IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Cyran's Mountain Camp
Thursday, June 25, 2708
The land gets dryer, the
snow sparser, the bite in the wind grows colder, the higher and deeper we go
into the mountain-country. Now we travel
in the rainshadow of a range beyond another range, in a world of bare rock
bones jutting between drifts, eroded mountain flanks and desert plateaus that
break off into ragged cliffs that plunge forever, the harsh view sparkled and
fuzzed by faint flurries in the wind that sting wherever snowflakes stick. The burn on my cheek throbs; I wonder if
it'll leave a scar?
Now I can smell smoke—firewood
and tobacco both—and the aroma of beasts of burden before we even come through
the thin copse that blocks our view. I
can hear the murmur of distant voices downslope, the thump and clatter of gear
being moved, the occasional bray of beasts.
Then we come out into the sun again—Good lord, but Cyran's camp looks
visible below, tents and carts and mules and llamas and people—everywhere
people. Lucinda would've wet her pants
to see this sight. Haven't we suffered
enough from concentrating our forces overmuch?
Slow down, girl. How many Meritocrats wander around up here in
mountains too dry for skiing? Who could
possibly stumble upon us in this roadless place?
"Deirdre!" Alysha comes running upslope like the young
girl that she is, her pale braids flying behind her, no captaincy in her grin whatsoever. Her hurtling embrace knocks me back several
steps and then I get thrown several steps forward by Kiril and Lufti returning
her hug with me in the middle.
"Wouldja just look at
you, now! The whole countryside's
stirred up hunting for your band and you come here outfitted like kings and
queens! We thought you'd be a rag-tag
mess by the time we found you."
"We wouldn't have
gotten here at all, if it weren't for Malcolm," I say.
She scowls at that. "If it weren't for Malcolm, you wouldn't
have had to."
Ohhh, good girl—you think
that sharing your boyfriend's prejudices will keep him from hitting you? “You don’t know anything about it,” I start
to say—usually enough to shut up anyone in our business.
But just then Marduk
himself walks up, smacks Malcolm on the shoulder and says, “How’re you doin’,
man?” while Alysha stares in astonishment.
“Okay,” Malcolm says,
smiling. “Alive; that counts for
“Say—have you lost
weight?” And off they go, chatting with
each other like old friends.
I turn back to Alysha. "Where's Cyran, anyway?"
"Everywhere at once,”
she says, recovering quickly. “I keep
telling hir to let me handle some of it, e needs hir rest after hir injury and
all, but you know how..."
"Blow to the head in
the last skirmish." Then she grins
again and punches me hard in the arm.
"Gotta hand it to you, Deirdre—you smacked the hornet's nest but
good. With so much of the Charadocian
army mobilized at once, we've been harrying the ranks everywhere, picking 'em
off like a crow pecking corn. They've
been running around like madmen to scramble after you, forgetting half their
gear, overstretching the supply lines—we've never had so much action."
"It's turning into a
real war," I say almost to myself.
"I wonder if that's what we want?"
"Of course it's what
we want—we're kicking their tails so far between their legs the dogs'll need a
purge to get 'em back out." I look
at her rosy, perfectly unbruised face.
Marduk has had all the outlet he needs for the rage inside him, and she
couldn't be happier.
Now we walk on somewhat
leveler ground, tents and gear and cook-stations everywhere, teeming with
children and teenagers and the occasional hardbitten adult. "Quite a force," I say with a
"Wait'll we hook up
with Majid's folks—it ain't nothin' yet."
I watch a girl nurse her baby, squatting in the warmth of a makeshift
blacksmith's stall while a youth too skinny for the task pounds out homemade
knives on a flat stone. "Lots of
refugees swelling the ranks."
"Part of the plan, no
doubt," I say, and she looks at me funny.
"Don't you see? They're
overburdening us with untrained personnel and noncombatants." I wave at the multitude. "You can't call more than half of these
recruits." A boy walks by with both
arms in slings. "And how many of
those are actually fit for combat?"
"Not enough," she
says more soberly. "That's why
Cyran wants to connect with Majid—we need Rashid to set up a field
hospital." She grins and elbows me
in the ribs "But with you here
maybe we don't need him. Talk about
selfish—you guys have two medics in a single unit."
"Except I'm not the
medic anymore," I sigh. "I'm
She stops and stares at me
to read my face more thoroughly. At last
she asks, "Lucinda?"
"Not Kief, too?"
I wince and nod again.
"Fatima? Chulan? "
"Chulan still lives,
but she's not the take-charge kind. "
She gazes back behind us,
searches all the strangers for familiar faces, and takes stock for the first
time of the ones she doesn't see. At
last she turns forward and we walk again.
She swallows and says, "War's a bitch, huh?"