IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
VII: The Burning
Tuesday, April 20, 2709
We clamber over another rock-wall boundary. That makes the third one today. I help Kuchi make it across, his face looking flushed and grimy with sweat. But his eyes burn and he doesn't ask for any concession to his years. Each consecutive fence seems closer than the one before—I think we've traveled sufficiently beyond that one big plantation to allow us back on the road. I think we could all use the break.
(Jake thinks that our charges have had enough of a break from facing full-on what they have done. He doesn’t say so, but I know him.
In the darkness of lowering, rain-heavy clouds, we pull into a cove without pier, though I can see wood and pylons for building one lying on the shore. The pile still has that fresh-cut look about it, too. Which means we have to finish the distance by lifeboat and then by wading for the last few icy feet, our shoes stuffed with our socks, hanging about our necks from the tied-together laces, the shovel on Jake’s shoulder.
It could have been a pleasant island. It has trees: windswept conifers at the top of its rocky hill, and deciduous ones clustered down below, putting out their first bright leaves of spring. I can see some new-planted ones, too, just starting to flower: apple, pear and cherry. Birds sing in the branches to woo their loves or to warn off competing suitors. Freshly harrowed earth shows a faint green glow of sprouts
The cottage also looks new, built from a kit by the look of it, cozy and inviting, if a trifle garish. It has pink wall- panels between white beams, under a gray roof where the “shingles” come in precast sheets. The pink door matches, as well, inside a white jamb with a little diamond-shaped window in it. It hangs ajar, from one of two hinges.
“Not his style,” Jake says with a faint quirk of a smile. “He didn’t even look at what he’d ordered, just pointed at a package that said “guest house” and a price he could afford, and told the shopkeeper where at the dock to send it.”
We sit on the abandoned pylons, pulling warm socks over feet white with cold, sighing involuntarily at the luxury of resuming warmth and dryness for our toes, no matter how grim the mission ahead. We linger over tying on the shoes. Nobody wants to face what comes next.)
I glance upward. The overcast looks thick, ready to rain at any minute, and I can smell that pre-storm ozone in the air. That's right; we've gone down to the levels where storms can hit us at any time of year. And the rifle weighs heavy on my recently-injured shoulder. It's not like knives or handguns—there's no decent way to conceal a full-length rifle and still keep it handy, and sawing the things down would cost us accuracy when we need it most.
(There’s no way to hide from the task that brought us here; we keep getting whiffs of it on the breeze. We come close enough to see the red-brown handprint on the door. I take a deep breath of the fresh outside air, and plunge into the fly-buzzing, stinking interior with the rest.
Yep, blood everywhere, just like the boy said, and
sprawled on the floor lies a crawling maggot empire that used
to be a man. George looks pale,
but he uses the shovel to maneuver the remains onto the sheet
that the rest of us spread out to receive them.
And oh my, the stench! I
don’t like kneeling that much closer, but you do what you’ve
got to for the job.
“We all do,” I reply.
Don looks ghastly. He feels the history in this sheet that we hold. “Rape,” he says. “He raped a woman, then fled her brothers and father, but they found him anyway.”
Wallace breaks down and sobs over his knees where he
kneels. “It should have been me! It should have been me!
For my mother, for the poor, frightened little
housemaid, oh God, oh God, oh God! Where is the island that
could hide me from myself?”
As the first drops splotch the dirt road, we scurry across and dive into woods on the other side. We all gust a sigh of relief to get under the shelter of the foliage again, as the rain pelts down harder still, chuckling against the canopy of leaves. A gentle spray of drops makes it through, of course, but that just feels refreshing to us in this warmer climate, used as we are to the mountains. Somewhere thunder rumbles in the distance, or maybe artillery for all I know. No—it's not really time to come out from under cover just yet.
(Rain now falls, and with it comes a wind hard enough to bend the trees, and I for one feel glad, even though it makes our job that much colder. It clears out the horrid stench of what we carry, in the fullest flower of its decay. It drenches us so deeply that even Jake shivers, till it’s his turn to warm up by shoveling. Muddy water accumulates in the grave as we deepen it, so we take off our boots and socks again, setting them indoors to stay dry for us, hoping they don’t pick up the smell.
When finished we lower the body in. I start to say the prayers, and then stop. How can we know the disposition of a soul like this? Did he repent before he died? Or was he just sorry he got caught? Did his life on the run teach him anything about the fear that he put that woman through? Or did he just feel sorry for himself, not making the connection?
His spirit sought us for a funeral. That at least shows some intention of getting right with God.
I must have hesitated too long. “Let me do the praying,” Wallace says, gently laying a muddy hand on my shoulder. “I can repent for both of us.” And with, I think, tears mingling with the rain on his cold-flushed face, he turns back to the grave and starts the Toulinian ritual.)
Wednesday, April 21, 2709
Lying on our stomachs, peering through the trunks of trees, scarcely daring to breathe, we see the same hobbled peasants as before, now far from their master's manor. But this time soldiers escort them, and chains, not ropes, bind them. They look filthy, and the blood on their clothes has had time to dry and stink. Yet they stand taller, wild-eyed in their dishevelment, and some of them glare, and some bitterly smile, and the soldiers look a little frightened to club them forward whenever they dally or snarl some nasty joke.
Hekut worms his way over to my side, silently under the tramp of military boots and prisoner's sandals. “Are we just going to let them go on by?” he whispers.
“What are you suggesting?” I whisper back.
