IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Faithful on the Front
Sunday, August 2, 2708, continued
I can hear Father Man’s snores clear to the kitchen. He wouldn’t chew the greenfire, they say. He kept up anyway.
I had watched them half-haul his stumbling body to his rest, and I got a good whiff of him in passing. He’d looked wilder than ever, gaunt and with his eyes bloodshot, and no one could hear a word of his perpetual murmur, just see the lips moving in the matted beard. But the snores now speak loud enough for all of that.
Deni’s nose had wrinkled involuntarily when he passed her, but her distress has nothing to do with his odor. Or it does, but not in the usual sense; grief for him knots up her wrinkles and widens her eyes. Now she bustles in the kitchen, whipping up restoratives, cooking with her own fine hands, doing her penance with a hearty good will. I see on the counter, as well, bath salts and soap, scented for the relief of troubled minds. She will try to get him to bathe, if she can. But Father Man has penances of his own.
* * *
“Your servant network sure makes my job a lot easier,” the elf-slim little spy says to Malcolm while I lash tight the tent flap, far from listening ears. Most can’t fit in the house, so officers must share the outdoor misery with the majority, and rotate who gets the choicer shelter. The big man nods a smile of acknowledgement, and pours Shermio some fresh goat-milk. (He could use the nourishment; he sits there shivering off the greenfire energy that burns away calories he can’t afford, even as I watch. Would that I could give him some of mine!)
“So,” Malcolm says, as he allows himself a bit of milk as well. “What news have the high and mighty let loose among the invisible people who wait on them?”
“The general they’ve unleashed against us is a woman—General Layne Aliso.”
(“They WHAT?” I cry.
“They forbid your troops to go any farther,” says my aide, “until they can independently confirm that rebels occupy that pass.”
“But they know they’re here! An entire patrol just disappeared—how do they think that happened?”
“They’re too busy asking why you sent anyone up here in the first place. They’ve listed the MIAs as deserters, and blame your orders.”
“My troops have engaged the enemy all over these mountains, they’ve...”
“...had run-ins with bandits.” For a second Ed allows half a wry smile. “Very well-organized bandits. Or so say the brass.”
“Would Headquarters doubt my reports if a man had sent them?” But he just stands in troubled silence.)
Her? “God. I’ve heard of her,” I say. “Once she sinks in her teeth she won’t let go.”
“Then we’ll just have to kick her teeth out,” Shermio says with a grin.
(How do they expect me to win this war if they defang me at every turn? “Corporal, you haven’t answered my question.”
“Yes Ma’am, they would have investigated just the same. You have just accused elders of one of the most prominent families in The Charadoc of high treason.” He looks down at his feet. “And you won’t name your sources.”
I feel cold, so cold, inside this thin little tent with its icy drafts, that keeps out neither the chill nor the grumbles of the men outside who find themselves up here, in the mountains, in winter. “Write to Sanzio D’Arco,” I say at last. “He will confirm my intelligence.”
Ed says, “Will do,” and hesitates.
“It will take time to deliver the message. More time for him to, uh, collect the information that you want. More time for the top brass to discuss it, and to send a message back.”
“You want to suggest something. Say it.”
“Can we withdraw downslope a little, while we wait? The supply lines could reach us more easily.”
I sigh. “And the troops are getting restless, and the last thing I need is an insurrection in the ranks to seal my sinking reputation. Very well then—but not so far that we couldn’t make up the difference in a few day’s march.”)
“Heard anything about her strategic style?” I ask.
“A lot like a guerrilla. Lure and trap, tease and dart back just out of reach, dance around and around, maze and confuse.”
“She fights like a woman, in other words.” I sigh; that had always been our strength, what with our androgynous leader and many female officers. Men have made such a masculine business of war that whoever can introduce a feminine element usually wins—act all weak and vulnerable till the enemy plunges in, then engulf ‘em in your closing, nutcracker limbs. Now the government wants to match us hormone for hormone. Okay, fine with me—unleash the bitches of war!
(“You’re still hesitating, Corporal. Anything else you’d like to say?”
“Permission to speak freely, Ma’am.”
