IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
For the Sake of the Young
Saturday, July 6, 2708
"Don't eat apart from us," Cyran says when Malcolm rises to carry his breakfast out of our sight. "Stay right here."
Beans sure taste good on a frosty morning like this, complete with a bit of cheese for each of us; my face loves to hover over the fragrant steam. (One need not dwell on the fact that Kiril cooked the beans in Rashid’s bedpan. Boiling sterilizes, right?) "Remember, Malcolm," I ask, "when we all feasted together on the day we freed you?"
"I can never, ever forget that night," he says, and he sits back down. I pass him the salt-paste, which has dried into lumps that we crumble over our food, but hey, that’s closer to the kind of salt I grew up with, anyway. I kick back and enjoy eating in the peaceful silence of companionship.
But I watch Aziz and Damien finish their bowlfuls in ungodly time, then scrape at every smear of bean juice on the sides as though they could dig more sustenance from the wood. You can’t cook many beans in a bedpan. They have already gobbled up the tortillas that Kiril made, but they need more protein than that. Their brown wrists poke too far from their homespun or altar-cloth sleeves, and you can see their anklebones through the socks which their cuffs don't hide; they've both hit a critical growth-spurt, along with demanding hormonal changes. But they cinch their belts in tighter than ever.
I haven't finished my own breakfast yet. I coax Damien to sing that old Samurai song again. As he belts it out, eyes fixed on the blue heavens beyond, Aziz and all others gazing on him, I slide the last of my own beans surreptitiously from my bowl into theirs. I wouldn't call myself an agent if I didn't have the stealth to pull it off.
Sunday, July 5, 2708
Dawn. Maybe. I keep watch, waiting for the sun to creep up past the raw stone peaks with the stealth of an assassin. The skies lighten without any appearance of the fiery orb so far.
I sit and wait, on a flat slab of basalt, for the sun to get high enough to thaw me out, to communicate "day" to my body or even to the majority of my brain. My hands and toes and nose hurt with the cold, like ice got inside them and cracked. I hug my knees, hoping that that the rock will reflect the heat whenever it gets here. My breath puffs before me; I see no other clouds than that. My skin splits with cold like the earth as I yearn for the warm monsoons that I cursed so fiercely only months ago.
(Fool, to curse the confirmation longed for! Accept it. Take out the pen, while the rest of the school still sleeps, by lamplight fading in the dim approach of dawn, and write the words of acceptance for the three good men who shall come to set things right. Here, on this little slip for a pigeon to carry—it will go faster that way. And it won’t take many words.
Humble yourself. You are not so great, after all, despite your paltry title. You have needed help before. And it’s all for the sake of the children.
Now stretch those old bones, walk to the window, throw open the shutters and let the rest of the pale light in! And with it the fresh summer air that you need, that breath of hope. And with that also the songs of birds who fly back every year, to make our summers better, lighter. We don’t mislike the birds for coming in from foreign lands, now do we?)
I hear the wind but no birds sing on it; they've all flown north for the winter. I long for wings to fly away with them—then I remember, yet again, that I can fly, I'm a levitator, and it doesn't do a damn bit of good for all the politics that freeze me to this spot, the duties and the sacred vows and yet I can't even do anything of particular importance right now, anyway, just too godforsaken cold and why'd I ever dream of an agent's glory in the first place?
(It’s not so cold, now is it? Bracing, and soon to warm up fine.
Ah, me. I set back down at my desk, my head in my hands, the letter drying, waiting for me to roll it up and send it. Why’d I ever dream of the dignity of the Headmaster’s office in the first place?)
Monday, July 6, 2708
We walk through patches of snow, now, as we descend into a high river valley with enough moisture in it to freeze. Flakes swirl lightly around us like tiny crystal fairies. While they have it the children make snowballs, laughing and pelting the living spit out of each other. Kiril and Lufti gang up on Shermio, but somehow the little elf manages to dodge everything they throw, giggling and egging them on to try again. I shiver. Haven't we real war enough without playing at it, too?
Then I see Cyran get a cheekful from Marduk. E sputters a moment, then turns and slings one right into the teenager's face. Marduk doesn't miss a beat, scoops up more snow, takes aim at Cyran...
Brrrrrr! Chill smacks into my face and Marduk laughs—the rotter knew I watched them; he pretended to aim one way and hit me instead! I run after him with fistfuls of icy wet cold and catch up, leap, hold on with my knees while Marduk tries to knock me off and I stuff it all down the back of his shirt. I fall off into a big fat drift and laugh so hard that I can hardly rescue myself, trying to warm my frigid fingers in my armpits, suddenly too happy to care if they all fall off from frostbite just to see the look on his face as he tries to wriggle the snow out from his clothes. Everywhere I hear the thuds of snowballs and the giggling children and my body shivers but my heart warms up so fine I feel that I could thaw these mountains by myself.
"Break! Break!" Cyran laughs so hard e can hardly shout. "We all need hot soup after that!"
In due time, after we have huddled in our blankets for awhile, our clothes hissing over the fire as they dry, Alysha hands me a fragrant bowl of steaming hot broth simmered from our store of dried vegetables, and it tastes better than the finest banquet that Soskia could devise. As I warm myself over it before diving right in, I reflect that sometimes it rejoices the heart to play war precisely because we play at it. It feels good to know that everybody will get up from where they fell and share a meal together afterwards. And somehow, I know not how, it refutes the kind of war that we work at, because, despite all reason, the snowballs that warm our hearts will outlast all the melting bullets in Hell.
I watch for my moment. Okay, now—with all eyes on Bakr as he tells a Cumencian joke he knows about bill-collector's wives, I pour from my bowl into those of Aziz and Damien when nobody watches me but the mule. And now, as Cyran answers with a joke of hir own, I finish off with Bakr, too. The kindly wind masks the liquid sound, as though the elements conspire with me.