Dolores J. Nurss

Volume VIII: The Final Conflagration

Chapter 25

On the Mountain Road



Monday, May 12, 2709, continued

       Dawnlight begins to pour up into the sky, like all these mountains around us walled a great, upside-down bowl, diluting the night to a clear and liquid blue. We don't stir from our bedding immediately, lying on the hard road, staring up at the last surviving stars between the blushing clouds, saying nothing, just listening to the wind between the rocks and the first waking songs of birds. It seems strange to me now to think that sleeping on a road would seem like madness back at Til, but here, where no mechanical vehicle can fit, and nowhere else affords a perch, I've gotten used to it.
       Is this peace? I'm not even sure how to define that word anymore.
       Wildflowers. Growing out of cracks in the rock. On the tail end of autumn in the mountains. How did that happen? I thought I had studied everything about The Charadoc on the way over, but like so much else here, I have no idea what kind of flower grows here. Almost a luminous white, standing out in the deep dusk like fallen stars, with spindly, curvy stems that dance and bob in the slightest breeze. They lend an eerie beauty to our camp.
       More and more light begins to define other colors besides blue, though it will take some time for the sun to climb above the peaks and ridges. We go about our morning business, dressing, starting up a fire on the rocks, putting on coffee. Kiril and Lufti help me manage with one hand in a cast, but it's not as bad as when I couldn't use the shoulder, either.
       Having no toilet facilities, Alysha gives the order that nobody shall use the cliffs as the next best thing without having someone else holding onto them to make sure that they don't fall over. Those who haven't traveled the mountain roads before get over their embarrassment with laughter and crude jokes. But inexperienced travelers die with their pants down on the mountain roads every year. It's hardest for Chulan because her eyes have swollen shut; she comes back trembling so hard that Damien leads her back with both arms around her.
       Nobody gives tasks to her, me, or Cyran. As I watch Kiril cook breakfast I ask, "Where did you get the silicone pans?"
       She smiles, stirring spices into our mush. "Master Mulvaney, from that manor that sheltered us. Right before he fled he distributed his camping gear among us, saying that he had relatives that he could stay with and wouldn't need it. Some illegitimate sibling that the family kept in touch with, discreetly, who had offered him shelter--but we mustn't know the name or whereabouts."
       Alysha pours us coffee. Damien pours a slug of chaummin into his. She pauses in her rounds and frowns on him. "Maybe you don't care about anything else," she says, "but your voice is getting gravelly."
       "So?" He shrugs and sips. "We don't need choirboys up here. A rebel bard should sound raw anyway." He does indeed sound as raw as an unbound wound.
       Cyran stirs enough to say, "And how about your behavior? You broke Luka's heart, you know. She's not the one-night -tand type."
       Damien just shrugs again. "Why should other people have sound hearts when mine has shattered?"
       Cyran knocks the cup right out of his hand, tin ringing and rolling across the rocks. "That's the kind of selfish thinking that we've been fighting, boy! If you keep on that way Kanarik will have died for nothing!" Then e grabs hir chest and groans.
       Alysha checks hir bandages. "No torn stitches this time. But save your energy for fighting our enemies, 'kay?"
       E nods, pale around the mouth with pain.
       I stand up and help Kiril put away her cooking gear. When she looks at me quizzically I say, "The fever's giving me a break. I've got to act while I can."
       Gently she pulls her spice-bag out of my hand. "What you need is to rest while you can, or the fever won't give you any more breaks." Then she picks up the remaining pouches of spices, makes sure that they're all properly sealed, and drops them into the larger bag, and that into her pack. And then we board our various mules and donkeys and continue our upward climb.
       And I hear Lufti muttering beside me, disturbingly in Old Amereng, which I had no idea that he'd taught himself. "And I have miles to go before I sleep, for I have promises to keep."
       (Great. We're crossing a mountain range. Don and Jake know full well that we wouldn't have to cross any mountains on the coastal route to Istislan, but Jake insists on going this way and George and Wallace ignore us whenever we suggest otherwise. Granted, it's not a very steep range, nothing at all like the climb into Ganshu. It's just that at this point every road leads uphill.
       Lovely scenery, though. Wildflowers abound, mushrooms poke up their whimsical heads, butterflies flit, leaves shimmer in the sunlight, and little puffs of pollen waft on the air like dirty fairydust. I'm glad Merrill's not with us.
       So why are Jake, Wallace and George marching single-file and looking anxious? I walk up to them casually and they start as if I strolled across lava or something to get to them.
       Slowly Jake says, "There's no cliff there, is there?"
       "No, Jake, there isn't." I stomp my feet firmly on the pavement. "See? Solid ground." I dance around a little, clowning and mock-stumbling and George tentatively laughs, then Wallace, then Jake at least grins.
       We continue, our oracles spreading out more normally now. Jake murmurs to me, "I can't always trust myself to know what I see anymore. I mean, I saw a road wide enough for vehicles, but it kept feeling like a footpath carved into a cliff."
       I clap him on the back and start walking again, only to hear him murmur, "Yet still we're on the brink.")
       (I can't always trust myself to know what I see anymore. I thought that we drove through some kind of dried-up marsh, in the shadows of those mountains up ahead, but I should have noticed the absence of any riverbed to explain it. Those aren't dry reeds rattling in the wind. Those are dead cornstalks. Corn can't propagate itself without human help.
       Why didn't I notice the lack of a riverbed?
       I can at least notice Dayin fidgeting next to me. He clears his throat several times before I finally say, "Spit it out, dear boy. I'd rather not have to puzzle through your mental symbols to try and figure out what you want to tell me."
       "Anselmo and I, well…"
       "We tried triangulation without you. We know the general direction towards your friend. We're headed that way, now."
       "Oh really. And what about…"
       "It's on our way anyway," Anselmo interrupts. "There's a nomadic group of Arabs herding sheep who have done trade with Tikvah Kibbutz."
       "And why shouldn't they?" Davin adds. "Kosher, Halal, what's the difference unless you baste the lamb in wine?"
       "Anyway, they've been traveling northeast; we should catch up with them by tomorrow, easily."
       I put an arm around each of them, and try to think of something droll, but instead tears run down my face. I feel so grateful, so guilty, so reluctant, so yearning, so everything! I don't want to leave my men behind! I don't want to see Vanikke ever again. I want my friendclan back and I don't want them to ever see me, Suzie the Failure. Instead of even trying to put my emotions into words, I ask, huskily but trying to sound rational through my tears, "How did you ever find him without my link to him?"
       Anselmo keeps his eyes on the road, but his brows crinkle under the bandana. "Once I got the feel of him from your mind, for some reason it's like he glows on the horizon or something--him and two others that I can't make out. It's like he's more saturated with magentine than any of us."
       The cornfields give way to an even more dead industrial area, choking under a stinking black cloud. I can see the glow of a refinery, still burning after all this time. And I want to crawl under my seat--my failure here must have international consequences! And I can't…I don't even want to think of what I can't do.
       "Could you please pull over? I ask Anselmo. "I...I think I need a nap."
       "Of course," He says. I've needed more sleep than any of them because of the shiriki attack. So he stops, Dayin gets out to let me out, and then goes around to trade places with Anselmo while I do likewise with Ozwald in the cargo box. I settle into a nest of blankets and cushions in between the gurgling tanks, and I shut my eyes, trying to pretend that I'm flying on my way to Til on the first shuttle home.)
       (We hear an airplane overhead. Surprised, all four of us turn up to face the sky.
       "Someone has found fuel," Jake says, "And is trying to leave the country."
       "Well, good for them!" I exclaim, and Don grins, too, but our oracles aren't smiling.
       "The idiots!" Wallace hisses, his face dead white as he stares upward, clenching his fists.
       The explosion physically shoves us with a sonic wave that burns our ears as painfully as the sudden flash of fire in the sky affects our eyes. When I can blink back some sight and my sense of hearing returns I hear George crying bitterly. "It always happens that way! Every single damn time it happens that way!")

