IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume VI: The Rift
On the Move
Tuesday, December 22, 2708
(We come, Cyran. We come. We leave our fields behind, the ripening fruit unshielded, the weeds a-riot in the rows. We shoulder our tools and walk out of the mines, too many for the foreman to stop. We tunnel out of our convents and monasteries, fainting with hunger but determined to move on. We climb out of the jungle up to cold and twisting paths. We leave the city streets to rats, and steal whatever the journey might demand.
We will not leave this war only to our children any longer. We will follow you, Cyran, knowing no one else who'll take our side. And everywhere the word goes out, saying "Abojan Pass." "We all shall meet at Abojan Pass.")
Every bruise that I can see has colored up gloriously, and that on top of the scratches and bites that Lufti gave me before. I must look like Alysha at her worst, judging by how my face stings at each shift in expression.
(We come, Cyran. Our rifles on our shoulders, we come to gun you down at last. We pray a litany of murdered friends to curse you with, our marching boot-falls keeping time in lieu of beads. From every base and station, from new recruits to scarred old veterans, we converge on you, Cyran, and your raggle-taggle brigands who have bled us white too long. Our families bless us on our way–can your own say the same? We shall fall on you from the mountains in an avalanche of war, we shall climb up through crevasses to jerk your feet from under you, we shall rush on you from every side! We all shall close upon you there, above the world of misery that your war has wrought: in Abojan Pass, Cyran, we'll meet.)
Kiril has ordered me to ride the poor donkey, though my long legs dangle nearly to the ground. "You weigh no more than the load he bore before, surely," she says, laughing off my protests, when she helps me onto him. "Let torture and sickness, and poisoning, beside, buy you one day of rest, for a change."
I see the wisdom of her words. I couldn't sleep last night with the greenfire jangling in my nerves. My bruised limbs ached to carry me, but I finally tottered out to stand guard over my children, bidding Nishka go and rest, I'd take her shift. I paced and paced the perimeter, tramping down a circle of mud-matted grass. Too much of a perimeter, really; Kiril had tried to scatter the bands again at the earliest opportunity, but some won't leave a second time, at least not till they see me safely out of danger.
Now the aftermath of my beating catches up with me, along with the inevitable crash. I nod upon my beast, but Tanjin always pushes me back up whenever I seem at risk of falling.
I think the greenfire deceived me–I don't think I've recovered from the fever in the least. Shadows of tree and leaf pass over me, dark and light, dark and light, I see them even with my eyes closed. They ripple over me as the world slides out from under me and I wind up somehow in my Tanjin's arms, the stiff one cradling my hips like a rifle-butt, the flesh-soft one beneath my head.
("Jake?" I kneel down between the desks to shake his shoulder. "Jake, what's happening?"
"Aaron, go fetch the…" the teacher starts, but Don shoulders past.
"No need, sir. I have medical training…at least by Lumne standards. And I know Jake's case well."
I hear the teacher fiddle with his keys nervously behind me. "Well then…"
Don leans down and takes Jake's pulse, while asking, "What's up, old friend?"
"Achey. Spent the night feeling beat up from head to toe. Couldn't sleep. All wound up. Exhausted, now." And he clasps Don's ringed hand to tell him something else.
I can guess. The thinning borders left him defenseless against something in this horrid campus. And then I feel Jake in my head as if by telepathy: not just in this campus. And my skin prickles all over.
Don turns to the teacher. "He's been fighting a sore throat, sir, and put in hard labor on top of that. I'll help him to the infirmary, but I expect a lie-down will fix him up in time for dinner."
Jake ventures a wry smile in a gray face, as Don slowly helps him up. "Sorry to halt the class by fainting, sir.")
"We need to halt," Tanjin pleads. "Deirdre can't travel much farther."
(He spoke to my mind. He shouldn't have been able to do that. I don't know how much more of this Jake can take.)
"It won't be much farther," Kiril answers. "I got a message back at Sanzio's base, from a runner zeroing in on all the birdcalls. Put her back up in the saddle."
"Let the ass have my pack; I can carry her." And so I doze, my head laid down at last against his shoulder, safe in one half-dead arm and one living one, the breeze soft on my burning cheeks, only shuddering a little, now. Yep, deceived all right–I'm not the least bit well.
(Don and Joel help me up the stairs to the infirmary, while Randy carries my jacket behind us. Can't stand the jacket—I feel another fever coming on.
No! Oraclism! We burn! We all burn, across all space and time!)
I murmur, "We can endure it. We have no choice. Nothing slakes the flames."
("No! No!" I cry, thrashing against the arms that hold me. "Not your way, Alroy!" I stumble on the stairs and fall while the others grab at me again; I distantly feel the bruises.
Randy stops my fall, his arms around me. "Jake? Is Alroy here?" while Joel asks, "Who's Alroy?")
Fire explodes through me! Everything in me clenches tighter, tighter, a cinder, crumpling inward tighter, harder, a diamond...
