IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
The Chapel of St. Teresa
Sunday, August 2, 2708
It takes little time to
reach the pass that we're supposed to guard—a magnificent piece of God's
architecture. Higher peaks stretch up
beyond ours, perpetually clad in imperial white. Yet by some trick of the mountain-channeled
winds, the ravine below the road (and to
some extent the land up here) experiences what they call njeri summer—a brief flashback
of comparative warmth before the final blizzards of the season. The snow-sparkling peaks preside over a wild
defile that funnels the winter seepage, the spring melt, and what little rain
falls in summer, into a rushing gorge festooned with all the greenery that I
thought we'd left behind—my soul sings to once again see so much lush vegetation
spilling down the mountainside, there below this stony road among the mountain
bones: those curling vines, those broad-leafed trees.
It must flower in
spring. In summer the falling fruit must
perfume the land, the air must hum with bees, the bushes thrash with the lucky
wildlife that finds its way to paradise. Or maybe it keeps such even
temperature that it has no seasons, like the lowlands, like maybe I could climb
down right now and eat my fill of fruit.
The land to either side, of course, remains as rocky as ever. Even so, the beauty swells almost painfully
in my heart. Until this moment I hadn't
realized that I believed I would die before ever gazing out on jungle once
This is my home. I can feel
homesick for different parts of it. And
yet, I find, my eyes water with love for these mountains, too. I breathe deeply the thin, clean air, and I
feel a weight slide off of me. I am a
good agent after all.
No. I am a good soldier, a rebel of The
Charadoc. Til didn’t assign this to me—I
did, by myself. And weight of a
different sort settles on my shoulders.
Beyond the gorge I see a
road that winds precipitously around the slopes across from us. We, too, make our way on a road of crushed
stone, plowed ages ago into the flanks of the mountains. Over there, way above that waterfall that
gushes from a cave, the two roads merge into one, into the pass that leads to
the troubled lands of Stovak. Hara calls
the cave the world's highest grotto.
Ah, Stovak! Very little open trade goes in and out of
that country after...how many years of civil war? Which makes it a terrific base for smuggling,
with the absence of any coherent system of regulation in that land of many
ports, along the mild waters of the Gulf of Byssinia far beyond our
mountains. And though we seldom speak of
it, and the government mentions it not at all, both the rebels and the
Meritocracy depend heavily on smugglers.
I suppose that’s why Til hasn’t sent its agents there—so far. That I know of.
How rough, how rarely
traveled is this road and that, by the good citizens of The Charadoc. Yet someone always sees to it that the stones
of periodic avalanches disappear, that eroded embankments get shored back up
again; work crews appear out of nowhere every so often, with picks and shovels
and cement-laden mules. And some of them
wear uniforms, and some of them do not.
Till now it has been one of the few things that we can agree upon, the government
and us: the maintenance of this pass, though
we've never put it into words and they've never put it into writing.
Time for that to end. Poppies don't grow in the Charadoc, by nature
and by law, but wounded soldiers still need morphine.
"There it is,"
Damien says, and points to an outcropping of stone and adobe in the
distance. "The chapel that the
Abojans are building for wayfarers."
Wayfarers, huh? Is that what the
pious Abojans call them? Well, I suppose
that a smuggler’s soul has more needs than most—just as rebels do. “Not much farther, a bit more of a climb to
get there.” And so we climb, Malcolm
bringing up the rear, but fitter all the time.
Here, high above the river
gorge, the land basks in that sere but golden moment before the final
snows. The thaw has bared patches of last
year’s grass; it looks almost as mellow as summer in other lands, except for
the cold. I don't mind hiking uphill in
this tawnier stretch of beauty, amid the few brave and ancient trees that twist
their way upslope to stretch out thin, green fans of needles to the sun. Is that a softening of the air I feel, the
first faint breath of spring? Illusion,
Deirdre, a trick of njeri summer; we've got months before the coming of the
rains to warm and moisten the cracking ground.
Snow could fall again at any time; and sooner or later must. Still, I feel hopeful today.
"Look, from the other
road!" Lufti shouts—I whip around, assessing what in reach could serve me
for a weapon. "It's
Cyran!" Oh. Oh.
There, our leader and hir troops have passed the grotto and
hasten towards us with the jerky-stiff steps of people who have already marched
too long, but get their second wind from the sight of their destination.
The cries go up around me
as I straighten from my fighting-crouch.
Cyran!" "And look at all the
troops e has with hir, too!" I
look, and my heart sinks at the length of the line of the soldiers winding down
the slope behind hir. As they draw near
I recognize some of them as Cumencians—I guess not all of the kids took to the
life of a shepherd, or else vengeance burns too hot in their hearts for the
loss of their parents and their home. They
must have tracked Cyran down. A few grim
men and women march among them, too—Hamallans, I believe, by the clothing—but
most, the ones I know and the ones I don't, are young, way too heartbreakingly
I have read of the horrors
of other lands, of children kidnapped by rebels and forced to fight, forced to
kill their own families, sometimes. It
would make it all so cut and dried, so easy to choose sides if that happened
here. But we keep wanting adults and the
villages keep having nothing but children to send us.
Does that make it any less
traumatic, that these little soldiers choose this, before they've grown old
enough to choose anything sanely? Does
it make us any less villainous for exploiting their young and ardent
hearts? But how many more would die if
we didn't? How much choice do we really
have? Don't answer that, God, please.
We wait for them before
making the final ascent to the chapel-in-progress. Cyran greets me with a hug so violent that e
nearly knocks me into the gorge—I guess I must be back in hir favor. "We've had victories—nothing but
victories!—since you and I last parted company.
God smiles on us, for sure."
