IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
II: Tests of Fire and Blood
Meeting of Officers
Monday, April 27, 2708
(Today I become a general. I brush out my long, blonde hair with the volumizer brush, inspect my part critically to make sure that no roots show, and then fluff the curls a little more before putting on the cap with just a hint of a jaunty angle, not enough for them to call me on it, just enough to irritate the old fogeys, and remind the young fogeys that today, for the first time in Charadocian history, they promote a woman to the highest rank. I spray on my favorite honeysuckle perfume, then paint on the blood-red lipstick, and smile for the mirror.)
Ugh—that stench! I close the windows of the infirmary, one by one. All over the campus pots of putrified urine boil down to a paste, and it smells horrible. Just one phase of refining phosphorus. Amazing how so many illiterates know intimately the chemistry of making bombs.
Yet I have other things on my mind than bad odors. Cyran has invited me to confer with his officers. "Zizi should come in for a wound check today," I tell Malcolm. "Make sure she's keeping the stump clean--she's been on goat-herd duty since becoming ambulatory." I survey the closet--we're well-stocked on clean sheets, at least. "See if she's got any words of encouragement for the newer amputees--she's had time to adjust, I think."
"I know, I know--you've gone over everything twice already. Go to the meeting."
(I sashay out into the bright autumn light, returning salutes, feeling absolutely radiant, a sun that no one can hold under a cloud any longer. I feel, in fact, the clouds of centuries dissipating before me with every click, click, click of my boots, each step precisely in front of the other, as on a catwalk or a tightrope, maximizing the feminine swing.
And people have come out to watch me pass, to photograph the moment for posterity, or just to witness. I recognize some of them—friends, supporters, and my opposition, too. For some my promotion provides the juiciest scandal that they’ve seen in their careers. For others, a ray of hope.)
Outside, I head towards the old lecture-hall and note others headed in the same direction, and some of them I know. Romulo, the white-haired lad with the bullet-scarred cheek--so he's one of the Captains, huh? (I can get as ugly as it takes, Cyran. I’ve got no illusions anymore.)
Alysha, of course. (He’ll forgive me for being too smart for my own good. He always does, eventually. I do it to save his life, too.) No sign of Marduk. Of course. I think briefly of our last exchange; my cuts itch, but they don't much bother me now, shallow after all, thank God!
Majid limps our way, using a staff to help him walk with his cast; I treated him for that broken leg. (I hope, I hope that Cyran puts that sweet-talking, story-telling crooner under my command—he’ll find out that nobody gets away with making fox-eyes at my girl!) No war wound, that--some stunt, rather, as if we didn't have enough legitimate injuries to treat without adolescent foolery to contend with. Stupid hothead--and he's one of those in charge? I can see why they promote me barely after freeing me--the biggest shortage that this ragtag army suffers is one of maturity.
Others I don't know show up, too, like that nervous young man trying desperately to grow a beard, who ducks into the cool shade of the doorway before me. (What’s she doing here? Didn’t they put the chain on her right after letting me go?)
(“What’s she doing here?” I want them to say, my soon-to-be peers, right before I show them, right before I dazzle them with my brilliance!)
Or the bronze and radiant youth within, his limbs rudely bared, wearing only an open vest and cut-off shorts, no shirt at all, muscularly defiant of all the distinctions of sleeves. (All my mothers, all my fathers, I feel you in the air, ever around me--I bask here in your love!) He has a shimmering mane of polished copper hair, not much different from his well-tanned skin, already ensconced in a seat high up in the great bowl of the amphitheater, sprawled joyously with his feet propped on the back of the seat below.
Or that beefy, scar-faced person lower down, who returns my glance with a scowl. (Mom didn't think it'd matter one way or the other to the johns when she sold me to feed the rest--my big bones, my hair chopped short for business, my broken nose and the scar that sprawls across it from cheek to cheek above my surly mouth—oh yeah, I know exactly what I look like.)
(They do call me beautiful; I’ve overheard them. I enter the old hall like dawn entering night, feeling my own radiance, feeling the swing of my hips with every step, making sure that not one of these men standing in the shadows can overlook my glow.)
"The name's Lucinda," she says, not smiling. (Yeah--I am female, damn you.)
"Deirdre." I give her a nod and take one of those seats with the little half desks attached in front. (You don't think I saw how you studied me, discreetly you thought, trying to guess my gender, wondering if maybe I'm another like our leader?) I fold the desk out of the way; it wouldn't do to take notes on what we plan to discuss here.