“I just gave you permission, you knucklehead. What is it?”
“It doesn’t look good, you turning to D’Arco so often. People talk.”
I sigh once more, rubbing my temples. “Again, would they talk had I been a man?” No answer. “Dismissed, Corporal.”)
“We can handle her,” I say. “Who better? Any weaknesses you know about?”
“They say she has a self-indulgent streak. And she’s made a lot of enemies among the other officers.”
I laugh. “I’ll bet she has!” So...the Charadocian army doesn’t know what to do with their lil’ gift from heaven. “Good—they’ll be slow to back her up, then—they may not even realize how they hang back. Hey, save some of that milk for me!”
Malcolm pours me some as he asks Shermio, “Did the network bring you any more news, lad?”
“Uh, not the network.” The boy stares at us, his eyes big and liquid—that kid sees entirely too much. “It didn’t come from a, a reliable source, at first, but I checked around and confirmed everything.” He fidgets and looks away. “More than everything.”
“Come on,” I say, trying to speak gently and spare his raw nerves. “It can’t be all that bad.”
(I didn’t want to bond. I thought I hadn’t.) “I wasn’t sure at first. (Spies and messengers have no business caring.) I got it from Father Man.” He knots his fingers, staring at them. (But sometimes the feelings just slip through.) “He can be kind of hard to decipher. But other sources confirmed it.” (I’m not a thing of stone.)
“Branko,” he chokes, and tears streak down the young cheeks. Oh dear God. “He, he won us an amazing victory before...I mean a really, really big victory. Some rumors say that they fought three to one, some five to one, but all say that he stopped a whole regiment in their tracks, even the government soldiers say it, with awe in their voices, frowning to each other.” He gulps at his cup and comes up with a milk mustache. “It took the enemy all day and all night and another day to...to...he kept coming up with tricks. Buried explosives. Avalanches. Rivers of burning fuel. Traps, every time they thought they were winning, Branko’d give ‘em traps. He didn’t let ‘em get to us, wouldn’t let ‘em send reinforcements to the troops we fought, not till we got so far ahead of the enemy that it didn’t matter. It took General Aliso to...nobody else could...could.”
We all sit there in silence till I bring myself to say, “Branko died, didn’t he.”
The child nods, cheeks streaked shiny-wet. “Firing squad. They say he sang a hymn.”
With a heavy sigh Malcolm says, “At least he got himself a lot of company.”
“And, knowing Branko,” I add, “he’ll walk peaceably on the other side with friend and foe alike, all the way to Judgment Day.”
My eye catches Damien’s. He nods back to me. The time has come to write the Ballad of Brother Branko.
I get up, move the tent flap that I’d lashed so carefully against the cold before, just to stare out at the beauty of the mountains, hoping for some comfort for the grief that wells up inside, but the beauty looks cold and stony today, much too steep for any need of mine. Ohhh, Branko! Did you find your peace, at last?
To Shermio I say, “So how did these engagements change the movements of the enemy? Do you know?” And part of me listens attentively to the answers as though the rest of me didn’t mourn at all.
(The troops think that I don’t hear what they say. “Estrogen has scrambled her brains,” they mutter. “Who climbs the mountains in the winter?” The march goes slowly through the snow, but they won’t like it any better when we reach the wind-swept parts. Downslope, yet still cold enough. This retreat from no engagement makes the climb seem still more pointless. Why do I always feel more defeated by my own than by the enemy?
Why can’t they see the logic? Anything small and weak always hides wherever its predator might find least comfortable. Do they expect the rebels to make it easy for them?
I don’t like it either; I can feel my lips crack, and I think my nose has taken frostbite. I must look horrible. That probably pleases them. But duty calls for sacrifice.
Sure enough, over this pass we go, and the wind finds us on the other side. A fine dust of snow flows away from it like a river of ice, and when we step into that blast it almost knocks us off our feet. It moans full of menace, as though a troop of angry ghosts comprise it, and I see some of the fools quickly cross themselves, hoping I don’t catch them.
Superstitious morons! Even they should know that it’s just the sound you get when air compresses in between the rocks.)