IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume VII: The Burning
Forever Blazoned into Song
Thursday, March 25, 2709
A village lies ahead, Aymuray, downslope and around the bend caused by a lower peak, in a valley between that mountain before us and the next beyond it. The smugglers promised to set up a cache for us there. A taller, steeper mountain reaches up behind us, a great, mineral horn, almost a spire. We’ve reached a level of cold-sink beneath taller mountains, where the foliage now flames in earnest, scarlet and orange and gold, leaves fluttering like they flicker. We have passed through the highest level of the fertile Midlands, and soon we shall enter the main part.
Lufti looks around him, gazing up at all the leaves. He says, “We burn. Fire fights fire, but who knows where the wind will blow it? The sparks don’t know where to light–we want to light up the night but we can’t help but burn, no matter where we go.”
“Cheer up, Lufti,” I tell him. “Not everything has to be doleful. Smell the richness of the autumn leaves, and the smoke upon the air!” Do I detect a hint upon the breeze of curing hams?
He shrugs. “Maybe you’re right. The leaves make glory in their death. And we can always sprout more. Without these massacres, our springs might get too cluttered.” He stops, regarding a tree whose leaves do look rather like splashes of blood. Then he follows one leaf’s fluttering descent, and stares where it meets the ground. “We fall, and fall, and fall, and the corn grows taller for it.” He forces a smile when he turns to me. “Everything makes sense in the long run.” He clasps his pack-straps and strides forward once again.
We get halfway around the bend before I realize that I smell way too much smoke for even the season to account for. Then we descend into a warm snowstorm: ashes, falling from dirty clouds. Kiril starts to gasp with every step; she uses her inhaler to no avail. The ashes grow larger and larger, some still holding the shape of leaves right down to the veins, and now we pass charcoal stumps instead of trees, and the pale dust that we walk through no longer has the crunch of fallen leaves.
“A crisp autumn day,” Lufti remarks. When I turn to stare at him I discover that he now carries Kiril on his back, with his pack slung forward like I have done for him, his face still placid, though her wheezes have become alarming. He doesn’t seem to notice that he totters a little beneath her weight.
Marduk pulls me aside and whispers, “At the first sign of trouble, Nishka and I will carry them both.” Nishka nods close by, looking worried. I nod back, and after that I keep glancing at Lufti, watching for changes in his face-color or any other bad sign.
By the time we get all the way around the bend, I can hardly see the village for the murk upon the air...but I do catch glimpses of the circling dardies coming in and out of the haze. By the time we pass the first burnt-out home I know that I don’t smell ham. By the time we reach the village proper, and witness every house unroofed, each charcoal-rimed window and doorway gaping in a kind of horror cast in stone, we all stare about us in shock, stumbling in ashes that blow through the bones of the village, all except for Lufti, who carries himself with obedient equanimity. “Smell the autumn smoke upon the air!”
I speak softly because I can hardly will any strength into my voice at all. “I’m sorry, Lufti. I misunderstood you.”
He nods. “That’s okay, Deirdre. I hardly ever understand myself.”
Bullets ping off the stones! I tackle Lufti, knocking him and Kiril to the ground. Crawling, all of us scuttle to the nearest ruins, hearts pounding, as more bullets fly. The ground still feels hot to our bellies and our limbs. In no time we have guns braced against the stones, looking for a target.
“HOLD IT RIGHT THERE!” a hoarse voice shouts. “Hands up!”
Damien takes aim, but I kick him, crying, “No! Don’t shoot!” I see our sniper, now, and he wears no uniform.
I lay down my rifle and rise, hands in the air, staring at the wild-eyed old man who emerges from the murk, his singed hair clumping on one side. Confused, the rest of my band follows my example. I take in the angry red burns that mark the man here and there where chars in his clothing reveal them.
