IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
VI: The Rift
Wednesday, February 17, 2709
When I flit from camp to camp, I carry messages back and forth as I go, not just Cyran’s orders and news. All the weary faces crowd around me every time I land, war ingrained in the creases of faces too young to look so old. Hands tug at me gently, even as they bring me coffee and cigarettes, and they murmur whatever they need to share, in voices as hushed as the confessional. I say nothing, laying stone on stone for my stint among them, but they know that I listen. Tilián memorization training come in handy, especially since I feel halfway in a trance most of the time these days, anyway.
“Tell Jabor that I’m fine, I found another band to fight with..” (What went wrong with my tomfool brain on the day I left him? What could we possibly have fought over important enough to risk never seeing each other alive again?)
“If you run across Fadi Omer, tell him that he left the gate open–again. And he’ll have to pay for every goat that wandered off.” (But I’d rather have him back safe and sound than all the goats in the world! But I can’t say that to the big lug out loud–can I?)
“Let Garunesh know that Siska had his baby–it’s a healthy boy, looks just like his father.” (Thanks be to whoever watches over adulterers that I look so much like my brother! If Garunesh lives through this, he’ll see whatever he wants to see.)
“Tell my father that the army got Mom, but at least she died pretty quickly. His name, if you can find him, is Pranesh il’Guie” (Let him know that I’m done with defying him—I’ve become a rebel now, too, and left the monastery behind. Now we both have reason enough to kill.)
“If you find Marea Tekrit, tell her that I love her.” (And that I’ll die with her name on my lips, for I fully intend to run ahead of all the others and let the enemy blast away the heart she broke, let the cannon-bursts strike deaf the ears that heard such cruel, cruel words! I hope she hates herself for the rest of her wicked life!)
“Tell Hermos that I got the children safely out of the country, on a ship to Xarthikae, where they all have good jobs waiting for them.” (No reason to tell him about their deaths. I’ll go to my grave with the secret in my heart. Let him think that only the contact information died with me, and let him imagine them all prospering somewhere, happy.)
“If you run into Hadra, let her know that she won the bet.” (Okay, so now I can see for myself that Deirdre Keller really is female, and not another like our leader. But who wouldn’t be fooled? She has no breasts!)
“Remind Lefty that he owes me a drink.” (Not to mention the spare socks that I loaned him, a new pick-axe for the one he broke, three sound-gums of Istislan Improv by Dani Manga, and my best courtin’ shirt. But I’ll settle for a drink if the ol’ mooch comes out of this alive.)
“Give my regards to Tanjin next time you see him, will you?”
Thursday, February 18, 2709
More of the same. I circle around, scanning for the next clump of makeshift tents; from the sky they look like patches of worn fabric stitched onto the mountainside with cords and stakes. Again I sink into the smoke of campfires and tobacco, deliver messages and help build three stone steps per camp. Zanne would hate my cracked and dirty nails and why am I even thinking a stupid thing like that at a time like this? I chew another leaf and leap into the sky before the sound of me laughing at myself can scare anybody.
It becomes increasingly obvious just how poorly supplied most of our troops are, and still how young they remain, the scattering of adults hardly leavening the youths. I carry what I can of food to whomever I can, but I can’t do much and still help build paths over mountains for armies.
(Delays! Always more delays! I should have left days ago. Just how hard is it to secure pack animals around here? Am I asking too much to have a couple llamas delivered on schedule? Some of us have jobs, you know, and meetings to attend down in the lowlands–my vacation won’t last forever.)
Friday, February 19, 2709
More of the same. Nobody told me that agency would involve hauling so many rocks uphill.
(More of the same. Now we’ve got a glitch in oxygen delivery. I can’t make the peak without oxygen, unless I want to hold my breath for the final miles. I feel like I’m holding my breath right now! But the smugglers have some sob-story about rebels harrying them along the way. Really? What use would they have for oxygen tanks? Who do I have to bribe to get what I need around here?)
Oh God, we’re doing it. We’re actually doing it! My eyes water at the heroism of these men and women, youths and maidens, boys and girls, stooping and rising, stooping and rising, dust clinging to their sweat, amid the scrape and grit of stone sliding across stone. They must move what surely would add up to at least three times their own weight every day. Then they rub each other’s aching muscles on their breaks, giving water to whoever drops. After awhile they climb back to their feet to do it all again—all to make the impossible possible
These are the second string, for the most part, the less-trained, the unweaponed, the unsure, and yes even the ones branded cowards, yet still doing what they can find within their measure for warriors on the march behind them. But not all courage happens on the battlefield.
Sometimes they urge me to rest, to take food and lay down my twitching body on the stones, let them rub kinks away. But how can I, in the face of so much effort all around me?
There’s more to it than that, though. I feel it in my shaking bones. If, at this point, I were to let myself lie down, no one would be able to rouse me up again. They’d lose manpower to dragging my unconscious body in a travois once more, or standing guard over it. I’d sleep through the entire battle. I can’t afford it.
