IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume VI: The Rift
Sunday, January 3, 2709
(If I turn one knob on this box I can sense where other people are, out of line of sight, far beyond my usual scope. Move the other knob and I can sense the positivity/negativity of their intentions. I scan for what needs done, when Tshura interrupts to ask when I last combed my hair.
She’s right, she’s right, oh Gates, she’s right! I...I must keep up appearances or nobody will take me seriously. And...she’s urging me to eat as well. Ah—did I forget to eat?
“What should I do next, Tshura?” I ask, while downing a can of sardines.
I sense a telepathic answer, in real words: Find Zanne.
I look at the reflection in the glass of a broken dial, see my face staring out between blonde tangles, and say, “Okay, what’s next?”
I turn the box off. It’s malfunctioning again.)
We shall have to fight for every inch along the way. (Do Charadocians reckon in inches, centimeters, or cornspans? I can’t remember!) At first I hear the shots behind us, of others covering our progress–I wish Cyran didn’t account me so accursedly important. But before long shellfire rains down on us!
We keep going, running forward, zigzagging, darting from cover to cover, but always onward. The shells pelt us from some distance, blasting scars in the landscape in great geysers of gravel, jarring our teeth and hearts, hurting our ears, but they don’t fall with any accuracy--our enemy hails down fire on us blindly. That only lessens the danger a little, for we never know which way to dodge.
I guess seconds in advance by the trajectory of a whistle in the air, grab Lufti and tumble out of the way, half-lifted by the blast just short of killing-force. After that the others stay close and watch me, knowing by now of the speed of my reflexes, even when exhausted to the bone, past the bone, to raw marrow, to nothing left but running, running, running...
(Running out of excuses, are we? The scourge lies across my camp-cot, taken from its package, and I stare at it. Do I really want to do this? Of course not. That would defeat the whole point, would it not? One must not desire penance. I am no pervert, whatever people might think.
Outside I hear the sounds of the camp settling in, the tramp of boots, the clank and bump of objects finding their places for the night, the hails of men off-duty, the grumbles and the jesting. It all sounds so normal out there. Then I frown. When did military camps come to sound normal to me?
I pick it up, weigh it in my hand, lay it back down, pick it up again...and put it in my pack, out of sight, along with the wallet of wax-sculpting tools that people fear so inordinately.
Monday, January 4, 2709
No chance to sleep for this poor, aching head. The shells came down all night long. Lufti’s heart can’t take this. I fear his blue lips more than missiles falling from the skies. I carry him on my back, now, pack slung to my front. Every step I think I can’t bear so much weight and then I insist that I can. (Kilos? Catti? Pounds? I must know!)
(I must press the men hard, to not let up. It took a lot to haul artillery, literally tons of artillery, up into these mountains and they will damn well use it if I have to tie them to the mortars. They may take shifts, if they must, but we must press the rebels harder still.
General Aliso backs me up, investing me with the power to give orders in her name. I didn’t ask for it, but then I didn’t ask to be born, either, nor did my mother ask to have me. We all must come to terms with destiny.
I listen to the loud, rhythmical booming, that has gone on all day, that will go on all night long. I can only hope, pray, conjure, whatever lies within my bloodstained reach, that none of the shells land on our own.
Would penance move an angry God? Would that make him heed this sinner’s pleas? I dig out the scourge from my stuff, the wires still unstained. I contemplate it in my hand. It feels apt to my palm–too apt. Just how guilty do I feel?
Guilt? In defending my country? God forbid it! An indulgence, guilt, as decadent as the liquor and drugs that the rebels revel in. I differ from them. I will not drug myself with agonies and ecstasies of guilt and redemption. I put the scourge back.)
Rogan looked shocked the first time I gave his son a bit of the greenfire that Cyran had allotted us. Now he feeds it to the boy himself, both of them gray with exhaustion.
Ambrette sees me chew one of the bitter leaves along with them. “You had a concussion!” she accuses. “People with concussions shouldn’t take greenfire.”
“I got knocked out, that’s all,” I tell her. “Not even fully out. It’s not like the last time I got hit.”
She gasps. “There was a last time?” but I can’t hear anything else that she shouts at me, for the shells pound down around us again.
(No roads go through here. We leave the jeeps with a small guard. I tell Ruby to stay, too, even as I envy her the back seat where she has made herself a bed. But she comes with me anyway.
Sanzio would tear my eyes out for keeping my very own camp follower, but he has no jurisdiction over generals, nor any idea how much a woman needs the company of another woman to talk to, somebody who doesn’t think with gears for brains, in straight lines and geometries. Somebody who understands.
“Sister, you look beat!” she says out of the hearing of the others, as we tramp off into the bushes together, to do what men would rather not know that women need to do as much as men.
