IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Wednesday, July 1, 2708
We stand by a little frozen pool, fed by an icicle-fanged trickle from the rock, into a hole kept fluid by the motion; I can see the bubbles under the thinnest ice, near the fall. Yellow weeds shiver and tinkle in the wind within furs of frost, all around the rim. “Start a fire,” Cyran says.
Finding no other fuel, we gather the dung of pack animals found nearby. We also find the bones of several mules, showing the cuts of butchery in the bones. Somebody killed off whatever animals they couldn’t sustain from this point on. We also find more graves, and bullet-scored rocks, showing why the travelers couldn’t linger. Majid’s bunch, by the look of it.
Now why would both sides abandon such a strong point? Answer: they wouldn’t. I look around, and sure enough, see some high points which could well conceal somebody watching us. I discretely point them out to Cyran.
“I know,” e murmurs. “Don’t let on you know, and they’ll leave us be for bigger prey. They’re hoping we’ll tell Majid that the coast is clear, so they’ll come back for another round. They’ve doubtless sent a messenger on the run as soon as we came into sight.” In a louder voice e says to all, “Now fill your waterskins. You won’t find a spring for miles from this point on. Warm your hands at the fire between fillings; they’re going to get cold.”
Fillings plural? E brings out waterskin after waterskin from hir own pack, evidently prepared for this moment, and hands them around, giving the most to the strongest among us, but more than enough for all.
Cold? Torturous! Every single time I go back to that trickle my body freezes against plunging my fingers into that stream of pain again, my entire body shudders with it. And then I do it anyway. And then, every time I warm them after, at the fire, it stabs me with a different kind of agony, but just as jagged. And Cyran makes us do it again and again and again, and does it hirself, and slaps anyone who hesitates too long. Every skin e orders deposited in a little nook between spurs of rock. Hir eyes look half mad with tension, and I can see hir neck strain not to turn and look up.
Do they see the brightness of our fire? Do they smell the smoke? Do I hear a distant tumble of rocks? Never mind; just keep hauling water.
Shots ring out! We dive for cover—all except Aichi, who shoots and shoots and shoots, screaming the whole time, till Lufti and I cover for her and she can scramble back. By then, though, we’ve nailed all of the small troop left behind.
“The messenger must have gotten halfway to their base camp by now” Cyran warns us. “We can’t stay long.” E shakes hir head. “They must have hoped that we would camp long enough to bring in reinforcements. When we filled so many skins, they figured out that we won’t stay, and won’t lure any greater troops to join us.”
Lufti starts to scramble up the rocks towards where the shooting came from. “Where are you going?” Cyran asks.
“To bury them, and get their guns.”
“We can’t take their guns with us, and we can’t expend energy on burials.” Then e shows us a little cave made by a boulder leaned against another. “Lufti, I want you to leave your rocks and books in there. Kiril, put in your cooking-gear, too, but keep the food; others will cook it for us. And Damien, stash your thambriy. We’ll conceal the opening with this rock over here; nobody else will know. We’ll come back for it in a couple of days. But you won’t want an ounce on you more than what I’m about to pile on your backs.”
Damien hesitates, thambriy in hand, adolescent truculence in his face. “If we’re only going for a couple of days,” he argues, “Why bother with so much water?”
Cyran grab him by the hair and shoves him down to the hole. “Put it in there before I smash it on the rocks! You think you’re the only person in the world with a thirsty throat?” And then e stashes hir own jewelry in there, stripped from arms and neck and ears, as soon as Damien shoves the thambriy in.
E makes us shoulder waterskins till we can’t see how we’ll move. Then e makes us move. Even Marduk staggers under the load, and Aichi can’t stop whimpering. Only Malcolm can carry it all unbowed, and he has the lion’s share, but he has borne such weight before. Marduk blinks at him in dull astonishment and stumbles after.
“Keep it up,” e tells us. “I don’t think they’re all that far away, just somewhere a bit more defensible than this.”
“You don’t know?” I almost say, but save my breath for my burdens.
