IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume VI: The Rift
Savagery and Civility
Friday, January 8, 2709
Dawn brings color back into the world. Both sides have run out of ammunition, and in this kind of terrain neither of us have any way to restock. Food runs low, too, but it takes an effort to eat, anyway. At least we have plenty of leaf.
I never give any to Lufti; he has slept bobbing on my back all night long. Now he wakes, looks around himself with sleep-puffy eyes, then suddenly wrestles violently off of me, screaming and kicking me so hard that I sprawl into the dirt.
Lefty and Kassim grab him before he can escape, though he fights them desperately. “The dead! The dead!” he cries. “Where are you taking me?”
I push myself back up off the ground, and I do indeed feel like a corpse trying to force a decaying body upright; I hate the way I smell.
He stops struggling at the sight of me, but topples to his knees, weeping, horror naked in his face. “Oh Deirdre!” he cries. “When did you die?”
“I am very much alive,” I tell him, and take him into my arms, where he holds me, trembling, like he fears the Reaper will wrench me from him if he dares let go. Finally he lets me hoist him back up onto my back, and we continue our march. Maybe we can sleep tonight, if we light no fires, attracting no soldiers to rain down rocks on us. But not yet–everyone’s too wired.
Daba’oth reminds Lufti, “We travel to Abojan Pass, by way of lovely Koboros.”
With surprising venom Lufti hisses back, “You will poison Koboros!”
“Don’t mind him,” I say. “He doesn’t know half of what he’s saying.”
But Lufti insists, “I know more of what I say than anyone in the Charadoc,” and after that he falls into a sullen silence.
“Anyway,” I say, “we’re not going to Koboros this time. We’re taking the direct—Gunfire! Evasive maneuvers NOW!” We scatter and run, zigzagging from cover to cover amid the pops and pings.
Sparing, though—a few cautious shots. They’ll ration out the bullets, now, trying to herd us all day and all night. But tomorrow–surely tomorrow we will sleep.
(In the morning I reach for my shirt–and stare in horror at the blood stains on the back. How did that happen? I have taken so much care! Did anybody see?
Suddenly I feel dirty, beyond all filth. I haven’t done anything holy whatsoever! Stained, stained–nothing can wash me clean. I will not stoop to borrow the blood of God–how can that be any cleaner than my own? The old stories that once enthralled me now fill me with disgust.
And yet...and yet I know that all these feelings will go away the next time that I flagellate. But not yet. I have a whole day’s march ahead of me, riding or no. And not tonight, either; I must give myself some time to heal. I must take care, must never need the attention of a medic. I shall have to schedule these things carefully. Fortunately, none can crack the code in my daybook. I must remain in complete control.
Of course nobody saw. I wore a coat the entire time. In any case, it’s not like I’ve never washed blood from my shirt before.
I hear the splash of the water from the pitcher distinctly–my hearing recovers already. I surprise myself with a slight sense of disappointment. I do not hesitate to plunge my forearms into the chill water–its bite feels a little bit like penance. I knead and knead the shirt, watching the white suds discolor as I go.)
Sunday, January 10, 2709
We fight with rocks, now, the enemy and us. Some among us have slings, and the rest turn our socks into something close enough, past caring about blisters or cold toes. It takes a learning curve to use them, but before long we hear cries behind the opposing boulders, and we cheer the impact of our missiles. Then tall Kassim falls like Goliath, tumbling down the scree amid a spill of rattling rocks. I hide Lufti’s eyes from the impact at the bottom, but Daba’oth looks on. “Like Granny Shtara,” he breathes. “At least the head–just like a jar.”
(The army chaplain holds confessions before Mass. I get in line, my back burning under the hidden bandages. I feel queer there, pretending not to notice the looks that soldiers give me. I get close enough to hear the unintelligible mumbles within the snapping tent that quivers in the wind, but then I turn around and leave before my own turn comes. What could I say to him? What could I promise?
Does anyone, any soul on this entire planet, understand how much this moral wrestling has exhausted me?
Maybe one. But she fights for the other side.)
Monday, January 11, 2709
We have run low on leaf. I have stinted my own ration to try and make it last for the others, so that a weariness suffuses me like the gravity of all my sins drag back my every step, my every move. Oh God, oh God, will you not end this war? Will you not cause each and every mountain in this Range of Fire to erupt and bury us all in lava, entombing rebel and soldier alike, so that none of us may ever lift a finger to the trigger again?
Cold rocks hit us, not the hot ones of volcanoes. I hear a sickening crack behind me, turn, and find that another child died, mercifully too fast to even cry out. We can’t slow down to honor him properly. We just keep running, running, as I hear Lufti whispering his incoherent prayers with his head against my ear.
(I hate the scourge. In a lifetime peppered with dubious decisions, that has to be one of my worst. I shall toss it into the nearest available crevasse. I wish its maker had fashioned it of some frangible matter, not sturdy wood and metal, something that could shatter against the stony slope.
But not yet. I might need it yet.)
