IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume VI: The Rift
A Game of Traps
Sunday, December 27, 2708
(Jasco was a good man. I don’t know where I’d find another like him. Oh, he did all the usual good man things, provided for the family, made the kids laugh even in the hardest times, cherished me in the way that a man should cherish a woman, made me feel beautiful even when we’d muck the stables together.
But he did more than that. He did things that other men would not. He listened to me, without laughing at me, when I confided to him my secret belief in fairies.)
We know when to expect the enemy, this time. We set the bait. A camp awaits in plain sight, with a couple of wobbly-looking guards sitting huddled together on a high rock, passing back and forth a chaummin-bottle that in fact holds coffee.
(I told her not to come with us. I told her to mind the farm, that I could fight with greater heart knowing that I had her to come home to. But she wouldn’t hear of it. “Let the crows mind the farm!” she said, and strapped on her grandfather’s guns, the ones with the letters carved into the stocks. “A woman belongs by her man’s side,” she insisted. She never even got a chance to fire those guns. Maybe she can ask her grandfather, now, what the letters say.)
The bait camp, cupped in a box-canyon of sheer rock, consists of bereaved folk who don’t much care whether they live or die. Rather than take matters into their own hands, they have agreed to surrender the question to a toss of the dice and put their bleakness to good use.
(No one should outlive her daughter. She should have buried me, not the other way around. We used to sit and sew together, embroidering and beading her wedding-gown. Not that she had any beau in mind, but someday, we knew, she would find the man who would set her heart and hopes afire. But the gown burned instead. I threw it in the fire with my own hands. I didn’t want some soldier looting it, taking it home for a collaborator bride. The embroidery burned faster than the rest, glowing as the white cloth blackened.)
The rest of us wait hidden in the higher rocks above. The goings-on below look so homey: they pat out quick bread to cook on griddles, not so different from the tortillas that I remember from Alonzo Valley. They chat with each other like old friends. They seem almost cheerful down there, smiling ghosts still animating flesh, kindly with each other. A certain exhilaration comes, even in grief, with having nothing left to lose.
Now they anoint each other with cooking oil, for anyone can administer extreme unction in a pinch. Now they feed each other the fresh-made bread and bring out flasks of wine, but just a bare sip each, in this Sunday memorial sans priest. After awhile it looks too inviting; I turn away.
Others watch more keenly than the phony guards. Me, I lay on my back on this sunwarmed boulder, staring up at a circling hawk, wishing I had the freedom to soar up there with him. But I glance over at Kiril, still peering over the higher rim of the slanted granite with her new rifle in hand (the soldiers left much behind, the last time we engaged them) and Lufti sits nearby, studying a quartzite chip, his bandaged feet in the shoes of somebody’s dead son (“The better for dead-dancing,” he’d said solemnly on accepting them) his own gun lying close at hand; I still have something to lose.
“Are you all right?” Kiril asks me softly.
“Just fine. Not a trace of fever left.”
“I saw you shudder.”
“You have good peripheral vision.” I sit up and take up my arms again. “Don’t worry about it. A little fear before battle keeps us on our toes. How are you?”
“Okay. The wound’s closed up already, no infection. It was just a graze, Deirdre.”
“I know,” I say. “But how’s your heart?”
She returns her gaze to the camp below. “They’re reminiscing down there. About their dead.”
“I miss my dead, too. But not enough to join them.” She turns to me, then, a little stiffly for her injured side.
“It’s been a hard road,” I agree, coming over and resting my arms on the stone to gaze down with her again. “But if we give up, then they’ve all died for nothing.”
“I miss Daia most right now.”
I glance over at her. “I didn’t know you two were close.”
Kiril blushes. “We used to talk. She told me what to do, you know, with, uh, my bleeding. My first bleeding.”
“Kiril!” I exclaim. “You never told me!”
“I didn’t have a chance. You fell sick right when it happened.”
I hug her. “Oh dearheart–you’re becoming a woman!”
She only blushes more. “She, uh, told me about mosses I could gather, or a soft inside bark in some places. Different things that rebel women do in different parts of the country. You know.”