I smile and shrug. “If the rebels don’t sleep, then we can’t either.” But I can’t keep the smile up. That slope looks daunting to one already tired, however well-conditioned.
She strokes a stray strand from my cheek. I shall have to find some time to comb it. “Poor sister.” Then she looks around, makes sure that no one else can see us, and with a sly smile pulls out a pouch. “Want a little help?”
I hesitate, until the ache all up and down my spine makes me reach for it. For we can’t go on with the rebels having this advantage and still do without, ourselves. I’ll pay for it later, I’m sure of it, but who in the army can count on “later” even happening? “You chew it, don’t you?” I ask, “and then spit out the pulp?”
“Discreetly,” she says, her eyes glittering.)
Tuesday, January 5, 2709
No more shells for awhile. They must have run out. But we hear something else that sets our hearts in our throats–footsteps. Feet slip on gravel, climbing through the rocks towards us. We dive for cover, hardly daring to breathe. Insanely, in the stillness, I become excruciatingly aware of the feel of my own griminess and a deep desire to bathe, to at least appear as a woman before my enemy, come what may. Half my hair straggles out of my braids; before I can stop myself I find myself frenetically rebraiding them as I wait, combing roughly with my fingers. I want to die with at least a little dignity.
But no enemy emerges from between the rocks, only equally grimy children, staggering with weariness, crazy-looking in their eyes. “Our leader died,” they say. “So did all our new folks. Can we march with you?” I don’t recognize any of them.
I hesitate, then nod. It makes us a bigger target, but I can’t bear to turn these waifs away. I hoist Lufti onto my back once more, turn again to the way we headed, and stumble, but Ambrette catches me on one side, and Tanjin on the other. Then we all clamber over the rocks together, wishing for a clear road in safety the way a miser lusts for gold.
None of them marched with Kiril. I hardly listen, after that, about who did lead them. I wonder how Kiril fares? And whether she marches across rods or kilometers or miles (Irish miles? English? Surely not nautical! But wait, she was a sailor, so maybe nautical. How will I ever connect with her again if I can’t calibrate to her measure?)
Within the hour we hear the first ping off the rocks--the snipers that hunted these children now come after all of us. Now we have bullets to dodge–smaller but far more direct. At least now, though, we can return fire, towards enemies a little bit in sight.
(General Aliso sends back orders. We have indeed shelled too many of our own. This blind barrage must stop.
My ears ring in the silence, a high-pitched whine after so much insult to the auditory nerves. I hope it goes away soon.
The woman seems not to care that we have hit far more rebels than soldiers. Who among our troops would not willingly die to see this country freed of the vermin?
And yet she has her point. I must not mistake the general for a sentimental thing, her gender notwithstanding. We must, after all, arrive with enough men to take the pass.
Yet more troubles me than that. I weary of ghastly necessity. I betray myself with doubts. In the privacy of my tent, I pull out the scourge again. Lamplight glints upon its wires, like some severe ornament. I should have used this yesterday. Now seems pointless. And what good, really, in penance when one has no real intention of reform?
God, this is Your fault! You put me in this untenable position. I but serve God and country–how dare you require such things of me, and then demand my penitence for obeying!
I talk to myself. I can’t call this prayer. I have no idea what God wants; I haven’t even considered it much for years. We all guess, groping in the dark. Even the wicked rebels do, as that other wretched woman showed me, curse her poisonous sympathy!
And bless her. Isn’t it the sorriest of shames that it would turn out that a creature like Deirdre Keller understands me better than anyone?
I unbutton my shirt even as I think these things. The night feels cold on my skin when I take it off, and next the undershirt beneath, but I will warm up soon enough.
The first flick hardly counts as a tap. A second follows like it, and hardly stings at all. Then my timidity enrages me and I go at it as if I had a filthy rebel in my grip to beat–and maybe I do! I rage against myself, all of my doubts, all of my scruples, the indecent niceties that will not let me do my job the way I know I must, and the pain only infuriates me more!
I stop suddenly, panting for air. No, I didn’t stop, my miserable flesh stopped, and I cannot force it further, cannot make myself raise my hand one more time against me. Not tonight. My back and shoulders throb, and I feel sudden fear at how much injury I’ve done myself.
And elation. A certain pure feeling creeps through me. No guilt can exist alongside so much self-inflicted pain. I have freed myself! My pain nurses me back to health, washes away the deeper pain of soul in the warming trickle of my blood, tucks me softly into righteousness again.
I break into shudders and it won’t stop. I feel colder than ever. Where are the rags that I keep for the mopping up of blood? Boiled and reboiled, they still have the old greenish-brown stains upon them, but that’s okay, they’re sanitary enough. I must clean all this up or stain my blankets. And I do so very much, so wearily need my blankets.)