IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Waiting for the Enemy
Wednesday, August 5, 2708
(The military makes a good coat. I remember how bulky the sleeves seemed to me as a raw recruit, how strange, when I’d grown up with capes and shawls. How could I protect what I carried, wearing a coat? How could I gather anything up in it? But now it has become an old friend, warm and reassuring, as I hug myself against the night. The stars on my shoulders make it respectable enough, these days.
Past midnight, now. Wearily I rearrange my hair to warm my neck. The guerillas have no compunction against doing their dirtiest at night, so I have taken a leaf from them. Let’s see how they like it.
I ache from the evening’s work, yet I feel too wound up to sleep just yet. When they cry the job becomes more difficult; I’d rather they cursed and shouted. I have experience enduring that. But of course they would cry; that’s what makes my plan effective. Rebels are softer than I am, as soft as flesh before the hardness of a sword. That’s how you win a war.
Maybe the scenery will settle me down, so that I can go in and grab what sleep I may. Stars shine so much brighter up here in the mountains, high above the lowland mists. They sparkle on the snow that cloaks the peaks ahead, not as bright as moonlight, much subtler: a faint blue glimmer, enticing. I smile. Perilously enticing.
We have not been idle in the foothills. We have found rebel sympathies and we have punished them. I have forged and followed an effective policy and I believe it will pay in the long run. Naturally, the men don’t understand, but we don’t pay them to understand; we pay them to obey. I should be happy that they still do.
Regrets? Some. But war is not a pretty business. They expect me not to understand that. They expect me to shrink from the most expedient way to end this tragedy of perpetual war in the Charadoc. But women can be at least as ruthless as men.
So yes, I am, or I will be, pleased with what we have accomplished here. Yet oh, I long for that pass up there, where the real work must take place! Then they will see the wisdom of my plans!
I go back into my tent. My aide has slipped a letter onto my little fold-up desk, sealed in official purple. I crack it open and read it as I prepare for the night.
This! This is it!
Sanzio has come through, dear man. He has found ample evidence to support my claims, by interrogating the survivors of that suicidal band that we defeated in the empty lands.
I pour the pitcher of hot water that my aide has provided by the basin. The steam feels so good on my face! I set aside the letter to luxuriate in this pleasure, washing up with hot water: so much more precious to me than the dainties of my father’s house! I dry my hands carefully before picking up the paper again.
Oh my. Sanzio says that he has uncovered the full depth of depravity in the rebel forces. The fighters who tested us so strongly turned out to be a band of religious fanatics, spun off from the main revolt, yet serving the pervert Cyran all the same. That’s why they threw themselves at us so recklessly, why they refused our offers to accept surrender—they thought they’d reap some reward from God.
I sigh. It’s bad enough that I have to deal with superstition in the ranks; now The Lawbreaker twists it against me in the peasantry. I brush out my hair for the night, then snuggle into my sleeping-bag with my lantern near at hand.
As I read on, a surprising horror prickles in goosebumps on my arms and neck. It seems that their purported leader, their scapegoat, was an alcoholic child. I read more, and feelings that I thought I’d strangled shudder up in me, alive, oh yes, after all. They found it so easy to exploit this boy! Sanzio’s anger comes through, and it takes much to rattle him. Apparently the boy had suffered a nervous breakdown in the midst of battle, and spun off into religious hysteria as the only shelter that his ravaged mind could bear. They then could easily turn him into a machine for killing men.
I lower the paper. I fought him? A broken little boy couldn’t have come up with all those traps and strategies by himself. Surely someone force-fed him everything, cramming it into a mind cracked open. And I thought my policies...but nothing like this!
I crush the letter in my fist, my long nails tearing into it. I have chosen not to breed; I wanted nothing so inconvenient to a military career. I wanted a heart as stripped down barren as a machine, since hearts get bruised in this world, and I know, having been a terrible daughter, that offspring can bruise the worst of all. Yet some vestige of maternal instinct still rears up to roar in outrage! I throw the balled-up paper against the tent-wall, wishing it a grenade hurled at Cyran’s head!
If I had any doubts about my strategy, this ends it, right here. They chose the battlefield, long before I ever raised the rent on it. They chose! At least I’ve never exploited sickness.
Sanzio leaves no doubt. He cracked enough rebel prisoners to unearth the truth, when even he couldn’t stomach interrogating...Branko. The child’s name was Branko. My interrogator could do nothing with him except to put him out of his misery; he knows madness when he sees it. But the other captives confirmed that that troubled little boy had orders to hurl himself and his followers against us without intention to survive, in order to create a diversion--while the main force moved on to that pass belonging to a pair of highborn old dodderers, also religiously deluded. It seems that Cyran has as little scruple against exploiting the senile as e does mentally ill children. E’s up there right now, feeding off their wealth.
