IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume VI: The Rift
Sunday, January 24, 2709, continued
Dawn finds us medics in a stinking makeshift surgical theater without enough water to wash the blood off. Cyran says we must conserve what’s left for drinking and refreshing our pack animals. I say insubordinate things, strap on my flit again, and take off in search of a spring before he can grab anything to shoot me with. The morning birdsong sounds like snickering, agreeing with me.
It doesn’t take as long as it would for some poor clod on foot; all I have to do is soar up high enough to scan for that thread of green over there in the gray landscape and dive down on it.
No good. Deep-rooted bushes following some crack in the aquifer gives no help to anyone without drilling equipment. Try again.
Nope, no water here, either. Try again.
Third time’s a charm–nope, not this time.
Come on, soon! The summer sun has risen and intensified, burning every exposed bit of skin despite the wind-chill, and it doesn’t improve my odor in the least. Over there? Nope. Try again.
Fifth time’s the real charm. I find a nice trickle of water spilling into a shaded pool that nobody could have found on foot, that runs on in a bit of a stream before sinking down between the rocks again. Lots of happy greenery around; our animals will love it. By now I’m steaming in my clothes but I have the presence of mind to go downstream rather than to the pool to bathe, when I want to dive right in.
Aihihihihi! Good thing I didn’t–pure snow-melt, this, from one of the perpetually iced-up peaks nearby. What I called shivering before now seems smooth as butter. I don’t bother washing my clothes–I need something warm and dry, however funky, to wrap around my nice, clean blueness. Refreshed, I take off again–Cyran will be so pleased!
There’s the camp again. I start the slow spiral down to them when I spy the commotion. Cyran stands right by and does nothing to break it up. I land by hir and shout at Daba’oth, “What the devil are you doing?” as he wrestles Lufti to the ground and pins him there.
“Cyran’s orders,” Dabao’oth tells me, smiling up through the black locks in his face, as though a boy didn’t buck and wriggle under him, trying to go free. “All the wounded go to Koboros.” At that Lufti screams–no words, just scream after scream, and somehow it pierces me like no shrieks from the night before could do. I run to him, skid to my knees down to his level, still stiff in my strapped-on flit so I can’t pull him to my breast, but I can cradle his rock-scraped face in my hands and cry, “Lufti! Lufti! What is this?”
He sobs and gulps after air and cant speak. I wriggle out of my flit at last and then I do pull him up into my lap, and spread my hair around him against the stiff wind, and just hold him until he can find words again. “ Not...not Koboros. Not Koboros! City of death!”
“People get well there, sweetie. We just want to give you a rest and help you get well.”
“People go there to die! And more will–more and more will make pilgrimages to worship death–it’s all we know!”
“No, no, dearheart. Some of the wounded do die, but we make them as comfortable as we can. And your wounds are in your mind, poor thing–you won’t die of that. Yet you do have a weak heart–we don’t want to strain it too much. You need a nice, calm job, folding bandages and helping around the hospital, far from the war.”
“The dead dwell there,” he sobs against me. “They haunt every corner. They own the place.” And shivers pluck my spine like a discordant harpstring.
Cyran comes up behind me. “Tell me where the dead don’t haunt, Lufti.” The boy turns red eyes up towards hir. “We all have our battles–I see that this is yours. You need to be brave, lad. You need to come to terms with your ghosts.”
“I...I danced with them. I’m wide open.”
“Yet alive.” Cyran squats down beside us, never taking hir eyes off the boy. “You danced with the dead and lived. They’re on your side, Lufti.”
Lufti sits up and wipes his nose on his sleeve. “You order me to go?”
“Yes I do.”
He looks all around, wide-eyed, like trying to find some escape, anywhere, but no longer hysterical. He looks longest at me, and it breaks my heart that for his own good I cannot spare him. At last, in a husky whisper, he says to me, “You have more need to fear Koboros than I do, Deirdre. Please don’t forget it.” Then he hugs me tightly, gets up, and lets Daba’oth hoist him onto Honeydew’s back. I drag myself upright, too. Daba’oth leads the animal to the train of the wounded. Daba’oth himself comes back, his smile wry, his eyes sad.
“I would have liked to see the beautiful city on the cliff, myself,” he says. “But we all go where our orders take us.”
I feel a painfully tight grip. I glance down and see that Kiril has taken my hand, watching the wounded-train leave.
