IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
One Two Three
Monday, July 13, 2708
(“Ma’am, we have run out of ammunition.”
“What? How?” I still hear gunfire, screams—all their gunfire, all our screams. “How could we run out of ammunition?”)
We have run out of food—just when I had gotten back into the habit of eating, worse luck. My stomach tightens painfully to let me know that noon passes over the world outside, and shouldn't I do something about it?
(“Tell the bugle-boy to call a retreat,” I order, and then take my gun in arms. “Rearguard, with me.” Heavy thing—but I learned to lift it, didn’t I? Easy as a broom, now.
“Who’ll be rearguard, Ma’am?” my aide asks as I gauge my ground. Midlands, small farm country, satisfied little landholders of a middlin’ station—nobody else expected rebellion to break out here.
“Anybody who still has anything violent in hand—I don’t care if it’s a slingshot.” Yet I overheard the other officers laughing about the women that they’d requisitioned here. “They’ve killed enough of ours with less.”
The dogs just don’t get the consequences of collateral damage, do they?)
The mule ran out of fodder the day before and his braying comes close to driving us all mad. But Rashid clings to him, his eyes fierce in the smoldering light, and won't let any of us near to do the obvious.
(How could...well, obvious, isn’t it? I sent ample troops to guard the supply line on our end. The rest of the army must not have taken care of their end. They didn’t expect to find rebels where I said they’d be, and didn’t bother. I gaze out across the trampled winter wheat, splashed with their blood and ours—oh they’re here, all right.
“I still have some bullets left, my darlings,” I say to the men behind me as we back out of there. And I shoot.)
Tuesday, July 14, 2708
Hungry. At last the animal has quieted, head sunk down on the ground between his legs where he lays, sulking at us as though we made the world the wicked place it is. I long for sunshine, moonglow, anything but this ruddy twilight, neither night nor day. The shuttered windows radiate cold like the fireplace sends off warmth; I leave my hair unbraided and spread it like a blanket on my shoulders.
(There, I have it. All down in black ink on white paper. The casualty list and statistics, ready to hand in when we reach base tomorrow, back in the world of baths and mattresses and all the comforts of home, where they will expect me to pretend that none of this ever happened—until the next inquiry. I throw the papers down, rest my head in my hands and, out of sight, I just start sobbing.
“Go away! That’s an order!” I feel the draft. I hear his steps. “Don’t make me courtmarshal you, Ed.” I look up at my aide, my hand on my holster; I don’t need bullets to pistol-whip him if it comes to that. But he doesn’t look like he has insurrection on his mind.
“Ma’am...permission to speak freely?”
I shrug. “Oh why not? You’re in no mood to follow orders anyway.”
“Never mind what the generals think of you. The common people say that you’re the only one to beat the rebels. The only one they fear. You get them.”
“Is that so?” I say faintly. I hear the faintness in my voice and I despise it.
“There is nothing wrong with your strategy.”
“Except that it requires help from the rest of the Charadocian army, and I can’t seem to command that.” I run my hand through my hair—God, I must look a fright!
“Well, we aren’t answerable for that, Ma’am, are we? Only for our own decisions.”
Answerable! As if some recording angel cared. As if anything mattered besides results.
“Some of us know, Ma’am, that you’re the best general in the whole damn outfit. And some of us will pass it on, and never let anybody forget.” He turns and starts to leave, then stops at the flap. “And if you want to courtmarshal me for saying so, General Aliso, be my guest. That won’t shut me up, either.” And then he does leave.
And then I notice the invitation that he left on my camp-desk, from the embedded command. I pop it open and skim through it. Tomorrow. I’ll be exhausted, but they’ll expect me to play the gracious lady anyway. Typical. I sigh. Whoever expects to enter the fray fully rested?)
Wednesday, July 15, 2708
Hungrier. I feel about as disheartened as the mule, lying here, listening to Kiril wheeze and the blizzard rage outside like Thimbulwinter come for good. Not even Damien has any songs left, the embers glinting on his weary, anxious face. I wonder if I should ever tell him about Thimbulwinter?
Songs and stories...stories and songs... my mind drifts up and down on the thought, the invitation to escape into imagination...up and down...the music...up and down in a three-four beat...
(The army band makes terrible waltz music, but a lady learns to handle whatever happens at a party graciously. Especially one unofficially in one’s honor. I suppose I should accept it as an apology. I shall have to send my lawyer a generous bonus—the man speaks magic!
The rank and file dance with HQ secretaries and nurses, but the other generals only dance with me. They pass me from hand to hand, hoping to see me tire. I will not give them the satisfaction, though I feel the perspiration cooling on my neck.
Ladies learn to dance, and this can offer lessons for the war. Match your foe step for step, keep the beat, don’t slow down or speed up too fast—timing is critical. Let him take the lead. Let him think that he’s in charge. Know his next step by that uncanniness which nature has gifted upon womankind. The fools don’t even question it. Learn his ways well enough, and next thing you know, you direct every move he makes and he never even guesses.
Oh, they will be glad that they’ve acquitted me, when they see my next strategy, and how this will trap that especially troublesome mountain-band! Whoever leads them thinks surprisingly like I do—a suitable dance-partner for my skills. Already the orders have reached Sanzio D’Arco, and though he’s not strictly military, he will know how to convey to the proper officers precisely what to do. I can depend upon my ally to tell them whatever they would rather hear from a torturer than a lady.
Too bad Sanzio can’t come here. He’d understand the dance. He’d make a worthy opponent, too, if it came to that. He learns more from me every day—I must take care that he not seize control of the dance until I’m ready to let him. He—almost—thinks like a woman.)
(...up and down, around and around and dip and rise and step, one to three one two three we share it all, don’t we? Don's strong hand in hers and mine, his arm around the small of our back, as I feel, in this hour, the tremble of Lisa's palms in my own.
“You're my best friend, Randy,” she had said to me. “I want to share it all!”
And so we sit here and dance in her memory, her telepathy pouring her confidence into my tremulous heart and soul. The music sweet, the tinkle of piano notes, murmuring one two three one two three step step ‘n’ twirl, and past his shoulder I see me as Lisa in the long wall of mirrors, and him as he is, not romantically dressed in this waltzing-class, wearing our old, baggy exercise clothing, we build up a sweat, but I relish the smell of him, here in my arms like my body has matched to his chemistry, eating his scent for my nourishment. One two three one two three feeling inside all that secret warm tingle where I don't have quite the same parts as our Lisa does, but he holds me so close and I do know, God help me, the joy of the clasp of such muscular arms!
And then music stops but I still feel the one two three as we both sit at the bench by the mirror, our breath coming hastily. Out of his pocket he draws forth the jewel-box, goes down on his knee, sweet fool, one two three one two three opens it right on the beat, oh my! ‘N’ there lies the ring that we danced in our circle, its two little diamonds flanking the larger one just like the steps would go one two three one two three keep the beat let this dance swirl for a lifetime of joy and thanksgiving oh God!