The radiant youth snaps up in a swift yet fluid motion, then jumps a whole row before coming down to stand over me. "Don't glare so, Lucinda--if Cyran speaks for her she must be all right." She softens just a little as he extends his golden-brown hand to me. "The name's Kief." His hand feels warm and strong.
"Pleased to meet you, Kief." (They call me Kief, at least, though I don’t know who named me that. I don't remember any specific mother or father in the usual sense. I just don't know. Guerilla fighting I do know, and many lovely guerilla mothers, and brave guerilla fathers. What else do I need?)
I take an aisle seat down low and close to the front. Smoke hangs thick in the air, settling into eerie layers, but the aroma spreads to all levels. When Alysha offers me a cigarette I accept in sheer self-defense.
(I move through the smoke of those privileged to indulge tobacco on an occasion such as this, and my smile cuts through the haze like light. I put my hand on the book, and recite, without prompt, “I, Layne Estelle Aliso, do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the laws and traditions of the Charadoc against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter.”
And then, as General Dashang pins on the badge of my rank, there where I normally never let a man touch me in public, the applause breaks out--perfunctory in some quarters to the edge of rudeness, almost too enthusiastic in others, and I find that I like both kinds. And now he adds a star to each shoulder—only one each, but I have just begun. I turn at precisely the right speed to cause my medals to tinkle against each other, and beam at them all, friend and foe alike—perhaps especially the foes.)
Cyran enters the room, decked out in extra necklaces like a chestful of medals, bangles clashing softly with a martial sound, and e prowls the pit of the amphitheater in that restless-cat way that e has, one foot precisely in front of the other like a panther on a bough. "If you don't already know the situation," e says, "I'll tell you now." E stops in the middle, almost at attention. "You, my fine, brilliant officers, have managed to concentrate almost all of our forces in one place--one place already compromised in security before you even got here and added to our troubles."
E laughs suddenly and everyone breathes again in one huge sigh. "At least I can say how gratifying I find it to see, with my own eyes, how well our recruiting has progressed." Then hir face hardens again. "But I can also see what should be obvious to you as well--if you don't lie to yourselves." Pace, pace, pace. "While our numbers have grown vast for guerilla work, they don't add up to much for conventional war...
"Yet you have brought conventional war down upon our heads!" e shouts. "Marching in on us all at once like this, with tanks hot on your scent behind you. Never mind numbers--look at our weaponry. Knives and pitchforks, scythes and shovels, maybe a gun here and there, and not enough ammunition to go around for those. What do you suggest we throw at these tanks--our half-sized bodies?"
"Molotov cocktails," Alysha says dryly. "Guns can't take out a tank, anyway, but Molotovs can."
Cyran grins suddenly like sun breaking in through storm. "Thank you, Alysha. Thank you once again for your sense of perspective."
Kief calls out, “And guns can take out a tank. If you aim just right, you can knock the treads off the gears, to stop it or make it go in circles, at least.”
“Thank you, my marksman!” Cyran hails the youth, and Kief inclines his head, smiling. “Yes, we always have hope, once we look for it.” E paces the circle, looking to each of us in turn. "We'll make do--we always do. And we'll come up with something better than conventional armies can with their regimented minds." Why do I get the feeling that the three of them rehearsed this ahead of time? Could it be the lingering odor of phosphorus-production penetrating the smoke?
E stops before the nervous young man. "Yet still we need arms for those who cover our bombers." E nods towards the scar-cheeked boy. "I can thank Romulo and his band for getting us revenue for ammo, at least, but guns sell dear." He turns again to the young man before him. "Any suggestions?" The face goes pale behind its ghost of a beard. “Miko?"
The Adam's apple moves as he swallows before saying, "Yes. I do know where we've--they've--hidden the nearest armory." Cyran's gaze doesn't let up on him till he says, "Yes. I could lead you there--to your deaths, if you feel in a hurry to die.” I try not to roll my eyes. “It's that well-guarded." (And why not? Who could get close to me and not perish?)
The beefy girl says, "We don't die that easily, so don’t go trite on us. If the devil can find a way in and out, then so can I." Now I can’t help but wince. The few literates among these kids must get their inspiration from comic books. Of course.
"Ah, Lucinda--how I've missed you!" Cyran says warmly. "Do you still have thieves in your troop?"
"Pros in one thing, pros in another."
