IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume V: Sharing Insanity
Thursday, November 26, 2708
(How long since we’ve seen any buildings, any sign of humanity at all? I begin to feel suspicious of Elmer as we push uphill through the woods behind him, the incline steep beneath us and our legs sooo aware of it. I feel dreadfully exposed, despite our isolation, with the branches bare around us. We’d be such easy pickings! At least the recent snow has made soggy the formerly crunchy leaves underneath, muffling our footfalls.
Where do such paranoid thoughts come from? I’d hear and see any enemy long before they reached firing range. I walk with a lighter step, trusting my reflexes. Picking up on poor Elmer again, I suppose. He might not be violent, but he’s always afraid. Not to mention saturated with magentine. They do say that with enough exposure it can get in your bones, merged with the calcium there.
But my oh my I sure would like a bit of a rest!)
“Are you sure?” Tanjin asks me, clasping my hand before I can climb back up onto Steddy. “We’ve just set up camp, Deirdre. You need rest. They’ll still be there at their own camp later, all night long.”
I nod, wishing I could listen to him. “I have to get there before Kiril goes into Sarge’s tent for the night.”
He pulls me into his embrace. His face draws close, his lips almost brush mine, but then he turns his head away. I just hang onto him, shuddering, trying not to weep, feeling my weakness, the shaking legs, the shaking heart, and my loathing at the thought of leaving those arms, of climbing up onto the horse and going back to work.
“Aw Deirdre, I wish I could draw a nice hot bath for you—you’re shivering!”
I force a smile. “Just one last residual chill after the fever,” I say. “But it’s mostly over. I’ll be okay.”
“Until the next time,” he mutters, but he gives me a leg up onto Steddy’s back. I wave as I leave, and refrain from crying until I’ve ridden out of sight. Weak, weak, weak!
(Zanne, you are not that weak, girl! Look at all of these civilians plugging gamely on because of the example you set—don’t you dare let them down with a moment’s faltering. You can pamper yourself half to death later, after the mission is over.
As if picking up on my thoughts (as he probably does!) Elmer says “There’s a hot spring near here.” He chortles. “Gave myself a good soaking there, when I came up. Stinks like the devil’s piss-pot, no good for the tourists, not on the maps, but oh it sure felt fine to a poor old body like mine, after what I’d been through.”
How appealing—and interesting. One seldom thinks of this region in terms of geothermal activity, but it has its hotspots. These mountains didn’t come from nowhere, after all.
Ohhh, but my limbs still feel like splitting wood!)
With the big gray horse tethered a safe distance away, I watch the camp down there, below the tree that I perch in, close enough to smell their campfire and hear the crackling logs, but not so close that the light falls on me, or the warmth can touch me, either. A guard passes right below my bough; I freeze, thinking like wood, like I’ve got bark for skin, sticky with the springtime flow of sap. It convinces, at least, the ants who crawl right over my arm, inches from my nose...and it passes for the soldier, too—look how he’s got his eyes on the ground, searching anxiously in the gloom before each step. But I don’t let my breath out till he passes.
(A-L-I-S-O. Here’s how it looks all in capitals. And here’s how it looks with one capital and the rest all small print. And here’s how it looks written in cursed or curvish or whatever they call it. Why do they have so many ways to write the same thing?)
I drop from my bough, as silent as a hunting cat, and make my way into camp, shadow by shadow, unseen. I know the rhythms of these soldiers better than my own troop by now; I dance with their fears, in and out between the canvas walls, knowing when each head will turn, each glance will raise or drop, and my heart beats fast like love, caught in the romance of knowing men so well, and in the fear of the gunfire that one misstep would bring. To the very heart of the camp I penetrate, where the tallest, most important tents cluster, back-to-back like musk-oxen circling to protect themselves. But that just makes it easier for me to slip into the hidden center unseen, the eye of peace and safety in our hurricane of war. One of these has got to be the munitions tent. How did Kiril describe it again? Look for a patch over the ridgepole...
(I hear them some ways before I see them, around that stone-block corner up ahead, in the bad-boy nook where I had hoped to find Jake. At first I catch just a faint hiss of young male voices trying not to be heard, muffled by the new snowfall. But slowly it comes clearer.
Aaron demands, “How much more poison do you think you can take, Changewright? Do you have any idea how bad you look right now?”)
A hoarse, high voice says, “It’s bad, Kiril—really bad.” Is that Lufti? “I’m in big trouble.” Yes—how’n’earth?
“I know, you lunkhead,” whispers Kiril’s voice—from the tent with the red crosses on it, luminous with candle-light showing their silhouettes. “Riding straight into the enemy camp blasted out of your mind wasn’t your most brilliant move.” Good God!
“Not that,” he says. “I’ve ridden the horses of the dead—too hard. I’ve danced with the dead and slept with the dead. I drank their wine.”
“What you drank was too much chaummin, mixing it with leaf.” Ohhhh, Lufti!
