IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume VI: The Rift
The Return Trip Begins
Deirdre curled in her bed, then slowly straightened again, feeling the luxury of clean sheets and fresh blankets. She opened her eyes to a ceiling of green slats. After a moment’s disorientation, she remembered the hostel. She had checked in when her debriefing session had overrun its time. She yawned, sat up, and shoved her tangled hair out of her face as she swung her legs off of the bed...
...straight into a roommate. “Sorry,” she mumbled, trying to rub the haze out of her eyes, but really, she could barely open them. She kept bumping into people as she stumbled to the bathroom. Voices layered upon voices, canceling each other out. Footsteps, bumping luggage, and all manner of other clatter crowded her desire for solitude. Quite a party must have arrived late last night; she had found the hostel half empty when she’d gone to bed.
A splash of cold water should do the trick, she thought, to help her open her eyes fully, but the crowds kept getting in the way. Sanzio hogged one of the sinks; he kept washing his shirt, kneading and kneading the sudsy white fabric. At the next sink down Rashid washed blood off his hands, but Deirdre knew that what he really wanted was to get his fingers soapy enough to squeeze that ring off.
“Come on to breakfast,” Malcolm called. “You’re too skinny!”
“In a minute,” Deirdre called back.
“Hurry up,” Malcolm insisted, “Before we eat it all and leave you nothing.” Somewhere Damien strummed off key till, weeping, he broke off altogether. At the next sink a slender, somewhat feminine young man raised an obsidian razor to shave.
“Don’t,” Deirdre said, reaching out to him. “Not while your hand shakes like that...” but he raised the razor anyway and cut his face off.
And Deirdre jolted awake, gasping. She looked around at the rows of empty beds, and listened to a lone pair of slippers slapping down the hall. Just another dream.
* * *
The hostel stood only a short stroll away from the little cottages in their village of officialdom. The sea-breeze came in chill but fresh, waking her up the rest of the way. She walked into the debriefing-room without a word, hung the sweater on a hook, and went right for the chair.
Justín asked, “Would you like to discuss what...”
“I ate breakfast, just like you said to,” Deirdre interrupted, staring straight ahead without a glance for him. “Eggs Alonzo Valley style, with shredded beef in them, peppers, tomatoes, and onion. They don’t serve anything like that in the Charadoc. So I could eat it, you know. I could be miles and miles away, and eat. I can have three meals a day, now, if I want to. I even had toast with it. With butter.”
“Good for you, Deirdre.” When he sat across from her, slipping the band onto his brow, she couldn’t avoid meeting his gaze any longer. The eyes did not look sleepy today, but downright fierce in their intensity. She saw the sweat bead underneath the band; one droplet streaked down the side of his face like a tear.
Carefully she said, “Now would not be the best time to withdraw, in the middle of an interrogation.”
He grinned at her, wolfishly. “I wouldn’t show any serious symptoms for a day or two. I just want to test myself. You inspire me. I want to see just how much I can stand to feel.” Then the smile faded. “And Deirdre, it’s debriefing, not interrogation.”
“Whatever,” she replied. “Turn on the music.”
Friday, December 18, 2708
For a short stretch we can march down the broad, open road, through a “rebel controlled zone”–a farmland village low on the government’s priorities to take back just yet. We go well-clad, for citizens have dropped off donated clothing on Zofia’s doorstep; my heels slip around inside boots too big for them but just right for my toes (and when did I lose my fine, tailored boots, anyway?) and Tanjin wears a blazingly red flannel shirt underneath his dirty brocade vest, for the mountains stay cool even this close to solstice. We carry our arms on our shoulders proudly, and sing rebel songs out loud all together, and it almost sounds grand. We have more deep voices among the high ones than we used to, and that helps; recruitment has gone up yet again, for we took a whole troop out at once, and many in these Midlands have no direct masters to stop them. We fall into rhythm with each other without even trying. And the odd fieldhand sowing grain, or housewife thinning fruit-pips on the crowded twigs, or passing by with bundles of branches for firewood, all hail us, cheer us, salute us. And we feel so proud.
Or pretend to. I grin and wave and throw out my chest like it all means something, but my heart sinks at how rapidly this insurrection becomes a real war, sooner than we’re ready.
