IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume VI: The Rift
Saturday, January 2, 2709
(So. This is the new Truth. Alone in a sea of strangers, backpack straps eating into my shoulders, a branch in one hand for a walking-stick and a haunted box in the other. But at least I'm better equipped than most of the refugees from madness trudging along this road.
What do they run from, anyway? Untruths, many of them, fears and delusions, but also some intractable facts. Whole cities have burned down, with the populace too divided to work together to fight the fires, and the cold air chokes on smoke, ashes falling with the snow. But what can you expect with a population destabilized and flooded with magentine—some are bound to be combustors without knowing it till something blows up.
Trucks have run out of fuel, stores have gone unstocked, and people have hit the road to look for food. People in crucial jobs have butchered each other in fits of madness, or simply walked away. Many fights broke out over telepathic glimpses, some so out of context that murderous misunderstandings erupted, and some all too accurately perceived. The Gates only know how...
...no, that is not a truth. I know how, or ought to figure it out. The Gates of Knowledge have imparted their wisdom to me...no, not a truth, either. I stole their wisdom, and I jolly well better find a way to use it to save what I can of this country.
So many years ago, almost a decade, since I laughed with Merrill on that boat, thrilled at what we dared, gazing on the red cliffs of Til for my first time beyond them, while the radulline acid ate into my skin. And the pain of the transformation itself...I thought that nothing could match so much suffering! I did not yet know the pain of defeat.
Oh, stop feeling sorry for yourself, silly girl! You know what they say—every defeat causes ten new crises, each a new opportunity to succeed or fail. Well, it looks like more than ten from where I stand, or trudge, or whatever. No use wasting energy on moping, though. Keep searching for someplace with the tools to open up this box and see if I can repair whatever it is.
The drifts of snow look like swells upon a frozen ocean, white with foam. My telepathic walls still feel ragged, worn almost to transparency in places—I keep picking up on someone who misses the sea, oh misses her so badly that it aches like the cold in my feet.)
Red cliffs...thundering, that's the sea, it bursts its waves against the rocks...or maybe shellfire going off somewhere...red cliffs and green jungle...atmosphere grows thin in the Charadoc mountains; I still feel it sometimes, or maybe that's just from smoking...red cliffs of home, fluted in and out by the shaping hands of rain and ocean...oh home, where I never heard shellfire except in threedees!
"Deirdre, wake up. They're moving closer."
I have found the softest ground in the whole wide world. Even the stones feel soft.
"Deirdre, we're going to need you," Cyran insists. Hir hand rocks awake all the aches in my body, the big one in my head the worst of all. "Oh Deirdre, don't crash on me now!" I hear a rustle. "Here. Don't argue. Chew it all."
I feel a leaf pushed in between my lips. Deliciously bitter. My teeth chew automatically. Vigor runs down my throat with every swallow as my gums and tongue go numb. I sit up, still chewing. No bed in sight; I must have dropped in the middle of a march. I wonder if Cyran called a halt first; I can't remember.
"I'm sorry, Deirdre," e says to me. "I know you don't like this."
"The problem is that I do–now." And we look each other in the eye.
"That's what I know you don't like."
I see Makhliya come up, tug Cyran aside and speak to hir urgently, and e hisses back just as urgently. Finally, reluctantly, she nods and steps out of hir way. "I know you're not in the best of shape right now," e tells me, hir voice grudgingly sympathetic, "but today off-duty means dead. You have got to keep up by any means necessary."
Perceptions sharpen by the minute. They sparkle. They prickle. "I take it that the hammer has fallen." On my skull, it feels like.
"On everyone. Every band's getting a pounding, all up and down the range. Getting closer to us, too. It didn't take as long as I'd hoped for our own local foes to replace their fallen."
"Pounding. On both sides, I hope?"
E barks a laugh. "What–did you expect us to all march together to Abojan Pass holding hands?"
I grin wryly back at him. I feel my battle-mind click into focus as I shove myself back up to my feet. "Okay, Cyran–what do you need from me?"
"No more flying for awhile. Makhliya's orders. I can give you that much at least, though your feet won't thank me for the break before we're through. But I have to scatter the bands out into the countryside. I need every officer on board, especially with so many raw recruits."
