IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
On the Brink
Wednesday, August 12, 2708
Mid-flight I face the truth. The way is far. I’ll need a swift return. I must allow myself the last dried fragment of a leaf, confiscated from Cyran’s store, for the journey. So little will not do me harm. Luckily, I had the foresight to see this possibility, and have it in my pocket. So I drop from the clouds to a thin, eroded spire of the mountain’s stone.
I teeter on my pinnacle to chew the greenfire as I survey a world of dawn-flushed ice and granite. My blood pulses with the need for more air—up here in this world of air! My pine-bough flit embraces me, yet still I feel the urge to raise my arms as though I had wings instead, slowly up above my head, waiting for the moment when I will suddenly sweep them down, pushing off from gravity. The mind makes flight possible; I picture feathers, coppery feathers of the eagle fanning from my skin. I become bird as much as woman. For a few unsteady seconds I balance on this spear of rock, then—down I dive!
A tundra landscape tumbles up to me, yet I level out before it can smash me. I swoop up again, dip low, skim the breezes, following the slope of the land—here, on the other side of this mountain, where I would gather troops if I worked for the government. Silent, save for the ripple of gunmetal blue and pale gray silk that Deni sewed for me, I slide through the thinness of the air, my eyes alert for prey.
Even my own don’t know where I’ve gone; the newcomer majority don’t even know that I can fly. Alone, I keep my own kingdom up here in the nothingness. Not even thoughts follow me; they think I’ve gone to gather wood. No one knows, then, to wish me well or ill; I touch naught at any point, I go free. When I fly, I truly disappear.
There...I see them! (A shudder runs down my spine.) Far below spreads the enemy encampment. (I feel a sudden stab of fear, no particular reason.) (Mmmm, that breakfast sausage sure smells good!) Cyran did right to march at speed, any way e could. (All this way, back up the empty mountainside again, just because it’s our luck to march under an officer with ovaries instead of brains. Every crying muscle in my body hates her!)
I find it the simplest thing in the world to spy on the layout of their defenses; complications only await those who walk upon the ground. (Nothing to fear out here, at least. Thank God we follow a pretty little fool who doesn’t know where the real battles wait.) Quite a good set-up—not a wise idea, then, to waste soldiers on a preemptive strike. (All that effort wasted on securing our perimeter—from what?) Better to let them come on, then, struggling uphill, breaking themselves against our stones. (Ghosts. Nothing but ghosts up here. But all the guns in the world cannot defend us from them.)
I circle as the dardie does, easy on the air. My hair floats in a cloud of darkness, in and out of my sight—I am the angel of their death! (Reno looks as if he’s seen a ghost. Again. But he gets all sorts of notions in that Mountainfolk head of his.) Look up for a second, oh just a second, you consigned to earthly paths, and witness the omen of your ruin, writ upon the sky! (My neck prickles, but I resist the impulse to glance upward. I’d look a fool, scanning the clouds for ghosts.) Oh, I fly so close, just beyond your reach, a few scant yards from being one of you—but you can’t see that, can you?
No. People follow their habits. (Now that’s what I call a breakfast! One good thing about General Aliso: she demands the best from the cooks.) They go their rounds with eyes on the same old level, to look at what they’ve seen a thousand times. (I did not did not did not did not see anything up there, from the corner of my eye. No wafting shadow, rippling on the wind, no no no no.) It’d take so little to discover me; that’s the real mystery.
I spy more than the shape of their encampment—the nature of their arms (some of them, anyway; I suspect that most of the armament waits in that tent over there) (Waste of firepower, hauling all this fine gear far from the battle-lines) the vehicles they use, even the unconscious groupings of the soldiers and what these have to say about morale. (It doesn’t matter what rank she gives me, the men will always call me Sarge, no matter how large the troop. I don’t mind a bit; it’s because they love me. Higher titles breed suspicion.) The aroma of their morning meal wafts up to me: beans and sausages. (I’m glad to see the troops get a good feed for a change—a woman’s touch, I guess.) It makes me hunger to walk among men once more—but what need have I of that! I catch the updraft of their cookfire and spiral heavenward with the smoke, hot and fragrant and chokingly human. (Why do I suddenly feel a sigh of relief well up?) I leave in the grip of a merriment steeped in insolence.
What was it that the old Greeks called bird-women, back on that planet fraught with myths? Harpies. That’s right, now I remember. Harpies.
* * *
(“Toulinian folklore has taken a curious turn in recent generations,” Jake reads aloud in his deep, soft voice, which never ceases to thrill me. “Formerly they told children’s bedtime stories of fairies flying to the rescue with gifts, but over the past fifty years these have taken on a more harpy-like aspect, sweeping down to punish evildoers.” He looks up from the book, as Don cleans up the breakfast dishes. “That’s a clue, right there. Why the change?”
Don murmurs, “Guilt,” over the clink and splash of dishes in the sink.
I push up from my chair, looking out the porthole at overcast skies. Not another storm, I hope! “So maybe whatever’s going on started about fifty years ago,” I say, wiping up the table. “Some guilty secret.” Jake always spills a bit of raspberry jam, every single morning. Dear, messy man!
Don shudders, saying, “Alroy used to make the most use of a guilty conscience.”
Jake looks up at him keenly. “Why do you remember him now?” But Don just shrugs and goes out to draw up the anchor.
“No storm this time,” Jake says, rising, unaware, as usual, when he picks up on my thoughts. “That’ll wait till after we make landfall.” It dawns on me that he doesn’t speak about the weather.)
* * *
So tiny a bit of greenfire leaf wears off fast, and my blood-sugar comes close to crashing, besides. I feel a bit unreal as I swoop down towards our camp; at first they look so tiny, almost theoretical. Then the people get bigger and more detailed and more real and before I know it my feet scuff against the dirt and I find myself back on the ground again, one of them. I make a point to light out of line of sight, though, behind the north wall; it occurs to me that everyone who knows that I can fly can potentially breech my security. Quietly I fold up my flit and stash it in my pack.
Beans bubble for breakfast; no sausage, but you can’t have everything. I survey the slope. On my orders, people continue to build low walls beyond the chapel, trampling the snow into mud as they work, then scooping up more mud to make quick puddle-adobe structures reinforced with every remaining rock and branch that they can scrounge: the front lines before the main fortress. Freezing will have to take the place of curing, but it should work out.
I must have known. I think I did know, when I gave my orders, at the back of my mind. Sometimes I’d swear that I can feel it when the enemy breathes down my neck. Is hatred as intimate a love?
No. Hatred means the complete absence of mutual understanding. But otherwise, yes. Your whole life can wrap around it.
I go up to Kiril where she stirs the pot—chopping in the last of the good, imported sausage from the smuggler’s store, bless her heart! She looks up at me. “Normally I’d brown it in the pot first, but then I’d have to cool the pot all over again and start the beans late.” She sighs. “You just can’t do food justice on the march.”
“Give Marduk a double ration,” I tell her and everybody within earshot freezes where they stand. “Cyran—you want your command back?”