The miles become a mindless blur of pain, of staggering up and down over the slopes and saddles of rock, our necks and shoulders screaming for us to stop, then the rest of our backs, then our legs, then we can’t even keep track of the progress of our misery, till we shut out thought altogether. We just keep on going, chained to the will of Cyran. And when even e sways, Malcolm catches hir and helps hir find hir feet again.
A little thought kicks in, I don’t know how. But I wonder if Cyran made an agreement with Malcolm before this march, similar to the one that he and I made on our journey to the lodge? And then the screaming in my muscles becomes a fire that incinerates all further thought, even as the wind keeps biting with the cold.
“I had carts,” I hear Cyran mumble. “And barrels. And...pack animals.”
Alysha murmurs back, “None of which could have made it up this trail. We’ve been over this before. And they would have delayed us, allowing the...”
“...army to catch up with us. I know, I know. I can still fantasize.”
The sun slowly sets, changing the colors of the peaks and sky, increment by increment; I fight to see it with teeth gritted, as hard as I fight to stay marching under my load, for volcanic dust has made it ravishing. In its last glint I see the gleam on Aichi’s cheeks. “Halt!” I call. “Medic’s orders.” The tears have frozen on her face.
I kneel to her, draw her close, gently pull her head to me, and breathe upon her. She squeals and fights but I lock her in my embrace. “I know it hurts, chickling,” I coo to her, “but you need this.” She stops resisting, though she trembles in my arms. I keep on breathing my body’s heat onto her face till the tears thaw, then wipe them dry with the edge of my sleeve. I unearth, from under all the waterskins, my med-kit, and dab salve onto the sore spots. Then, when I repack, I take one of her waterskins onto my back with a groan, and so does Alysha and Cyran. Marduk and Malcolm each take two. She refreshes us all with the radiance of her sudden smile.
“Hang in there,” Cyran pants, leaning on Malcolm’s arm. “It won’t be long now.
E tells the truth, for night barely falls before we drag ourselves up one last slope, when I hear a shout above us, and see shadowy gun barrels poke out from behind the rocks. Just in time our leader shouts back, “It’s me—Cyran!”
I hear a boy soprano cry out, “Hold your fire! It’s our leader—I know hir voice.”
A small figure rises up between the boulders. "Welcome to the Legion of God's Manifest Will," the young boy declares earnestly, "under the humble guidance of your servant, Brother Branko, may Our Divine Lord inspire me and protect me from error!"
Cyran returns his salute, and leads us up to the top. Branko waits for us as stiffly as if frozen there by the razor-cold of the evening wind.
We look down a slope much shorter on the other side, onto a bare plateau of wind-scored stone, covered by a refugee-swollen encampment, glittering with campfires. I can smell the humans and the animals amid the smoke, and somehow my heart sinks, as though I also inhaled the desperation of too many who have gotten by on too little of everything except fear for far too long. Cyran looks around hir and says, “Well done, soldier.”
"Brother...Branko?" I can’t help but blurt as the campers scramble up the slope and we surrender our waterskins to a sudden rush of reaching arms. "Good to see you again, lad!" Without the skins I feel as light as a ghost.
He nods wearily back at me. “Good to see you, too, Deirdre. Long way from Sargeddohl, isn’t it, and Chinese New Year?”
Most of our folks scatter into the camp, seeking out old friends, When Cyran asks to check out their stores Branko points, silent, as if any further words would overwhelm him; Cyran heads off that way with Alysha.
As soon as he has me in reach, though, Branko takes me by the arm and leads me on a tour of the encampment, his touch warm, his smell still that of an unwashed little boy who hasn't yet reached puberty. "I cannot fault your surprise," he tells me in his high voice. "For you used to know the old Branko—a drunkard and a sluggard whose carelessness and vice cost lives in this very troop."
Ohhh Branko! I gasp in spite of myself and reach out to him He pats my hand on his shoulder and gives me a brief, brave smile. He says softly to me, “You understand. I can see it in your eyes.” That kind of guilt. Yes, I know what it feels like. “It’s all right, Deirdre. We are all washed clean in the Blood of the Lamb.”
