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
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.
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 a 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 didn't 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
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.