IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume VI: The Rift
Sunday, February 21, 2709
Time for it. I return to Merchant’s Cavern, just past midnight. I have to touch base at least one more time before the end.
(Rise and shine, my merry men! Quietly, quietly, we don’t want to disturb the sleeping peons. We won’t wait for the dawn, not even first light. Let us steal out silently while the camp all sleeps, quickly through the pass and off the road onto the mountain-trail, as if we simply vanished. That’ll impress the low-castes, that we of nobler blood can have gotten everything together and left them behind before they could so much as brush their teeth in the morning. Let them respect us. The rebels cannot take that away from us, that a Meritocrat of the highest caste commands respect.
Besides, we can always catch a nap later, in some peaceful dell, far from their noise and commotion, and they’ll be none the wiser.)
I hover, unnoticed, just above and before Merchant Caverns, trying not to shiver too much. Everyone within already stirs, and the smell and sizzle of potatoes hitting hot sausage grease travels far in the empty air between us; Cyran has obviously given orders to fortify the troops. They have a long march ahead if they want to reach the pass by morning, even by the swift, direct route, and they will need to rest right before rushing through it.
I know the plan; I penned parts of it to Cyran already, and received back hir corrections. The sound of battle that my troop will drum up shall signal them to charge in from the other side. Textbook strategy, that feminine closing of the nutcracker; the General will expect no less, although she might not know specifically that we have so many of us holed up in Stovak. Confirming what she expects, she won’t even consider the cliffs.
Here at Merchant Caverns, nobody sees me staring at them from the sky, in my cloudy camouflage. I light with hardly a sound on the far edge of the ledge, where it’s mostly storage, where people rarely have occasion to go. And yet, just my luck, I can make somebody out anyway: a shadow among shadows between the stacks of cans and crates.
I don’t care. I won’t care. I will just sit here on this crate for a moment and catch my breath. Even for me the air’s too thin up here, and I flew even higher. I see tanks of oxygen, and they tempt me.
“Man, do you ever look beat!” says the man behind me. I just shrug. “Greenfire’s not really doing it anymore, huh?”
“Not as well as I’d like,” I admit, too weary to dissemble. Oh lord, lord do I ever feel it, like every bone in my body’s about to tremble into splinters, or maybe already has, I don’t have a skeleton any more, I have a thousand raw bone needles tearing up my muscles from the inside out.
“Smugglers have access to all kinds of things,” he says, and then pauses, before whispering, right into my ear, “Would you like something stronger?”
“You’re a spy!” I cry, leaping up and swinging my fist. “Sanzio sent you!” I land three punches against metal in the time it takes for the entire tower of cans to crash loudly down around me, bouncing and denting and some even rolling over the edge, never to be retrieved. Nobody stands there that eyes can see anymore. I’d been speaking to a ghost.
I hear shouts and running behind me. “What’s happening?” “What’s going on?” “Deirdre! You’re back!”
“Nothing’s going on,” I tell them, “Just clutzy ol’ me fumbling in the dark.” I try to will my goosebumps down.
Cyran reaches me ahead of all the others. E looks angry; of course, I expected that. But I don’t expect hir to hug me half to death. “Hoo boy do you stink!” e gasps, uncharitably. Then e pushes me back, forcing a grin, telling me, “I can’t say that you look like hell, or the devil would sue me for slander.”
“Thanks–glad to see you, too. You’ve gotten my latest report?”
“Yup. Ready to roll. How about your end?”
“Bridegrooms don’t pine more for the honeymoon than they do for this battle.”
“And what was all that about a spy?” e asks, hir eyes narrowing. Damn! I’d hoped e hadn’t heard that.
“Just a mistake. A simple mistake in the dark.”
Slowly e says, “I see.” Then, taking my measure, “You know, I could ground you right now, and save your bloody life for battles yet to come.”
“You could,” I say, pushing hair out of my eyes and rebraiding it uncombed, by hanks and handfuls. “But you won’t. They’re counting on me to lead them. You need me out there.”
“More’s the pity.”
Kiril reaches us, wheezing and leaning on Lufti, Mahkliya running behind, holding her belly, yelling at Kiril to get back in bed, and then seeing me. They all pile onto me at once, squeezing my bone-splinters back together again. Kiril keeps sobbing, “God, Deirdre, oh God, I thought I’d never see you again!
After they catch their breath, they escort me deeper into the caves. Someone adds onions to the cooking food, and the air grows pungent. Marduk comes up, surprisingly shyly, holding something out to me, saying, “Kiril said that you’d come back today. She always knows, y’know?” To my utter astonishment, he has carved a luck doll out of bone for me, and Alysha has made a little dress for it, from some threadbare scrap of a rag too small for any other use. She has returned from missions of her own, and Marduk will fight under her on the battlefield.
The doll has red yarn-fiber hair, underneath a tiny kerchief; I have mentioned to someone, sometime or other, that my mother had red hair and (by some reckonings) owned a different race from mine. The fine, pale features do remind me uncannily of her–too fine for the material, on the verge of shattering, just like I remember her.
I don’t tell them that she once poisoned me while trying to kidnap me into a cult, I don’t think it would matter if I did; more than half of them come from dysfunctional families anyway, parents and grandparents trained on generations of internalized discrimination to self-destruct. I study the little figurine. Bertha meant well. I suppose we all mean well. No use arguing about it now–I can always use more folk on my side, living or dead. Hey, her outlaw street-smarts might give me exactly the edge I need!
