IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume V: Sharing Insanity
Tuesday, November 3, 2708
(I’m back home, in Ishkal, that sad little rock of an island where I grew up. The windows rattle with a storm, as we run about, trying to put something under every leak waiting for my father to come home and fix the roof again. I hear water patter into hollow-voiced pans and pots and vases all over the hut. Buckets, too, and basins, but not nearly enough. It’s going to be one of those nights where we don’t get any sleep, running around changing vessels, braving the door to dump them out into the icy blast, getting nearly as much back in our faces again. Thunder hammers at us, and lightning makes all things strange and startling.
The lightning flashes, and I see my mother naked. She must have gotten out of bed in too much haste to dress, to try and save our furnishings from rain. And then the lightning flashes again and I see her fleshless—a skeleton, fighting the flood with inadequate little teapots and cups and whatever comes to hand. And then darkness and a flash—and we stand face to face, the skull grinning at me!
I wake with a cry, in the Headmaster’s suite, safe from all that, miles and miles away. Bad dreams—grown men don’t bother with them. I grope for the lamp and the matches, and regard the clock. Hours yet, till dawn.
And I hear the windows, still rattling, the rain still pelting the roof. I venture out of bed to stare out the window into the flashes of lightning that make the campus strange. A storm, blowing up from the south by the looks of it, out of Vanikke. We shouldn’t have a storm—the weather report said so. I shiver in the dark like a little boy, scared that the nightmare didn’t stop with waking.)
* * *
(I wake, my face pillowed on a pile of chamois, in the forgotten room, left to dust and decay in the quarter where nobody else in the school can even look. I had dreams full of thunder and they still roll and crackle in my head.
I sit up on the floor, gazing on the old treadle sewing-machine abandoned there. Did they leave so hastily that they couldn’t even take something that valuable with them? We could have used this.
My head aches; the storm will not clear from it. I have to pull myself together, to attend classes as if nothing happened, keep my grades up and the teachers favoring me. But they’re slipping, aren’t they? Everything’s slipping.
Well, what did you expect with change? It’s not always going to go smoothly. I pick myself up off the floor, rummage for the change of clothes that I keep handy…and notice how many of the chamois pieces now connect with each other. I vaguely remember sewing. That happens sometimes, in these sessions. I must have fallen from the chair, there, and landed on my work.
I glance fondly over at the sewing machine. Does it still remember the touch of her hands? Did she guide me at the stitches? Is her spirit still in there somewhere, the way she used to be? Will what I do give it back to her?)
* * *
At dawn some of us clean up the dirty dishes and bottles and debris, while others brush out the borders of the “grave” and strew forest litter back upon the once-bare ground. As the leader, I pile resinous wood against the “headstone”, then set it all on fire, to purify the rock and release its connection to the dead. The flames look pale against the rising light—as pale as memories that you should never forget, but do. Wearily, the others gather to warm themselves beside me after a long and especially chilling night. I look up and see that snow has fallen on the peaks lower down than usual for this time of year. The sharp, sweet scent of smoke spirals upward till the winds snatch at it and whip it all away.
* * *
(In the morning the men take up the flag. Oh dear Lord—that’s the very flag we march under! Then they never release their dead like we do? They’re there, all of them, tethered to that thin bit of rag, fluttering in the slightest breeze? I shiver—and I thought the Charadocian army only oppressed the living!
Fat sizzles in the skillet as I fry up batter for the morning bread; the smell brings me back to here and now. Better for us, then, if their ghosts aren’t as free as ours when battle comes. But from now on, every time we win, whenever I get a chance, I’m gonna burn their flag. Surely the dead won’t fight against us if we’re the ones who set them free.)
* * *
(I wake up shivering in my sleeping-bag, not wanting to poke my nose out beyond the fleece. I open my eyes to a blurry, frost-bitten forest, the leaves losing their last, vivid colors as the temperature just keeps dropping more and more. I hear the clatter of Cybil’s pans and the crackle of flames—brave dear, to get up before the rest of us to fix us breakfast. We need to find some better solution than this.
But not living in some house full of death, not like that last one. Even the most skeptical among us agreed; we left as soon as the storm blew north. We couldn’t stay there.)