"When did you have the
"Two more government
patrols on the way up," e tells us breathlessly, rapidly. "We had to double back, and double back
again, till I'm surprised we ever made our way forward at all, but Deirdre, we
engaged them! We stole their weapons
straight from their bleeding hands, after we whupped their arses good. We've finally built up to the measure of an
army the match of theirs. And our
numbers grow," e says proudly, gesturing to the lines that struggle up the
slope. "Our numbers grow."
"They grow too
fast," Alysha mutters behind hir.
"We can't feed so many. And
we fight less like guerillas all the time." She glances back at the troops that
follow. "We’ve sent our share back
to Rashid, before he's even had the time to set up properly." To Cyran she says, "You should send
Malcolm to Koboros to help him right away."
"In good time, when
things quiet down," e says, grinning as e surveys the pass and all the
military possibilities. "There's
been a bit of an escalation on the government's part; we may have to sweep a
few bodies out of our way, first."
E doesn't look at all dismayed by the prospect. "Nothing we can't do, of course."
I ask hir, "How did
you manage to rejoin us so fast with so much standing in your way?"
E shrugs cheerfully. "I didn't say we slept along the road,
did I? It soon became obvious that we
had to make full speed to get here, no matter what the army threw into our path—beat
them to it. They hoped to seize the pass
before us." Then e laughs
merrily. "But we did it! We got here way ahead of the Uniforms—they
have no idea what they're in for when they try to take on the Egalitarian
I stare at the brightness
of hir eyes, then glance over to Malcolm.
He nods slightly to me, then says to Cyran, "Good job, sir—you're
greenfire may be sickly-looking stuff next to its jungle kin, but the miserly
soil forces it to concentrate its alkaloids all the more strongly—doesn't
Cyran seems to wilt just a
little. "Oh. You noticed."
"You couldn't have
achieved what you did any other way."
I take Cyran by the
arm. "I promised you I wouldn't
make the same mistake that I did with Kief, ever again. You did what you had to do—an excellent job,
that's obvious. Now it's time to rest,
before the bigger battles ahead of us.
Malcolm won't ground you for long."
I talk as soothingly as I
can, but hir glare sharpens as e asks, "Is this the medic in you talking—or
the commanding officer who would take my place?"
officer who's humble enough to listen to the full-time medic at my side."
"You dare to mention Kief to me, after what
you did to him!" E flips hir arm
away from mine and stumbles back a step, hand straying towards hir gun.
Malcolm steps between
us. "I would never mean you any
harm, Cyran—you know that."
The general begins to
tremble and the light dies a little in hir eyes. "I—I guess you've got a
point." E sighs, hir hand leaves
the gun, and hir shoulders sag.
"I'll try to get some rest tonight, after we set up
camp." Malcolm holds out a hand and
raises an eyebrow. Cyran sighs,
surrenders hir guns, then turns to hir followers and says, "Deirdre's troop can guard."
I let out the breath I
held. "Well, since you're off-duty
but in no shape to rest just yet, would you care to check out the chapel with
E grins again,
disconcertingly like nothing happened, and says, "Why not?"
They look like ruins, the
rubble of this unbuilt church, some remnant of a history not yet written, a
future antiquity. We move through the
blocks and piles of building material, the half-raised walls, the scaffolding
for campaniles to climb towards heaven, the sunken floors that hold the church
like the ground had cupped its hands, reminding me of the chapel that I grew up
with. What they've built of the steeples
so far point up towards God, yet not so high as to feel out of reach to grubby
souls like ours.
And here I can find,
chiseled in stone, the names for the various side-chapels. St. Christopher who, real or not, will never
die so long as travelers need a walking-companion in the spirit. St. Adra the Wanderer, the young girl who had
quietly set out one day from her father's house in Sandurste, and walked from
community to community with her healing powers and her wisdom on every day
since, till dying of old age. St. John
of the Eagle, John the Visionary, whose gaze could leap past mountains all the
way to Heaven and back again.
And in the fourth corner,
the largest, in pride of place as the patron of this church...of course. Fatima had been a friend to the Abojans, they
told me late last night, their maid before she found her vocation, their
inspiration always. She'd met her fiancÚ
through them, such a nice family, they'd had no idea he'd turn out the way he
did. So here they began the chapel for
St. Teresa of Avila, hoping someday that Fatima could visit it. Deni had clutched at her heart with one
withered hand to learn that the girl will never kneel here in the finished
building, certainly not with knees of flesh.
The rich don't take comfort in ghosts the way that we do.
I go into that space. Wind blows through the unglazed windows and
no roof arches overhead, no holy rites have consecrated these stones as yet, no
candles flicker before any portrait of a saint.
Even so, my heart searches out for some scrap of holiness here,
anticipating—hoping in—what will be. The
rubble hurts my knees to kneel on it, but I do kneel and I pray for Fatima.
I pray then for Lucinda,
Yan and Yaimis, Gaziley, Bakr, Sharane...and Kief. Whether you forgive me or not, Kief, I wish
you well. May my prayers ease your
journey, wherever you go, whichever path you chose in the instant that my
bullet tore this mortal path from you.
Am I forgetting anyone? Imad—how could I omit you, who died so well? Madame, who died the best you knew how. Miko, I mustn't forget you, either, first of all my ghosts of the battlefield. Mischa, Yeshu, I commemorate you, too, and commend your souls to God. Cantimar, whom Malcolm told me died. The amputees I labored on, fallen at the college wall. And Aron, oh Aron, don't ever let me forget you, my dear little protector! I tell off a litany of my dead while the rocks bite into my knees and the wind whistles in through the lancet windows above. I come out just in time to catch Cyran exiting the chapel of St. Adra, hir eyes not meeting mine.