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 something.”
“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 sinking heart.
"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 the officer."
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?"