in terror. Just as I put my arm around her, pale old Petro limps out to us, brandishing a broom like a weapon. Braulio starts to laugh, but Lefty hushes him; I taught Lefty how to kill with a broom.
“Declare yourselves!” he shouts. “Who the hell are ya!”
I swallow and say, “Some of us came this way before with Kief. We're friends of Chulan.”
He leans forward and squints at me, then lowers the broom. “Ah. Okay. I remember you, now. Tall gal, long hair, but you didn't used to have the silver streaks.” He leans on his broom and shakes his head philosophically. “Ah well, a tough life'll do it to you. Mine all went white in a matter of days.”
Damien steps forward. “And I didn't have a beard, before, but you might recall a few of my songs.” And he swings the harp from his back to strum a couple chords of The Bullet Dance. “You remember that one? I put the finishing touches on it here.”
“Yes. Yes! I do indeed remember!” Petro bustles forward to embrace Damien. “And how's the lively wench you wrote it for...” but then he sees the look in Damien's eyes. “Ohhhh no. She...not her?”
Solemnly Damien tells him. “Yes. I married her, and she carried my child when General Aliso shot her. But we made the wretch pay. We made her entire garrison pay.” Braulio stares at him, wincing; I forgot that he didn't know. Chaska nods with a bitter squint. Kuchi just takes it in like any small one learning about reality.
Petro assesses us. He stares a moment at Kiril and Lufti and his brow crinkles. “Who else? How did the rest of your band fare, and why ain't Lucinda leading you?”
“Because she has fallen, too, and keeps company with Kanarik,” I say. “As does Kief, Fatima, Imad, Yan and Yaimis.”
Petro clutches his chest. “Not Kief! Oh dear merciful...but then he always said he never expected to see old age. He...” Petro looks around him helplessly, seeing nothing in all that rainbow place. “And here I am, white haired, while he...” He sinks down onto the nearest cushion. “Oh, the ghosts—you can hardly breathe for choking on them, so thick around they hover.”
We say nothing. Damien glances at me. He was there. He knows exactly how Kief died. I feel Kiril's eyes on me, too, and Lufti's, though I don't dare turn to them, while Marduk grimaces and stares at the ground. And so, we know, that if I make one consoling move towards Petro, Kief would strike me dead for my hypocrisy. So there we stand in silence to wait the old man out, till he composes himself again, tears running down the withered cheeks into his beard as he clutches another cushion to him. No doubt we look to him like hardened soldiers for whom death has become old hat.
It doesn't take him long. “But come, come!” Petro says in a forced-hearty voice as he rises to his feet again. “I see you have a wounded party with you—over here, put her down here.” He gestures to a cushion-bed. “The light's good here. She been tended to?”
“Yes,” I say. “I was a medic before I became an officer.”
“Quite right, quite right—I had forgotten that. Well hey, I'm something of a medic, myself, these days.” He laughs, but not convincingly. “Rebels always haul their wounded here when they're in the vicinity. I've picked up a thing or two, over the past year, since Home Base fell.”
I gust out a sigh of relief. “That's good to know! Then we can leave Nishka with you till she can walk?” But at those words he eyes her up, smiling suddenly, and I find myself adding, “Just for the record, Petro, she's given up boys for...for now.” I pull off my pack and start to bring out jars and boxes. “We have food to pay our way. You won't have to make the trip out to town for awhile.”
Chaska reads our faces, and suddenly steps forward. “Some things may be
given, without having to pay for anything.”
Nishka looks startled. Her eyes widen and her brow knits for an instant. But then a slow grin takes over and she chuckles richly. “I rather like the idea, now that you mention it. I gave up boys, but you didn't. Just don't forget me in your, ah, explorations.” And my heart just sinks and sinks. Whatever gave me the idea that I could protect anybody from anything?
Chaska returns her gaze to Petro, who stares back thunderstruck. “Teach me things,” she husks. “Teach me things that the young don't know.”
(“I dunno about this, Zanne. We’re going about it all wrong.” He glides beside me with that philosophical look that I’ve come to recognize as the real Ozwald peeking out from his skateboarder airhead facade.
“Don’t worry, darling; we’ll find shelter before nightfall.” But I know that’s not what he means.
“That’s not what I mean,” he says right on cue. He turns his good eye towards me. “For a telepath, Zanne, you can be pretty dense, sometimes.”
I sigh. “I know.” I wrap my coat closer around me as the breeze turns colder, glad I’m not telekinetic and have no idea of why I had to wash blood out of it before taking it, beyond the obvious bullet-hole that I’ve since patched up nicely. “Two people wandering at random through the countryside, sort of on foot, isn’t the most effective model. Speaking of which, isn’t it my turn to skate by now?”
“Sorry,” Ozwald says, braking and stepping off of his skateboard smoothly.
I step on, kick off, and we continue. “Over there,” I say, pointing. “I see a barn, and no smoke rising.” Barns make a good bet. We often find comfy hay in the loft, and rarely dead bodies. We turn onto the dirt road. I hop off the skateboard and Ozwald picks it up.
“I do feel kind of discouraged,” he says as we trudge in the growing darkness, “by the last encounter.”
“I’ve been shot at before,” I say, navigating in the dimming light. A year’s untrimmed foliage has narrowed the road in places to a path. “ They weren’t even aiming at us. They just wanted to scare us away.”
“For being blonde.”
I shrug, taking a deep breath. Nightfall brings out the rich field scents and the first awakening crickets. “It made sense to them. They’ve been shot at for being Black. The man with a gun had a family to protect.”
He turns to me again. “You know that?”
“Telepath,” I remind him, wishing I had a sense for probing the dark ahead of us. “Sometimes I do tune in. Especially when people shoot at me”
He shakes his head. “I’m glad I’m not you. That witchy-power of yours would drive me mad, I think.”)
I wake up in the dark to a soft voice saying, “I have not gone mad, you know.”
“I know.” It's Kiril, in my arms, with Lufti on the other side of her, wrapped around her protectively.
“I...I just needed a break, I think. A rest. You understand?”
“Oh boy do I!” I nestle my face into her hair, breathing in the fragrance of the same shampoo that she’d obtained for me, for growing my hair out long again. “Listen, dear one, daughter of my heart. Here we are, lying on the softest beds that we have encountered in a long, long time, under warm blankets, with full bellies, and with many feet of rock between us and any enemy. Take all the rest you need.”
I feel her sigh as much as hear it, snuggled against my shoulder. “I knew you'd understand,” she says, and falls asleep again.;