IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume VI: The Rift
Christmas at Midnight
Friday, December 25, 2708
Enough people have studied the glow coming up over the eastern peaks to conclude that yes, it’s midnight.
(“Wake up, boys, and join the dance!”)
(“Now, Changewright? Wait—where’d he go?”
“Just follow directions, Joel. Yes, it’s midnight. He’ll join us soon—he knows what he’s doing.”)
(“Come along, Jake—it’s time.)
(Kimba’s eyes fly open.)
(I overhear one of the smaller boys say, “Isn’t this kind of…wrong? Without a midnight service or a chaplain or anything? Doesn’t that make it, you know, kind of Pagan?”
I find myself laughing, with more lightness than I have felt since I left Ishkal, since long before then, actually, maybe more than ever in my life. I have finally grasped what redemption really means. I lay a hand on the boy’s shoulder and say, “Sometimes you have to move away from a false sense of Christ, to find Him in truth.”)
We have no priest to give us mass, and I wouldn’t go if we did, but at least we have the communion of voices, each joining the larger chorus one by one, in carols so ancient that every year the older children have to explain half the words to the younger ones, yet in a few years more they will know everything by heart and pass it on to the next siblings born. Men build up the bonfires. And then the dancing starts.
(Kimba murmurs, “Dance w’ meee,” and falls back asleep.)
(And then the dancing starts. The older maintenance men take their wives into their arms, and let their daughters step out with the younger ones. The faculty dances with the older kitchen-crew, while the younger scullions reach out their rough and slender hands to us students, smiling invitingly. They don’t have enough females, quite, to go around, so the women skip from fellow to fellow, laughing and chattering in their sweet, high voices, as the rest of us stand by on the sidelines, singing of comfort and joy.)
(We hear the singing in the distance as George helps me walk across the snowy campus, electric blue in the half-moon’s light. The music blows through me, scintillating like stars, like the windblown snow, like flashes of color in the darkness.
“This way,” he says, and our straight path curves with the spacetime continuum, rippling treacherously here where the rift spreads out, so that I trip often and soon have to hold onto him with both arms.
The snow burns brightly against the blackness of the charred old ruins, still not completely cleared away. We join the streams of boys going down into the cellar, where only I can see the flames leap up to engulf them—magenta, blue, and green fire welcoming them in with fluttery hands of psychic blaze.
It looks warm. I sparkle with ice. I go down willingly.)
I study the dance from the sidelines at first, nodding to the beat till I get the gist of it, and then leap in. Tanjin immediately takes my hands; I can pull his weak arm into all the proper motions; it’s not all that stiff. I can nestle it around my waist. We skip to a merry tune, in a mirth as persistent as any weed, growing and spreading till nothing can keep it out.
(Nothing can keep me out of the rift any longer. Leaning on the boy, I go down the long and dizzy stair, into the vault of magentine. I feel its warmth shine up to painlessly melt my face my breast my pretentions, to penetrate deep, incandescing my heart, till I laugh and my laughter weaves in with everything, tingling so brightly that it changes, changes, all things change!)
“Illumination!” Lufti shouts for joy, leaping from the ancient rounds to something of his own. Now we all link hands in a circle, step behind step stomp, turn the other way and back again in a whirl, on and on in the pattern. Lufti spins into the center, free of all convention, whipping his long-grown hair and capturing each note like he plays them with his muscles, like his sinews string the thambriy and the harp, like his own breath fills the flute, like his feet beat upon the drum. Damien improvises to match his ardor, and the other musicians do their best to keep up, or drop back to simple harmonies or drones.
Faster, now, and faster, we turn around the boy, as music trips to quicker beats and Lufti encapsulates it all, generations of Christmas joy mimed out in melting forms upon the midnight air. Twenty-seven hundred years of celebration flares up; we feel our forebears watching. Oh, better than tinsel and presents, better than feasts, better than heady nog, this moment burns with pleasure in my heart, this moment lasts forever, Lufti’s ghost will always dance here, every Christmas at the stroke of midnight, for centuries to come! And those with ears to hear will catch the faintest strains of carols on the wind.
Where did a thought like that come from?
I falter in my step, but catch the beat again. Away, all morbid notions! Lose myself into the merriment, into the ancient story, into GUNFIRE! Oh God, oh God born on this night have mercy on all sinners! Screams and gunfire again and scrambling as we all run in wild search for shelter, here in this wide-open dell, sitting ducks! What insanity allowed us to camp here, in so bare a place? Why did we light so great a fire, to draw in soldiers like horrid night insects buzzing ‘round with bullets?
(What madness, General Aliso! To attack on this of all nights? But I follow orders, damn her, squeezing the trigger again and again, the cold chewing at the tears on my cheeks, hurtling into my damnation. Well, if that’s my lot, then let me be damn good at it! Let me shrink at nothing, ever again, with no soul left to stop me!)