"Fine. Where's my lieutenants?"
"Lieutenant. Lufti's not quite with us, remember?"
"Uh, yeah. Get Kiril for me. Give me time to wake up the rest of the way."
"There is no time."
"Right." E goes off, shouting orders. Soon I see hir scale a cliff to a point where hir voice will carry, echoing off the rocks. "SANZIO RAFAEL D'ARCO!" e roars.
Bullets ping back, but e stands hir ground, and we hear "Cease fire!" shouted in the distance.
"A woman will soon approach you," e calls out, "with two children. She is under the protection of ST. DYMPHNA! See this troubled woman to safety."
And there, with eyes so wide that I wonder if she could ever close them again, comes Suleya with her daughter and her younger son, holding up a white flag that shudders visibly in her grip, even as one hand clutches a prayer-cloth against the branch to which it ties. Red crosses now cover her clothing from head to toe, and that of the children with her, and she has found red lipstick to paint more upon her face. I see her lips moving but can't tell whether she recites prayers or repeats her litany of "I can't take it anymore!" The small ones hold onto their mother, seeming to prop her up, more scared of her terror than of anything out there on the battlefield. Rebels part to let her pass as she stumbles down the road, her flag wavering in the air.
The whole time I stand there, taking in as much of the thin air as my lungs can hold. The greenfire doesn't work as well as it used to, but I'll be damned if I ask for another leaf. And I sure as hell won't wish for that dirty, seductive powder that ol' Whitesleeves gave me! I press my hands to my chest, trying to get the most out of each breath. I feel every rib distinctly through the layers of clothing–big ribs, Mountainfolk ribs, adapted to this altitude. I can do this. But even through the poncho? Palpable bone?
So what? If the Charadocians like their wenches chubby, they prefer their leaders to look a little disturbing: a bit of gauntness goes with my image. I yawn; I feel as though my skin has turned to lead.
Cyran comes back with Kiril close behind, limping slightly; I don't even know what happened to make her limp. In wells of shadow the child's eyes glare like a hawk, like she's never been anything but ancient, like some fey thing grown stunted under rocks. Slowly she pulls out a cigarette, lights it in front of me, takes a deep drag and blows smoke in my face.
"Cyran..." my voice rasps.
"Right here." He hands me another leaf without me even having to ask.
"I honestly am that beat, Cyran," but I look at Kiril as I say it.
I hate this war.
(The year before last year I spent all of New Year's interrogating a rebel in a cellar. I remember how the rain had seeped into the ill-made walls and bred a mildew stink. We could hear the revelry upstairs; it drove us both a little mad, I think, that anyone could enjoy themselves when there, in that moldering little room, the world had contracted into one great cramp of misery. And the information that I finally pried out of him seems so paltry, now.
And now the music plays back for me, tunes that I can't get out of my head, of all the revelry that I have ever missed out on in the call of duty. I think of the drinking, and the numbness. I think of the rebels chewing greenfire till they don't care what they do to anyone anymore. I think of those fungi that some of the rich indulge in to create fantasies that they can crawl into, escaping all thought of the consequences of their decisions. All of the many wicked ways to evade the truth.
I can't do that. I have utterly invested myself in the business of truth. Granted, I have tried a few drinks over the limit, now and then, but in the morning my head hurts and I hate my own guts more than ever. No, I have no business on the Way of Escape. Now, more than ever, when it most tempts me.
No, I decided my path a long time ago. The Way of Pain. For pain elicits the truth. I let no one else avoid it, so I can hardly let myself off the hook.
Hypocrite! To inflict on others what I shy from myself does not exonerate me. I must commit myself to the absolute renunciation of numbness–I must feel everything with brutal honesty, beyond all skin-deep mouthings of intent.
An old way exists. I shudder to think of it, but yes, it's there, it has always been there, waiting for me to finally accept it. Oh, the Church officially condemns it, but I strayed from the official version of the Church a long time ago. The hill cults understood these things much better. Sometimes you can't feel penance just by whispering to a priest, hiding in a booth. Sometimes you have to feel it on the blood level. Especially when you know that you must go out and sin again.
