IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume VII: The Burning
The Gift of Mercy
Friday, March 19, 2709
I can't believe that tomorrow's the first day of autumn already! I hardly sampled summer, up in the icy peaks. Yet summer gives us a parting gift, on this her last day. For a monsoon rain pours down on us, drenching through our thickest coverings, to the skin. Even so, it doesn't feel all that cold, not compared to the winds that whistled past our Merchant Caverns. Our wet clothes weigh us down, nonetheless. I scan about for somewhere relatively dry to camp, but everything looks mired.
Then I spy the tilled land and scattered buildings of a tiny village on the slopes below. It takes us no time at all to find a road–a road! We step onto it cautiously, looking all about us, but no one else travels in the storm. Still, it seems strange to us now, exposed, our feet firmly planted back in civilization, where people sometimes hail each other in bullets.
We pass a farm where a limping farmer herds small mountain cattle in for shelter. He turns to us, rain dripping from the hood of his poncho, and he sizes up our gear. "You folks rebels, eh?"
We freeze, not saying a word, but we reach for our weaponry.
He grins, throwing wide his hands. "Well, come on in! There's dry hay in the barn for Egalitarians, and we have food enough to spare. More than half the village has gone to fight the government. I did my stint in my day," he says, gesturing to his lame leg, which doesn't bend at the knee. "Come on, come on–or will you stand all day in the rain?"
We follow him. I make handsignals behind his back to spell out the shifts that we will take, keeping an eye out, in case he betrays us. He leads us into a fodder-fragrant barn, and if we share it with the cows, well, that just makes it warmer.
Lufti throws himself upon the hay before any of us, sighing with contentment. "I used to live here," he says, "before I became a god."
The farmer winces at the look in Lufti's thick-kohl'd eyes. He whispers to me, "He won't muster out, will he?"
"No," I say, "I'm afraid he won't."
"Guess I'm lucky to have gotten no worse than the lame leg," he mutters, and leaves, coming back with potatoes and beans for us, and some home-brewed beer. "No, no," he says when we offer to share what we have in return, "Keep your supplies for down the road. I'm doing splendidly!" He bites a hunk off a loaf of bread, and passes it around. "I'm minding two farms beside my own, for neighbors gone to war. If they don't come back, I'm a rich man. If they do come back, I'm richer."
The old widower eats with us, right there in the barn, telling of his sons fighting Lord knows where. "And the neighbors, too, more than half, as I said. We take care of their lands and our own, look after their livestock, see their harvests taken in, all that." He shrugs, philosophically. "But I'd rather have the neighbors than the land. It's gotten lonely hereabouts. And I own ground enough on my own account to plow with this bad leg of mine." He passes me the jug of beer and I refill my cup, feeling deep in my heart that we need not keep so strict a watch tonight as I first thought.
When he leaves, nonetheless, I sit up awhile, smoking just outside the barn, under the eaves on a bench where the rain won't get me much, just because I like the quiet and the dark. Eventually I let Baruch relieve me, but we only keep guard for form's sake. I lay down beside Kiril and Lufti and stare up at the barn roof until my eyes close on their own.
(My eyes just open on their own, to lamplight in some dark place. I hurt in more places and in more ways than I ever imagined possible. Casts and bandages stiffen me here and there–did I finally take the long fall, the one that all mountaineers feel waiting for them in the end, should we ever forget caution for a minute? I hear groans around me–did we all fall, all my friends and me?
Some of those voices sound much too high for the men I knew. Suddenly I remember. Everything.
The uneven floor slants beneath me. The air has a stuffy, mineral taste to it. I remember now, in my scouting, that the cavern connected to tunnels. The surviving rebels must have carried me to one. They must have dug me out, mistaking me for one of their own, and carried me here.
"This one doesn't look familiar, Memsir," a mountainfolk girl says to...
Painfully I twist my arm towards my face, the one with fingers protruding from the cast, and I lick a finger at them. "That's because I'm the one who bombed you," I say, and grin at the shouts and the guns pointed at me. Now I get to join Mehti, and Jiaolong, and Pawl.
"No!" The gravelly voice shouts. Is that a priest I see standing between me and the guns? "You don't shoot prisoners of war! Who among you hasn't done the same to the other side?"
The Freak says, "I don't see any uniform, Father. Don't dignify him with a soldier's name."
"He fought like one, he sacrificed like one, he deserves the name." My heart suddenly warms to this man–how can that be? But a priest...can I not warm to a priest?
"He's an intelligent fellow, I'll grant that, Father Ma…Mykolas. We'll have to remember his trick with the oxygen bottles. But that makes him all the more dangerous. We couldn't trust him to any farm." That's right–I've heard that the rebels have lately taken to enslaving their betters on farms.
"Then trust him to me," says the gravel-voice. "You know that I have special guidance–how else did any of us come out of this alive? You know he'd have a hard time catching me by surprise." And then I see the priest hold up mutilated stumps, shorn of all but two outside fingers on one hand, and one of those a stump. "And if anyone could use a slave, I could." Frostbite loss? Is he a mountaineer, like me? He lowers the shocking things. "Let me nurse him to health, Cyran, if no one else wants the job. And then let me make use of him."
"No!" I shout, surprised to find the strength in me to shout. "I'll be no man's slave! Kill me, as you killed my friends who meant you no harm. Shove me off a cliff like you did my poor old aunt. I'm ready to die!"
"You don't get to choose!" The Freak shouts back.
But then the mutilated priest kneels down by my side, and I see the lines under the eyes that go with long pain cut all the way to the soul. "No slave for any Man, you say," he tells me with the strangest smile that I've ever seen, and that world of hurt within the eyes. "Can you humble yourself to become a slave for God?")