The next pain I feel comes from Cyran’s fist in my jaw. I find myself sprawled across the rock with little sparks dancing all around me.
“That’s for insubordination,” e tells me, rubbing hir knuckles.
“I found water.”
“That doesn’t change a thing. Thank you. You will go fetch water for us, and then, stripped of all rank, you will confine yourself to whatever other menial tasks I give you until you remember your place very, very well. And no more greenfire for you until your temper sweetens.”
I rub my jaw, and slowly climb to my feet. “Yes memsir!” I salute hir, then round up all the pack-animals remaining, loaded up with every waterskin we have. I climb onto the back of one the minute we go out of sight.
I take my own sweet time lounging by the waterhole, letting the animals eat and drink their fill before lading them up and taking them on home. I sun myself upon a rock above the pool, breathing in the sweetness of the greenery, listening to the waterfall’s music and the browsing of the beasts. It comes to me, then, that Cyran could have done far worse after I defied hir in front of everyone. By the time I turn my flock of far-more contented llamas, mules, and ponies back to camp, mercifully downhill, I feel downright chastened and a little worried about my judgment. And tired, sweet God how tired!
Wait a minute. Did I forget to wash my clothes when I had the chance? Damn it!
Cyran says nothing to me, leaving me to stand there at attention while e distributes the water. When e finishes, e says at last, “Follow me. I have a lot of leather-gear that all needs sealed against the weather.” But when we get to hir tent, every leather object I can find already looks glossy and well-oiled, in perfect condition. E enters behind me and buttons shut the flap behind us. “I already took care of every stitch of leather that I own last night, Deirdre, when I couldn’t sleep.” E takes me by the shoulders and turns me to face the tent’s other side. “There’s my cot–get yourself some rest till nightfall. Then leave and get some more rest in your own bedroll. I’ll come by shortly with some lunch for both of us–and I’ll wake you to eat it.”
“Cyran, I...I don’t know what to say.”
“Try ‘Thank you’. And mean it.”
“Thank you! I don’t deserve this.”
“No, you don’t. I really should have sent you off with the wounded, and I may yet reconsider.” And with that e leaves me to regard the cot and all of its heavenly possibilities.
Cyran! There’s nobody like hir.
Monday, January 25, 2709
I can hardly contain my excitement! I knew what the big box contained the minute I saw it waiting on our comorran’s doorstep with my name on it. Now my pocket-knife slashes through the cardboard within minutes of spying it, and I pull it out, its padded side and its hard-smooth side, feel how lovely-light it weighs for all its size, this streamlined oval of pale blue freedom, smelling of wood-shaving packing-material like some resinous blessing from exotic forests far from home.
I look guiltily at the mess I made, but I don’t see anybody else in the common room; I woke up first of anyone this morning. I sweep up all the shavings before my housemother or anyone else comes down the stairs. Then I tuck the brand-new flit under my arm and slip outside.
The testers said that I could do this. I rate a flit of my very own, because I have levitation abilities! I admire it in the sunlight; mica in the paint glitters enchantingly. Just in time for my first flying class in a couple days.
I glance around me. Why wait till then? They told me I can do this. Something in me already knows how.
Shivering in the early morning sun, I kneel on the little padded hollows meant for knees, then lay down the rest of the way, finding the handles under the rim, with buttons of I know not what purpose. But I don’t seem to actually need those. My mind finds the magentine within the thing, and I can activate it, and the flit starts to hover under me.
It wobbles a little, but I can shift my weight and keep it steady–this is easy! And no other kid in my commoran has this ability–who needs telepathy when you can fly?
I think forward, and it goes forward. I can do this. I can lean this way and it turns that way. You bet I can do this! I rise higher and higher. Til Institute never looked so beautiful as today, glittering in dew and morning sun below. And is that...? Yes! Birds fly under me! Oh my heavens, I’m doing this!
And I go faster, and it feels so good, so right! I go faster still, my hair streaming back, and my face wide-awake chilled, and the greens of bushes and ruddiness of brick whiz past, with hardly any effort whatsoever. My stomach growls for breakfast, but who cares, I am literally and in every sense on top of the world! Can I go faster? Yes! I can swerve around trees like a pro, I can go even faster still, an astonishment upon the air, a streak of speed—I, Deirdre Evelynne Keller, Queen of the Skies!
