IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
A Gift From Gaziley
Friday, July 3, 2708
Lighter on our feet than when we last traveled this range, we make good time. The sun has not quite reached its noonday peak when we come to the bend right before the spring. But Cyran turns off the main trail into a fold in the rock.
“Stay here,” e whispers to Rashid and Malcolm. “Take care of the mule; he couldn’t handle the road we’ll take.” Rashid doesn’t reply; he just stands there, his shoulders slumped, his eyes empty. Malcolm nods to Cyran, then eases the pack off the mule and hobbles him. This seems to wake Rashid on his feet; he starts foraging in every cranny for weeds to feed him, and pours a little water from his skin into a bedpan that he has. The mule doesn’t mind.
Next e walks up and down our ranks, pointing out the youngest of the Cumenci kids, and motions them over to stand with the mule. “You are not yet warriors,” e says, “and you didn’t sign on for this. Stay here with the medics; we have a rough road ahead of us.” Some pout, and some look relieved.
One travel-grimy teenager raises her hand shyly. “May I stay with my boy? I-I don’t know much about fighting, but I do know motherhood.” My heart swells with pity for the girl; in some countries a man could get arrested for making her a mother.
Cyran takes her hand gently. “You didn’t fight in the rebellion, did you?” She looks frightened, and tries to pull back, but e holds her firmly. “You didn’t ask to have your village fall to pieces. And yet you have run all this way with us to see your child safe. You do your vocation credit.” She relaxes, and e smiles on her. “Very well, then, be a mother to them all. I will leave you here to mind the children.”
To the rest of us e says, “Leave behind everything that’s not a weapon. And kick off your boots as well.” E smiles on our dentist. “I know that Malcolm can carry our packs back to us when the time comes.” E hirself, though, takes along a coil of rope, and some straps that I didn’t know e carried. E tosses another coil to Malcolm.
We climb out of the nook onto a different, thinner track, barely visible, and sometimes no track at all. “Only rebels know this way,” Cyran whispers. Malcolm would not fit between these stones, and the mule would be hard put to find a place for all four hooves.
“The army messenger must have reached the larger force and come back, “ e tells us. “The higher ground above the spring must seethe with soldiers by now.”
Now we go just beneath the crest of a ridge, to approach the spring from different angle. We seem to reach the end of the road when Cyran murmurs, “Time to rope together, boys and girls.” And we discover that we did not reach the end, after all.
No one who hasn’t had to use such a route would believe it possible; the ridge itself , at the top, consists of a winding, jagged blade of basalt, which, as Damien says, “Would cut you in two if you tried to sit on it.” We picture the men watching for us from what they assume will be the higher ground, and suppress any chuckle that might dislodge us, for our path often consists of nothing more than spurs jutting from the mountainside, and more such to hold onto, as the wind claws through our hair.
Our toes cling to icy stones and sometimes the skin sticks; as rearguard, I get the slickest rock to tread, from the blood of those who went before. But homemade boots would slip up here, soled in leather without tread. Fortunately, I have my magentine strapped in between my breasts, out of sight; that wouldn’t do for flight, but it helps a lot with correcting slips, and even enables me, sometimes, to reach past the balance-point to steady Kiril ahead of me.
A Cumenci kid slips and gasps—God bless him for knowing not to scream! The rest of us hold onto the cold mountain as if we’d fallen passionately in love with it, bracing against the pulling as those nearest haul the child back up to his perch. And we move on.
Once we get past the clutching-stone-for-dear-life part, those of us still armed keep our hands on our guns, listening, gazing all around, stepping as soundlessly as we can on the sand between the rocks. Those without guns pick up sharp basalt flakes or something they can throw. Kiril grips her blowgun tightly; if she can disable them before whatever guards they post can raise the alarm, we’ll be able to pull this off. One dip into the gully between their look-out and our route, and then a rise, and then we’ll have them!
Instead we find the army messenger at the bottom of the gully, frozen where he fell, some of the rocks that tumbled with him half-covering his twisted legs, his head still caved around a spur of stone. I pull a folded paper from his pocket. It describes us: our number, our visible weapons, even the apparent state of our health and combat-readiness, as we were when we reached the spring some days before, from the point before we started loading up our waterskins. It mentions Malcolm by name, and inquires into the price upon his head. Likewise Cyran...and myself. I normally take an alias for missions, so though I’ve had a price on me before, it hits home more than usual.
We look upslope. He must’ve slipped on the way down , and the others never knew. We won’t find any soldiers waiting for us up there save the dead we left behind.
“Thank you, Gaziley,” says Cyran, and turns to Damien. “That’s his style—we know now.” Damien nods, and starts to hum; by evening a new song will praise Gaziley and tell what help to ask of the ghost with the painted eyes.
After we plunder the dead man’s gun and ammunition, we take the time to pile more rocks and sand upon him. Malcolm wrenches up the bloodstained spur and puts it at the top, with the soldier’s dogtags draped around it. Phurbango Allyma. His name was Phurbango Allyma. Mountainfolk, like most of us.
We find the rest of his comrades, and do pretty much the same with them, apologizing for not giving them proper rest before, but I’m sure that they, too, understand the exigencies of war. Damien sings an ancient song that has sent generations of enemy soldiers off to their reward, hopefully luring them from any wish to turn back. Then Cyran whistles the “All Clear” for the others to join us by the easy route.
Malcolm has roped together all of our packs and carries the mass on his back as he trudges up flushed and sweating in the chill. The young mother herds the children carefully ahead of her, in the rearguard position. Ahead of the rest, Rashid carries our boots in a sack and leads the mule, his face still blank, a sleepwalker.
We rush on him to cover our feet again, but he comes to life and barks at us to stop. He piles the boots by the fire that Kiril builds, then quickly, professionally, lines us up sitting in a row to salve and bandage our feet. When he finally lets us go shod again, it feels like pure heaven! I grin at him and give him a thumbs up, and he grins a little back, almost startled to smile. New hope for him feels warmer in my heart than the boots upon my feet.
We distribute the packets of military-issue rations all around (I slip mine into the packs of various teenagers, in a clever reversal of pickpocketing) and we gain more weapons than we gave to Branko, so we arm some of the previously defenseless Cumenci kids as well. Then we gather up our belongings from the little cave, and add them to the packs that Malcom brought. We fill up our waterskins, as the mule drinks deeply and forages with delight amid the lusher weeds. At last we rest, briefly, from our labors, over a lunch of corpse-donated food, warmed up for us by our inestimable little chef. And then we start the march again.