* * *
(I wake up cold and stiff on the trampled ground. I ache—Oh God save me how I hurt, like I never have in my entire life! Every muscle of my body—did the ghosts get to me for not dancing all night long? And hungry—sick hungry, like I’ll die if I don’t find food, but I can barely move, I don’t think I could even crawl back to the road. And thirsty even more than hungry—thirsty as hell on a hot summer day, thirsty till my head aches like a hangover...sweet Virgin Mary save my soul! I didn’t drink with the dead last night, did I? I don’t remember. I do not remember one single fornicatin’ detail of how or why I stopped dancing or how the night ended! Good Lord—I must have taken the forbidden draught!
So why do I still live? Maybe I’m dying. Maybe that’s why I feel so bad. Maybe it’s no use even trying to move. If I stay still, the cold will become normal and I will die, join all my dead friends and have nothing more to do.
Stuff that. Cyran depends on me. Deirdre sent me out with a job to do. And Kiril...it would break Kiril’s heart. Sit up, you stupid ass—sit up!
Can’t. Feels warmer to lie here. Feels warmer all the time...nice…
Footsteps trudge towards me. Don’t care anymore. Could be all the Charadoc’s soldiers and ol’ Whitesleeves at their head. But what can they do to the dead?
“Look, Marta—see, the dream told the truth!”
“Leave him, Ben—what good can come of what you dream when you fall asleep like you shouldn’t on All Soul’s Night?”
Arms lift me up, crackling the frozen sweat—I cry in pain!
“There there,” he says. “You don’t know your own benefit.” To the woman he says, “What harm can come of a little feller like this?”
“I don’t want to find out, Benomi Marst! Put him back down—don’t you go bringin' him into our house!”
“What, leave him here to die?” I feel the man turn to face someone, but I can’t open my eyes anymore. “You think that’s all right, but falling asleep in the rites is bad?” I feel motion, swaying—he walks with me in his arms, and I hear his woman’s steps crunch the frost beside us. “Kid’s half-dead from hypo—what’s it called?”
“Hy-po-thermy. That’s what Medic used to say.”
“Yeah, that. I don’t know how he survived the night, with the cold come back and all. Heaven knows how he managed—you saw that bird fallen by the path, frozen dead.”
“Don’t sound canny, that he lives. Heaven knows, you say? Maybe it’s the other place that knows. I don’t like it, Ben—‘specially with you falling asleep and all.”
“Maybe God willed that I fall asleep to dream of finding him here.”
“Don’t sound like no angel guided you, neither—an ugly, scarred-up woman looking almost like a man, you said. Some ghosts come from Hell, Ben, and you shouldn’t listen to ‘em.”
“That whiff of apple-blossoms didn’t come from Hell.”
Can it be? “Lucinda...” I moan from cracked lips. They halt abruptly.
“What’s that, son?”
“Lucinda...always lookin’ out for me. Ugly face...beau’ful heart.”
“Live or dead, son?”
“Dead, now. Live once.” I open my eyes and look up at him, my head a little clearer, just for hope. “What man or woman do you serve, sir?”
The peasant’s eyes widen. Then he says, “Neither and both.”
I sigh and relax in his arms. “Then I’m in good hands,” I say, right before falling back asleep.)
* * *
(I don’t care if the men reproach me. Falling on the enemy in the midst of their feast gave us a quick and easy victory, stamping out an entire band at once. They ought to thank me. Shouldn’t it suffice that I let them have their mass?
I wish I could feel the comfort of the common people, in their yearly rituals of bereavement and release. It did seem to help, in the brief ceremony that I’d allowed, to speak of Jordan last night, who died in uniform for The Cause. Yet something in me burned at the lie, knowing that he really died for love of me.
I remember the old nanny at his wake. She stank of it, but I’d had a bit too much, myself, my youth notwithstanding. She shouldn’t have even been there, in her thin black sleeves, but people made allowances for the grievous circumstance; she had loved Jordan from his infancy.
She had looked at me with pure hatred. She knew why his captain had sent him on that suicide mission. “Your kind of love would burn a man alive!” she hissed, and then she tottered away, leaving me too stunned to reply, and too young and unsure of myself to ask anyone else to rebuke her for the horrid breach of protocol.
I consider her words, now, as I sit here by the campfire, pushing together, with the silly sabre that officers must wear, the chunks of wood that haven’t taken flame yet. Sparks fly up and vanish into night, like the souls of men in battle. It’s just something the peasants say about troublesome women, who seduce and betray and lead men to their ruin, just for the excitement. I didn’t deserve that. I wasn’t even a woman; if anybody should’ve been ashamed, it should have been Jordan.