       We reach a part of the road, above a cloud layer, where the ruddy cliffs have given way to gray-white granite in sheets and slabs and boulders, but still very steep above and below us, and deep cracks have riven the glittering stone. Every so often those villages who depend on this road will send crews, different villages at different times of year, to fill in gaps with stones and rubble, old bricks, broken pottery, bones, whatever hard bits come to hand, and then sand and dirt. After they tamp it all down firmly, they pour in whatever mortar, glue or resin comes to hand (currently it smells like some sort of pine tar) with varying degrees of success or death tolls. Safe to say, we all feel a bit on edge every time we pass over one of those parts, though the mules and donkeys like the softer pavement. They have no idea.
       "Hush," says Damien, and we all halt our animals, knowing that our bard has the sharpest hearing of any of us. I strain to listen, and make out the footsteps far below.
       Cyran whispers, "Is that marching?"
       "I don't know," Alysha whispers back. "It could be echoes making individual treads sound like multiple in unison." And then Cyran looks to me.
       "It's marching," I confirm. Damien hears better, but I can put sound-clues together in ways that he can't. "Heading west to east on one of the connecting roads. They're not coming up this way." Everyone sighs quietly and otherwise holds perfectly still, waiting for them to pass.
       Except for Lufti. Suddenly, at the top of his lungs he yells out, "WE THE SEED TROD UNDERFOOT SHALL SEND AN EVER-DEEPENING ROOT!" and the marching stops as his voice echoes from peak to peak. "SHALL RISE A GREEN UNNOTICED SHOOT!" Kiril leaps from our mule to tackle him, her hand over his mouth--they roll in the dust dangerously close to the brink, but he wriggles free and leaps up again, waving his arms, scream-singing, "ABANDONED TO SUN AND RAIN!"
       Guns start to fire up at us. "WE THE WANTON WILD VINE!"
       "Flatten!" Cyran cries, but softly under Lufti's "SHALL THICKEN STRENGTHEN INTERTWINE!" "They're shooting wild--the echoes have them confused."
       "Let go of the animals!" The panicked beasts stampede on up the road, drawing fire. A donkey takes a bullet and I watch him from ground level tumble off the edge, splashing the pale rock with red. But Lufti follows them, running, hollaring, "MADE TOUGHER BY WANT AND…EEEEEEEEE!" and then he falls in the road, Kiril screams, too, and I somehow find the strength to leap up, grab them both through stabbing pain and hurl us into a crevasse in the cliff, trying to slow us by trace levitation but bumping all the way down. At least I can protect their heads, crammed into my stomach as I curl around them, wishing I had breasts enough to cushion them, taking the blows walloping against my back and arms and legs. Kiril shrieks when I hear bones crack, thrashing almost convulsively against me in sudden agony, but I hold onto her and we keep going till I force out my last strength to break our fall with my mind when we lodge deep in the cleft, while shooting and answering fire goes on above us. And then everything gets too quiet.
       Lufti giggles and bubbles of blood form at the corner of his mouth. "I promised," he says. "Vengeance. The Good People...turns out...it was rebels. Rebels wronged them."
       ("Noooo," Jake groans, dropping the water-bottle that he'd been drinking from, "No no no nonononono NO NO .NO!" And then he stands there looking utterly stricken, and George bursts into tears, holding onto Jake's arm.
       George wipes his face, then looks towards me. "I'm okay," he says. "I'm crying for him."
       "I understand," I say, and then I lead Jake away from the others for a time. He needs some serious grounding.)



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