IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
II: Tests of Fire and Blood
Creatures of the Woods
Saturday, May 16, 2708
The nip in the air surprises me--we move rapidly towards winter. All things being relative, of course--I think our shivers have much to do with leaving behind the insulation of the underground. It can't get that cold in the rainforest--can it? Now, the peaks that the enemy might drive us to are another matter; snow tops some of them all year long.
"Feel that breeze!" Kief says enthusiastically. "Living, moving air! Petro keeps a cozy hole, but give me the wide open world any day." (So hot, so dark in this hellhole jungle! The foliage traps in every stultifying sweat-drop bit of heat, yet the sun hardly filters through at all.)
We all wear blanket ponchos, courtesy of Petro, for the change in the weather. When Chulan moves you sometimes catch a flash of color; he wove the inside of hers in his brightest hues of intricate designs, but he fashioned the outside subtly mottled, ombre yarns in camouflage shades. He will not forget again that her current profession involves getting shot at.
Rain suddenly pelts down on us, bringing out that heavy odor of wool. "Enjoy it while it lasts," Lucinda says to me. "Dry season's just around the corner." (Just the sort of dark, dank wilderness you'd expect to crawl with wild terrorists.)
"By the way," I ask. "Do we have a destination?"
"Abandoned homestead not too far from here," she replies. "Soil's all farmed out, but the well is good. Petro sent out word--we'll meet the rest of my band there."
“How many...no!” Machine-gun fire rattles through the leaves and thuds into wood where we stood a fraction of a second before. I sprawl under vines with a mouthful of mud, spitting out words just as dirty under my breath about Petro's intelligence--heat's off, indeed! (What's that! What'd I see!) Damn Petro, and Shermio with him, and all fornicatin’ liars!
We tunnel through the wet underbrush like the bugs that crawl all over us, trying not to make more noise than any other wild thing, till Lucinda whistles the bird-call for "Freeze!" We've moved just enough to distance ourselves from our original positions; more might give us away with a rustle or the sudden snap of a twig. (Damn that lunatic anyway--now he's got me seeing things in the woods.)
Freeze--easy to command, hard to do. I want to leap up and run screaming like a flushed-out partridge ready to get shot. Instead I lie there and sweat in my poncho, feeling painfully visible, if only they should chance to glance the wrong way. (The rain keeps getting in my eyes—so hard to make out anything.) My front soaks up dirty water from chin to toes, as I listen to the tramp of boots all around us, to the slash of machetes through the vines and stalks. I smell the bleeding sap and I feel so much fear, so much godforsaken fear...(So much fear of those bloody-handed guerillas, Mother of God don't let me find any of those little wood-demons, please!)
Tramp, tramp, slash, tramp, tramp, slash--I hear that everyone in the army has those expensive machetes with automatic sharpeners in the sheaths. Each time it comes out honed enough to cleave through bone. (I hear that wild places pose no barrier to them; like the beasts, they move freely where they will, then pounce with knives like fangs and claws.) And I hear the woods fall silent save for the pattering of rain, all of the birds as frightened as we at the wanton hacking and trampling of the living things. (And I hear they have no conscience, no more than a jaquar would, that they revel in the blood of honest men.) Oh God, get me out of this alive!
I try not to move, not to breath, almost not to be. (They could be hiding anywhere--behind me, above me in the branches, underfoot--anywhere!) I strain to listen, to pinpoint the precise locations of all those boots, strain so hard it almost hurts. (I strain to see through leaves, so hard my eyes water.) The ancients had devices on their guns that could find you by the heat streaming off your flesh--what if Soskia's researchers uncovered that technology, like they rediscovered tanks? (They say that rebels have magic, can camouflage themselves like chameleons, look like leaves, like wood. Lieutenant calls that superstitious nonsense, but he's not here with us, shoving through this pestilential nightmare of a place.) Sweet Virgin Mother of God please, please don't let them find me!
(So dark...so godforsaken dark, so...WHAT'S THAT! He's got me by the ankle! He's...) A barrage of gunfire drills the foliage yards away, the sound nailing me in place like hammer blows, my fear a white hot blankness in my brain. (He's...oh. Thorns caught my pants-leg. Just thorns.) I lie there clinging to the ground, my heart stuttering its own machine gun fire. (I just wasted half my bullets on a thornbush--just goddam thorns in this godless waste!) Can those boots be moving away? Can that be? (Karol surely must've been seeing things when he said he thought he glimpsed people moving between the trees. He almost had me convinced!)
The tramping and slashing do move slowly, slowly away from us. I didn't know I held my breath till it sobs out of me now. (Damn you, Karol--it's one wild goose chase after another with you, isn't it?) I listen...listen...oh wait! Now they turn back--don't move, whatever you do, Deirdre, not yet! (Stupid branch had to go and snag the hat right off my head.) Okay, now they go away again...wait...wait...(You just wait till we claw our way out of this jungle, Karol--I'll make you pay, somehow, oh yeah, for making me embarrass myself over that misborn thorn!)...wait...let the sounds fade all the way to nothing till we dare to move a muscle.
At last I stand and carefully brush myself off, every move made as quietly as possible, shivering in my sweat, my poncho dripping mud. I'd rather have a whole troop of 'em charge at me, I think, with weapons blazing, then wait in the shadow of rustling weeds for them to find me. You don't think so much in the heat of battle. I flex my buzzing limbs to let the circulation back, and we resume our march.