“Rescue them! They must have rebelled. They saw us, and it put ideas in their heads, and they slaughtered their oppressors.” His eyes gleam and I wonder what could have happened in his past to make him what he has become so young. “We did it, we woke them up—so we owe them, Deirdre.”
Quickly I assess the situation. Eleven rebels to twelve soldiers give us much better odds than we've seen in past battles—but can our newbies match the other side's training?
“We owe them!”
“Okay!” I hiss. “But you'll wait on my signal.”
We match their pace fairly well; we move through the vegetation with silent practice as swiftly as bound men shuffling unwillingly down the road. I pass on my plans as I go, by handsignals. I assign one of theirs to each of mine; when the enemy takes a break we will fire all at once. They won't have time to draw their weapons before we take all but one of them down, and then the odds get really unfair. Lufti seems together enough to follow orders today, so as our best shot I want him to take down the sergeant. As the fastest, I will take down two. As I expected, within the hour, the soldiers settle in for their noon break.
BANG! Lufti has shot straight up in the air! The soldiers dive for cover in the opposite wood, leaving their prisoners stumbling on their chains wildly in between us, and soon the fire comes at us and we have to fire back, and the slaves dive screaming for the ground, some of them hit. I shrill out the signal to take to the trees, to at least draw the fire upward from the men, women, and children cowering chained in the middle of the road.
“What'd you do that for?” I cry out to Lufti who shares a tree with me.
“The stars outrank everybody,” he says mildly, and this time he takes calm aim into the darkness under trees. A scream peals out. “Got the sergeant,” he says. “Now he can have a beer with the King of Chocolate, just like old times.”
Nishka screams, too. “Retreat!” I whistle. The forest crashes with a rain of young bodies dropping from the trees one landing on one foot and collapsing. Marduk throws the big girl over his shoulders and pelts out of there the best he can with her weight, Chaska running ahead and hurling her frail body into branches to do her best to clear the way for them. Braulio grabs up Kuchi in his arms and bolts with him, too. I take to the branches, gliding overhead to watch over them. Damien and I whistle out bird trills back and forth to keep the band together.
Burnnnn! I plummet with a shriek down into an explosion of leaves. A glance shows me that a bullet grazed the outside edge of my left boot, but the leather caught most of it, and it doesn’t yet hurt, actually. “Go!” I shrill in whistlecode, and I leap to my feet to set a good example, much more worried about the next bullet than the last one; when the nerves finally do start to respond I hardly even feel the sting in my toe. The crackle of the leaves underfoot roars in my ears—I hope to God that more fall over the trail of blood!
It seems to take too long, with evasive maneuvers, to get to a rock outcropping that cups a little waterfall and pool, before the creek goes on its way. The falls can mask our sounds as I beeline for Nishka, assessing her injury, seeing nothing else. A leg wound can go wrong in so many ways; hardly anything bleeds faster than a femoral artery, and a shattered shinbone can sever it later when you least expect it, or cause the tensed-up muscle to pull bone-shards right into it and flood the leg with internal bleeding that you can miss until it kills. I hear that just such a thing slew a princess once, on Earth, a long, long time ago. But the bullet missed the artery, thank God, and no bone broke. Still, Nishka's marching days are over.
“Remember that farmer with a limp?” I say to her, patting her on the shoulder. “You've got a long and prosperous future ahead of you, once this thing heals up.” She tries to nod, her face gray with pain.
I limp over to check out Kuchi, but he doesn't have a scratch on him. “I didn't think he could keep up,” Braulio says. I nod, saying nothing. Braulio nearly cost us both himself and his brother, trying to run with that weight unnecessarily, but he didn't, and I suppose we could've lost Kuchi by himself. I'm not about to teach these recruits to shrug off brother-love—some things are worth the risk.
Baruch, looking white, asks, “What about your own wound, Deirdre?”
Huh? Oh yeah. I hardly even noticed how the throbbing has increased. Blood soaks the side where my overwide toes pushed the leather out of shape. I sit and pull off my boot, then the torn sock, then I laugh out loud, giddy to just be alive. “It hardly even skinned me—look at that! I'm as lucky as Lufti.” I look up, around, to point out his notched ear. And my mirth bleeds to death in seconds. “Where's Lufti?—and Kiril?” It should have been Kiril reminding me to take care of myself, I realize with a rising sense of panic. “And where's Hekut?”
Nobody answers. I swallow, and the earth seems to tip under me, but I brace my hand against a boulder; I suppose I must look pale, but still not a soul says a word. I had soared to the branches, I meant to watch over them, but then...I pull my sock and boot back on, squelching with blood. “Damien?” I say, my voice higher than usual. “Damien, where are you?”
“Right here, Deirdre.”
“I, I think we're close to that abandoned farm where we first hooked up with Chulan and...” I swallow again, holding down the dizziness, “Fatima. And Teofilo. And ...” Damn me, how can I forget the name of the boy with the ocelot eyes? I look at Damien. “Think you can find it again?”
“Yes,” he says. “You're going back for them, aren't you?”
I nod. “Yeah. Rescue operation, God willing. I hope not to bury their bodies. Not to...to avenge them.” Then I feel new blood rise to my head again, as I shrug off my pack and pull what I'll need out of it, dropping gauze and bullets and such into my pockets, before handing it over to him. “But Damien, if I don't come back, sing about me. Sing about how Deirdre Keller, the barren killer-virgin, gave up her life for the children of her heart.” And with that I take off the way we came.