IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume VI: The Rift
Friday, January 29, 2709
I barely close my eyes again, it seems, when Cyran wakes us all, shouting, "R & R's over, folks!" and rifle shots punctuate hir words. I scramble to yank on my boots and grope for my gear in the dark. I grab Lufti up into my arms as I run, gripping him to my chest, and he wraps his increasingly lanky legs around my waist to steady himself as he braces a rifle on my shoulder and pack to cover our rout. Each recoil nearly jolts me off my feet and the report hurts my ear, the air sulfurous with gunpowder. Yet we run towards our goal, not away–that's the main thing. The army can't block us, they can only try to pick us off before we get there. Cyran gives orders and leaf passes around without a break in our strides.
So it's back to marathon-mode for us, way too soon since the last time—the thought gut-punches me with a kind of giddy terror as I chew. God knows how the next few days will grind even the ghosts among us, let alone those of us who have to push our flesh. Yet at least I won't have to think, not with Cyran in charge; all I have to do is run. I don't have to feel hunger, weariness, grief, guilt or longing, just swing my feet and keep my grip on the tangle-haired boy who weeps and shoots upon my shoulder. I can even forget Tanjin for a little while in the exigencies of battle.
Baruch balks at the leaf. "That stuff drove my father mad!"
I spit pulp and say, "War is madness—keep up or drop out!" I wipe my mouth and add, "Or you can make a white flag from your underpants and hope the enemy sees it before they shoot you. Then you can tell us all about what a prisoner of war camp's like, if you survive it—you're not crazy like your mother so they won't give you a break. But your father's ghost comes with us."
He doesn't say another word. He takes the leaf and runs with us. And I chuckle.
Saturday, January 30, 2709
I can't keep this up–Lufti keeps growing, no matter how skinny, and the pack bouncing on my back weighs me down with flit and folded wings. But then Kiril passes me a couple leaves and I can do it. Mother-instinct keeps me running with one child in my arms and my other racing beside me, slimming down more all the time and God, she's beautiful! Brave and beautiful, with her grip on my arm to keep me from stumbling. Even when the bullet hits my pack and nearly knocks me to my feet I scramble on, glad it lodged in whatever it did only because it kept me from dropping my son, from failing my daughter.
Sunday, January 31, 2709
We've split up into bands again, spread out across the mountains. Mine gets just enough respite to open our packs and eat a little, though my numb tongue hardly registers the cheese and bread and my stomach doesn't want it. I discover two shiny new slugs sunk into the framework of my flit.
We hear shells in the
distance coming closer—break's over. Greenfire's
running low again, but Lufti grabs my head from where I carry him in front, and
steers me to a new bush that he can't even see behind him, sobbing, "I'm
sorry!" over and over. And I remember
the last time we stripped a bush. He
drops off of me and curls up, rocking.
I hadn't realized that I'd
grabbed her till I feel the barrel of her gun against my breast. "Don't die like Kief," she hisses, and I
"Greenfire was the bait," she says, "and the enemy set the trap. You'll remember that in a couple minutes." She lowers her gun and takes me by the hand. "Now let's get out of here before the entire Charadocian Army crashes down on us!" And Lufti runs beside me before I grab him up again, my tears falling into his hair.
The whistle-code herds me to the left. Surely the rank and file don't know it, surely they don't all travel with purple mantles, not this far ahead on the line. Dawn light starts to gray around us, rock and bush and sponge-tree slowly coming into focus, and now our forward-retreat becomes the most dangerous of all.
Ambush! Of course they know the codes! I throw Lufti down and myself on top of him, heart hammering. I can't think, I can't think! Another bullet hits my pack, nearly knocking me to the side and exposing the boy. Kiril dives down behind me and shoots back, her rifle braced upon me. And I still can't think, I can only shield my loved ones with my body and wish myself as fat as Malcolm at his worst.
Then other guns join hers. And I still can't think. Then the gunfire gets more distant, and Lufti pushes me off, saying, "It's safe now, Deirdre. It's okay." I stare into his eyes as I rise to my knees and let him go, and I realize that right now he's saner than I am. Too much has happened. I can't think. I can't think. I can't...
Way in the back of my mind a memory plays out, even though I don't immediately connect it to my own case. A lecture on geology, of all things. The teacher, that dry, weathered old scrambler after rocks, points to his charts on the various kinds of earthquakes, the faults that slide sideways, the ones that slide over and under, the blocked faults that can suddenly jolt straight up. "Sometimes it's not the primary quake that does the most damage," he says, his face hardened by what he has seen. "Sometimes the smaller aftershocks do, shaking loose what the big one weakened."