Saturday, February 20, 2709
Nearly finished–and all too soon. Now comes the final push, the killer rush to pound the last few step-stones into place, each band of builders camping now like mountaineers, sleeping in bags that dangle from spikes in the slopes, just short of the ridges that they’ll soon flow down like an eruption of Mountain Maiden vengeance, hot for blood. And I flit down from troop to troop of our combatants, telling them where to climb tomorrow.
(At last! Layne Aliso came through—tomorrow I shall climb! I give her a smooch out of sight of the troops for her trouble, and a smack on the rump for mine, which leads to a tussle that ends with me pinned under her on her bed, so okay, I’ll let her win this one; a man can find himself in worse positions.
After she nips and nuzzles for awhile, growling in that kittenish way that she has, with my arms pinned back and my legs in the grip of hers, she lets go to reach for the turnover on the bedside table and breaks it in two. The room fills with that strange perfume, the musky, rummy scent of the dark filling. She grips my wrists in one hand and presses flaky pastry to my lips with the other.
I jerk my head back involuntarily, but she doesn’t let go. “Don’t be frightened,” she husks. “You’ve been wanting to try it for ages. I can tell. Your eyes kept glancing that way.”
Frightened? I’m a Peshawr! I nibble the flaky dessert from her hand, then lick the last sweetness from her sticky fingers. She laughs and lets go to finish the other piece, herself. And so far I feel normal. Okay, maybe like I’ve had a few drinks, but it’s no big deal, really.
I flip us over and do things from the proper angle, but she grips me in her fingernails even as she wraps her legs around me, grinning wickedly, letting me know that she has not surrendered, not for one blinkered moment. I breathe in the womanly odor that the army can’t drill out of her, feeling the power rise in me.
And then waves of mounting bliss derange me, the room falls away and I’m out on the peak of Mt. Maiytreyya ravaging a mountain maiden with Layne’s chiseled face, her stone-chip nails embedded in my flesh but I don’t care, I welcome it, I laugh at the pain and conquer it! And then the lightning hits, arcing through me, thunder roaring in my ears and loin, and I can’t breathe, can’t see, can’t hear till the storm of ecstasy passes and leaves me drenched and purified.
I open my eyes to us in our regular bodies, sweating in each other’s arms, my back stinging from her scratches but my head swimming in endorphens. “Powerful stuff,” I whisper, glancing over at the flaky crumbs left on the dish we’d shared. I didn’t mean to whisper; it just came out that way.
She laughs, twirling her fingers in my chest-hair. “That’s mild; I could get you better.”
I lean up on my elbow, feel dizzy, fall back onto the pillow. “But I’m surprised at you, Layne. Muras pastries don’t seem to fit with, you know, your ambitions.”
She scoffs at that. “Nothing fits with my ambitions! My flesh doesn’t fit. Nothing I achieve ever counts in anybody else’s opinion.” Then, to my surprise, I see the tears start from the hard blue eyes. “I’m being replaced,” she sniffles. “After all I did to secure this crucial base, they’re sending in General Podfrey to take over—after the mess he made at Chabi’s Wood!”
I pull her down against me, holding her, stroking her hair. I feel awkward. I’d always valued her cheerful impersonality, no drama, just two bodies playing at pleasure when convenient and parting easily when the time comes. She’s always been like a man in that; it’s what makes her mannish side okay for me.
Soon enough, though, she wipes her eyes, sits up, her back to me, and without turning says, “Don’t mind me; I’ll be fine. Just a little blue spell, that’s all. Podfrey won’t even arrive till next month, when the bastard thinks it’s safe.” She says “bastard” with that daring growl that shows she knows she breaks the rules, still holding onto her upper-crust lady accent the while; it’s these little tensions between her different facets that make Layne Aliso so exciting. “You’d better go; we’ve both got early mornings ahead of us.”
I nod, gratefully pulling on my clothes. But before I finish dressing I do say, not looking at her, “We all have our mountains, Layne. This is yours. The peaks don’t appreciate a thing you do; you climb them anyway.”
“You’re probably right” she sighs. Then, “Will you send my girl Ruby in to me if you see her?”
I laugh. “She’s probably squatting by the door waiting for your call! I’ve never seen such a faithful servant. Is she in love with you or something?”
Her grin comes back. “Why? Are you jealous?”
“Hell no! Maybe sometime we could have a threesome.”
She laughs back. “Invite Pawl and make it a foursome! But no--it’s not like that; I was just teasing. I don’t think Ruby’d go for it; you know how prudish these villager types can be.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I say, buttoning up my shirt. “Maybe she’s got a bit of rebel in her and would give anything a try. Have you ever heard the actual lyrics to the Bailebelde?”
She giggles. “I’m in the army; I’ve heard things that would make even you blush.”
“You’ll have to tell me, sometime, maybe on my return-trip,” I say, going out the door. Everything’s fine. She just had a moment, is all; women do, sometimes. She’s not going to get all weird on me.
I see the little camp-follower called Ruby and wave her over towards Layne’s room. She doesn’t ask for an explanation.
I whistle as I walk down the hall, well-pleased with our prospects for tomorrow. I have everything I need, my fellow climbers lined up, all systems go. I can hardly wait till I dangle, cocooned and snug, against the mountain’s breast, perhaps even the next time I lay me down to rest. We can start out first thing tomorrow morning. Ah, the proles would never understand!)