IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume VII: The Burning
Bullets and Communion
Saturday, March 20, 2709
The rain stops before morning. We depart well-ballasted on a good farm breakfast, and thank the farmer one after the other. Lufti presses a dark little crystal into his hand, and he accepts it, frowning sadly, shaking his head. I whisper to him, "I'd put that in a safe place, if I were you. It's a sapphire in the raw." His eyes widen and he nods, pocketing it.
Already the dry, rocky mountainside begins to sport thicker and taller groves as the air grows warmer and denser. I sniff for a change of season, but smell nothing beyond my own tobacco. The village soon fades behind us, most of the land still uncultivated for miles upon miles. As we walk, I continue the lessons that I've given on the road.
"This time let's all each do letter. A is for..."
"Army!" Hekut shouts proudly.
"Ankle," says Nishka.
"Anger," says Marduk.
"Angel," says Lufti.
"Aliso", says Kiril softly. "No, Art. A is for art."
"Uh…Astonish?" Baruch asks. "Does astonish count?" I nod and point to the next in line.
"Angler", says Lefty.
"Alone," says Damien.
"And B is for..."
And each in the same order answer "Battle", "Butt", "Beef", "Beyond", "Beauty", Bumpy", "Bass" and "Bailebelde."
"C is for..." "Chaummin!" "Cheeky!" "Chop!" "Cherish!" "Chocolate!" "Change!" "Cheers!" "Chanter!"
"D is for..."
"Duck!" Lufti cries, but if he hadn't grabbed me and Kiril and yanked us for the bushes I wouldn't have caught on. Gunfire whizzes through the space my head once occupied. The others follow us with the swift reactions of people used to getting shot at. Of course–oracles have a keen nose for when the unlikely happens. And bushes make lousy cover in a firefight.
Kiril whispers, "They must have gotten trapped behind enemy lines. By now they'll have run out of supplies. They do have bullets, only because they can't eat them. They have probably expended most of those trying to kill food."
Before I can stop him, Lufti jumps back out onto the road, and starts dancing wildly. "Sing, Damien!" he cries.
And so help me, Damien sings as Lufti leaps and whirls around the gunfire. The bard sings "The Bullet Dance", and Lufti brings it to life, and I weep to see him out there, brave and mad and dead-dancing for Kanarik. I see him throw himself backwards into the air, arcing over a blast, landing on his hands and somersaulting to his feet again en pointe, his hair floating around him as suddenly his hips thrust one way and his shoulders another to curve around the next blast, and he lunges to dip beneath still more, and a few frenzied spins whip him through the flying lead as his eyes burn within their kohl. Again he skips into the air, his limbs shaped around several shots at once.
And suddenly he stops in the middle of the road, and bows towards where the bullets came from, sweat dripping and his cheeks flush. I can hear his panting from here. I don't hear any more gunfire. He expended everything they had.
"I am magic," he tells them, still out of breath. "You cannot win. Our ghosts own this land. Desert here, and we won't kill you anymore. Find farmwives and marry them. Have babies that live, and fruit upon the vine. Let the land forgive you."
I wear my flit at all times, these days, so I float up from the bushes behind him, and hover over him, and see beyond to where some gaunt and grubby soldiers cower behind other bushes. They throw down their weapons and raise shaking hands over their heads. Playing on their fears, I glide slowly over each, brushing the top of every head. "I have put my mark upon you," I improvise. "If you return to battle, you will die. Go find honest work." They nod, believing me, and run away, leaving their guns behind.
We wait until we can no longer hear their pounding boots, then laugh all at once–all except for Lufti, who sits serenely in the breaking sun with his eyes closed. Marduk picks up a gun, saying, "Spares! Who would've thought?"
"Save ‘em for now," I say, "But get ready to pass them on soon enough. We're bound to meet others less well-equipped."
Laughter dies quickly on Damien's lips these days. Yet even so, he stares at Lufti in wonder and in love. "Kanarik truly was with you today," he says.
The boy opens his eyes and stares right back into Damien's, tossing most of the hair out of his face. "And the baby. The baby aches for all the unborn fruit of the land, all the seed unsown and the war-tramped fields. We can't make her happy till we end this abomination!" He knows words like "abomination", now. "Let's go finish the war," he says, and pushes himself back up to his feet. Wide-eyed, Damien nods and shoulders his pack again.
Sunday, March 21, 2709
I don't strap on my flit today. I feel freer without it, no leather binding me, no twigs galling me, no sweat trapped to my front. The sun beats down hotter already, but also more trees spread wide to shade us.
Kiril brushes every tangle out of Lufti's hair, dappled shadows moving over them. Then she moistens her sash-end with her mouth, and gently daubs away the liner from his eyes. He lets her do this, today. She drops the darkened sash back down; I see that it hangs down much longer than it used to, though she ties it loosely. I notice a line drawn on it, some ways down outside the knot; I feel some significance in this, some deliberate mark of a pen, but I'm not sure why.
"Ready?" I ask.
"Uh huh." We stash my flit and our more obvious guns deep into the foliage, and Lufti dribbles a trail of small quartz crystals as we leave the grove, so that we can find them again. We head down to a village in the dell, homing in on the steeple in the middle of town, just as its bell starts ringing, beckoning us. We could be any travelers, banded together against bandits, but automatic rifles would look like a trifle too much protection.
We file into the cool church shade, with its stripes of color-filtered light and glows of candles here and there, gilding the hand-plastered walls. Standard Charadocian rectangular church. We keep our heads bowed, don't mind us. But someone in the back gives a start at the sight of me...oh Lord, right over there! The selfsame soldiers that we met yesterday, and they all turn and glower at me as one! And every single one of them watches as I snag the priest by the elbow before he can enter the church. "Confession, please, Father–I've had no chance till now, I've been on the road. I'll make it quick." He nods, only slightly startled, and we duck to the side of the building.
I almost ran away. God forgive me! I almost used this as a ruse to run away!
"Bless me father, my last confession wasn't so long ago, but I, uh, lied since then. Badly. I made superstitious people believe that I cast a spell on them. They changed, uh, careers as a result."
"I see. And can you rectify this lie?"
I look at him gravely. "Not without bloodshed, I'm afraid."
He takes in the old, hazel stains upon my blue and white blouse that nothing can get out, and sighs. "Then, for your penance, child, pray for those to whom you've lied." His brows draw down. "And while you're at it, bless all your enemies. It never hurts to pray for your enemies, you know–sometimes it changes more hearts than bullets can."
"Yes, Father." I smile sheepishly, then we say all the right prayers rapidly, and I join the rest for Mass.
Odd, how the faces of the erstwhile soldiers soften when I come back. Did they expect me never to return? Does it touch them that I can feel abashed before God, even if my sin isn't quite the one that they think I confessed? Do they pray for me, as I do now for them?
We all take communion, friend and foe jostled together in the line, and for this hour, at least, we are one body and one blood. And suddenly it seems impossible to me that God could ever condone any war, anywhere, against anyone.
But can we ask His mercy nonetheless, we who don't dare give each other mercy, except on rare days like today? Can He understand, having walked among us, just how hard it can be to find any other solution than to smite each other until the matter's settled?
What a challenging cultural immersion He must have faced! I will never be half the agent He was.
When we come outside once more, Lufti sighs and leans against me. "Being a god wears you out, you know–let somebody else carry it for awhile!" Amen, kid.