IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume VI: The Rift
Wednesday, December 23, 2708, continued
We reach Micah's Gap while the sun still shines. Clouds billow up behind us, but ahead we see the clear, blue sky. This range separates the fertile land from desert, and I for one breathe a sigh of relief. I have had enough of rain for awhile.
White paint gleams on the inn, though most of the buildings around it bare to the weather their cracked and warping wood. My heart sinks as I see a tent-city setting up for the night around the grounds. I had hoped for an indoor room, but it seems that already we've arrived too late. The place must hop on Christmas, for folks to come from miles around. And sure enough, I see great heaps of firewood ready for the bonfires. Ah well, at least it won't rain on us tonight.
Yet even as I climb off the donkey's back, before anyone can open up their packs, Damien comes beaming down the steps to us. "Come on in!" he hails us. "I've sung us up some lodgings for the night, and a stall for the donkey–what's his name, anyway?"
Kiril plans to put me straight to bed, and I don't resist her. "I'll have them send up supper for you," she says. "And don't argue–Cyran would authorize two suppers in a row for you, if he could see you now."
The hotel has hot, running water all the way up to the third floor, and we're on the second; I scrub up luxuriously before she tucks me in. Oh, real sheets, real pillows, and especially a real mattress! Clean skin slides across clean cotton. I don't recall properly appreciating these things at Zofia's. And why does the thought of Zofia make me feel on the verge of tears?
(Oh come, Zanne! No need to let the eyes water now. Blame it on that burnt-cabbage stench in the laboratory, or sympathy for the dewiness in Pauline's eyes. It has nothing to do with Dalmar's announcement, "Ladies, I believe we have an antidote!")
I feel sick with exhaustion–I need to lie down. And then I open my eyes and realize that I'm already lying down. Somewhere I hear a woman say, "I don't want to dream about you anymore! Let me go to someone else's world!" Then I know I'm dreaming, and the thought wakes me up. And again I feel the exhaustion, and want so badly to lie down, and realize, once again, that I never got up. This happens several times in a row before I surrender to a deeper weariness verging on pleasure, sinking deep, deep, deep into sleep...
...Where I blow smoke rings with a chubby old man, so tiny he must come to half my height, in his cozy, earth-bermed dwelling. A sort of art noveau style mixes with a kind of homely comfort, and everything looks hand-made. Too cozy. Too sweet for my sort of life. I sigh smoke and say, "I'm not supposed to be here."
"Neither am I," says my partner, and blows the hugest smoke ring of all as he crosses one furry foot over the other. "But I thought you could use a break." The scene shifts to a cold mountaintop, where my sleeping-bag rests on the very brink of a cliff. He gives me the most piercing look, and says, "You are not who you think you are. We have much in common, you see." And he begins to fade like a Cheshire cat.
"Wait!" I cry. "Will I ever see you again?"
"In this form? Probably not." Yet he increases in solidity, just for a moment. He points his pipe at me, saying, "Don't take to heart what I tell you, though. I'm just an old curmudgeon. You also have more choice in the matter than anybody else thinks, too. You can dream every bit as much as she can. You can change the dream and rewrite the page, if you can find the strength."
"What? Wait! What matter? Who's ‘she'?"
"Ah well, maybe I'm just wasting my breath," he says, and fades down to a little circle of smoke that puffs away–against the wind, I notice, as I sit up and feel the stirring of my hair.
"Ah, to hell with you," I mutter, "and all your riddles!" I turn away–right over the cliff that I'd forgotten, tumbling down, down, towards frightening spikes of rock below!
My hair puffs in my eyes as I flail through the air, my stomach floating in free-fall. When I can see clearly again I witness a battle going on down below me, hurtling up fast—tiny people writhing like maggots in the bloodsoaked field. Then sky reels overhead as my body flips against my will, and then the earth again, much closer, so that I can hear the screams and gunshots and smell the blood and smoke...