Look at them all down there, staring up, even my housemother, amazed, waving her arms in excitement! And look–there’s Jonathan! Running below me with his many folds of silk rippling behind him, craning his neck to see me. Oh, I do love to impress him! I go even faster, the whole landscape a blur. I feel so grand, I never felt so grand in my whole life, never felt anything quite like the
The jolt reverberates through me body and soul. I lie flat on my back, so stunned that it takes me a moment to realize that I feel nothing at all–I must have gone into shock. Then I realize that I lie in a bed–someone must have taken me to a hospital...oh lord, oh lord, just how bad is it? Then I see all the fluorescent posters on the walls and realize that I’m Dolores Jean Nurss, safe in my own bed without a trace of injury, and I dreamed it all. Then I open my eyes and realize that no, I’m Deirdre Evelynne Keller after all, lying in my bedroll underneath the Charadocian stars, and all that stuff about my first flit-flight happened years ago, and Dolores Nurss never existed.
Didn’t I have a tent? No, Cyran gave it to Makhliya, for the wounded. That’s right. Days ago. Oh well. The wind feels a little bit like flying, before flight became a torment and a chore. It almost feels like it should cheer me up, but nothing can do that till my system clears or my ghosts get off my back, whichever comes last.
The stars pale before the rising sun. I think about my galling homemade flit of twigs and branches and snort in laughter, but quietly. I can smell the unwashed wool that wraps me warm. I used to feel so clean in childhood.
I sit up and stretch, and feel like I really did slam into a wall mere hours ago. So what else is new? Seeing that I’ve woken up before the rest (after sleeping most of yesterday and all the night, but who’s counting?) I stir up the coals and get breakfast cooking. It seems a fitting start to my demotion. Then, in the middle of boiling the lentils set to soak the night before, I remember that I really should have waited for orders, first.
It doesn’t take Cyran long to rise and join me by the fire. “Putting yourself on KP duty?” e asks. “How might one describe that? As an arrogant display of humility, perhaps?” I don’t know how to answer hir, and e chuckles at my speechlessness. “In point of fact,” e says, “I have altogether different orders for you. They say that the Tilián all know how to teach.”
“I can’t help you, Cyran. I’d like to teach folks how to fly and give you your own airforce, but I can’t.”
“I know that. I want you to teach soldiers how to fight without weapons, with whatever comes to hand. With so many new recruits, we don’t have enough arms to go around. Again.” E grins wryly. “I tell you what. If you teach them what they need, I’ll give you back your rank.”
I nod, stirring the lentils. A bloody business, that. I really wish I could teach people how to fly. But at least he's not asking me for weapons technology. This I can ethically classify as “self defense”. If I still cared about ethics.
People wake, but they don’t all come to breakfast. Some just want bread and wine to pass around in honor of the day. I persist in insubordination, but more discreetly this time, when I tell Cyran that I might kill on a Sunday if forced to it, but I won’t teach any killing arts on the Sabbath. He nods, agreeing with me.
I serve everyone their breakfast. They’ll forgive me if I serve Kiril first, she who has performed this office so often for me. I wish Tanjin was here to serve beside her. I gulp my own food down with embarrassing hunger, so fast that I don’t even realize how I’ve scalded my tongue until my bowl has emptied.
I get up and start washing dishes in sand and fire as the first eaters finish. Soon I’ve got the whole stack done, going at Fireheart speeds whenever nobody’s looking. I’d forgotten that I could move that quickly. Greenfire may speed you up at first, but after a time you can hardly push your body to do anything you want it to do as fast as you want it done; it knows of your depletion even if you don’t.
Now I sit high up on a rock that no one else can reach, and watch my sibs in arms commune. And oh, my heart hungers for God so bad, so bad! I remember a time when this meant less to me—a swallow of bread, a sip of wine, and I’d try to imagine God in it, but really I had my mind on so many other things that seemed so terribly important at the time. Now, deprived, I hunger like nothing that the belly could endure, like lying in a grave and that rectangle of light looks so small, so far away, and then the dirt comes down, shovelful after dank shovelful with the most grievous finality.
What the hell, we don’t have a priest here; it’s only a commemoration, after all, a remembrance of some good beyond all battlefields. I can remember with the best of them, soaked to my brow in blood if I have to. I hop off the rock, drift down to earth and join the others.
We don’t always understand hope. Hope surpasses faith. Hope keeps on when faith has fled, just on the off-chance that it might return.