(“No, no,” Aaron insists. “You don’t need any more of that.”
“I do need it, Aaron! I need to see more—something’s eluding me.”
I hear the shattering of glass and smell the sharp perfume of kusmet mixed with herbs. “I said NO!”
George shouts, “Who are you to...”
“I’m the only real friend you’ve got, that’s who! Not just worship you, not just obey you, I’m the one who loves you enough to tell you things that you don’t want to hear!”
“Then let me...”
“Let you what, George? You sweat blood! Remember that? It wasn’t so long ago. You’ve got to ease up.”
“It’s not up to me anymore! It’s...”
“Shut up, you!” I hear him growl in a kind of furious tenderness.)
Kiril tells Lufti, “You’ll feel better soon. sweetie. Your system just needs to clear itself out.”
“No! THEY watch me.”
“Who? The soldiers? I can handle...”
“The stars. They’re really eyes. Eyes of all the dead in the heavens. They watch me even now—right straight through the tent.” I hear the rawness, the tremble. Just how badly did the kid manage to damage himself?
“They are not eyes. Deirdre told me so. They’re just big balls of fire.”
“Fiery eyes? Oh Lord! Kiril, I’m not safe!”
“No, you’re not—unless you follow my lead exactly.” Good girl, Kiril—take control of the situation. “Do as I say and I’ll make sure that nothing bad happens to you.”
“But Kiril, oh, sweet Kiril—it’s even worse than that!” I watch her shadow on the canvas take his bony shape into her rounded arms. “Kiril, I...I feel death in me. Deep, dark death. My power has withered. All the glory, all the strength, all happiness...nothing left but grave-dust...I, I think it’s too late already.”
“It’s not too late—don’t say such things! You’re very much alive—I can feel your heart beat.”
“Yeah, but it beats all wrong.” Sweet Jesus—no. Not that, no, no, please...
“Doc’ll fix you up just fine, Lufti.” No he won’t. This disability will not go away.
I hear the young boy sigh and murmur on her shoulder, “I used to be a god...”
(I come around the corner. “Keep it down, you two! The teachers might h...” and then I catch them in the act of kissing. I throw up my hands and cry, “Sorry, sorry, none of my business.” Aaron’s arms stay around George but he glares over the boy’s shoulder at me.
“You!” he hisses. “Haven’t you Lumne bastards done enough harm? I know it was you three who took the rug—you burned it!” With one arm still around George, he reaches into his pocket and pulls out a pebble of magentine and a brief grin of hatred twists his face. “I know, Randy! I know what you did.”
I stop my retreat and look at him levelly, and say simply, “Maybe you’re not the only one who loves George enough to say no to him,”
“You don’t know anything about it!”)
They say nothing more for now, their shapes blurred together as she comforts him. I sit in the dirt and stare into my hands—did I do this to him? No—I can’t bear any blame in this, surely. He sought Cyran before he ever met me—I remember that perfectly well.
And I remember training him to fight. I, the adult, who should have known better.
I remember the very first time he killed—in my defense.
I remember sharing alcoholic drinks with him. To excess.
I remember putting leaf in his mouth and telling him to chew.
I remember sending him into battle after battle after battle...
I remember, very specifically, sending this child on a mission that could break an adult...
God damn you Deirdre! Damn you to the deepest, darkest Hell!
(I clasp my hands and hang my head, saying nothing, just listen to Aaron rant at me in spitting whispers. Then when he winds down I say, as humbly as I can, “I know at least what it means to love a mystic, to watch over him, to try and keep him from self-destructing, and to, to break my heart seeing him hurt anyway, no matter what I do.” His gaze softens a little. “You take first place with George—I’ll give you that, no question. But Aaron, I know what it’s like.” And with that I turn and leave. Maybe Jake’s at the library.)
I tremble where I sit; I look up again and see the shadow tremble, too—or is that just the candle flickering?
“It’s no good, Kiril. I’m supposed to be dead.” I am, you mean—I’m the one who deserves to die.
“Hush! Don’t say such things!” I watch a shadow face merge with a shadow face...
“What’s going on here!” I leap to my feet at the sight of a third shape—adult sized!
“Reno! I was just, I was just, I, I, he just needed, I...”
“That is not how a sister kisses a brother, Kiril. You lied to us.”
“Okay! I lied. I had to. What else could I do? Do you think Sarge would lift a finger to save my lover?”
“Sarge needs to see me as a little girl—it’s safer that way. You know that, Reno. You know what soldiers do to women. You know what soldiers do to girls, too, sometimes, but at least Sarge hasn’t stooped so low.”
“You can’t...Kiril...what are you?”
“Sit down, Reno—you look awful.” And I watch the grown-up shadow sit down obediently. “Are you...you’re not jealous, are you, Reno?”
“I...no! I just never thought of you that way, Kiril.”
“I served on a ship, Reno, as a galley-scullion. I was the youngest, the weakest on board. Do you know what that means?”
“Oh my God...”