...and then I jolt awake, thinking, "Stupid, stupid, stupid! You know you can fly!" But the screams and gunshots don't stop. No, that's just solstice fireworks and shouting revelers. No–screams for sure! I fling on clothes, hop into my boots, and slam the door open–the sound hits much harder now, and yes, I do smell the air of battle, over the abandoned food burning in the kitchen.
No weapon–I have no weapon! Well, that never stopped me before. I run out to the landing of the stairs, and look down on a melee in the common-room, Charadocian soldiers thick in combat with my folks–and more than my folks. Those with guns have fallen, now, or lost them in hand-to-hand combat, though the floors run slippery with blood, and people trip over the dead while the wounded try to crawl away.
And every single person in the inn not in a uniform fights on our side! And more rush in the doors as I watch.
I boost myself over the railing and drop down among them, slowing my fall so that I land without too much jarring. I grab the globe off a lantern by the stairs and crack it on the bannister just hard enough to break it into several large, curving pieces, which become daggers in my hand, gripping them by what's left of the rounded lip. And I whirl into action, slashing anything in khaki piped with purple. I rarely get in range of a fatality-point, but the searing sting and gouts of blood, and especially the odd flap of skin and meat, can horrify the target enough to let his guard down for anyone better armed than myself.
One by one my weapons shatter in flesh and give me no further use. But just then Damien comes roaring towards me, lashing a chair about and walloping anyone who gets in his way. He shoves the hilt of an army knife into my hand and presses his back to mine, while he proceeds to fire off the last pistol in the room still loaded and in human hands. We spiral through the crowd to the mantle, where he pours a gulp of punch into his mouth straight from the pitcher while I reload his gun for him from his pocket.
He grins to thank me, drops his grin, shoots somebody right behind me, and says, "Your face looks gray as dishwater!" Then he shoots someone else, then catches me on his free arm as I half faint, and blasts his way to a couch.
"It's Deirdre Keller!" he shouts to the crowd. "She's sick—guard her with your life!" Quickly two men and a woman, strapping farmers all, leap between my couch and the chaos, with a rake, a shovel, and a hoe between them, harrowing any soldier who comes near.
(I feel a kiss on my brow. "Protect Deirdre," I hear Jake say, but by the time I wake up, clawing my way to consciousness as fast as I can, I see his empty bed. He sometimes comes in late, getting a final smoke, but never this late before.)
It ends before my head stops spinning. A stunned silence fills the room, nothing but panting breaths and the gurgle of an overturned bottle somewhere, and then chuckles, and then laughter outright. And then great, guffawing peals, with much slapping of backs and hugs and shrills of triumph. "We beat them! We beat every last one of them! Happy Holidays!"
("We did it! We did it!" Toni cries, hugging everyone in reach, and then falls to her knees before Kimba, to embrace the startled girl as well, exclaiming, "Kid, you're going to be all right!")
"They thought they'd clean up a little cell of rebels–they didn't count on all of us rising up."
"There's cells of rebels here? Who? Where?"
As it turns out, the hotel hosts two actual cells of rebels, ours and another band that I had never met before. The army probably didn't even have the other lot on their radar; Sanzio D'Arco could figure out, easily enough, the closest pass that I would have to use from where he last saw me, and about how long it would take me to get there, because unlike the other bands, we'd have to take the quickest route. All the other travelers, it so happens, had hit the road hoping to join the Egalitarians at Abojan Pass, now feeling quite startled and pleased to meet us before then. I don't think D'Arco counted on that.
I discuss this with Damien as he sits beside me on the couch, sharing bits of burnt goat meat with me, while others help to clean up the mess. "You know what disturbs me the most?"
"Tell me," he says.
"Ol' Whitesleeves made it plain that he doesn't want to kill me. He had me in his hands. He could have done it then."
"So why'd he send the army after you?"
"To kill everyone around me. To kill or maim everyone who gets close to me. To make me a curse among our people." And to keep temptation close, I think, with weary longing.
He kisses me on the brow, then pushes me back till I lie on the couch again, and throws a thick fur cloak over me. "Don't let it worry you–we already chose danger the hour we decided to rebel. Nothing changes that." And then he gets up and grabs a mop.