We don’t find shelter, but some of us find guns. We shoot back, lying on our bellies, and that gives some protection for the rest, hoping they can make it to the rocks because of us. We point wherever bullets come from, and draw them back towards us, allowing the rest to douse the fire and melt into the dark.
Except Lufti still dances! Cursing like the sailor that she was, Kiril runs out to grab him–and falls!
Screaming screaming screaming! My throat burns like I could scream the skin right off it as I run forward, shooting, and the gun screams too, great, choking roars of fire and lead. By the time I run out of bullets I’ve reached their midst, clubbing now with the rifle so hard that bones break, none can grab hold of me, no one can move as fast as I can, ducking under bullets before I even know I’ve seen them, till they run out, too, and I give them no chance to reload, smashing through them, howling, metal barrel and wooden stock sending teeth flying, shattering skulls. They can’t do this–not now, not on Christmas, the one night when I almost felt undamned!
Someone must have reloaded, because a bullet shatters the butt of my rifle but I still wield the wreckage, I feed them splinters, as my free hand grabs a shirt and hurls a soldier into the next shot. I whirl to beat back others, beads spraying off my braids like a sparkling gush of blood. I smash fragments against flesh until they run, the cravens, they run in superstitious horror from the Tilián witch–good! Good! Fear, you miscreants, FEAR!
(Something tore! Deeper, further, maybe irrepairable—Changewright did you feel it? Sudden doubt jolts me—without...that...can I do what he needs of me? What all the worlds need of me?)
(And Kimba moans without waking)
Then I stumble, watching them flee, and my fury runs out of me like blood from too great a wound. Something tore inside me, in my heart or soul or something, the minute they fired on us; only now does it catch up with me. Gasping for air, I turn, stumble again, collapse to my knees, try to get up, collapse down to my hands, push up again, leaning on the rifle-barrel like a crutch, tatters of wood still stuck to it. Nishka comes to me, shoves her muscular shoulder under mine, grunts and leverages me to my feet.
(“Oh God!” I cry, crumpling to the ground, huddled in the snow. “Oh God Oh God Oh God!”
Don runs up to me. “Randy! What’s wrong?”
“The thread!” I babble. “It snapped right out of my hand! Some shock, some...something horrible!” He helps me back to my feet, brushing off the snow, taking care of me the way I’ve done for Jake in the throes of his oraclism, and all I can do is shudder and let him. “It, it felt like...despair. Like losing some piece of soul and never, ever getting it back again.)
(“Jake!” George cries, muffled against my breast. “Jake, what are you doing?”
“It snapped!” I cry, clutching him to me, trying to find an anchor. “It snapped and a strand broke off.”
George struggles from my grip. “Okay, hold on, hold on. It’s just the herbs, Jake. It doesn’t mean anything real. Now let go of me, you oaf!”
I let go, but I glower at him, shuddering as the whole world shudders. “If it doesn’t mean anything real, then why have you done this to me?” He can’t answer that. “Something broke. I’ve weakened her. You’ve weakened her. And now she weakens me. We bleed. Something broke.” I swoon, but he pushes me to the wall to keep me upright. “Ohhh George, the timing is terrible!”
“It is whatever it has to be,” he says, and I realize the truth in this. “Come on, we’ve got to work with whatever we’ve got. Eggshells break. Seeds break. Soil breaks when the sprouts push up. Whatever snapped just now, Jake, maybe it’s supposed to.”
“But it hurts!” I moan.
“Of course it does. You think I don’t know that by now? No one’s coming to our rescue. It is what has to be.”)
But Nishka doesn’t come to rescue me. “We need a medic,” she says. They have dragged the wounded to the sheltered space among the rocks, high up on the rim of the dell. Nishka squeezes to get in between the boulders, but I pass through okay. Ai, if only I had a little something to give me the strength to handle this!
I do a quick triage. Others have already stopped the bleeding; it helps to have so many adults among us, for a change. I first tend the most critical of those that we can save. The more prudent of the farmers step forward with animal sutures and Akhbar’s Ox Ointment.
(I’ve caught one strand, slippery with something more raw than blood, but I knot it to me, no matter how much it hurts to do so, with all the will I have.
And now I don’t need George to hold me upright any longer. This chamois robe that he has wrapped around me seems to hold me up all by itself, though the leather feels as soft as a mother’s touch.)
(I’ve got to pull myself upright. Whatever happened, or is happening, or will happen, I’ll face it like a man, although all my life I’ve felt like a little freckled boy in Jake’s great big shadow. Because he needs me, all the more down there without me. Because he’s got all the muscle, but I’m the strong one of the pair. And because, at the last minute, I think I did manage to latch onto something, before it slipped away completely, some thin strand not completely severed.
