IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume VI: The Rift
The Agony of Flight
Wednesday, January 13, 2709
I’ll skip the wings this time. I’ll have enough to handle lifting all that lead. Cyran didn’t ask me to survey government soldiers on this trip, so I shall avoid visibility as much as possible.
Ambrette forces on me a bit of rations that she squirreled away, and I don’t know whether to thank her or punch her. She gives me every crumb she has before anyone else can rebuke her, either. “You’ll bring back more,” she says.
Then they all scrape together every last dry fragment of their greenfire into a single pouch for me. I accept more gratefully than I should. I start to assign watches so that the rest might catch further sleep, but Lufti volunteers to take the whole day shift. “I can keep the stars at bay as much as the sun can,” he assures me. Remembering his insights at Trap Canyon, crazy or no, I let him.
As ready, now, as I’ll ever be, I run across a flat space, faster, leaping longer, till I take off from the ground completely. I feel so weightless without those blamed wings! I arc up, up, tilting my head back, till I loop full circle, my braids streaming black behind me, and then dive down upon my cheering sibs in arms, skimming over their upraised fingertips brushing against mine, then zoom forward, rising high, following the running messenger as I glide across the sky.
Oh, she’s a good one, never breaking her rhythm for bank or gully, leaping smoothly from stone to stone like water flowing uphill, her arms carelessly outstretched to keep her balance, weightless on the air, yet she never looks in threat of losing it, she doesn’t seem to need it, her feet skim the ground so lightly that she hardly seems to connect. Her hair floats on the air behind her just like mine, her limbs as long and skinny as my own. I feel as though we fly as sisters, higher and higher up the mountainside, through a landscape of harsh and tumbled beauty unfit for men, shaped for giants weather-carved from stone.
Deirdre blinked, suddenly aware of her surroundings. No one sat across from her, the old leather of the seat still hollowed from the thin hips that so recently left it. She wriggled in her own seat to make herself more comfortable. She heard Justín getting sick down the hall, and then she heard the flush. Outside the sunlight on the ocean showed them still in morning. She shook her head; Justín didn’t last as long as she had hoped.
Presently, he came in, glossy with sweat, trying to feign nonchalance and doing a bad job of it. The gray complexion and overall tremor didn’t help. Neither did the bloodshot eyes.
“You don’t have to prove anything,” she said to him, as kindly as she could.
He nodded, regarding her blearily, and left the room again. When he returned he appeared much more composed, conveying a pretty good illusion of decent health, if a trifle sleepy.
“I never saw her again,” Deirdre said, more to herself than him.
“What was her name, anyway? I missed that part.”
“I never learned it. I never saw her again. She led me to the cache of supplies and then sped back to Cyran, to report her message delivered. I supposed she reached hir. I suppose she died sometime after. So many did.”
He nodded, pulling on his band. “You’re probably right. She was a runner, not a fighter. She ran well, I’ll give her that, but it can only protect you so far.”
“How do you know that?” Deirdre asked, returning her hand to the magentine handle.
“It’s in your head. You picked it up from her, yourself. You knew even at the time that she didn’t really have what it took to survive for long in the Revolution—few of the messengers did. You didn’t expect to see her again.”
“I wonder why I didn’t pick up her name as well, then?”
“People don’t think of themselves as their names,” he said, reaching for the music switch. “Oh, agents do, because we drill them in it, as part of holding onto their identities under the stress of undercover work. Whatever identity we want them to have.”
“But not ‘people’.” She stared at him.
“Time to go back to work,” he said, flipping the switch.
Time to go back to work. I see my guide squeeze into a crevice between boulders and so I light right behind her and follow into the passageway that the boulders hide, on up, steeply, then more steeply, then climbing, to a sort of cave of rocks leaned against each other in the mountainside, open to a steep drop opposite the tunnel. I can only imagine the challenge of getting supplies into this ideal hiding-place and levitator launch-pad.
Enough sun leaks through the cracks here and there to show me that the ammunition waits in goat-sized saddle-bags that I can throw over my shoulders. The larger burlap sacks hold food, bulkier but lighter–I can carry those in my arms. Two pair of saddlebags, one over each shoulder, and a large sack in my arms, per band. My guide has no idea where to find them, but she says I shouldn’t have too much trouble, scouting from the sky. I don’t think she realizes that I do feel the weight of the things I carry, that flight doesn’t come from nothing; it’s all magic to her, and I need her and the others to keep on believing in magic. We have few edges beyond morale.
Cyran has apportioned some food out separately just for me. I force it down, not tasting any of it.
I gather up what I must, then leap down the sheer side of the mountain, burdened like a pack-mule–no, for a mule would have dug in his heels and refused to budge under a load like this. I run till what should have become a fatal stumble turns instead to flight.
I’m another edge—one that the army can’t match: a woman who can fly, who can get supplies to her scattered troops, while the enemy must suffer out of reach. A detail like this could turn an entire war.
So I do what I have to, what everybody needs me to do. I tune out the crushing weight, skimming low, all my senses stretched to find my lost ones. I chew the bitter leaf when I must, trying to keep enough left over for us all in the days to come. I should appreciate the sacrifice that the others made for me, but I just envy them their rest.
