IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume VI: The Rift
A General Indeed
Friday, December 18, 2708, continued
We stay in our makeshift shelter till the rain lets up, and a translucent glow again shines through the layers over us. Then we erupt with great splashes from the burdened canvas, to fresh, forest air, sweeter for the washing, and scatter out again.
The rain has swept away all trace of us behind. A tracker would surely wonder at all of these footprints fanning out from a single point in that muddy expanse, as though dropped from heaven like so many scattering marbles bouncing from the point of impact. But what tracker would have gotten this far into the woods to find it in the first place?
Kiril has had quite a growth-spurt, upwards as much as anything else, and can manage, slogging through the sodden foliage, but once again I hoist Lufti up onto my back, for his injuries still pain him when he walks. He hardly weighs more than the pack now slung in front of me, though he has stretched taller, too. "I have more endurance than any horse," he confides wearily, before nodding off against my head. My neck strains to keep my eyes up and forward, scanning on for danger.
Kiril marches on doggedly, wheezing in a steady rhythm. When I glance her way she sends me a sharp look back, and says, "Walking's good for me." Just when the wheezing starts to really worry me and she begins to fall behind, she whips an actual inhaler out of her pocket, takes two wincing breaths from it, and carries on in silence.
I keep my eyes strictly ahead now, not daring to look at her. (And...) Good for her–she finally has some medicine. (...don't inhalers...) I feel glad. (...feel like...) It takes a load off my mind to see her taken care of.
I didn't think that. Nope. It never crossed my mind. And anyway, it's not even true.
(Maybe just a little bit true?)
No no no no no!
(Maybe just enough?)
I could have picked her pocket, you know, when she lay curled up against me. I still could, maybe tonight. I could slip aside in the morning, the same way everybody does to pee, and then just keep pressing and pressing the device, over and over into my lungs till I can find the energy to face this life.
And now that I admit exactly what I want I can stare it in the face and refuse it. Kief...Kief...oh spirit of my enemy and friend, deny me what I want! Thwart me, Kief–don't let me fall as you did. Break my neck if I do!
Aw Deirdre, I'd rather heal you than hurt you. I wish you'd have done as much for me.
I did not hear that. That was just me, my imagination playing tricks on me in my head. Adding one more guilt onto the crushing pile, all I need. Shut up, me. Just keep slogging on.
Twilight lingers long between mountains, though night eventually must fall. Once again we regroup, calling out the way that birds do to all nest together in a single tree. We patch together our shelter as before.
I pull Kiril aside. "Find someone to hold your inhaler for the night, or else don't sleep near me."
She glares at me for just a second, then her face softens and she nods. "Thank you," she tells me. "I trust you more for saying that." I can't bring myself to reply to her. She goes around to the other side of the shelter, where I can't see who she passes it to, then comes back to me. I fight to not put together clues that I couldn't help pick up, neural freak that I am, even with my back turned. "I'm not ready to leave you just yet," she says.
The night wears on. This time, when we huddle all together against the cold, Tanjin sleeps back to back with me, and Lufti back to back with Kiril, and Kiril curls up plump and soft and warm against me, her breath upon my throat, our arms draped over each other. I feel it when she squirms a little, and whimpers so slightly that none but I can hear, as her belly growls audibly.
I whisper to her, "Dinnertime, huh?"
"Worse than that," she whispers back. "It's snack time."
"Poor child." I kiss the top of her head. "You'll adjust again."
"I know. But can I at least have a smoke? I haven't had one, you know, for the longest time."
"You're better off without the habit–especially with lungs like yours. I tell you what, Kiril. You can have a smoke when I have greenfire. That'll help me stay clean for both of us. Fair enough?"
After a pause I can feel her nod under my chin. "Fair enough," she says. Then a long silence follows, so that I wonder if she has fallen asleep. But then she whispers to me, "I think I understand Malcolm better, now. Somebody he loved must've made him angry. I know what it's like now to eat anger and pretend it's love."
And after that...I don't know. I must have fallen asleep before her.
("Soon," Don murmurs almost in his sleep, in his nearby cot. "Christmas or the Solstice, either one.")
Saturday, December 19, 2708
Morning. I feel almost cheerful. Kiril has cooked our porridge for us, corn grits with some groundberries sprinkled in and a dash of powdered milk. Tanjin can still pray; I let him murmur thanks over our breakfast and I bow my head as though I had a right to join the rest. Maybe these little ones still have souls. Maybe damnation suits only the leaders who drag them astray. With that lovely millstone around my neck, I scatter them again.
Gunfire! I feel that old, familiar rush of fear, heart pounding as I dive behind the thickest tree within scrambling range, trammeling Lufti with my body against the bark as he cries out, "Stars! Shooting stars! Whizzing down among us! In broad daylight!" Yet even though the fear widens his eyes almost painfully, he struggles to escape. "Let me go! I know the Dance of the Dead–I can draw them off!"
"Not on your life," I grunt, trying to hold him and still free my rifle. Kiril pulls it off me and fires around from behind me.
"I can do this!" Lufti insists, now clawing at me. "It's me they want, not you, not the living!"
"Well they can't have you–not today." Kiril shoots every round in the magazine, then loads more from my bandolier. I notice that the recoil no longer knocks her back the way it used to; the gun-butt thuds against her ample shoulder but she holds her ground.
I see a dot of red dash behind a tree–Tanjin's flannel shirt! Oh why didn't he just paint a bullseye on his back and be done with it? His tree gets the most fire. If I didn't have Lufti with me, I'd pray they all come my way...pray, hell! I'd leap up and wave my arms! But Tanjin gives as good as he gets–I can hear him. And Kiril–blessed young Kiril defends us while I hold her darling tight no matter how he bites and scratches.
The shots cease. She hands me the rifle back, not saying anything, she just looks at me, the blood dripping down my face in streaks. Lufti quiets, too, staring at her. At last I say, "You're as good a shot as Lufti, now."
She looks at him, then back at me. "I have to be."
"I will get you a gun of your own, at the first opportunity," I say, regretting the stash in the heart-shaped cave.
We take off together, slogging through the piled-up years of wet needles. "Good," she says. "I don't want to be just a mosquito anymore. I want firepower."
* * *
By the time we gather that night I have made my decision. We have too large a force, even fanning out within chirping-range. I divvy them up into smaller bands, each to head for a different pass into the interior ranges westward, and I assign two leaders for each: one newly-recruited adult, one veteran kid. It varies which one acts as captain and which lieutenant, but I want each band to share the benefits of maturity and experience, and in this war they don't often come in the same package.
The thought comes to me, spontaneously: Now I am a general indeed. When did that happen?
One last night I lie in shelter, warmed by my sibs in arms, watching the wind ripple the fabric overhead. I feel like the spring had never come.
Somewhere along the line the tent becomes a building. I work in a hospital. That's all I've ever wanted to do, really, one way or another, is heal. I move from soldier to soldier, changing dressings, checking for fever, cracking the sort of lame jokes you come up with to try and make an old child smile. Outside the clouds darken and lighting crackles in sudden flashes. The rain soon pelts against the windows, rattling the glass. I keep on working, in an atmosphere of Akhbar's Ox Ointment and old, dried blood intermingled with that sharp, ozone scent from the storm that reminds me of Kief's cigars.
Then somebody opens a door. Rain drives in hard at a forty-five degree angle. Outside a tide rises even as I watch. It soaks the land around us, then it laps up the steps to the door, one by one, then a wave washes in with a headlong rush and floods into the building.
And the shock of cold hitting my feet wakes me up. I tuck my feet back under the blanket, and stare up at the rippling cloth that shelters us.