I do know, though hunger has made it beside the point for more months than not. I smooth stray hair from her brow. “Oh honey, I am so sorry that you had to go through your initiation this way, under such rough conditions.”
She looks at me aghast. “Initiation?”
“Yes, well...oh, that’s right. You don’t do that in this country. At Til we hold puberty celebrations. Quietly, just womenfolk gathering together, but it’s all quite cheering.” Except I missed mine, going off on a boat with my friendclan to torture ourselves on crime. The mindchange initiated me into something altogether different.
“Well, we don’t talk about it much.” And she studies the countryside below more intently than ever.
“Incoming,” Lufti says, not looking up from his quartzite.
And seconds later I hear the birdcall that used to mean “Signing off duty,” but which today we agreed would signal the army’s approach. Our stomachs clench. We all now lean our bellies against the rock’s upward slant as one, and slowly, quietly, push rifle-butts into our shoulders, watching...waiting...
Only the eye that knows precisely where to look would pick out all those black dots as the barrels of guns, rimming the encampment.
We listen, hearing the hawk keen overhead, hearing the wind rustle in the straggling pines, hearing the suddenly forced business down at camp. Are those footfalls, or natural noises? No, the rhythm definitely marches, across the sound-deadening earth. The back of my neck prickles...
There! Guns shoot! Our camp grabs up hidden arms and shoots back, but we up on the rim must watch it all as helplessly as God. We must watch the bursts of blood, and hear the screams, as the outnumbered mourners barely hold their own, waiting until the rest of the army pours into the ring of our ambush...
“Now!” My shout echoes off the rocks with the gunfire as we shoot, shoot, hammer the dust and flesh with lead, riccochets sending sparks off the granite!
And we have them! I whoop with the rest. Where did they recruit such sorry shots? Look at them down there, darting around in panic! It takes no time at all to wipe out most of them and send the rest running. Laughing, cheering, we climb down to loot the weapons. I don’t even bother climbing; I jump down, trusting trace levitation to ease my fall.
“Incoming,” Lufti says again, right as I jump off the rock.
Idiot! Of course it’s too easy! They must have herded their worst soldiers to the fore to deceive us–conscripts, most likely, without their hearts in their work. Aliso’s orders, by the feel of it.
I twist in midair to aim my gun at the new wave of soldiers rushing in, heedless of the recoil that knocks me backwards and then drops me again. They fire at my snipers who cling to the rocks exposed, unable to free their own firearms. Without my flit I can only sort of drift in the soldiers’ direction, but the men who might have blanched at the trick all lie dead beneath my feet. The living shoot back as I reload, my skirt rippling against my legs, still hanging on the air like a black dandelion fluff, with nobody to cover me–and me unable to make evasive maneuvers! A bullet scorches through my hair and its wind sends me spinning...
But just then I hear gunfire from a different direction altogether–who else has rushed into our fight?
“Cyran!” somebody shouts. “Cyran has come to our rescue!”
I shout with the rest of them: “Cyran! Cyran! Cyran!” dangling there in the wind, till my kicking boots finally hit ground and I can dive for cover behind a jutting stone.
Now it becomes a fair fight for both sides. No “magic” matters here, just shoot, duck, reload, and shoot some more. An enemy leaps up on my rock just as I reach for more ammo, but I club him off before he can pull the trigger, but now more rush in on either side before I can make it to my feet so I knock their ankles out from under them, spinning where I sit, then roll away from there with cartridges clutched to my chest as they shoot the ground seconds behind me, till I can tumble into a hollow and frantically load up my gun and come up shooting once again.
And now I see and hear that one lone sniper still holds the high ground, picking off our enemy with slow but deadly accuracy–Lufti! God bless the little lunatic! He gives me a chance to scramble over to Kiril’s side behind a different rock and shove ammo into her hand right when she needs it most. I fire over her shoulder while she loads.
And then, suddenly, we see the white flag waving from the other side. I sit back on my heels, nonplussed. I don’t remember a whole troop surrendering to us before; we’ve always fought till we drove them back, or they drove us back, or all of one side died. Oh, we’ve had individuals give up, but I don’t think we’ve ever had to take in a troop of prisoners all at once. This has become a formal war indeed. I lay down my gun and watch, astonished, as men file in, their hands on their heads, to kneel before Cyran, their knees on the hard, gravelly rock.
