IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume II: Tests of Fire and Blood


Chapter 23

The Sorcerer's Gun


Friday, May 8, 2708

Now we have no food left.  We have drunk deeply of the water from the mountain's heart, in the hopes of extracting, like roots do, some nourishment locked in its mineral tang.  We sit in the dark of the smoking-cave, illuminated only by faint embers of tobacco--like buried roots indeed, we have almost forgotten any need for light.  We ignore the rumbling of our stomachs and listen instead to Damien telling tales over the growling music of the unseen river.  It's only hunger, after all; we've done this before.  And tobacco cuts the edge--we have plenty of that, at least.  Peasants sometimes pay for blankets in tobacco, and Petro doesn't smoke.

"After they killed my uncle," Damien says, "that wasn't enough--the commander had to have his gun."  He draws from the cigarette that he shares with Kanarik, then speaks magician words of smoke, luminous on the air between us.  "I mean, my uncle wasn't even supposed to own a gun.  He stole the barrel first, and then reconstructed the mechanism from different parts, scavenged from ruined rifles that the army threw away, themselves.  He learned how to make himself that gun--our village always learned too much."

He pauses to blow smoke rings, pleased to have taught himself the skill.  "And he carved the stock, himself, and inlaid the wood with shell.  Now, people told him he had no business putting in the inlays--they'd catch the light and betray him, people said.  But he'd tell them that those inlays made luck for him and cursed his enemies.  My uncle knew more than how to make weaponry."  His eyes glint in the dark and he pulls meaningly on his cigarette to let us catch his drift.

"Well, the shell inlays didn't betray him after all, but a cousin did.  We didn't blame the cousin; because of the methods of persuasion that the soldiers used, he never spoke again.  Anyway, they cornered Uncle Simon up in the loft of a barn, and he shot, and they shot, till the air got so thick with gunsmoke you couldn't smell the horses anymore, but you could hear them all right, neighing like screams and kicking to get away from all the noise--I heard it from someone who had been there.  For the longest time he had his way with the soldiers—it seemed that his shots hit their marks and theirs didn't, so it didn't matter about him being one man against many, they kept having to call in reinforcements like pouring water into a cracked jug.  People swear that Uncle Simon kept on shooting long after he should've run out of bullets.

"But finally, when they saw blood drip from the straw above them, they knew the game was up.  And sure enough, the minute they had that thought he stopped shooting.  The soldiers climbed up and found him so peppered full of bullets, more a rag than a man, that they didn't know quite what to think.  They didn't shoot all those bullets at once, after all; any number of them should've killed him long before.

"The commander wanted that marvelous gun.  Another one like it didn't exist.  He had to pry it from the fingers; he had to break a couple fingers to do it.  Uncle didn't feel it anymore, of course.

"Once the general washed off all the blood and polished it up proper, he found the stock all inlaid with skulls and skeletons.  Now I have to tell you, that's not how our family remembered it.  I saw that gun, myself, when my Uncle lived and laughed under our roof for a time, and I saw birds, flowers, butterflies, curling vines--many beautiful things.  I don't remember any skulls.  But the soldiers, they saw bones everywhere and nothing else--my father took a hostage who told us so, shortly before the end.  I guess different people saw different things in that gun.  My Uncle knew many things."

He finishes his cigarette and leans back into Kanarik's lap.  Speaking to the stone overhead, he says, "Well, the commander had the gun, and he brought it out often, gloating, you know, showing it to everybody.  They would laugh about what a morbid son o’ shame my Uncle must've been to make a gun like that--the hostage said so, and seemed surprised when we didn't understand at first.  All the men saw that gun; the commander brought it out every day.

"But more and more people would spy him bringing out the rifle all alone; he’d just lay it on the table and study it.  It didn't have much practical use for him, it turned out; he'd tried to shoot it once but it wouldn't fire for him.  All the parts had frozen shut with rust.  They say my Uncle's blood must've gotten into the works, but I never heard of anything rusting that fast even in the Charadoc--especially not a clean, well-oiled piece of machinery like Uncle Simon kept.  So the commander had no use for his trophy but to look at it--which he did, longer every night."

Damien sits up and stares intently into the blackness beyond us.  "The lieutenant of the guard finally asked him about it—that’s who we took hostage, you see.  The general said he believed that the skeletons and skulls formed some kind of code; if he studied them long enough he could almost read something written in the bones--this could tell him, he said, everything he needed to know about the rebels and our movements."

Damien pauses and shivers.  In a raspy voice he says, "Well, it told him something, that's for sure."  We pass him the water bottle so he can get his voice back and let us in on the rest.

"We don't know whether he finally managed to clean that gun or whether it just changed its policy on its own, but it fired for him in the end.  It fired as he shot his own men, one by one, moving down the barracks, killing them in their sleep."

"Of course some woke up in time; you would too, if you heard gunshots where you slept.  I don't know how many he killed before they subdued him.  I do know, because the hostage told me so, that the corpse wouldn't let go of that gun in any natural way.  They didn't even try to pry it from his fingers, though--they cremated him and the gun together. They wouldn't even let a priest near the ashes.  'Don't waste your time', they said.

He goes silent for awhile and we sit in the dark and the rags of our smoke, thinking about that gun.  Finally Imad says, "Some parts must've survived the fire--the barrel, for sure."

"Maybe all the metal parts," Damien replies.  "I don't think their fire burned hot enough to fuse anything.  But nobody has ever discovered where the enemy buried the ashes and all.  Perhaps it's just as well."



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