Kiril's face comes into my field of vision. "She's fried," she says. "Lufti, help her to her feet–it's not safe here. You keep her going on one side, and I'll take the other. We've got to get her running again."
I laugh uncontrollably. What, am I a car, now? Will they push-start me? I guess they do, because they pull me on by my arms till my feet find the rhythm again, and still they hold on. They don't laugh back. I don't need to think to do this–they steer me. Lufti says as calmly as breaths between leaps allow, "It's okay...Deirdre...Nobody...can be...a god...all the...time."
By the time the sun climbs well into the sky I come to my senses again and can steer my own course. Kiril and I take leaves, but we won't let Lufti have any, not with his heart. By afternoon he can't keep up, and so I carry him again, as more army closes in on us.
By nightfall's jolt of greenfire I find myself laughing again–why fear the paranoia that the leaf can fan, when people really do pursue me with intent to kill? It seems the world's funniest joke, as we dive behind a rock and Lufti falls helplessly asleep at my feet while I shoot death back at the latest enemies to try us with their lead. By the time they no longer pin us down, the last leaf has worn down and I need another for the next run. Oh, the Greeks did not know the meaning of a marathon!
Monday, February 1, 2709
Kiril has taken to screaming in battle. Good job–she scares even me, her tawny hair wild around her, her shadowed eyes maniacal. But even after the battle, she stands amid the corpses screaming and screaming, wreathed in stinking gunsmoke, going hoarse. She jolts and brandishes her knife at everyone who comes near her. Finally Lufti approaches her slowly. She starts to lower her knife. He steps on a twig that snaps like a gun's report and she brandishes the knife again, but by that time I have come behind her and wrapped my arms around her long enough for Lufti to pry the knife from her fingers. She twists in my arms, but only to hug me back, sobbing against me. Then Lufti wraps his arms around us both.
"We're all mad now," she gasps, shaking in our embrace. "We're all mad now!"
Tuesday, February 2, 2709
Cyran sends a messenger, telling me to fly and reconnoiter the enemy's positions and our own, but I can't raise the flit. Even after Shermio forces some sort of choking-sticky nut butter down my throat I can't make it fly. I stare down at the slugs imbedded in the wood and wonder if they killed it.
But then we don't have to guess the enemy's position, because they fall upon us again. I feel the incessant percussion of battle pound me, pound my bones, crack my skull, powder me. I don't know what's left that fights and runs and fights and runs and fights.
Wednesday, February 3, 2709
That can't have been Shermio yesterday. I know that. There's nothing wrong with my mind. His ghost is just more present than usual because we're headed for where he died; nothing too surprising about that. Whatever else they might say about me, I've still got all my wits about me. (Whatever else they say about me, the enemy or my own soldiers, I remain a lady.)
I glance down at myself. Embarrassed, I straighten out the skirt that has ridden up as we climb over the ridge, my warriors rising up one by one ahead of me, silhouetted against the stars.
(A woman can get fierce, you know, in defense of her country. Was it Robert Louis Stevenson who said, "The female of the species is more deadly than the male"? No, Kipling. Rudyard Kipling. Or one of those English writers that Sister Assunta hammered into us, insisting that no one could call themselves educated without mastering Classic English. Ridiculous language–no clear-cut rules and two completely independent spelling conventions.)
More shooting! I shove Lufti and Kiril down and fire, fire, till the gun chokes and I realize that I just spent my last bullet. But no one shoots back anymore–for now. I stare out at a dark trickle coming down off the top of a moonlit stone, until Kiril takes me by the elbow and says, "Let's go."
(I give orders and my men shoot out the windows. Then they enter, and soon they open the door for me. Fussy place, abominably overdecorated. Ruffles and embroidery everywhere? Lace and tatting? Not my style.)
I glance down at myself. Not one ornament, not anywhere. Suddenly it matters–that and the fact that I smell like a woman but not like a lady. Not so much as a bead in my fraying braids. I find myself horrified at what I have become. I rebraid my dirty hair as I march. I have to unravel it and do it over again because my hands shake so badly that I make mistakes. I redo them again. And again. I just can't seem to get it right.
(They shove the elderly couple in front of me–weeping, bleary creatures, pitiful in their thinness. Oh but the rebels have bled them dry, poor things. But that's what you get when you make a deal with the devil.)
