IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
II: Tests of Fire and Blood
Tuesday, April 28, 2708,
We cross a broad open
space, a hill drier and rockier than the surrounding land, sporting only an
occasional bush or clump of trees. It
stretches up before us, lazy with sunlight and buzzing with clouds of insects. A weary kind of peace settles down on us as
Damien's tune circles through our minds, our legs pushing against the
slope. Our burdens drag at us like the
sleep we didn't get last night. I
halfway drowse on my feet when suddenly I hear a popping noise...
"Hit the dirt!"
Lucinda shouts. Guns--oh God! We mash ourselves down into the dirt and the
insects as the bullets tear up the weeds where once we stood. Quickly we wriggle through the grass to
places as far from our last locations as we can manage in a split second, and then
make no move nor sound, petrified or prudent I don’t know which. More bullets rain down, trying to find
us. God, God, don't do this, I wanted
never to hear that sound again, at least not for a day or two. The tall grasses
may hide us, but they offer no protection.
Hating myself for freezing
there, I make myself crawl towards the gunfire, attempting a silence more
perfect than the snake. Oh Miko, you
can't have gone too far ahead yet, no saint of course, but can you heed me? Oh Miko.
Every slightest rustle stops my heart, but the gunfire halts as I hear
the enemy walk forward, cautiously, to get a better fix on our location, shoot
point blank if they can. Oh God, oh
God...and goddammit! I left the guns
behind me, of course! And I don't dare
can't possibly wriggle backwards to fetch a weapon...oh Miko, shut their ears,
don't let them hear me slithering up to them like the jewel viper can, don't
let them hear the thundering of my heart!
Now they sound right on top
of me. I can see feet through the grass,
I can actually smell the boot-leather, so close. Remember, remember the experiment that
changed the speed that I can move, but enough?
Can it ever be enough?
With a shriek I leap up
onto him, I knock his gun out of his arms and grab him by the shirt so fast the
others seem to turn in slow motion at his cry of fear. I throw him down on his back, me on top of
him, and we roll into a nearby copse.
Bullets fly uncertainly through trunks, but they can't tell whether they
aim at him or me as we try to grab and punch and kick at each other's throats,
guts, genitals, anything vulnerable, clawing and spitting like wild animals.
At last I grip him by the
shoulders and pound him hysterically against trees till he socks me in the
diaphragm and all goes dark while he does unto me as I did unto him. Only vaguely do I hear the gunfire in the
distance once again, the bars of light and shadow veering crazily around me.
Then my hand flings against
a fallen branch. I snatch it up and have
at him madly, furiously, strike and strike and it spatters all over me, strike
till I'm dizzy, till I see the fixed, unblinking eyes, the place in his head
caved in and bleeding and I realize that he looks just like somebody I knew
You all right?" I hear Kief calling me. I stagger to my feet, but I can’t see
anything else. The kid looks like one of
those Alonzo Valley farmboys that I used to know...
"In there, Kief,"
Kiril says. "I saw them go in
there." One of the Ramirez boys,
who used to give us lifts in their truck sometimes, I can't remember his
"Deirdre, thank God
you're alive!" From the corner of
my eye I can see how his hammer drips blood, but I don't turn around to know
for sure. "Your distraction worked--they
turned their backs and we picked ‘em off like blind ducks...Deirdre?"
Why can't I remember his
name? The bloodied branch falls from my
hands as Kief grabs and shakes me. Why
the hell can't I remember his name!
on. Snap out of it, come on." Then his voice turns hard and
metallic--bullet words. "This is
what you wanted Deirdre--to be a revolutionary.
You chose. This isn't some
political theory. If you want to throw
off the oppressor, you have to kill people.
If you don’t, they kill us."
That was it. Inacio Loyola
Ramirez. Used to pretend to flirt, tell
me that I'd make somebody a fine wife someday, when I grew up. I'd make faces at the suggestion of marrying
anybody, I'd call him Nasty Naci, but deep down I ate it up.
"Come back to us,
Deirdre." Kief has been talking to
me--what must I seem like to him, just standing here like an idiot?
"I'm okay," I
say, surprised to hear my voice shake.
"It's just, it's just so..."
"Real. That's all it is--just real."
* * *
We bury the bodies because
we don’t want the ghosts coming after us, four of them in all, and we hang
their dogtags on the nearest tree. While
we're at it we bury Miko, too, hacking at the soft and fragrant dirt with
machetes, levering stones away with sticks.
Not too deeply; Lucinda won't allow that much time or effort, and we haven't,
after all, eaten breakfast. But we at
least observe a token of decency, and Charadocian soil moves with little effort
in these parts. We tumble our assailants
into one grave, and put Miko into the hill a little higher up the slope.
Then Fatima kneels between
the graves and prays the Virgin Mary to lead the soldiers on to better
incarnations. That's right--I remember,
now, reading that Charadocian Catholics in the mountain villages believe that
purgatory can be reincarnation or ghosthood, depending on the individual case,
and only the saints ever leave for good.
Unless invited back, of course.
No one ever dies completely, quite--you just personally never, ever hold
those hands again.
* * *
The rest of the march goes
on in a bruised-up daze, lead-weighted pockets hindering every step, as I haul
a hammock full of guns with Kiril and Lufti on the other end. The other side of the hill banks a canyon
where Kief leads us to a safe place that he made with friends, long ago, or at
least what passes for long ago in a life as short as his. There we can rest, he
says, making up for the lost night for an hour or two. He says that they stash food there--we can
have lunch and siesta, and recover our strength. Stone canyon walls slide by, festooned with
ferns, water trickling just below the rocks we walk upon. Rust streaks the ochre sandstone like the
bloodstains on me--I killed a man practically with my bare hands. Two men.
The creek chatters inanely below us like it gossips on me. I struck and struck, I...
"I did it," Lufti
says proudly, strutting like a little rooster helmeted in bandages. "With the gun you gave me, Deirdre. I nailed both those suckers for you."
swallow, nauseated. "You probably
saved my life."
"Yeah." He grins from ear to mutilated ear. But at least one couldn’t have been a clean
kill. I remember blood on Kief’s hammer. Lufti must have dropped one but failed to end
the other soldier quickly; another had to finish the job for him. He is still quite young, and has much to