My brother and I talked about it once, long ago, back when I still thought I had a brother. A way, perhaps, to atone for our birth. Hell, he'll always be my brother, deep in my damnable, treacherous heart, whatever he might call himself, now, whatever e might technically be. One more thing to beat out of me.
I know of a shop in the next town, with painted-over windows and a back-door entrance. The proprietor leers at everyone else who comes in, but not at me. He knows too well that I never shop for pleasures, there. I will walk past all the silly costumes, all the make-believe chains and handcuffs. I will buy a scourge. And no one will question why I buy it. And I will not buy the soft suede one for pretenders, the kind that smarts to appetize, but the real one, the one with metal teeth, for the truly hardcore.
And everyone will think that they know why I buy it. But I will not dirty it with rebel blood. I will find a hope, if I might, on my harder path, true to my commitments, to purify myself.
How else could I possibly qualify to lead? Oh Layne, Layne, why must you heap still more authority on me, when I already hate what I have?)
"Cyran needs me to lead my own band, Deirdre." Kiril lights a cigarette off her own and hands it to me. "We have too many new recruits in the ranks to spare any officers."
I take a long, deep drag before saying, "I could get you out of it. I could tell Cyran that I'm not up to handling my end alone."
She eyes me up and down, and we both realize at that moment that I speak the truth. But then she says, "I want this, Deirdre. It's time. How can I put it? It makes me feel better, safer, being in control. I've seen too many..." and then she stops, blushing.
"Say it. Truth hurts. I know. Say it anyway."
"No. I don't have to."
"Say that you've seen too many leaders mess up. Say that you've seen me mess up, and that you'd rather rely on yourself."
We stare at each other through the smoke, and suddenly she barks, "I'm tired of watching you self-destruct, that's what!" Her eyes look cruel when she says, "Everyone who loves you hates to look at you right now."
"Well then, go on with you!" I cry. "Go–lead your own band! Just remember that I didn't break my promise–you left me. I didn't leave you."
"I don't want to part this way," she gasps, and suddenly I see the little girl in her, crying. "Cyran gave me orders!"
"And you suggested them yourself, didn't you? Well, didn't you?" Her sudden silence, the wariness in her posture as I drop and crush my cigarette butt, tells me everything. "Goodbye, Kiril."
She hesitates, then suddenly tackles me in a hug. I shove her away. I stalk off, hugging myself. Then, remembering the look on her face, I turn back. I grab her and pull her to me, gripping her hard and long, feeling and hearing her sob on my breast.
"Take good care of Lufti, will you?" she says when she can talk. "He won't go with me. He says you need him."
"I will," I promise.
"I'll, I'll take Nishka and Hekut with me–I need experienced fighters."
"Take them, then," I say more gently than before. "And may they keep you safe, Kiril, until we meet again." I kiss the top of her head before she leaves, then growl, "Now get out of here before I change my mind and break your neck." I watch her go, bleeding inside as I clench and unclench my hands to try and throw off the greenfire nerves, trying not to hate her for being right, just too damn smart-ass right about everything.
(Good. More and more join us on the same path, all races and faiths and kinds, trampling down the slush, and this gives me hope. They sense in me, I think, that I know what I'm doing. Whether I do or not, I can at least save these darlings around me from the collapse of Vanikke. I organize efforts to scavenge food, to boil snow, to set up or find such shelters as we may.
But face this one, inescapable truth, Zanne Charlotte. We can't generate much new food in the dead of winter, and those with guns for hunting long since killed each other in the Great Madness. We have nothing left except to loot whatever stores and homes we find of contaminated processed fare. And the cold demands that we burn calories just to endure it.
And...oh Gates! I've been coordinating all these people by telepathy and didn't even know it! Not till just now, realizing that my sight blurs from seeing from too many eyes at once. And I really shouldn't have 360 degree peripheral vision.
No helping it, girl. People will die if I don't lead any way I can.)
I have nothing to be ashamed of. Nothing! I only do what I must to lead, any way I can.