"And Majid? Where's..."
"At peace in the Bosom of Abraham, praise be to the Lord of All for forgiving my most execrable sins." New lines show the permanence of the tension in the child's eyes, though the mouth takes care to betray no emotion.
"And you've been leading the whole troop since then—all of these bands combined?" Poor Branko—could no one older step in for you?
"What's left of them." He takes a breath and then hesitantly, like a confession, says, "The others saw the miraculous change in me, and the Good Lord moved them to forgive me and come under my leadership—which is no leadership at all, but only obedience to the Lord God Most High." He cuts a wincing glance my way. "You understand that, don't you—it's not really me that leads?"
"Of course." Whatever gets you through the day, Branko. We walk between the campfires, all those gaunt and anxious young faces illuminated by the flickering light where they huddle near the warmth, most of their bodies in shadow, hardly seeming substantial at all. Fortunately, the desiccating wind bears not a trace of moisture to render into snow; they spread their bedding on ground that's bare and dry. Unfortunately, that also makes it murder to obtain water for such a great encampment—no wonder Cyran half lost hir mind trying to get as much water here as he could! Grimy faces turn up to us apathetically as we pass, showing that the water rations cannot allow for bathing just yet.
"We have only lost two soldiers and four civilians since the Lord took over leadership of this troop." Better than my record, then. "I...I must've let my own will interfere a couple times, there."
I lay a hand on his shoulder. "God knows you're only human, and accounts for it."
"Yeah," he says softly.
I look over his forces, most of whom have no shelter except to crouch in the windbreak of piled packs or resting animals. Some of his people bear the stained bandages of recent battle. "I'm really sorry that I have to take your medic from you," I say.
"That's okay," he assures me, though his brow stays troubled. Maybe it always stays troubled. "God will provide." We walk on for a few more steps before, very quietly, almost like a prayer, he murmurs, "They do say that God will grant the gift of healing to those worthy of it."
"Worth has nothing to do with it," I say in my most diplomatic, agency-trained voice. "The good Lord has been known to bless the weak in faith to strengthen them, while leaving the strong with only Hirself for consolation." God forbid that Branko should blame himself for not performing miracles!
He sighs. "Maybe you're right. All lies in the hands of the Lord, whatever happens." Then he smiles for the first time and looks a little like his old self. "But here's a friend who's missed you—Rashid, over here! It's Deirdre!"
A figure hesitates, phantomlike on the edge of shadow, then steps into the light of a fire. I had forgotten how small Rashid actually is—and he has not grown significantly since I last laid eyes on him. As he approaches he towels blood off his arms, looking as tired as I've ever seen him. Not turning to me, he stares at Branko and says, "I did my best."
"You always do," Branko assures him. "God knows that." And then, under his breath I hear him murmur, “Five civilians.”
Rashid makes a faint, cynical half-laugh, eyes wide with a kind of weary and habitual horror. "I wish she hadn't asked for the surgery, though—I wouldn't want to die that way."
"She had the right to reach for whatever hope she chose. I'd have prayed and accepted God's will but she..."
"But a bullet in the gut!"
"She had the right to hope, Rashid. We can't deny them when they ask."
He hangs his head and says, "I just wish they'd stop hoping in me."
Branko smiles too wryly, too wearily, for a boy his age. "Don't I know the feeling!"
I say, "Same here," and Rashid starts like a ghost just spoke.
"H-Hello, Deirdre." Does he expect me to judge him? I reach out and hug him; he stiffens at first, and then grips me so tightly that I can hardly breathe, his fingers digging into the fabric of my clothes, his breath hot on my breast, his cheek pushing my luck-doll painfully into my skin.
"Cyran tells me you've done better than anyone could expect, under the circumstances," I say when he finally lets me breathe.
"'Under the circumstances,'" he says with that same weird laugh as he releases me. "Oh God," e whispers.
Branko says, "I'll leave you two to get reacquainted," and takes off to give soft-spoken orders to help a family of siblings that hasn't yet found even a shred of shelter from the wind.