Tuesday, January 12, 2709
I call a halt. We all sit down on a broad, flat-topped stone, warmed by the summer sun and jutting out over a dell, its land-edge softened by wild grass and the dappled shade of a nearby tree rooted in a crack between the rocks. And here we eat the last of our food together. It doesn’t take long before rocks hurl nearby, hitting wide of the mark.
“Come on up!” I call out. “We’re both out of ammo, and we’re both too fried to aim with any accuracy anyway–we might as well pool our resources and share a meal together. Let’s call a truce.”
They come up, out from between the rocks: gaunt, stubbly men, as filthy as ourselves, as bleary-eyed, as shaky and stumble-footed. “Truce,” a man rasps, who owns three purple chevrons on his shoulder. Then they sit down with us, and we pass them the salt-paste and some handfuls of dried fruit, and they pass us some of that mush that soldiers on hard commons make of dried bean flakes, but it tastes much better with our pepper-flakes added, and their crackers taste fantastic with the last of our cheese.
Both sides fear to talk. We both recognize our own frayed nerves, how easily the truce could combust into hand-to-hand violence at one wrong word. And we both feel how desperately we need this truce. But “Thank you,” and “Hey, this tastes good!” go a long way for conversation.
And the beauty and the tragedy of that moment is that we do speak the same language, unlike most combatants the world over. Not only the same language, but even the same dialects. We have everything in common, these men that we must kill, who stand honor-bound to kill us...later. But for now all we have to do is marvel at how rebel scavengings and army rations blend so well together.
At twilight, their officer and I agree. We take off in different directions. We will not try to spy out where the other ultimately camps. Not tonight.
As I lead my band off to a good night’s sleep, a skinny kid runs panting up to me out of the middle of nowhere. I see a bead of magentine on a dirty string upon her heaving breast. She must have tracked us by telepathy–Cyran has gotten a clue from me, to figure out who among us might have enough psi talent to use magentine with minimal training.
“Cyran needs...you to...fly again...caches of...supplies...ammo...food...drop ‘em...where needed.”
I stare at her, thinking the most unutterable of swear words. “Tomorrow,” I finally tell her. “It will have to wait till tomorrow.” She glares, all her haste–and all it cost her–betrayed.
(We stop at a mountain village. I forbid my men to follow me, and none dare question me.
I go into the local tavern, a drafty rock structure with barely enough room for the regulars. It’s not like I make a habit of this, after all. For one night I just want to be an ordinary citizen. I even leave behind my white shirts and don a borrowed plaid one, narrow in the sleeve, appropriate for working-men who eke out a living here between the rocks and precipices. The men probably think that I’ve gone to play the spy.
The beer tastes flat, too sweet, and kind of thickish–probably chock full of nutrients and calories, though. Not too strong, which suits me fine–I didn’t come here for that.
I flex my shoulders; they sting when I do, but I have to try and roll a kink out of my neck. Let people think that I came by sore muscles through honest labor.
Murmured conversation washes around me. Somebody’s goat has gone lame, and somebody else recommends a poultice that his grandad used to use. Somebody’s cheating on his wife and having second thoughts about it. Someone saved up for and mail-ordered a genuine, solar-powered, automatic washing machine, all the way from Sargeddohl, for his daughter on her wedding–won’t she be thrilled? Somebody’s got one son in the army and another in the revolution, and can’t say which he thinks is right, he just loves them both.
I finish my beer, toss its price and a small tip on the bar, and leave without a word.)
The mine-cart races under me, its wheels squealing madly on the tracks, faster and faster, around hairpin turns, whipping me about, threatening to spill me into the pit below!
My eyes fly open. Awake, I hear squeals and hisses and high-pitched snarls over the rattle of tiny claws on gravel. Children cheer and jeer and laugh in bursts, now clapping, now cursing. I hear a couple of men’s voices in there with them.
I lay on a thin blanket on the ground. Someone has rigged up a tent over me (oh, rare privacy! I didn’t even know we’d packed one.) Another blanket lies nearby, but I feel too weary to move, no matter how cold the night, to tug it over me. I can barely shift my head to see the tent-flap between my feet, and a cold slice of the dry, star-frosted night.
My head feels dense. It takes awhile to dawn on me that some of the children have captured rats and now pitch them against each other. I suppose they bet their rations on the rat-fight.
Everything in my upbringing revolts against such abuse. I know I ought to get up and make them stop. But I feel welded to the ground, an aching bolt in every joint. I wonder how they find the strength to play, then realize that they’re still too wound up on leaf to sleep. They didn’t start out as tired as me. (They aren’t as acclimatized as me.) I can’t just switch them off at fall of night. Soon, though, nature will take over, and they will all fold suddenly. And maybe the poor rats will escape.
The blanket feels thicker every minute. I do manage to hook the other one, and drag it over me, but that takes the last energy I have. The softness beneath me pulls me down into the stony earth.
Why bother stopping them? They couldn’t possibly understand, any more than the rats do. How arrogant, how patronizing Tilián morality seems right now, how far away. Why should rats get any better treatment than people?
Either way I think, I disgust myself.