IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
An Alternate Route
Friday, July 24, 2708
Motors in the distance! Good lord—how? We snuff our smokes and cower in the brush. Cyran makes a gesture to me, so I give my gear to Kiril except for one small packet, then crawl off out of sight to unfold the flit.
Up! Up! Silent as a condor on the wing I go, higher than the eyes of men are wont to look. Freezing cold, the thin air whips by almost too fast to catch.
There...I see them—not too far back, climbing the same path that we descend. Narrow-gauge vehicles crawl upslope on their tanklike treads, but they seem more like tractors than anything, despite the nasty-looking guns projecting out like tusks. Most inventive, Soskia! Which of your scientific sadists came up with that one?
I touch down quietly on the hidden side of a spur, then hasten to the others as quickly as I can without noise. I whisper my report to Cyran, lying under brush. Damien on his other side whispers back, “They can only find us if we stay on the trail. I know another way.”
Cyran nods and makes the gesture for following the soldier who best knows the terrain—Damien, obviously. The bard leads us back onto an older trail so overgrown with rattling brown vines and brambles that it must not have seen use by any save animals in years. Yet the riverside cave that it leads to clearly has once known human beings, who stored there round boats of branch and tight-stretched leather—coracles.
I don’t like coracles. I only tried to sail one once, as a kid, and wound up swimming while my friends laughed their silly heads off.
“My people stashed these wherever a river flows in reach of Koboros,” Damien tells us, “and my father made sure that I knew the location of every one.”
The Koborans greased them well, mingling the fat with sharp-scented resins repulsive to nibbling creatures, but even so three of the boats have rotted through. The rest will hold us up—I hope.
After the shortest explanation of river-rafting in maritime history, Cyran assigns to each boat someone as close to a water-experienced captain as we have, and several scared “sailors” under each command. Then e gestures Alysha and Marduk to come with hir; Marduk looks so pale he could pass for a different race.
It breaks my heart to see Kiril—little Kiril!—made a captain, over Lufti and a couple Cumenci kids, but she at least has seafaring experience and most do not. With eyes so big and shadowed that she looks half mad, she nods her acceptance, then glances towards me. Some mother ought to comb her hair for her; almost half of it escapes the braids. I pat her on the shoulder and say, “You’ll do great!”
Our Hamallan boots crunch on frost on the way to the river’s brink, but we’ve already descended below most of the snow. Ice rims the river, but the center speeds by much too fast for that.
Over and over I review in my head my brief memories—every wrong move, and what the right moves would have been, hoping that the alteration in my neurons since will extrapolate those minutes into years of experience and sink them into reflex. My arms mime out the curious figure-eight paddle-stroke that a coracle calls for. Then Damien hands out poles, not paddles—with a current like that, I guess, propulsion is the least of our worries.
“What about Rashid and the mule?” Lufti asks.
Without a word, Rashid unpacks his medical supplies, distributing them as before, but leaves the tent on the mule’s back. On a pale bandage-rag he draws with iodine the smylifess: two dots and a curve in a circle, which in these parts signals, “Free for the taking!” to those who can’t read. This he sews to the side of the tent with quick surgeon’s stitches, then unbridles the mule, swats his rump, and lets him go.
“I soon won’t need a tent,” he says at last. “And there’s fodder enough for the mule by the river till somebody finds him.” He goes over to Malcolm and Chulan’s boat.
So. Coracles. I am not the only one who draws out my luck doll for a quick kiss and then crosses myself before boarding in my turn, already near capsizing just by stepping into the wobbly leather bowls, the Toad Brothers and I holding onto each other as we manage it, trying to lean this way and that to balance till all can sit down except for us captains, who each sort of kneels or lunges, as needed.
And so we shove off into the river, rising and dipping and praying like crazy that the roaring of the water will drown our squeals and screams as we whirl like doomed autumn leaves downstream! Frantically I pole off rocks that come out of nowhere while trying not to throw up as the water smacks us around in a drunken fury, lurching us frantically this way and that. Built to spin, the boats have no prows, no fore nor aft, no starboard, port nor any other direction known to Kiril. For all her experience she does exactly like the rest of us—stabs at rocks by gut instinct, glaring crazily through her spray-drenched hair.
Damien’s boat leads; he actually looks like he’s enjoying this, while Aichi and Ambrette cower at his feet. He doesn’t merely pole, he thrusts as if he lances dragons; he laughs back at the spray in his face, dew in the downy beard, and whenever we whip around to see him I’d swear his lips move in a song.