Sooner! How many generations have waited for this day? Sooner than I’m ready, maybe.
The sky remains an unrelenting gray that won’t make up its mind to rain or else part and let some sunshine in; by noon it traps in the heat like an oven lid, steaming us alive, and the clothes that made sense this morning seem ridiculous right now. I watch a drop of sweat run down the side of Tanjin’s face as he rolls up his sleeves with a blush, but he smiles anyway. Mud clogs the roads from the last rain, caking around our feet. The blossoms have fallen from the trees before I ever had a chance to appreciate them fully, and the world seems poorer for it. Summer becomes official in a few more days; it seems like a dull season to me, unadorned.
(I miss the summer, when we first arrived. I remember passing through a gorgeous forest. Now every leaf has fallen, and once again it snows. I’m supposed to be the cheery one, the one to remind the others that bare branches have their own shapely beauty. I just can’t find it in me today.
Jake walks to my left, and Don to my right; I feel like the middle of the letter H. We go across the campus to a big shed where “grown men” will supervise our chopping up the last of the salvageable beams and lintels, ironically for firewood. We’ll need a lot of it. Convenient, to have large students on detention for the job. Even if one of us has a rough throat.
“Sometimes,” Don says, “It seems like nothing happens at all, and then all of a sudden it all happens too fast.”
Jake glances over me at him, quizzically; Don’s picked up on something that he’s missed. Something we should have expected.
“I know how Alroy’s followers think,” he mutters, not looking us in the eye. “Whatever move George plans to make, whatever big one he’s building up to, he’ll launch it either for the Solstice or for Christmas Day. Maybe he’s got something up his sleeve for both. Alroy always liked to mess up other people’s holidays.”
Jake mutters, “Why couldn’t he wait for Hannukah—that doesn’t start till December 30.”
“No Jewish students to offend.”
They’ve already begun. I hear the axes thunking away in there, and smell the sawdust and the cinders. No power-tools here; that would make the school less self-sufficient. We come into the woodshed and see George already at it, doggedly turning big chunks of wood into little ones, with a grim rhythm like he’s letting out his anger, that black curl of his bouncing on his brow with every blow. Weatherbent won’t punish him for vandalism while out of his mind (especially since no one seems able to investigate the murder, or even remember that it happened) but George does have to pay for using drugs on campus.
He barely glances at us when we enter, then concentrates on the work again. No greeting, nothing. We saved his life. We betrayed him. We’re trying to save his soul. He might not want it saved, but then again he might. Maybe ditto for his life. Right now we don’t know where we stand with him.)
All too soon we reach less friendly territory and leave the road behind. Out here we don’t know where we stand from acre to acre. Not every farming village loves the revolution, and the government to some means peace and order and rewards for hard work. Little family plots gradually give way to plantations that can stretch to the horizon, and none of us expect their owners to sympathize with us, either.
Now we ghost from woodlot to woodlot, or slip under the canopy of willow-arches over chilly little streams of mountain-melt that flow from peaks that never fully thaw–a shock when we discover the holes in all our boots, contrasting the warmth that wraps the rest of us. The light through the pale willow leaves makes us look a sickly green.
Enough drear! I want to slap myself–some other time I might have appreciated the countryside through which I hike.
When the woodlots start to add up to a forest I order my troops to spread out, after teaching them a slightly off-key version of a pine-sparrow call with which to keep in touch with each other, chirping back and forth every so often across the distance, the way real birds do to track each other. It becomes confusing at times; enough actual sparrows stake out territory in the woods to mask us to others–but also nearly to ourselves. Yet rebel ears have long practice at these nuances.
Now I have no one left in my party save for Kiril, Lufti, and Tanjin. The ones I love, in all stupidity, unable to help myself. Kiril, still ill from the extremity to which I drove her by running myself into incompetence. Lufti, gone mad trying to fulfill the mission that I sent him on, barely healed enough to carry on my back. Tanjin with his corpselike arm. I have behaved with the arrogance of a god, and woe to those whom a god loves; the myths ring full of cautionary tales.
(“Woe to those who love a god,” George murmurs as he carries an armload of cordwood past me.