No. I don’t believe that. Forgive me, Jordan. I know what I am. I have never let myself love another man. Play the physical games, yes, but not love.
Oh come on, Layne! Trying to think like the rebels has made you superstitious. Shake it off! Jordan can’t forgive you, nor condemn you. Jordan is no more. And it doesn’t matter who I burn alive, for there is no judgment day. We have nothing but now. We might as well make the most of it.
I sigh, and sip my tea, wishing I had something stronger, something to fend off the cold of this night, thinking of the warmth and comfort of the suite I had in my mother’s home. How, exactly, do I make the most of life out here, huddled by a fire, shivering off the day’s battle and bracing myself for the next?
A camp-follower comes up, the little washer-woman with the choker of cheap mountain garnets, poorly cut. “You look sad, Ma’am”, she says, and part of me melts a little at the sympathy, coming from a fellow woman, a non-soldier with whom I can relax—even if she is just Mountainfolk, maybe even especially. “Forgive me, if I’m out of place, but do you want to talk about it?”
I shake my head, but I smile. “Just regretting a foolish love, long ago.”
She smiles back, gently. “We’ve all been young and stupid, Ma’am. That’s how we learn and grow wise.”
“Kind of you,” I say, and finish the tea. It doesn’t help at all.
“Chamomile,” she says. “I can smell it. It’s supposed to cheer the heart and aid in sleep, but it’s never worked for me. Does it work for you?”
Then she leans down and whispers, “I know herbs that do.”
For a second her garnets, glinting in the firelight, look like drops of blood. Then I push aside the silly notion and say, “Tell me more, darling.”
It’s all pointless anyway. At least I could have a good night’s rest.)
* * *
The sacred rites of the night before have put me into a mystical mood, but I mustn’t let that interfere with a good bit of work—no better time to act than now, as twilight deepens back to night again. The warmer the weather, the more the report comes around from the country people that the army raids their cold-cellars for the blocks of ice that folk gathered all winter to keep their summer-food. I myself have watched, from a distance, how the foolish soldiers pack their dead comrades in a cart full of portable winter, though the stench has begun to grow and they can hardly force the oxen to the yoke anymore.
We have sent enough corpses to those fine, military graveyards so far away; the time has come to liberate these dead. So, after asking all in my troop to blow tobacco-smoke over me for the protection of my soul, I slip out into a night nearly as chill as the last, and just a wee bit darker as the moon continues to wane.
Carefully I calculate trajectories. The mountain roads still run steep, here in The Midlands, and skirt many a cliff on their winding paths. Some ways downhill from the camp of the enemy, I grope along the ground and find the wagon ruts, then dig them to a different curve, gouging the earth with my knife, feeling rather than seeing what I do. I move rocks as large as I can bear to key positions. I think my own ghosts oblige in stirring up a wind so loud that it drowns out my huffing and puffing, though it cuts so cold through my sweat that it burns. Oh please, my dear, dead ones, so recently feted, be on my side tonight and guard me from the spirits of my foes! I pray, but I can’t control my shivering over what I’m about to do.
Now for it. I wipe my palms off on my hips and calm myself the Tilián way, tuning in to the rhythmless rhythms of nature till I can do the thing I came for. Silently I steal to the camp, by now so practiced at dodging guards that I hardly feel any fear at all. This entire land slopes; there is no level place. I see that I have calculated right. I cross myself, then dive under the stinking cart, release the break, and give a little push. As I slip away again, a shadow behind a passing guard’s back, I hear the first wooden groans behind me build up momentum as gravity does the rest.
Horrified soldiers pop out of their tents to watch their dead roll past them unassisted by any hand that they can see, faster and faster and no man dares step forward to stop it as their late comrades abandon them, offended, perhaps, by some mis-step of the living on the night before. Now the cart jumps and skips it goes so fast, stiff limbs jerking with every jolt as zippers twitch open and body-bags split wide—and the cart swerves as though steered, they all see it swerve uncannily right over the cliff, spilling at last the sullen corpses to tumble beyond all reach.
In daylight their leader might well discover the rocks I moved, the ruts new-dug. And it won’t matter one bit. At least half the soldiers won’t believe his explanation, no matter what evidence he finds. They will have their own explanations, and they will whisper these to each other the minute he turns his back.
People think that terrorism is about killing, about blowing things and people up. Some have done it that way. But it’s really about terror—pure, ungodly terror.
May God and the ghosts forgive me!