I feel so sick I want to die—then I see the rapids coming and think no I don’t! Don’t listen to me, God, I didn’t mean it! Waves hurl us up like spume over drowning logs, we go airborne then we slap! down into the water again. Two more small waterfalls, then a whirlpool dances us ill till I pole us out again, then between rock and rock and then WATCH OUT! Past that, good, good, but over there but I get us past that, too, then clear sailing around this curve to oh my God! but we get through, only to HOLD ON! There. There. No not there! Oh my Lord more rocks and branches and things and I shove hard on the bough to get us away from but right into another but I dodge that but then steer straight into RRRRRIPPPP! Water gushes in, icy with despair, then the water hurls me up, up, then down into PAIN!
Silent dark cold out...
(Sunset streaks the mountains like the blood of God, and I feel old, oh Lord. For the second time I hear the sound of marching feet reverberate through the streets of Hamalla, winding up to our sanctuary. I stand out in the middle of the street and the wind cuts right through the robes, shock-cold, whipping the cloth around me—is this the last nonviolent sensation that I shall feel?
No sense in complaining about my lot. I chose this path a long, long time ago.
Disciples shiver around me at the sound of the first shots and screams below. More than half of the villagers have gone to shepherd flocks. Only the aged, the infirm, and the women with children too small for the herding remain.
I thought about sending the youngest disciples away. I almost did. To do what—join Cyran’s forces? Better they should fight their battles here, within their own souls, victors before the army arrives, inalienable freedom secure in their hearts even when the bullets rip through. That way nobody can rob them of anything ever again.
Some did run away last night; that’s all right, too. Their choice. Let us each exercise our free will as we see fit, free most of all of the illusion that we have no choice in what we do. Their defection proves the rest.
I watch the first soldiers march up our way. Blood spatters their uniforms; I must discipline myself to see them not through that blood but through Christ’s. What would spatter me if all could see my sins? Yet I remain beloved of God—as do they, every one of them. Worth dying for, as Christ has proven.
Welcome to Hamalla! I smile down on them, I feel the radiance of a love greater than any mortal imitation that I could muster pour into and through me and out from me, warm and all-encompassing motherfather love, I feel it effulge from my spreading arms, from my unprotected breast...the last nonviolent thing to sense.
I don’t even feel the bullets that I crumple around. My falling head takes note of the deep red blooms like opening roses spreading all over the white, white robes.
Pain reaches me, now—but distant, for shock cushions the blows, stands between the suffering and me like my guardian angel. I stare at the time-rounded brick next to my eye where I lie in the street and the smile completely suffuses me, beyond the face, clear to the soul, exalting me in my victory—no one can ever deprive me of anything I value!)
Choke! Cough! Spew—Rashid recoils and turns me quickly. How dare he force me to breathe again when drowning felt so heavenly! Now I do feel the bullets in my chest...what bullets? Water in my lungs, rather, hack it all out. What was I thinking?
“You got the wind knocked out of you on that rock before you even went under,” he tells me, shivering in his own wet clothes. “You’re lucky we managed to fish you out before too late.”
I sit up dizzily. “Where...?”
“A whole lot further than we could’ve gotten by the road, though it almost cost us.”
Rashid and Malcolm help me to my feet and lead me, wobbly-legged, towards a fire that the others have lit by the river-bank. Malcolm calls out, “Do we have a single dry blanket left to wrap her in?”
“Kiril’s came through dry,” Cyran tells him. They settle me down by the fire and strip off my wet clothes, immediately replaced by thick, soft llama-wool that Kiril tucks close around me, while Lufti hands out more blankets to Rashid and some others.
“I knew you’d live,” the little girl tells me, “‘cause you promised you wouldn’t leave me.”
“That’s right, kid,” I say weakly, but with as much cheer as I can muster. I sag against Malcolm and the fire blurs before my eyes. Soft, sturdy man...
“Give them some food,” Cyran says. “Everyone who got capsized gets dinner tonight.”
I feel a pang of guilt when my mouth waters at the scent of smoking fish. “But the others need...”
“I’m in charge, here,” Cyran insists. “You’re stressed; you need extra nourishment, or you’re no good to me. You, too, Malcolm. That’s an order.”
“I don’t need it,” Malcolm replies. “I wasn’t that stressed. Fat floats.”
Cyran studies him, and slowly nods. “I’ll trust your judgment, then.” E glances my way and says, “I know better than to trust hers."