IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Tuesday, July 21, 2708
Downslope now, the going
gets easier and easier, the snow dwindling again to small pockets of white here
and there, as the lands become drier and drier the further we travel from the
ocean's soft breath, peaks and more peaks between us now and the gentle humidity
of the shoreward forests even on the rain-sides of the slopes.
Just as well—my left boot
cracked wide open this morning, skidding on the scree, and the right one tore last
night on a snagging rock, clear through the sole, the trophy-tanned leather too
brittle for the strain. (At least my
poncho came from a rug, cured for flexibility.)
So now my feet turn blue in
sandals once again, despite the surviving bits of the old fur and leather
tucked in wherever I can manage. I wish
others hadn’t needed the tent-canvas before me.
For the dry wind blows as chill as ever, splitting whatever skin we
leave to its mercy.
Rashid has devised a kind
of resinous grease to rub on all the exposed portions of our bodies, and that
helps a lot. I don't feel like any kind
of medic next to him; even Malcolm, with his doctorate, defers to the boy's
practical wisdom, miles from the pharmacies and labs of the cities. I can see why Cyran wants him to head our
Now we pass between
frost-cracked boulders in lieu of forest, our feet slipping on gravel,
carefully sidestepping that peculiar mountain cacti that grows as woolly as
corries against the cold. Now our path
levels out and gradually begins to climb again. Now we catch the first whiffs of smoke that
promise an actual village ahead—Hamalla, I'm told it's called. Now we dream awake, scarce feeling our weary
feet beneath us for thoughts of what must roast in such smoke, mouths watering
and stomachs growling.
Neither starving mule nor
corrie went far among so many. It's hard
to keep the mind on dodging cacti and navigating the steeper slopes when I
could swear those Hamallans just threw something raw and sizzling onto the grill,
just out of sight but not beyond aroma's reach.
Sausage, is it? I can smell, I can
almost name the spices.
Now we march among the
first buildings, the rough, brown blocks hewn from the native stone, with
wooden doors and sills and lintels wearing ruffles of bright and peeling
paint. Yes, march–for weary as we are,
to suddenly have all these stranger-eyes upon us, taking note of our weapons
and our scars, makes us throw back our shoulders and lift up our chins; without
band or pipes our feet fall into synchronized rhythms, turning the entire dirt
street into one great drum. Our steps echo
off the walls that rise to either side—it builds till we sound like a thousand
times our number! The noise ricochets to
tramp down alleyways beyond us, as though our ghosts occupy Hamalla for
us. Our gear jangles with jaunty menace,
the tinkle of an angry tambourine, as the beat of our boots pounds deeply
We have come for the next
round of our dance. Will they join hands
in partnership with us, will they dance the Bailebelde through the scent of
gunpowder, around the sparking, crackling danger in the streets? Will they keep the beat with us?
When the crowd gets about
as thick as a small community like this can muster, we halt as one at a
hand-sign from Cyran. "We have come
to meet with the Don," e announces, "but we will first need to rest
and make ourselves presentable to the dignity of your Wise One."
Hesitance, then a woman
steps forward, leading the llama that bears her water-jugs. "I'm on my way back home; I can give you
hospitality, if my neighbors will help with food," she says, then looks
around pointedly. The others start from
their wonder at so many visitors and make themselves busy with our needs.
* * *
(Mountain girls. How come I never appreciated their beauty
before? I lay down my thambriy and my
rifle, admiring the tough, lean legs that can climb up and down the slopes—hinted-at
outlines under skirt after woolen skirt.
Ah, but it feels good to sit down—and on a bench softened by a llama
pelt! It used to annoy me, all the
clothing on top of clothing that we had to wear to fend off winter, but I look
at that apple-cheeked beauty who brings in the food for us, and I can imagine
all too well peeling the wool back layer by layer like the most exquisitely
wrapped package, all the way to the suede-soft skin beneath, a-tremble with a
Think of Kanarik! What kind of man are you, to look at other
women that way, when your own darling fights for her life just a few marches
"They tell me that you're
the troop bard," she says to me—directly to me! Her smile toys with me, her hips swing
playfully as she talks. "What's it
like to be a soldier?" she asks with a sparkle in her eyes. "What's it like to be a bard? What's it like to be both
together?" I can't answer her, too
hungry to think straight.
Slowly she tears a hunk of
bread off of a loaf and extends it to me, hot and fragrant from the oven. Our fingers brush as I receive it from
her. I eat it slowly despite my need,
savoring each sweet mouthful, imagining that she might smell like fresh-baked
bread if I got close enough.
She gives me a chance to confirm
it. "It's even better dipped in
beans," she says and sits next to me with a bowl of bean soup in her lap;
we touch from hip to knee and our ankles bump.
She guides my hand with the bread to the bowl that steams in her lap,
dips the bread in, then guides it to my mouth.
"See?" she says.
"Isn't that delicious?"
I nod, swallow, say,
"Yes. Yes it is."
bard. Both very powerful—two opposite
powers, it would seem. It takes a strong
soul to meld them together. Isn't that
I try to distract myself
with food, but that means dipping into her lap and it doesn't help.
"Isn't that so?" she
"It's, uh, difficult
to explain. Some opposites fit together
as well as...as..." My face turns
"As man and
wife?" She laughs throatily.
"Uh, something like
that." I reach for more food—I am
"Something like? Not quite?
Surely you're not thinking of man and mistress!" She grins shamelessly as her arm finds its
way around me and our thighs press even closer than I thought they could.
"I was...actually, I
was thinking...ah...that I couldn't have become a soldier without being a bard,
and I couldn't become a bard without being a soldier. It's...I don't know how to put it into
bard? Astonishing!" She feeds me with her own hands, making reply
impossible. "As well say a soldier
who isn't bold." Her eyelashes
flutter as she asks, "Are you bold?"
I lick bean soup from my
lips and say, "I, ah, suppose it depends on how hungry I get."
Ai, Kanarik—how I wish I had you here with me!)