("He's seizing up!" Randy cries.
"Just hold him," Don says. "Don't let him fall down the stairs."
Explosions of lightning pound through me through time through space through her through him through them through us through every possible border!
"I'm here!" Lisa shouts in my head. "Jake, I'm HERE! I'M HERE! I'M HERE!"
"Lisa—DON'T!" I shout...too late.)
I vaguely come to myself, shivering at cold water washing me in private places, then feel Kiril pull a warm change of skirt and leggings onto me. "You okay?" she asks Tanjin.
"No problem. I put her down at the first sign of a fit. Nothing got on me." And my face burns with more than fever.
"Let's get going, then. The sooner we get Deirdre to shelter the better."
(I grow aware of the infirmary around me. I feel my flannel nightshirt, soft, enveloping me. Joel whispers, "Maia Angelina"—I felt her, just for a moment there!"
"That's nice," Randy says. "Go write her a love poem, okay?"
I open my eyes and see Joel's tearstreaked face as he nods and leaves the room. The nurse says, "You boys can leave, too. Jake will need his rest."
Randy says, "Forgive me, sir, but I know Jake. He can get disoriented after a spell like this. He will need us nearby to help him reorient."
"I'm more than qualified to..."
"He doesn't know you the way he knows us. He needs us."
The nurse sighs, then says, "Do as you think best then. But this had better not turn into an excuse to miss the rest of your classes." And he leaves to check in on another patient.
"Randy..." I manage to rasp. "Don?"
"Right here," Randy says, gripping my hand, while Don clasps my shoulder, asking in a tight voice, "What was all that about Lisa?"
"Borders crashed," I tell them, hoarsely, because my throat feels dry. "She felt something happen to me. She mistook the Braxton-Hicks for an attack and tried to help me. She blew her cover."
"Her cover?" Randy asks while Don cries, "Braxton-Hicks? Is Lisa pregnant?"
"No, not Lisa—somebody else...can I have something to drink?"
"Sure," Randy says, "Right here."
After a swallow of water I tell them, "We haven't picked up on Lisa the way we have Zanne because she's on a mission in a country that has banned telepathy, rounding up telepaths and...and...they have only brutal means to suppress telepathic abilities." I drink more water. "Til sent her to find out why. I know why."
Don's fingers dig into my muscle. "What's going on, Jake?"
"It's...it must be Corriebhai Colony, just south of here...south of Vanikke, at least. It looked like them, from Lisa's eyes. They've watched madness erupting nearby... psi-related...and have quarantined all telepaths to protect themselves."
"Dear God," Randy whispers. "You didn't break your gift, Jake, did you?"
"Everything pulls apart," I rasp in reply. "But I've got some give to me." Thanks to Deirdre.
"And Lisa?" Don demands.
"Exposed. Tak'n captive," I murmur as I feel myself pass out.)
I fret in the arms that hold me. "Am I a captive again? Are you taking me back to Sanzio?
"Nooo, dear." Tanjin murmurs over me. "You're safe, with people who love you."
"Oh good," I sigh and relax.
One longer, fuller shadow crosses me after awhile, then regular bars of light and dark, and then another greater shadow. I open my eyes to an iron gate framed by towers of living juniper. Yet now we slip along the shade of a tall stone wall, the gate falling behind. Of course. We should only enter by the servant-gate.
A small, chilly hand reaches up to touch my face. "She's gotten worse," Kiril says. "We may have to leave her for a day or two."
"And do what?" Tanjin asks.
"Harry troops headed the same way, of course."
"Will she be safe here?"
"Safer than us. The servant network's gold. And more committed than ever, after the camp-follower massacre. Lots of cooks and maids on loan went down that night." Do I detect a note of guilt in the child's voice, knowing as she does the reason for the order? Must even the smallest lives I touch share my damnation? "Besides, we'll meet an old friend there–one better qualified to lead than me."
My heart leaps in my sore breast–old friend?
But then I hear the gunfire, the screams and one voice shouting: "In my own house!" Age quivers in the accent of refinement, "How dare they, under my very roof–and after I have treated them like my own children!"
Tanjin swings me down to the ground and whips the rifle off the donkey's back, firing, firing, while I try to sit up against the wall, slipping on the rain-slick grass. Kiril shoves Lufti into my arms and a pocket-knife into my hand, pulling my gun from him. Oh good—I lost my knife awhile ago. "Guard him," she hisses; "He can't fight right now." And then she runs to join Tanjin.
I can see why. As I put my arm around him Lufti laughs, pointing up at the sky. "Diamonds!" he exclaims, snatching after the newest scattering of rain. "The stars cast down diamonds upon us–all is forgiven! All forgiven, Deirdre–isn't it wonderful?" He holds up to me his handful of wetness. "Treasure beyond compare! Now we shall be rich forever." He leans close and whispers, "You mustn't tell anyone. We must cache it all in secret. For after the war, you know." His eyes roll up to regard the stone wall above us. "Under a bone hall–we shall bury it there, you and I." Then he nestles against me, smiling, as something explodes behind that wall, shuddering the ground beneath us. "You're warm," he sighs. "It gets so cold, being dead." And so he falls asleep.