Senator Abojan be damned! If he didn’t want a scandal in his house, he should have put his aunt and uncle in a nice, safe retirement home where no one would let them wander out unsupervised. Fortunately, the rest of the senate has overridden his objections and his career quite possibly ends right here.
I pull my clothing back on in a fury. We should have stopped this nonsense long ago; now it will take us days, maybe weeks, to make up for lost ground. I blow the whistle that calls in my officers.
“Gentlemen,” I say as soon as I have them assembled, “We march in the morning for the pass.” I console myself for the delay with the thought that there will be more villages to punish along the way. And requisitions for the soldiers.)
* * *
The refugees begin to trickle in, shivering in their night clothes or nothing, feet bloody on the rocks, some of them with blackened, frostbitten toes just waiting to fall off. Madame General likes to sneak into a suspect village at night and stir things up good, don’t give anybody a chance to grab pants or shoes, let alone food or weaponry.
Recruits, Cyran tries to say cheerfully, forcing hirself to grin through these gray days of the greenfire’s ash. E tries too hard.
Madame General has a soft spot for children, they say, lets them escape when she shoots down the adults. I help Malcolm bind the torn feet and the wounds, or help Father Man bury the ones who succumbed to too much cold and pain and hunger and fear, dying even as they dropped among us. I glance up at the trilling of the carrion-birds, the dardies, attracted by the smell. The ol’ bitch knows exactly what she’s doing.
Burial! Not really. The ground’s too frozen. We pile branches and old leaves on them, and whatever rocks and gravel we can spare from our fortress-in-progress.
I look to the canyon. You would never know it ever harbored anything edible under the mounds of snow. An arsenal of ice tusks guards the waterfall; I can hear the water rushing down behind it, but it vanishes quickly under a plate of pure, cold white. I pity anything lured to linger there.
Empathy under harsh conditions can make a person do strange things. I catch Lufti breaking off a frozen toe from the line of corpses and tossing it to the dardies. I notice other toeless corpses in the line. When I tell him not to, he says, “They don’t need them anymore.”
Thursday, August 6, 2708
Rich as they are, the Abojans have run out of food. And so, of course, have we.
We change shifts on building the earthworks hour by hour, to give all the hungry as much down-time as we can afford. Starvation dulls the eyes of the younger children, but it gives teenagers a mad look, violent of spirit even as the body weakens. So many of them arrived empty, and we have had no proper chance to fill them up again. I assign Marduk no chores at all, just leave him imprisoned in his own hollowness.
He and Alysha laugh over something. I can hear them, faintly, almost a windchime sound, almost…
Deirdre found herself starting to wake up, realizing how much she craved a smoke. She forced herself to listen to the chiming of the hypnosis-tones, till once again they became the miraculous sound of laughter, as I light up a cigarette to fix the memory in my heart. Even men like Marduk can laugh, even hungry, even in places like this.
Friday, August 7, 2708
Disease runs rampant through the ranks; you can smell it in the air before the icy winds whip it away. Only a cold, I hope. Symptoms seem mild, but with our immune systems down so low already, even colds can kill. Ah well, at least the virus seems to quell the appetite. Because the good news is that today Hara remembered an old bag of feed in storage, from a brief period when they had experimented with raising jewel-doves. The fevers made small servings more acceptable, enough to stretch the porridge around for everybody.
I wanted to give command back to Cyran today, but e coughs and sniffles with the best of ‘em, so I think I’ll let hir be. Besides, on top of the sprain e incurred, trying to help build our fortress, e seems to have had some accident, stumbling to the latrines in the dark a day or two ago, or something like that; we camp on such steep, uneven ground that I’m surprised nobody’s gotten hurt before this. Hir face is a mess! I’m sure e must have other injuries as well, but e will only let Alysha treat hir.
I lie on a stretch of stone tiles swept bare of snow, chewing on a twig, trying to pretend that it’s food. But the winter has dried up all the sap in it. The tiles feel cold, yet the sun warms down on me, as I wait my turn to haul up rocks for the children to shove into place.
Marduk has begged me to let him take a turn, at least for one half-hour shift, and I gave in, but he needs all the help that Alysha can give him. When I turn my head, I can see them struggling up the slope together. He’s too weak to care that he needs her help, and she’s too much in love to care that he’s the reason she has a purple face. Maybe I shouldn’t have slipped him half my breakfast after he got his pared-down share.
Saturday, August 8, 2708
I sit in the bell-tower, smoking, looking out over the ravine, and the Abojan estate. No one will bother me up here. The staircase does not yet climb this high, and the ladders have all found other work. You can only get here by flying.
