IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
VII: The Burning
Friday, April 23, 2709
I don't know at what hour we wake again, in that place without days or seasons. But when he sees us stir, Petro puts on food to cook by the faint glow of the kitchen coals, and a little later brings over dim lamps and only slowly turns up the flames, giving us no shocks. He brings us warm water to bathe in, and gently lays out laundered clothes. I wonder just how shell-shocked we look to him? But I bless the old letch and eat my breakfast with relish, more than half made up of stuff we brought, ourselves, but cooked by other hands, to novel recipes. In fact, Kiril heartens us all (and surprises all but Lufti and I) by asking for the recipe for his tasty, nut-filled bread.
Lefty has tears in his eyes when he says, inanely, “You can have all the recipes you want, Honey. Isn't that right, Petro? Can't she have all she wants?” And we have no idea why Kiril winces when he says that.
Petro nods and proceeds to recite the entire thing on the spot, while Chaska and Nishka wrap their arms around each other and openly weep in relief, staring red-eyed at Kiril. Even Marduk’s eyes look moist.
Petro spares us as long as he can. Only after the last of us finishes eating does he say, gruffly, “Cyran sent a message, in case Damien the Bard might come this way.” His pale face blushes when he says, “Sorry I didn't recognize you before, lad.” He brings out an envelope. “Can you read?”
Damien shakes his head. “Nobody in Koboros could read,” he says. “We didn't need it—we had our voices, we sang and told, father to son, everything that we needed to know.” His eyes glint as he says, “The government burned all our books and documents generations ago, you see, our library and school; you can still find the blackened stones. But they couldn't burn a sound upon the air—they had to kill us all to silence us.” Then he sits up straight and grim, radiating strength as he frowns in his soft, young beard. “But they missed one.”
“Aye, they missed one,” Petro concurs.
“And now the tales and songs go everywhere.” Dark fire flashes in the teenage eyes.
Petro waves the envelope sadly. “That won't do us much good right now, though. Can any of you...”
“I can read,” Lufti says, before I can reach for the envelope. But when he takes it and opens it, his brows crinkle and he says, “Lines, lines, rays of starlight and the maggot's squirm, layer upon layer upon layer of meanings...” He hands it over to me. “Not today,” he says. “I have no wish to sing sad songs today.”
Gently I take the letter and I read it out loud:
I hope this finds you well and in the company of someone who can read. Deirdre Keller, preferably, if she hasn't found some new and inventive way to destroy herself by now.
I grimace out a sort of smile while Kiril lets out a sudden, loud guffaw, and the others titter all around me.
If she lives, or if you travel under some other officer, you will have to part company, now, for I want you to return to your primary function as a rabble-rouser. If there is one thing that I know you're good for, it's leading people into losing their heads. Strike out on your own, and see how many hearts you can inflame for the Cause of Egalitarianism. And Damien? Kanarik would be proud of you. Wherever you go, be sure that she dances like a flame upon every heart that you inspire.
Cyran the Lawbreaker
I hand Damien the letter. “I'm going to miss you,” I say. Chaska leaps up and hugs him, and then so do all the rest of us. (He bends down to where Nishka lies to get his hug from her.)
“Wait—don't go out the door just yet!” Petro cries. “There's something I forgot till now.” He bustles off to another chamber behind a blanket-curtain, returning with a circular woolen cap, leather-billed, of the sort locally called a “Greek fisherman's cap”, although I have never figured out why; it seems like it would look absurd with a toga or whatever it was that they used to wear in Greekland back on Earth. Didn't they like to wear wreathes in their hair instead of hats? Jake would know; he's the history buff of my friendclan—if any of us live to meet again.
Petro declares, “Look at the embroidery!” I notice that it's the same grayed navy as the wool, but in silk of the Charadoc, in fantastic figures of vegetation, a little clumsily rendered in places, but you can only expect so much art from a one-armed seamstress holding the hat in her knees.
Damien almost whispers, “She made it, didn't she?”
“Aye,” Petro nods vigorously. “That she did.”