* * *
(“The boys are stealing what?” I look up from my desk at the florid face of the maintenance-man, standing before me cap in hand, yet not the least bit of subservience softens those burning eyes. “Shimmies?”
“Chamois,” he says; if his moustache could bristle, it would. “Thin sheets of goat-suede. We use them to polish the brasswork, and the silver, things like that.”
I only half-listen, writing my evaluations of the staff. I hate to have to discipline a chaplain, but he came to service late last Sunday—again—and it sets a bad example for the boys. “Well, then, we have goats among our livestocks do we not? Can you make some more?”
“Yes, sir. Like my father before me. But it will take time.”
“Then I shall endeavor to catch the thief. In the meantime, do we still have some, er, shimmies left?”
“Then use the resources we have until I can find the rest.”
“Very good, sir.” His tone does not imply that he thinks it good at all. I hear the door close, not looking up from my paper. I blow the ink dry. I fight off disturbing mental images of boys in goatskins, climbing over the walls like monkeys, escaping off into the woods.)
* * *
Twilight brings a troop of monkeys chattering all around us, swinging from branch to branch to our left and our right, glimpses of fur whipping past and others keeping pace. They occasionally screech bloody murder, and sometimes I'd almost swear it sounds as if they laugh.
"Our honor guard," Damien says softly, and he's not joking. "Those who went before us, who turned coward or betrayer and let the people down, sometimes they get mercy, they don't have to go to Hell, they just come back over and over as monkeys for a time, till they wear out their shame."
Imad flings a rock at a passing shadow and says, "Some honor guard! I can't believe we've had so many disgraces in our ranks--so many they make the jungle stink."
"Some of them have been monkeys for centuries," Damien replies.
"Just how long," I ask, "has revolution smoldered in the Mountains of Fire? Alysha said..."
"Alysha knows strategy and tactics and how to keep us all alive from day to day, but she'd best leave history to the bards." A monkey who squats on an overhanging branch seems for a moment to nod in agreement, then swings shrieking away. "Almost immediately after the establishment of the Meritocracy--which was not the first form of government practiced in The Charadoc, whatever the books may say--good men and women slipped away to the woods and the mountains and the desert places, to cache arms and prepare for the day when we'd all become equal again.” I wonder if he can read, or if he’s just heard rumors of what books say. “And every so often we'd pick up those arms and assay their strength against the tyranny. But the time had not yet come."
Much as I love hiking, my body keeps telling me that I've walked enough for the day, thank you very much--how could anybody stay in shape after what we’d just been through? But we limp on as the dark closes around us. The monkeys peel off to nest for the night and a chorus of frogs take over. So weariness, not the cynicism it sounds like, tinges my voice when I ask, "So what makes you think that the time has arrived now?"
In the last, faintest gleam of light I can barely see his smile when Damien says, "Oh, I know. I figured it out from a prophecy--in a curse."
"In a curse?"
"The history books won't tell you this, but Crystalia Atmos, the first president elected by the Meritocracy, practiced sorcery. Magnificent old woman, they say, the kind that doesn't try to look young, just weaves a spell so that when you look at her you'd think that only the old hold the secret of true beauty. She could make you believe anything she wanted you to, at the ballot box or in the courtroom or the bedroom, or...anywhere. Anytime. So long as she was there."
Damien pauses to pull out a cigarette, and we all light up from his, small orange glows in the fading violet light. If the enemy ever wanted to track us by smell, they could, easily--except that they, too, smoke. "I think you can see the catch. She couldn't show up everywhere that revolution burned, all over the countryside at once. So she had to resort to other spells."
He lets us think about a government founded on sorcery and illusion as he draws on his tobacco for a moment. "She cast a curse upon the revolutionaries everywhere in the Charadoc, wherever they might live and breed, cast it onto their very genes so that it would continue from generation to generation. She said that no man will ever lead us to victory. Then she thought about that, and so, just for good measure, she said that no woman would, either."
"Bunk," Kief says, and spits.
"But wait--the story doesn't end there. I'm not surprised that you never heard it. She uttered it in secret, in a sealed and buried place."
"So how can you..."
"But unbeknownst to her, her daughter had joined the revolution, and kin can sometimes hear the magic utterance of kin, even if seals of doors and enchantments close off the words to all the rest. And her daughter had learned much of her mother's arts before she turned her back."
He shook his head--a waving ember in the dark. "She couldn't match the old dame, of course. She couldn't reverse the spell. But she could add to it. She said, 'Nonetheless, one will come to lead the revolution to victory, accursed even in the womb, yet mightier for overcoming it, made impervious to the curses of the past. Until then we must all fight, to keep the light unquenched, to keep the path open for this one.' She came to hide in Koboros, where people understood her sort, and we have held her truth ever since." He pauses for a moment, blinking in wonder at a sudden thought. “I think,” he says slowly, “I think I might be the only one left alive to know the tale.”
Kanarik said, "So when you heard about Cyran..."
"When I overheard what patrolling troops said in derision, what others discounted as a nasty rumor to turn us against yet another hope, I came running." His eyes water as he says in a breaking voice, “I abandoned my post, my family, and my people, and I came running to Cyran.” He drops his cigarette and smashes it out. “And I missed the final massacre."
Kief nods, and in a changed voice says, "Well, you're not the only one who knows anymore." He turns to me, puts a hand on my shoulder and I feel shivery warm all over. "You did well, Deirdre, when you chose a bard for our company."