Have I made a deal with the devil in my dreams, sometime between the laying down and the rising, back in the days when I used to sleep? I must have. All the more reason not to sleep anymore. My fingers unravel braids and try again, as my legs swing left, right, left, keeping up the march.
("Let the old fools go," I tell my men. I am not without mercy. "The only way they ever threatened us was with their money, and now that the rebels have used that up, they pose no further threat. Go on–frisk them to make sure, then out the door with them.")
Why oh why did I ever frown on Kanarik for wearing beads in her hair? I should have encouraged her. Who knows how little time she might have left in a rebel's life? I should have encouraged her in everything, while she was young and could enjoy it. What if I'm the devil that others have made deals with? What if I...no. No! NO!
(Yes, yes, I am well aware that it's below freezing out there. The tiresome old corporal needn't remind me of the obvious. I was just out there myself, darling, I should know better than anyone. Cursed mountain peaks–why, you'd never know it was summer! And no, I will not let them fetch their coats–who knows what weaponry they might hide in the closet? They brought this on themselves, dear, remember that. They betrayed their country, giving aid and comfort to the enemy. I give them much better than they deserve.)
Do I shake from the greenfire, or shiver from the evening cold? Whichever it is, I know that I deserve it, and worse. I miss Lufti's warmth, but Kiril insisted that I need a break so Lefty carries him now. I wrap my poncho over my coat. Ugly poncho, ugly coat, I look like a man in a dirty black skirt! But I have to poke my chapped fingers out from under the fabric anyway, because my hair needs rebraiding.
(Throw another log on the fire, Ed–there's a dear. Frilly chair here, but at least well-padded–so much nicer than a campaign-stool. And do bring me my pack, please. My boots stretch out towards the flame, warming my cold toes. I pull the little delicacy from its waxed envelope in the pocket of my pack; one needs the little pleasures now and then, even if the crust has broken, flakes all over the inside of the envelope, I know it still will taste divine. How sweet of Ruby to find some for me.
As Chinese New Year's celebrations go, I've seen worse, my dear. I toss one bill from my pocket into the flames, because you never know, we all could use some luck out here.
Hold on–what made that whistling sound? Tea on the hearth? Perfect. Oh we did catch them by surprise, didn't we? Here you go, Corporal; I'm sure you'll do a better job with a little something in you to warm your vitals. And...one for me. Pardon the flowery cups–the woman had no taste at all! I let the steam warm my face before I sip–it's good for the pores, you know. Well, she at least had some taste in her beverages–quite a pleasant change from army fare, don't you think? A hurled knife from the hall shatters my cup, staining my uniform with scalding tea–the nerve!)
Battle again! I kick into action mode, grabbing up rocks as I run towards those who would fire on my children, dodging from boulder to boulder but always towards the enemy. I don't even have to think anymore–my body knows the moves.
(I whip around to the side and shoot where the knife came from, without half a thought. Well-trained reflexes, darling; I didn't get to be general for nothing. Then I fan away the gunsmoke, rise, and go over to the body crumpled in the bedroom doorway. Only one arm–a hardened veteran, then. The beads in the hair would probably indicate a female, but with the perversions of the enemy, following such an unnatural leader as they do, you never know. I roll it over with my toe. Female indeed, and pregnant. Any chance of...no. Two of the bullets went straight through the abdomen. Pity. I would have fancied a child of my own. But come, let's be practical–domesticity will just have to go on hold for awhile. I can adopt when I retire.)
I buckle over, suddenly overwhelmed by a cramp in my belly. Daba'oth covers for me, flinging rocks while I crumple to the ground. The kid has gotten nearly as good at improvising weaponry as my trained recruits; he brings a certain grinning ferocity to the task, opening things up for Kiril to dive to my side and shove a spout in my mouth.
"You idiot!" she hisses. "I told you to drink water!"
"Sorry." I revive and rejoin the fight. And my mind just...erases.
(I give orders: find the old couple and gun them down. They have obviously participated more deeply in the revolution than I realized. I stare down when the floor feels squishy underfoot. Blood seeps from the corpse, a slow, steady flood, but it was an ugly rug, anyway. My men haul the dead thing away while I pace a bit, examining the house, yanking down a curtain now and then, weary of all this bother, hoping to settle down awhile for good. Thick walls–that's a plus, all things considered. Not a bad place, once one gets a second look. I could make a stronghold here. Clear out the clutter, give it a new paint job, hang different drapes–something not so frilly, more sophisticated–and yes, it could do the trick.)