Hara keeps a garden, that he loves as passionately as the children he could never have. The greenhouse has no more cabbages, nor winter-squash, nor anything edible. Even the tough stems of the squashes we have boiled for a little broth. But there it stands, nonetheless, the windows twinkling in the sun, waiting for better days, carpeted for now in sleeping-bags, some on the ground, some bunking on the tables with the planters shoved aside. I can see the red canes of berry bushes nearby, and the bare-limbed apple trees, and roughly I can make out, through the snow, the shapes of once and future beds of flowers, curving ‘round a frozen fountain. It’s all about hope, I suppose.
I look the other way, now, within the courtyard of the roofless church. Father Man has sectioned off a chapel with curtains that Deni loaned to him. I can’t make out the figures broidered on it from here, frolicking through its silk floss leaves, but I seem to remember nymphs and satyrs. I smile and take a drag off my cigarette. Father Man wouldn’t mind.
And then I frown. I ought to go down there, join the line, and confess my sins. The blood of Kief, the bystander in the lab coat, the things I do for war.
I stub my cigarette out against indifferent stone. But where would it stop, the confessing? When do I get a chance to lead a moral life? The Don would say that I have a choice, we always have a choice, but I can’t see my way. And not seeing a way, I must keep on sinning. So why go down there and join the penitents? What would change?
It doesn’t matter anyway. We have nothing for communion.
* * *
(Bless me father, for I have sinned. I made my last confession shortly after I joined the Egalitarians. Since then I have committed the sin of gay-bashing. Well, not the same thing, exactly, but close enough. I made a poor little fairy bleed over something that somebody else did to me, another time, in another country. I hit a man—woman, whatever—who had done me nothing but good, turned my life around, in fact, probably saved my life. A virgin, for pity’s sake, who never hurt anybody the way I pictured. Even a flaming slut wouldn’t have deserved my blows like that—I admit it all. I...poor little guy! Or gal. Yeah, maybe gal’s closer. I mean...Father, I can’t believe I did that! We had wine...but I didn’t know I had it in me for the wine to let loose.
Bless me, father, for having benefited from my crime. That’s the real sin. Forgive me my ill-got gains. For I don’t feel like a victim anymore. He—No, she—she touched my thigh and I struck her for it. Even if it didn’t mean what I feared—or maybe it did, but I could say no, I knew all along that she wouldn’t go further without my consent—did I have to say “no” with my fists? But bless me and forgive me, for I no longer feel like a child, without the power of consent. Forgive me that I stole from Cyran what I rightfully should have seized back from my Uncle years ago—self respect. Nobody should build their self-respect on the pain of an innocent.)
(Forgive me my sins, Father. I drank wine set aside for the wounded. I got drunk, I lusted, I provoked, I brawled. I...I don’t even know what I’m here for. Why do I feel guilty? He hit me—I don’t think I ever landed a blow on him. But I did waste perfectly good wine.)
(Bless you, dear children, and fast for your penances. We all shall fast. We shall become saints, day by day, till the snow covers up our sins and our bones and not even God could find enough flesh to burn.)
Sunday, August 9, 2708
Day of rest. We let Father Man ramble on until he falls, exhausted, to his knees, because Alysha has no bread nor wine to push in front of him. He kneels there dumbly in the dirt for awhile, nor do any of us stir, nonsensical sermons spinning on in our heads. Only the wind speaks, and the occasional distant singing of the birds who wait.
Gradually a glow overtakes Father’s face; he gazes upwards, raises paws to heaven, and slowly breaks into chuckles, eyes twinkling on the visions of starvation. For a second, just one glimmering second, I taste bread, I can savor wine just on the tip of my tongue.
Monday, August 10, 2708
May God forgive us for the scanting of our funerals. I told the children to roll the latest dead into the ravine, then dump down on them whatever earth and rubble we can scrape from the frozen ground, and let the snow finish the rest; we ache from even that much labor and the thin air dizzies us more than it should. I have chipped names into the granite above the dead; I hope that I’ve named them all. Is this our punishment for leaving the enemy dead unburied at Mountain Maiden’s Knees?
Father Man has become so gaunt that he looks gouged out of slumping clay. We have no idea how long he went without food before arriving here, or what else he might have survived. Except for dragging himself to the canyon’s brink for funerals, he seldom moves all day, though sometimes he hums to himself.
And the deciduous trees down there have lost their leaves, every last one of them, just like that. I look down on skeleton twigs and naked boughs. No hidden paradise after all.
I hear the shrilling of the dardies, swooping down for their bounty; I toss a stone in their direction. Shut up. I don’t need critics right now, thank you very much.