“Dirty rotten evil filthy rebels!” he spits, with all the vehemence of swearing, “Miserable, scoundrelly, wicked, vile rebels!” I can feel in him years of church-going rectitude that never learned to cuss, and now he needs to, very badly. “You wart-ugly rat-fathered criminals, you, you piss-pots, you outhouses, you damnation-fucky hogs!” But he’s teaching himself, as fast as he can. Then he peers at us painfully, trying to take us in through smoke-reddened, weeping eyes. “You’re...kids. Just kids. Stupid kids playing with matches, gonna burn the whole world down!” His gun lowers, just a little.
Lufti lowers his arms, as wide-eyed as the man. “I am crazy and I say such things. Are you crazy too, my brother?”
The man stares a moment, then drops his gun, clattering right there on the road, his face twisting up, and then he bursts into sobs. “The whole wretched world has gone mad! They...they...my entire family...not just the farm, hang the farm, we could have starved together, it wouldn’t have been so bad with my wife’s arms around me. But she...she...and the horses–I couldn’t get the horses out of the barn in time! I freed the rabbits from the hutch, but, but, it didn’t do any good, they caught fire anyway, all that fur, finest angora rabbits...my dau...” he gulped back sobs, “...my daughter could spin and knit, and the handmade goods, they bought a tidy...oh, my poor daughter!”
Lufti goes up and takes the man’s one unburnt hand in both of his. “It’s all right, brother. No one can stay coherent when the threads of life snap and tangle so. We will get better in the spring, even in the grave if we must, buried with the seeds.”
The man throws his good arm around the boy and rages his tears against Lufti’s shoulder, shuddering with the force of it all. “The rebels stirred it up!” he sobs over and over. “We stirred it up–I stirred it up! I sent my own son to fight with the rebels!” At last he pulls himself up again and says to us, still gasping on tears. “Come see. See. Follow me and see how mad the world has grown!”
He staggers as he trots forward, limping, and now I can clearly see just how badly he has burned. Once or twice he nearly faints, but grabs a wall and pushes himself on. We follow him, through the dead village and its shocking seared-meat smells, out to a cliff that overlooks the greater portion of the farm country.
Or what used to be farm country. A wind whips up into our coughing faces, as if to accuse us by what it reveals when the ash settles back again. As far as we can see, from that great height, mile after mile of the Charadoc’s breadbasket smokes and smolders–the orchards, fields, and pastures, the houses and barns and silos. Beds of embers still glow redly here and there amid the landscape of black, white, and gray. In the distance I see a horizon still on fire, the spreading edge of ruin.
Damien says, “Tell me what happened, old man,” but the farmer just stares at him, blinking back tears.
“Go ahead,” I urge him. “This is Damien the Bard. Nothing on this scale should go forgotten, nothing covered up.” We catch him as he falls.
In the shelter of some ruins, I nurse his burns the best I can, but we don’t have Madame’s sheets and medicines out here. Still, he revives a little under my ministrations, for the time being, and tells us everything...
Without intending to, Deirdre woke herself up singing Damien’s song, in its piercing minor key:
“Twas on the eve of autumn’s gold,
When ripened grain in shocks stood tall,
When songs of plenty filled each hall,
And cider brewed against the cold,
“When fruit hung sweetening on the limb,
And fodder fattened sheep and cow,
When seeming-peace all good allow’d,
And distant blood no hope could dim...”
A sob choked the rest of the song in her throat as she fully came to awareness of the office around her.
“Go on,” Justín said, rousing himself. “You have a pretty voice.”
“I...I can’t.” She still smelled smoke. Then she saw that it was only Justín, lighting up a cigarette and handing one to her. She grabbed it greedily. “He told us how the, the army blew up Merchant Caverns, and so, without supplies, Abojan Pass fell soon after.” She saw the cigarette shake in her hand before she felt her own shuddering. She stared at the glowing ember at the end.
“Now, you know it wasn’t the army that did that. We recovered the real memory together.”