I snap back to sense when I overhear Ambrette asking, "Do you really think it wise to give her any more leaf?" I haven't been fighting for awhile. I have been sitting on a granite outcropping long enough for the red-spattered stone to warm beneath me.
"Of course it's wise!" I growl at her. "What–do you think Lufti can carry me?" I climb to my feet and rejoin the march.
She doesn't miss her stride to say, "Get any skinnier and he can." But before I can retort the enemy falls onto us again. Miles pass before I realize that none of us have eaten since yesterday, or maybe the day before, or...whatever. But then another battle starts up, and I forget whatever it was that just now troubled me.
Off to my left I see Damien fighting, all the more carefree the more leaf he chews, laughing at the enemy. Gauntness looks handsome on him, desperately dashing. When did he join us, anyway? And when did Cyran split off? It scares me, how little I can recall of these days, when I try. For some reason that I can't explain I feel so sorry for Damien that I want to cry.
Thursday, February 4, 2709
In the chancy glow of dawn, the deadly rise of visibility, Lufti, heavy on my shoulder, wakes to say, "Abojan Pass is Koboros, now," and not another word do I get from him, only his nearly silent tears raining, drop by drop, upon my neck. Then the horrible racket starts all over again, the hammer-blow sounds, the screaming and the red.
Friday, February 5, 2709
"I'd trust you two with my life. I have trusted you with my life. You always pull through. I have nothing to fear from either of you. Really, I don't. I would die for you two. I can't stop talking, I know it and you know it, and I wish I could; my throat hurts, ha ha, isn't it funny that I can't seem to stop talking, but hey, whatever it takes, it keeps everything clear for me when it all gets so dark and scary with the shadows of ghosts cropping up you never know when, to keep reminding me of what I have right here, what's worth shooting for. You are my heirs. You are worth everything. You are the Charadoc for me. I know it scares you, I know, it scares me, too, that I have to keep repeating this litany, keep reminding myself, but I have to keep remembering just how much I love you both, that I don't have to kill you, that I have absolutely nothing to fear from either of you, ever, because that keeps me going, that makes it all meaningful, I can keep on running, I can run forever if I have to, run till my bones in rags and boots swing left and right, till I become a ghost animating a skeleton without ever slowing down, without ever dropping down to rest in death. Don't cry like that, it hasn't happened yet, maybe it will never happen, OH JESUS HELP US IS THAT no it's just the rat-a-tat of a woodpecker, ha ha, scared the bejasus out of me and I wonder if Jesus really would help us as stained as I am but of course He would for you, for somebody, there's got to be someone in the Charadoc still fit for mercy or at least unscarred enough to beg for it. Ohhhboy that's real gunfire now, oh no, and this time we're the ones out of bullets! But hold on, I teach classes in this, you both just get behind me and TAKE THAT YOU HORROR! TAKE THAT AND THAT AND THAT HOW DARE YOU MENACE MY oh, is it over already? That way? Okay. I trust you, Kiril. You wouldn't point me into danger if you could help it, we've established that. I can trust you both. I'm sorry you got cramps from running so much honey, and yes I do see you clutch your stomach, you needn't try to hide it, but we must, we must, we can never slow down or we'll rest forever. Are you rested enough now already, Lufti? Can you run with us again for awhile? Oh thank you, dear child, I feel easier now with that much less weight, I can last awhile. WHAT ARE YOU DOING? Oh. Thanks. I didn't see that one coming. I love you I can trust you it's all right if you shove me down into the dirt it has to be for my own good of course and THERE THEY ARE, THE FILTHY DOGS! Well, come on, you wretches! Have some more teeth for me to knock out? Call me that again, will you? THUS and THUS and THUS do I do to all who threaten my puppies–yeah, call me that again! Yeah, say it in blood if another word can't flow from your filthy mouth! Go? Okay. That way? I can trust you. Here, lean on me even if you have to run doubled-over. It's okay, Lufti's got you on the other side, dear one, you can make it, we won't ever leave you behind. I can trust you both because I love you and you love me and it will be all right someday, someday we will all get to rest and maybe even before the grave, maybe we will sit together indoors, in chairs thickly padded in embroidered cushions, draped with antimacassars, and sip tea and reminisce about the bloody hellish war like we invented it for a diversion or something, but oh lord I can't keep up without another chew of oh thank you, thank you, that's just exactly what I needed. You give me good things and so I know that I can trust you, I can trust you both..."