“I’m okay, Don,” I say. And he nods back.)
I want so badly to rest! My head spins like crazy. I have to concentrate with every stitch, every wrap of a bandage. But I can’t rest, not yet. I haven’t yet gotten to Kiril.
(Students sit or stand about the room; some actually touch the magentine piles, oblivious to the danger. Each of those, however, soon stirs, uncomfortably; I can see the spirit of Crespus Inglorius poking at them, getting them to move. They listen grimly to the Changewright proclaiming why the fate of the universe hinges on them celebrating Christmas here. I think. Hard to say, through all the waves of energy pulsing through me.)
(Wallace Weatherbent has decreed that we shall go down the stairs in pairs, every boy holding the hand of a girl or woman, if possible. “It’s the only way to puncture the spell just enough” he says. “If we don’t do this right, Don and Randy won’t even be able to enter the room without all that magentine frying them on the spot.” What a comforting thought! The boys, having seen me crumple and babble, nod and stare uncomfortably at Don and me.
No female remains for Don and me. I explain to Wallace that we can hold, between us, the memory of Don’s fiancé, my former lover, Lisa—the agent who should have come with us. And he nods, blushing, realizing it now. When Don and I clasp hands we really will clasp her as the bond between us.)
(Do...do I feel hands take mine in the dark?)
(“So you actually aren’t...you and Jake aren’t...Of course. I should have guessed.”
My own face burns furiously. “It’s complicated,” I admit. And he reddens anew.)
(Deep in my prison cell I wake myself by whispering, “Don…Randy…” on cracked lips. And I feel it, the telepathy rushing back into me that my enemies had blocked, the barriers shattering before a flood of love!
My name is Lisa Elsbeth Katchuri, of Fireheart Friendclan, I serve, in Corriebhai Colony, a mission for the Tilián, and Christmas has arrived!)
(Yet we don’t descend the stairs just yet, standing and waiting in our pairs, in the soft, cold snow. First our Headmaster, apparently, must go off to sit on a charred beam, beating it with another stick, a sound made sharp and hollow by its echoes off the icy landscape. He closes his eyes and tips back his head, as though listening intently for something that informs the shifting and yet steady rhythms. Some of the boys look sideways at him, even as their moves, unknown to them, start to match his time.
Don, his face white with fear, swings my hand nervously; I’ve let him down with my...whatever it was. “You’ll make Lisa dizzy,” I say, and he chuckles softly.
“Her? She makes me dizzy!” I don’t tell him that I can see the rings on his other hand start to glow, not to mention the sweat beading on his brow in the winter night.)
(Dizzy…weak…stinking…they have kept me manageable by limiting my food and water, but I feel new power surge into me. They can’t hold me out any longer. I turn my eyes to my guard. He thinks it’s his own thought. He turns the key.
“How could I not notice that you’re a woman?” he says, husky with desire. He bends over me, unaware of how he brings his holster within reach of my hand.
About time I got a break.)
Kiril lies neither with the most critical nor the most hopeless, thank God, thank God—for her sake at least perhaps even a God of Justice can grant a break. At last I get to examine the graze along her side. It cut right through a flap of loose skin, from all the weight she’s lost. Young as she is, that skin would have resorbed in a few weeks more, or not shown loose at all had she not lost weight so fast. And the bullet didn’t get her arm, outstretched as it was towards Lufti, who came through unscathed, the missile narrowly whizzing past him. As bad luck goes, they have had uncommonly good luck.
“It’s my fault,” Lufti says miserably as I stitch her up. “No one should death-dance on Christmas night. But it’s the only dance I know.”
“That’s crazy talk,” I say. Kiril bears it all like a stone, not a word, not a glance my way. I wonder when childhood last sparkled in those hard, hard eyes?
(For some reason the music of our childhood plays over and over in my head, but I don’t mind at all. It takes effort to shove the unconscious lug off of me, but then I can drag myself over him to my cell’s doorway, and the slipperiness of the blood helps. My, but a brow-wound bleeds a lot, when you pistol-whip somebody! I crawl to his bench, to the thermos of coffee and a chunk of fruitcake; I think he said that his girlfriend made it for him, since he couldn’t come to the party. Candied citron never tasted so delicious!)
A vertiginous weariness threatens to undo me, as I move on to the next patient. Having accelerated reflexes does not guarantee the stamina to use them. Eventually I get them all stabilized to where we can move them to a more sheltered location, just as the night begins to pale into the grimy gray of dawn, and none of us find presents with the sunrise, just a swirl of ashes on the wind from the bonfire’s remains.
(Now I can handle anything!)
Distantly I hear Tanjin say to someone, “I don’t think Deirdre can handle any m…