Another explosion. I crouch over him as stones rain down from the compromised masonry, taking the blows on my back, letting none hit him. And over the breach a motorcycle–motorcycle!—leaps, laden with an enormous bag and Damien shooting behind himself, a brand-new harp slung upon his back.
"Watch where you blast through next time!" Kiril cries, rubbing a bruised shoulder.
"No time for that!" Damien shouts. "We've been betrayed!"
"Take Deirdre with you," Tanjin calls up before Kiril can order anything. "She's sick–and tortured besides!"
"Dosh," Kiril calls, "Take the load and make room for Deirdre."
"Merry Christmas," Damien replies, swinging down the full-stuffed bag, while ducking under fire. "Supplies enough for all." Then Nishka scoops me up and tosses me to him like a sack, myself, before grabbing Lufti's hands and crying, "Run!" Oh mercy–can he run?
Now I feel the engine rev beneath me, roaring and sputtering, and Damien's new black leather jacket pressed to my back, smoked with the close-confined tavern-smells of tobacco and hearth, his arm around my waist. "Give me your gun," I say. "I'm not so sick that I can't shoot behind you."
The arm around me lets go of the pistol as the other holds its handlebar. I maneuver and twist, and fire behind him at...soldiers? No mere constables knocking servants back in line: the Charadocian Army knows exactly what they deal with here.
My fever conspires with the cycle's veering and my speeded reflexes to create a dreamy, slow-motion sensation of rippling, blowing away from my enemies, lacking killable substance, yet a ghost worth fearing, for none of this worsens my aim. I can match the rising and falling like magic, the bike dipping almost to the ground when it swerves; everything flows together as it should.
Then what dark power blesses me?
"Where'd you get a thing like this?" I gasp as my hair whips my face, stinging worse than ever. "I thought only about a dozen motorcycles existed in the country!"
"Oh, this?" We shoot between two trunks so close that we barely tuck our boots in in time, and bullets thud in the wood behind us. "The servant-network let me know of a rich man's son, sore in need of killing," Wheels skid on a slick spot, but he wrestles the chrome back up before we spill completely. "Not too far from our old home base, in fact." The cycle bucks over a log and speeds into the forest, wobbling wildly over branch and rock, caught by mud and jolted free, growling through the trees as Damien bends low over me and the boughs above whip all too near. "It made me homesick, glimpsing the place." Conies scatter before our noise and speed. "Soldiers camp there, now." Bullets crack the living wood too close for comfort as Damien slaloms the bike between their trunks; I can feel his heart pound even through the jacket. "Anyway, he owned the bike–he used it to scare little girls." He swerves us nearly to a spill just in time to avoid an explosion right in front of us. "Whoa! Grenades!" he laughs.
The bike skips down a slope, each hop threatening to knock us off our wheels for good. Above us the woods take fire! "I thought they might try that," Damien remarks. "Pitch-pine burns in any weather." Water explodes from us at the canyon's bottom, then we rattle along the brook-stones, splashing a V to either side, soaking my legs. Above I see needle-tindered limbs writhing and blackening in flame as the light goes orange and the shadows dance insanely. We dodge a falling, burning branch, then race past Kiril and her troop, and the gasping, overloaded donkey trotting with them. "Follow me!" Damien cries, hurtling towards a fork in the ravine. Good thinking–he veers back towards the mansion. Pursuers would naturally expect us to take the other way, thinking that they herd us exactly where they want us.
And the fire arcs over us, a hot and crackling madness, robbing us of air, and the smoke rolls down to choke and blind us, stinging in our eyes. Fear-crazed animals run alongside us, the predator beside the prey. And then they pass us by.
Because Damien kills the engine. He turns his face up, chuckling silently, as a stronger rain falls down, thick enough to soon quell the flames. Ah, dearest ghosts, I don't know how you managed it–but thanks!
He whispers to me, "Lean on the bike if you have to, but keep up with me, Deirdre." I hold onto the leather seat as he pushes the bike by the handlebars away from the creek-bottom. "Not far, now." I stumble on ice blocks that used to be my feet, even as my head roasts, fever swirling through me like the smoke. "Servants throw parties here, and the odd union meeting–right under the old man's dripping nose."
The others catch up with us, blurs within the smoke and now the rising steam, taking their cue from the silencing of the motor. Even Lufti has pressed a finger to his lips. Damien leads us into a long, wide cave, an upward ripple of a layer of rock as though we creep in between the pages of a weather-warped book. Rain falls even heavier outside, sheeting over the opening into a waterfall, obscuring our view and dimming our sight–and hopefully hiding the cave, too. Damien parks his bike and I still lean on it.