She sucked on her cigarette a moment before answering. “I know. I guess. But at the time, all I knew...I still feel ‘at the time’.” She took a deep breath, exhaled smoke, and said, “That freed up the army to, to seek retribution. They knew that the small-farmer caste had gotten involved, that it wasn’t just us riffraff at the bottom anymore.” She stared at the psychometrist. “They burned everything!”
Justín shook his head. “I suppose the rich could send abroad for food on their own account.”
“No, that wasn’t it.” Deirdre tapped ash into the dish that Justín handed her. “I don’t think they thought about the repercussions. Maybe the rich didn’t even order it. The army just...reacted.” She shook her head, as if trying to clear the smoke away. “The most fertile land in all the Charadoc–and their own men, too, the prisoners working on those farms...I suppose they called them traitors–afterwards, perhaps, to justify to themselves the thing they did. They must have all gone crazy. War drives everybody crazy.” She stared at the cigarette in her hand again. “Are we allowed to smoke in here?”
“Do I care?”
“The farmer...he died that night, you know.”
“No, I didn’t know that. We hadn’t gone that far, and I caught no future-flash.”
“He did. Shock. He shouldn’t even have been walking around, with burns that bad. But he lasted long enough to tell Damien everything. So I guess now he lives forever in a song, even if we never learned his name. The damned ghosts always just go on and on!” She smashed the cigarette out angrily, shoved it down hard like she could burn holes in unbearable memories. “He hung on, and I told him to do it, to give his story to the bard, and now...” she looked up at Justín with pleading eyes, as if he could give her absolution. “Now those fields will burn forever.”
“History matters,” Justín assured her. “That’s why we do what we do here.”
She felt her lips smile wryly. “Even if nobody ever reads the transcripts?”
He shrugged. “It all goes into Archives. It flavors everything.” At her look of horror he took her hand, with only an instant’s wince. “It must be so, darling. History is who we are, what we build upon. For better or for worse, we need it, on some level that we can never completely put into words.”
“Go ahead, Deirdre.”
“If we’d had an accurate history of the, the Charadoc...I mean generations, Justín! This horror went on for generations, in a country laced through and through with magentine!” She shook her head, dazedly. “But we had nothing but the self-deceptions of the people in power who wrote the history-books, and agents like Jonathan whom they’d enchanted.”
Justín smiled lopsidedly. “Something must have leaked through into Archives anyway. Why else let one of our top agents take on a sinecure like helping a retiree settle into a diplomatic post?”
Tears spilled down Deirdre’s cheeks before she could stop them. “Do you mean...you mean Archives meant...I thought it was because of me and Jonathan...I thought they sent me there for love!”
Justín leaned back with a sigh, eyes closed, and Deirdre saw the same lines under his eyes that Father Mykolas carried; if not for the drug, what might he look like now? “Deirdre, I have spent my entire life in communion with Archives, and nobody knows quite what she thinks, or what she knows. She can have many motives all at once, some of them contradictory. She can also have appalling gaps in her information, too. And not just information–parts can think or know different things, and not tell other parts. On one level she matched you for the job. On another level, I don’t think she would have ever, consciously, sent anyone with your personality profile on a mission involving so much bloodshed. But that’s the trick of it—she’s unconscious.”
Slowly, as one admitting to a blasphemy, Deirdre whispered, “Unless she didn’t care.”
Justín opened his eyes and smiled again, though sadly. “Now that I won’t believe. If I know one thing, it’s that this machine, this compilation of magentine cells and circuitry and the collective passions of us all, cares for each and every one of us, more than a human heart could bear. But she’s not a goddess; she makes mistakes and...well, it all gets terribly muddled, doesn’t it? The more you learn, the more confusing it gets.” With an odd glint in his eyes, he leaned forward grinning, and confided, “Just between you and me, I think she’s as crazy as we are–how could she not be? She’s made of us.”
Deirdre stared at him, for a moment without words. Then she murmured, “Sorry—I, I guess I interrupted the session again.”
“That’s all right. I needed a break, too.” His hand went to the switch. “Ready when you are.”