“Depends on the god,” I murmur back on his return. And then he looks at me, half-annoyed, half scared, before picking up his axe again.
Don takes his own turn carrying wood. “I once loved the Outlaw God,” he barely says, and on the return trip adds, “My friends rescued me.”
George lays his axe down, trembling. “I can’t do anymore,” he tells the supervising maintenance-man. “I…I think I need to go back to the infirmary for a lie-down.” And the man escorts him out, muttering “Damned druggie. What he needs is a good thrashing.”)
The foliage changes around us. No more greenfire for awhile, not for miles. I try to notice the different kinds of flowers, the verge-of-summer kind that grow amid the pines, but I keep catching myself scanning for bushes with a coppery cast to their leaves.
Finally the rain decides to fall, the first few drops landing fat and sloppy and well-spread out, but more and more soon follow, smaller and more driven, and the wind whips up, blowing them into our faces with stinging force.
“Like us,” Lufti says, grasping at raindrops. “We’re all snowflakes, you know, building up to an avalanche!” I almost understand him; I suppose for him his winter never ends. Then he takes my hand into his wet one and says, looking up at me with grave eyes, “We all have to melt sometime, Deirdre.” Or maybe it will.
The storm now drives too hard to see very far, and I hear rumbles of thunder headed our way. I make a squeal like a pounced-upon coney, twice in a row. Some passing stranger would assume that a fox got unusually lucky, but my band knows that this means to regroup. The Purple Mantles don’t know about mammalian calls. I continue then with the sparrow chirps, in a steady rhythm that helps my soldiers home in on me through the building tempest.
Together we tack and tie what tarps and rags we have against the close-grown trunks of trees into a sort of leaf-shaped shelter where we huddle all together, weathering the storm. We don’t say anything. Amazing, how fast the temperature can drop, just like that, almost like the canyonlands of home; I feel the shift in my joints, aching like an old woman’s. Draggin' fever can do that to you, even between flare-ups.
Kiril rests against me underneath one arm and Lufti under the other, and Tanjin cradles my head in his lap as he leans back against a broad and slanting trunk. Lufti stares up at rain-bulges in the hammock-roof that we have layered, dripping now and then in sudden sparkles, and I cannot read his face. The smells don’t bother me anymore, theirs or mine, but I sure would like a bath, all the same; the march’s sweat has gotten less than fresh. I crave deep, steaming water, not this chilly drizzle from a dozen nagging leaks; something warm and clean to strip away the grime. Not rain. It takes little time to tire of the rain.
(“Know what I’d like…right now?” I say to the others between chops, “A good…soaking…bath.”
Don leans on his axe and smiles wistfully. “Yeah. No more of these miserly spritzes of showers that let in every draft.”
One of the hired hands bristles at us. “Back to work, you louts. The cold will make men of you.”
Don smiles at him sourly, picks up his axe, and with one mighty blow splits an outsized block in two.)
Glare and then a loud CCCCRACK! makes the bravest among us start and grab each other. Then the dimness folds around us again, as if nothing happened. Taller trees grow higher up; if I could pray for lightning to strike there, and not here...if I could pray!
Another flash of light, and a crackle too soon after makes us jump again, but we settle back down into waiting. “It’s only gunfire from heaven,” Lufti tells us. “Nothing we haven’t seen and heard before.” And we nestle close together, sweating it out with the patient tension of our profession.
I find myself missing Damien. He would have had a story, something about the lightning, something that would cheer us on. And suddenly I feel this anger welling up inside me–Cyran promised me my bard, dammit! How can we go on without stories and songs to keep our spirits up? I try not to cry, but the weak tears flow anyway. It’s all I can do to keep them silent, so that nobody else knows, nobody sees in the dimness of the overcast, none but my loved ones who feel the little shudders of my sobs betray me. Kiril holds me closer, and Lufti strokes my hand, and Tanjin reaches down–so gently!--to wipe the tears away with a prayer-cloth. All in silence.
I feel like my weeping brings the storm in with me, stupid Deirdre, and sure enough, people squirm around the wet spots here and there where the roof leaks. And then I feel even stupider for imagining myself responsible for the weather. No matter which way you cut it, I feel so unfit for my commission–it’s such a bad joke.