The bard looks on him with wonder. “But how...?” He can’t finish.
“She sent to me quite some time ago. She had no idea where you might turn up in the world. She thought you might pop in here, sooner or later, and sent it to me by a smuggler who buys my weavings now and then, to pass them off as imports.” He chuckles. “I've gotten pretty good at imitating Rhioveynian brocade.” And then he frowns. “That must have been before she...well obviously. Yeah.”
Damien hardly breathes enough to say, “She made this just for me, with her own dear hand.” His eyes fill up and glisten. Looking over his shoulder I see that the design reveals, amid the foliage, the last petals of flowers about to blow off from the ripening fruit.
Petro points out, “I can see that she held back from any showy colors, because she didn't want to make a target of your brow. You can only see the personalization up too close for an enemy.” He sighs. “She was a wise one, wasn't she? I suppose they have to get wise young, when they won't grow old.”
“And promiscu,” Lufti adds solemnly, “even if the sparks fly up to Heaven before they can warm the hearth.” Petro gives him a troubled look.
Damien presses the hat to his breast and looks up at Petro, the tears now streaming silently down his cheeks. “Thank you!” he breathes. “I had nothing of hers till now.” Then he smiles somewhat wryly and snaps it onto his head at a jaunty angle. “Well, I've got a mission, don't I?” And he picks up his things and leaves.
Saturday, April 24, 2709
We leave Nishka and Chaska behind, climbing back up into the world of light and life-scented air. I’d made Lefty give back to Petro the walking-stick that he'd “borrowed” for me from the hobbled old weaver, but as soon as we get up topside Braulio cuts me one that fits my hand beautifully. We all feel much better for Petro's care, and I guess we needed that extra day and night, but I for one thought that the weight of all that rock would crush my mind from me.
And oh, I had forgotten the lushness of the lower slopes! Here, where winter never ventures forth a chilly toe, here where the rainbow-feathered wingéd creatures soar and sing throughout the day and night, the blooming, fruitful, leafy world, the humus-softened step and the sparkle of the dew, oh here! Oh, my beautiful Charadocian jungle, my lovely...OH! Ohhhh no! Not now!
Not that one can ever find an ideal time to walk into something so sharp that it splits the tip of one's boot. At first I can only gasp and shriek, not even thinking of appropriate cusswords, even as some detached part of me floats aside and watches me hop up and down with wholly inappropriate amusement. This is not funny! But somehow hysterical giggles trickle down into my chest and demand let out again. I fall onto the soft earth, laughing woefully, and find my voice again. “Oh, this is just perfect! Just what I need. Isn't it bad enough that armies hunt me for my life, that some random object shouldn't also take a poke at me? What is it, anyway?”
“Dragon's hide, but the knights meant well,” Lufti offers unhelpfully. “They fed him fat with a wick of hair like Daniel in the Bible.”
Kiril squats down and pulls the boot off to examine my foot. “It's just a bruise, Deirdre. It didn't penetrate deep enough to break the skin.”
My face burns, but I laugh all the more. “Good thing, too, because I like having at least one good foot.”
Kuchi says, “Why should you care? You can fly.”
Kiril peers closely at the metal. “Lufti's right,” she says. “That's part of a tank's armor—must've been one that we blew up.” She looks at the others staring at her. “What? I understand him, that's all—we've hung out together long enough for that, you'd think.”
I know which way to look. We'd walked so long immersed in forest that we didn't even realize just how close we marched to the old decaying road. This might have come from the very same...but no. The particular tank that I attacked didn't blow up; I merely incinerated the men inside.
Braulio kneels down and takes a good look at the boot. “I can fix this,” he says. “And the other one, too. I should have fixed that one in the weaver's place. Grandpa showed me everything. He said I'm good with my hands.”
I pat him on the arm. “We all needed a vacation, Braulio.”
He looks at me. “And I'll carve your walking-stick, too. I like to whittle. Maybe by the campfire tonight.”
I smile warmly on him. “I see that I have found quite a valuable recruit.” And he blushes, grinning.;