And oh e looks so good to me! Hir hair has grown long and lustrous, rippling over the muscular shoulders. E moves with command in every stance, every gesture–the one who can make sense of all the chaos in my life has arrived at last.
Several of our new recruits come over to confer with hir. After a moment I hear Cyran calling out loudly so that all can hear the high-tenor voice echoing off the rocks: “The Egalitarian Forces accept your surrender, under these terms: You will not bear arms again. You will bury the dead–your own and ours–with honor and diligence. You will accept assignments to various farms and ranches, where you will labor for your parole, until either five years pass or the revolution ends, one way or the other. I will periodically send messengers around to make sure that you stay put, but also that you receive fair treatment. Anyone who escapes will be hunted down and slain without mercy. Anyone who remains will, at the termination of their confinement, have the option of continuing the same labor for pay beyond food and board, or moving on as they see fit.”
The prisoners nod, wearily. Some of them even grin–the unemployed, I expect, who’d enlisted for lack of any other option. Together they rip the insignias of rank from their uniforms and receive shovels from us.
While the soldiers work at their burial detail, farmers gather with Cyran–those with kinfolk enough to keep guns on the prisoners around the clock. Me, I sit on the ground, leaning back against a small boulder, and close my eyes for seconds, but the shadows have moved noticeably by the time I open them again. Tanjin gives me water and I drink it, surprised by my thirst.
Now the farm-families stand behind Cyran. One by one each soldier goes to whichever farmer stands next in line. As each Egalitarian acquires as many men as he can safely use, he leads them away with his family folding around them, back down the road the way we came.
And I breathe a sigh of relief. Some will come through this time still able to feed the rest of us who live. Some will keep their families intact. Some will walk away from bloodshed for acceptable reasons, and let the war pass by.
I rise from behind my rock, Kiril at my side. Cyran grins to see us, but then hir face falls. “What happened to you?”
“A little bit of torture.” I attempt a grin, suddenly remembering what my face must look like, “but Kiril here led a whole legion of bands to my rescue.”
“I see,” says Cyran, looking Kiril up and down. “I wouldn’t have recognized you, Kiril, if Deirdre hadn’t told me.” But just as her face falls he smiles and says, “You have grown up to be quite the beauty, young lady.” And then I realize that she has not only shed much of her weight but stretched the rest in growing taller and curvier. She still looks plump by Tilián standards, but in the hungry Charadoc, among the peasant classes, this counts for loveliness.
Cyran adds, “And you’ve become a strategist and spy as well, I hear–from multiple sources, by the way. Your exploits have gone on before you. I understand that we owe a major victory to you.” And e shoots a side-glance to me, to let me know that e has kept informed of my career as well, though which things and how much I can't estimate. I keep my features impassive; visible unease with the revelation would confirm too much.
Lufti climbs down the cliff, his rifle slung at his back. I see him now through Cyran’s eyes: somewhat taller, much lankier, wrists and ankles poking beyond his cuffs, and his long, sandy hair flipping on his back. “Ah, Lufti!” Cyran calls up. “I hear good things about you, too–that you made a legendary ride for our sakes, and put your literacy to good use in the camp of the enemy.”
Lufti’s eyes sparkle as he hits the ground and lopes up. “Cyran! The stars burst in my head before the guns arrived, feet marching in a crystal’s side, but the dead stay cool no matter what–no horse can climb where I can go.” Cyran gapes suddenly in horror; though he must have heard that the ride left the boy delirious, that often happens and passes; none of hir intelligence apparently informed hir that Lufti had lost his mind for good. The boy takes Cyran’s hand and carefully lays a golden hawk’s feather in hir palm. “Take very good care of it,” he confides. “It is the most delicate of loot; a stray thought might blow it away.”
Cyran looks to me, eyes wide with grief, then back to Lufti. “I will keep it here,” e says, tucking the feather inside hir shirt. “Right next to my heart.” E says to Kiril and me, “I will receive both of your reports somewhere a bit more safe than here.”