So I string the ribbon around my neck and tuck the doll into my shirt (and hey, when did my breasts disappear?) It prickles a bit; most people make their luck dolls out of straw or husks or twigs, something like that, not bone. But after awhile I don’t even notice anymore.
I see Damien slip on a doll, himself, a thread-wrapped straw one with just one arm, the belly visibly plumped-out with a cotton-ball–two ghosts in one, so to speak. He catches my eye–you could chip cold steel on a face that hard. But he nods my way and forces a phantom-smile, saying, “Give me something to sing about, Deirdre.”
“I’ll do my best.” And off we go to Mass, with murder on our minds.
The service follows all the right order. I close my eyes to the alien face of Father Mykolas and listen to the gravelly voice of Father Man. “Then the Lord said, I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and I have heard their cry because of their taskmasters.”
Oh yes, tell us that God favors our side! Tell us what we need to believe to go out there and face the guns again, we who have suffered wounds already of body and of mind, tell us anything that makes it tolerable that we could die. My lips move over the familiar words, spoken in different languages in different countries as my profession has driven me, yet always at heart the same, always a comfort. I link hands with my fellow rebels as together we recite the Lord’s prayer, earnestly declaring, “Thy kingdom come!” and mumbling over the bit about forgiving those who trespass against us. I accept the Body and Blood, which will either nourish my soul or bring my condemnation, I can’t tell anymore which one, maybe in some way both at once. I made the best confession that I could. In war we all have to take our chances.
And then, before anyone could make a move to the breakfast waiting for them, our chaplain adds a part not in the mass, yet not incompatible with it. He anoints each and every one of us with oil, murmuring over us the prayers for extreme unction, for surely revolution has become a life-threatening disease which fevers us all. And then our moment of peace on earth ends as we all say, “Thanks be to God!” and go back to the preparations for war.
I shoulder my pack. Cyran smacks its back, grinning. “After trying the life of a stonemason, I’m looking forward to a little gunslinging. You too?”
I smile back and say “mmm,” wondering why I ever became an agent, when I could have spent my life happily engaged in manual labor. Or maybe raising children, and cooking good, nutritious meals for a stone-hauling man, whose face would light up as soon as he’d come home and see me: some lanky mixed-blood like myself, his smile shy in his high-cheekboned, light-olive face, above his bright red shirt and his dirty brocade vest.
Cyran doesn’t actually have that much to boast about. E only worked intermittently on some of the nearest steps, and in between slept like a lord. Everybody saw me work. Maybe after this battle, after I truly impress them, I’ll have a chance to supplant hir and show the Charadoc some real leadership!
But not yet. Now comes the hardest parting of all, driving whatever I thought before immediately from my head—the ones I truly fight for, the ones who embody the Charadoc for me. I open my arms one last time to Kiril and Lufti. I want to embrace them forever, nuzzle their tousled, sandy heads, breathe in the scent of their familiarity. If I let go, someone among us may die.
“I’ve given up smoking for good,” Kiril tells me. “Regardless of what you do.”
“Good for you, dear!” I wish I didn’t, right at that moment, feel an overpowering urge to light up, myself. But so long as I hold them I can’t, of course–another reason to not let go.
“I hear it hurts babies.”
“Oh Kiril, no! Don’t think that your smoking had anything to do with...”
“Hush,” she says, reaching fingers up to my lips. “You know my plans.”
“And I can’t dissuade you?”
I kiss her brow. “At least your lungs will thank you–I wish I had your strength.”
“After this battle, will you...um...give the greenfire a rest for awhile?”
I nod. “One way or another.”
Her face falls; I shouldn’t have said that. But then Lufti gives us both an extra squeeze. “We will all gather together in the stone’s embrace,” he says. “We have some future left, no matter how cold the wind may blow. The stars aren’t done with us yet.”
Time to go already. I hope he’s right. But just as I let go of my loves, someone
says, “Hey, you’re going to need a little something extra to help...” and I
slug him, shouting, “No I do NOT need your filthy powder!” as I keep on
striking, then struggle to shake off Marduk and Nishka tackling me, trying
again and again to wriggle out of their grip.
“You just try and ground me!” I shout back. “You just bloody well try!”
Then I see Baruch on the ground, his nose and lips bleeding and his eyes glaring, next to the trampled sausage and potatoes that he’d tried to give me. Quietly but clearly and with acid in his voice the boy says, “You’re going as crazy as my Dad did. Go ahead and starve for all I care.”
For a moment I can’t say anything. Then I tell Cyran, in a chastened voice, “You can’t ground me. You’ve got nobody to replace me.” and I take off before anything more can go wrong.
My heart pounds. It wasn’t supposed to go that way! It just...God I hate this war! I struggle even as I fly to get my mind back in the game. It wasn’t...how dare they treat me like that! How, how can I ever impress anyone now? My eyes sting with wind-burned tears.
I veer away from a rock-face just in time. I’m losing altitude. If I don’t make myself eat something soon I’m going to plummet to my death. Not a bad idea, that...but no. They need me. That’s why Cyran can’t ground me, after all. They must need me. And why didn’t I eat something back at Merchant’s Cavern when I had a chance?
Without a word I drop into Cantunta’s base, accept whatever the soup of the day is, and force it down without tasting it. I take bread too, and continue nibbling it as I fly out of there, up into the sky beyond the reach of Sanzio or any of his minions, where no one can offer me the hopelessly alluring dust.
(Off the road at last! Time to leave the cares and coddling of civilization behind, to test ourselves against the mountain!)