Forcing my jaws to unclench, I go off to see what band Cyran has assigned to me. Lufti, of course, at least till we can escort him to safety. Tanjin, who will not part from me on any terms. Rogan, as I promised Suleya, with the deep vertical lines around his mouth and the creases framing his eyes, his sad face held up high; and his son beside him, with that reckless curl of black hair on the lad's brow making him look daring as he tries to stand up taller than he is. I hadn't recognized Ambrette the night before, but there she stands, leaner than I remember, her weight-loss giving her once-round face a prematurely weathered look, and the dark roots showing in the part of her permed blonde hair; her expression, and the insolent way she leans against a boulder, toying with her gun, reminds me pangingly of Fatima. And I'll have the wry-smiling miner called Lefty, missing fingers from his right hand; he might have been tall for Mountainfolk, like me, if not for the stoop of shoulders shaped to the tunnels. Also a blonde-bearded, breathless-looking fellow, plainly not mountainfolk and out of his element, named Kassim; he has the hungry look of a farmer's younger son, without inheritance. And finally a very thin, unusually tall Mountainfolk boy with the most charming smile in the world, surprisingly handsome, with thick, curly black hair and liquid black eyes, wide and bright. He calls himself Daba'oth, lately returned from the hospital of Koboros, all patched up and eager for a rematch.
"Rashid brought me back from the dead," he declares, "In beautiful Koboros!" I don't see sanity in those eyes, but we do without luxuries like that all the time out here. "Hallowed be his knives!"
"Oh? And what kind of wound did you have?"
"Abdominal," he says, his teeth bright in his grin. "They say that I'm the only one to ever survive a bullet in the belly as far back as anyone can remember. And I have come back to fight!"
I hear Lufti whimper. "I'm not dancing with him, oh no, I won't dance with him!" To my surprise I see him cowering against Ambrette, on the side farthest from Daba'oth; he would squeeze in behind her, if he could.
Surprised, Ambrette puts an arm around him and says, "What's this, sweetie? Daba'oth's all right. He's only dangerous to the enemy."
Lufti doesn't seem convinced, but then he turns to me and says, "I go wherever you go, Deirdre," though he looks still more horrified to say it.
(The woman with the white flag couldn't have looked more horrified if I had strapped her down for questioning. I hear the truth in her whispering that she can't take "it" anymore—my job depends on recognizing the breaking-point.
I gestured for the men to stand down and let her come to me. Without a break in her litany she hands me the prayer-cloth of St. Dymphna with shaking fingers, no doubt as she's been told to do, and I recognized it at once. I remember how those two drops of blood in the lower left corner got there. Nothing could convince me more, not the most in-depth interrogation I could muster, that Cyran intends no trap.
"She has gone mad, and become harmless," I say to my aide. " Take her and her children to the cook's tent. Give them something to eat."
I finger the silk of the prayer cloth. Absurdly, I hate the thought of my enemy going on without it.)
We all eat one last meal together, on fare as sparse as the air, for all of the supplies that the recruits brought in have nearly run out. I wouldn't eat at all, if Lufti didn't insist, pushing food into my mouth with his own hands if I don't do it myself. Damien dines quickly and early, so that he can strum to us softly while we finish what might be our last peaceful moment for awhile.
Then, after we've talked out every last thing that we need to say to each other before parting ways, the bard stands up on a rock and tells us, "Don't be afraid to go hungry, or get tired. When you feel half-dead, that's when the ghosts can talk to you. That's when you learn things from them. Like where to find food, or safe shelter for a little bit of rest. Go ahead, each of you, on the road ahead. Try it. When you really need them, relax and just let the dead speak to you. We all surely have enough ties with our ghosts by now to learn something of value between us."
Then he strums the martial chords that makes our skin prickle with its thundrous beauty, his voice rising on songs that remind us of everything that fighters before us found meaningful enough to die for. Daba'oth stands up and dances to it, whirling wilder and wilder in a trance of ecstasy. When the music trails off and he suddenly spins down to collapse in the dust, he grins, glassy-eyed in his sweat, panting, "The music of Koboros! The music of Koboros! Oh, the songs of the Powerful Dead!"
And with that we stand, clean up, and take off our separate ways into the wilderness. And every scrub brush struggling to get by amid the rocks, every coney, every lizard, the blowing wildflowers in the cracks of boulders, the keening raptors overhead, all look so incredibly, amazingly alive!