"Excellent! If the common run of police guarded the armory I'd worry, but soldiers know how to keep out soldiers, not thieves." E paces enthusiastically. "I'll need a couple of your best. Why fight for what we can grab by stealth?"
"Not that we can't fight when we need to," the scarred girl growls.
Now Cyran stands before me. "And you. Deirdre Keller. What does a highbrow lady of the Tilián know about theft?"
"I've taken classes on Breaking and Entering, if that's what you're asking."
"Classes." E mocks me with just a snort of a laugh. "I suppose you have no experience."
"Of course I do," I say coolly. "You may have heard of the Duerlongh revolution? I stole guns for that." But I didn't use them, not myself. "And in Camelot, a little country you may never have heard of, I stole the signet of office back from the usurper for the rightful king." I don’t add that I once rustled a horse as a kid; somebody’s got to sound mature, here.
E nods, rubbing hir strong little chin. "Then you'll go as Lucinda's other lieutenant, along with Kief. I will put Kiril and Lufti under your command--you seem to have a good rapport with them."
"But--they just got here! They've hardly had any training at all!" And they just reach the height of my heart.
Kief drawls, "How do you think we learn?"
Cyran glowers up at me in my seat. "The baptism of blood must come swiftly after initiation. Isn't that right, Miko?" Miko nods, so pale he looks sick with it. "If they pass that test--if they survive--we may consider them worthy of further training." Then e reaches up and squeezes my knee. "Lead them well, Deirdre, and they'll name a granddaughter after you." I nod, feeling a little pale, myself. Charadocians never name children for the living.
E resumes hir pacing along the arc of the amphitheater. "In any case, the time has come to fan out our medics among the troops. After you help raid the armory, Deirdre, you will join Lucinda's forces. You will treat the sick and wounded wherever you find them, kill anyone who stands in your way, and wreak as much havoc as you can on the Enemies of the People."
E turns to others. "Rashid can travel with your band, Majid. Makhliya will help Romulo, as she has always done, now with some medical training under her belt. Malcolm and Aron cannot mobilize, not on the roads we travel, so they'll take care of the casualties at Home Base."
Before e can change the subject I blurt, "May I request two others for my troop?"
E turns back and stares coolly. "You may request. Who?"
"Damien and Kanarik." I look at Majid, who has hated Damien since the day he arrived, ever since Tulipita took a shine to the boy. Majid would quickly make cannon-fodder out of Damien.
"Ah, the bard and the dancer. You crave entertainment along the way?"
"Morale can keep troops upright even when food and ammunition fail."
"He did do that," Alysha put in. "When we marched, nearly starving, he kept us going with his songs."
"A war ends," I say, "when one side has seized all the morale from the other side. Land and power follow, but cannot by themselves suffice."
"She's got a point," Kief calls down. "I have seen it--even when all the soldiers die, if a song survives them, their ghosts carry on their cause to the next generation."
I conclude, "You can't really kill an army that has a bard." I cross my arms and try to look like I know what I'm doing.
Cyran addresses Lucinda. "You have final say. I have to tell you that they're as raw as they come; ill-trained and not yet baptized in blood."
"On the other hand," I tell her, "Damien lives in his own tales and doesn't seem to notice that he's scared till after a crisis ends. And you won't find a soldier in our midst more nimble than Kanarik--she should take to thieving naturally."
"Your call, Lucinda." Cyran stares up at her.
For a moment she just sits there, picking at the fungus-cracked toes that poke from her sandals. Suddenly she grins and says, "Now you know I've always been a lunatic for music, Cyran. And dancers have a soft spot in my heart."
"Then it's settled. Now, in other business: I want as many troops as possible moved out of here before the tanks arrive--preferably to bedevil the enemy’s flanks before they even get here. I'll keep only enough of a force at base to make them think it's still a target. They'll fancy that they're penetrating our stronghold, when in fact we'll simply fold in on them."
"And the infirmary?" I can't help but ask.
Cyran stares between us, at empty desks. "I will call in Father Man," e says at last. "He will administer extreme unction to everyone we can't move out. I gave them dignity on their death beds and some comfort. I can't do any more." E looks darkly on me and says, "I'm sorry, Deirdre. You worked hard on those amputations for nothing."
"And Malcolm. Malcolm worked hard, too."
Hir face goes as pale as hir pigment allows. "I know." Then suddenly e claps hir hands and says, "Well now--the next order of business. Some of you need replacement troops..."