Haul, find, deliver, scout on the way back, find, return, stock up, return the other way, deliver, repeat. Sometimes I find them by the smell of their tobacco on the air. Sometimes I hear their voices, faint, muffled. Sometimes I see them, when I get enough height. Sometimes I just follow a hunch straight to them. They always effuse gratitude when I stumble down into their midst with everything they need, and I try to grin and nod back at them before toppling upward into the sky once more.
The pain mounts. These faded bits of shriveled leaf can’t hold it back, and I can’t get anything stronger. My muscles, my joints. It burns cold, the weight of my duty. Now I grimace when I try to grin to those whom I succor, and my nods threaten to turn into fainting spells. But I hold on. My children need me. What did Cyran once say about instinct? Throttle it back when it gets in the way, but let it have full steam when it suits the business at hand. Mothers can do anything, endure anything, for their children.
The pain increases even more. It swallows up everything that duty doesn’t claim. But so far duty barely keeps the mastery, so I get the job done. I hardly register the landscape anymore. I don’t hear birds, now, only the pounding of my heart, my labored breath, and the rush of wind around me. I don’t know what steers me anymore. Yet somehow I find the scattered revolutionaries, deliver what I came to give, and take off for the next.
I taste blood. It must come the chapping of my lips. I think my face might crack some, too, where the wind makes my eyes water nonstop and then gnaws with ice teeth at the wetness on my cheeks and sockets. At least it used to sting like it did, for hours, before my skin went numb. I know my fingers crack; those I can see.
No matter. Fly on.
I swoop down on one band and see Kiril once again. I can’t stay on my feet. I fall to my knees and let them pull my burden off me, new tears streaming uncontrollably just to see her again. By the horror on her face in the midst of the rejoicing, I must look a sight. “Oh Deirdre!” she cries, running to embrace me, “What have they done to you? What have you done to yourself?”
I smile through my tears, though the chapping makes it hard, and I hug her back. “Lufti’s all right,” I manage to gasp. “His lips started to turn blue, so since then I’ve been carrying him. His heart, you know. They’re pink again. His lips. I push him out of danger. I keep an eye out for him at all times. He’s all right.”
“But what about you?” She cups my face in her hands, so gently that it almost doesn’t hurt. She dabs at my wet cheeks with her prayer-cloth and my tears stain it pink.
I accept a skin of water from Hekut and take a deep swallow before I answer her. “I swore to serve Lovequest,” I tell her, “With the sharpest edge of my mind, with the softest tenderness of my heart,” I hand back the waterskin, “with the holiest courage of my spirit, and the last endurance of my flesh.” I stagger back to my feet, much lighter without my load, grinning with renewed commitment. “With understanding, or if necessary without.” I pull myself up as straight as I can. “So what about me? I chose this path.” And with that I leap into the sky again, before I can let her pity weaken me into begging to rest with her, trying to stop the tears before they freeze to my face again in the gale of my flight.
Dark begins to overtake the land by the time I return to my own command, bearing the last load in the cave. I don’t land, I crash, and in more ways than one. They must have pulled the supplies off of me; I have no way of knowing. For all my awareness of whatever happens next, I might as well have died.
Thursday, January 14, 2709
(A puzzled man drifts past a campfire where I huddle with others against the cold, cooking squirrels on skewers. “Excuse me,” I say when I notice that his feet don’t quite touch the ground. I get up and follow him to where he collides with a barbed wire fence.
“Easy now,” I say as I help him to disentangle himself. “You’re a levitator, and you’re full of magentine, and don’t know how to control it, but we have medicine for...” And then I stop. No, we don’t have medicine. I got separated from Dalmar and Pauline and I...I can’t untangle my knowledge of how to make it myself from recipes for jams and soufflés and all kinds of formulas projected all around me by the hungry crowd. Fear wells up in me.
I finish freeing the last rag from the barbs, and help the man to the fire where I can salve and bandage his injuries. I’m still together enough to do that much good, at least. It’s all Lovequest.)
Scrapes on my face. I can feel them burning. I must have touched down on it. Or maybe it’s the chapping. No, I feel it all the way to the jaw—rough landing, then.
Jarring. That’s the makeshift stretcher underneath me, bouncing up and down with every weary step. They must have accounted me too far gone to ride Honeydew, or maybe the donkey’s too tired by now to carry anything. Tanjin sees my eyes open, and takes this opportunity to give me water and biscuits, begging me to stay awake long enough to eat and drink. I do my best. Noon turns to night the instant that my eyes close.
Friday, January 15, 2709
Fighting goes on somewhere. But blankets tucked tight around me bind me to my stretcher. I hear the gunfire, the shouts, the screams, and I cannot do a thing about it. I feel the ghosts–as worn out as myself, not too surprised that it should end this way, almost relieved, really. Almost.
Presently my own folk stumble back. Blood spatters Tanjin, but none of it is his. He pushes another biscuit into my mouth, then holds my head up to take more water.
“I can sit up,” I tell him, and do so...barely. “Did I get feverish again?”
“Not one of them looked anywhere near old enough to be my father,” he informs me. “We treated them all right. We gave them that one day of decency.”
I look at him, his face screwing up on the verge of tears, and I understand. “All dead?”
“Every last one. They were starving. They didn’t stand a chance.” I eat more biscuits and some dried fruit, famished. Ambrette brings over some cheese, and soon the entire band squats down beside my stretcher to eat the largess of our sympathizers. Tanjin repeats, “We gave them that one last day of decency.”
“Yes, we did.”