Slowly, sadly she says, “I have always been this way.”
“Tell me who made you so hard, Kiril, and I swear I will personally strangle...” then the voice chokes on a sob. And suddenly I recognize the voice in that sob: the man who kissed me in the bar.
“Do you really want to know, Reno?” she finally asks, when he doesn’t finish his sentence. “The system did this. The system that starved my mother, that forced my father to sell me to a ship just to keep his only child alive. The system that said my rights didn’t matter on that ship, because I had no votes. The system that makes sure that I will never get to go to school or get a job good enough to fetch me votes enough to matter. The system that made Lufti’s parents send him out on the road before their master could work him to death. The system that drove my lover mad.”
“The system that drove you to join the army just to have any hope at all of ever voting, though you’re not a killing man. The system that demands you do things so horrible that you don’t dare talk about them.”
“That’s rebel talk, Kiril!” Yeah—back off, girl! Don’t blow your cover. Then I hear her sobs.
“I’m so sorry, Reno. It’s just that everything’s so bad right now I don’t know half of what I’m saying—my boyfriend’s lost his mind and his health and maybe I’m losing my mind, too!” Good save—especially since the tears are real.
The larger shadow merges with the other two and I hear the tears of three. “It’s a bad, bad world,” Reno agrees softly. “Blossoms fall in the gutter and the flow of filth swirls them away.”
In a soft, tremulous voice I hear Kiril say, “Oh, how I wish we could do something about it!” Oh, the girl’s a master!
She’s also right. “I wish...” I’m not making one damn thing better in this country, no more than Jonathan could. We all just keep on wishing.
But I have a war to conduct—if only because I can think of no better hope than that.
(Elmer hasn’t said much for a long time, just leading the way. Night has long since fallen, but instead of settling for a place to set up camp, he speeds up, his obvious stiffness and aching notwithstanding. We must be close indeed.)
I wait, it seems forever, till Reno leaves, give it a couple more heartbeats till I’m sure none watch my path, then duck into the tent myself.
“Deirdre!” they both gasp, but hissing-quiet. Lufti grabs his chest; I drop to his side immediately and push my ear against him. Yes, I can hear the faint murmur, but I think he’s stable for now. Who am I kidding? I haven’t the foggiest notion of how much deviation a heart can take.
“It’s okay,” I tell him softly as I pull him into my lap. “Whatever happened, I don’t blame you, Lufti—I should never have sent you out on such a hard...”
“But I succeeded!”
“He did,” Kiril affirms, when I glance to her for a sane opinion. “He got word to Cyran by way of Damien, who’s changing the whistle codes and spreading the news for us. And Cyran sent him back here to help me steal the right papers and to teach me to read ‘A-l-i-s-o’.”
“I see. How long can you keep him here?”
“Till the sores on his butt heal up.” They tell me, then of the hellish ride that I put him through and why he needed to knock himself silly just to get through it. I am definitely, no mistake about it, going straight to Hell.
So I might as well see my damnation through to the end, and take as many enemy soldiers with me as I can—to hell with Tilián scruples. What does my upbringing matter when I've lost God?
(Elmer turns at a point where a single root system sends up two trunks. I think I can see openness ahead of us. Then I know I can. Then we come to a cliff, and stare past the trees at last.
“There,” he growls, gesturing with a shaky hand over a gorgeous valley, golden with the season. “My mistress lives and works down there. Or did.”
“It’s beautiful!” Cybil exclaims, and the others nod. A mansion, nestled into the cliff directly below us, raises delicate towers in cookie-beige with white stone corners, linked by arched bridges with lacy white balustrades, the doors and gumdrop stained-glass windows framed in chocolate-brown sills and lintels, the structure roofed in tiles of the rosy local clay. The wind up the cliff carries a Christmasy aroma of fresh-baked sugar and spice niceness that makes my mouth water.
“Aye,” Elmer growls. “It’s a pretty hell.”)
I tell them of my need for arms and ammunition—more than I can pick up on solitary raids like this. Just as well I spoke to Kiril—the tent with the patch over the ridgepole now holds oxen-feed; they never unpack the munitions-wagon anymore, but surround it by the tents of men, always keeping some awake. This will take more work. So we arrange for an exchange of notes in a certain seldom-used canister in the cook’s wagon—Sarge hates white rice and never refills it. Kiril knows how to weaken the guards for me on the night that we shall arrange; she’ll take care of everything. She looks so soft, now, so different from the scrawny little allycat that I first met, but I don’t think mountain maidens come this hard.
“I can't tell you how proud I am of you, girl!” I exclaim at last as I embrace her alien plumpness. “No one else could have done as well with what you had.” Then I hug Lufti and he feels like too firm a squeeze could snap his bones. “And you, my brave little soldier—you did whatever you had to to get the message through.” Martyr for the cause. Our living, breathing ghost, and still not mustered out.
I steal back out into the night, mission accomplished. I hug the shadows because some creatures do not belong to light.