THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
VIII: The Final Conflagration
Dawn over a Dark Horizon
Friday, May 16, 2709
(I make my rounds about Koboros, or maybe I sleep, I'm not sure which. I feel no ache of weariness, just a pleasant, detached sort of dreaminess, so maybe I do sleep. I can hardly tell, anymore. I feel like I levitate about Koboros, inches from the ground, yet I also feel my feet on the cobbles, in a distant kind of way. No, I am not Deirdre, not right now. I feel small among these massy rock buildings, hardly here, and I wish to be even less here, but the wounded need me, but right now it's not so bad, wafting through the old stone alleys from patient to patient, knowing the routines so well that I could do it in my sleep indeed.
I happen to notice my hand as I reach for the next door. Is that a bluish tinge? No, it's the full moon's light. But the hand--doesn't it writhe a bit, as though it wasn't really a hand at all, but a glove stuffed full of restless worms? Or...or something even worse? I look down at my body, back to the hand, to my feet, back again. To my horror I watch myself, from the extremities inward, disintegrate into rotting, wriggling fingers!)
"Deirdre, wake up!" Kiril shakes me. "You're having a nightmare."
I blink at her in the dark, so young that she barely qualifies as a teenager, so battle-hard, her broken arm cradled against her not-yet-showing second pregnancy, bereaved of a lover no older than herself, driven to his death by war and madness. I think of patching together so many, many young ones to fight and fight again. I can only whisper to Kiril, "What am I doing here? Why am I even here? How did all this happen?"
"Hush," she says, then presses the comfortingly cool back of her hand to my brow. "You're feverish again," she says. "That march didn't do you any good."
"When am I not?" I grumble. "It's my natural state, now. I should just get used to it, push on, andů" But she does the pushing, gently pressing me back into my bedding.
"Lie down, now, and get some rest before the dawn sets us traveling again." I notice for the first time some paling in the sky, a blush of blue behind the mountains, and hear the first sleepy birds. "It won't take long, now, before we make it into Koboros."
(I gently extricate myself from Randy's unconscious snuggle and go out into a misty pre-dawn. It won't take long, now, before...I'm not sure what. Whatever, I rummage for canteens and water-bag and filter, to draw the first water of the day. I hope to process it before the others wake up.
Really, though, I just need time alone, a half hour, maybe more, between sleeping together and marching together. I stretch, bones crackling, and breathe in the conifer-rich mountain air. I feel acutely, almost painfully alive and...and grown up.
I track the stream by its sound. Then I step into its shallows, my boots squelching in the mud, and I stoop to immerse the bag. My hands chill in the flow, refreshing me, waking me all the way. I savor the awakeness.
I dreamed of Jesse last night, how he hadn't even made it to adulthood...well yes, he did, but no, he didn't, not really. The board that passed him for it legally, well, they must've been corrupt, or drunk, or...tampered with in some way.
Anger floods me! I throw the water-bag. I watch the arc of the spray shimmer in the air before raining down, aware, as I hadn't been for awhile, that I didn't used to watch such things in slow motion. How much of my life has suffered the tampering of who knows how many meddlers? I feel buffeted by all the different currents of their needs and desires.
Grown men pick up the things that they throw and clean up their own messes. I pluck the silicone bag from the bush that caught it. I go back to the creek to fill it up again.)
I wake again at the sound of others stirring all around me, but everyone lets me lie here, drifting in and out of this world, same as they do Cyran. I hear the murmur of a nearby spring or stream, and someone drawing water from it. I do nothing to help, just watch the clouds drift overhead, as lazy as myself, snugly wrapped in fever and not much caring about anything anymore, except for a vague happiness that others around me don't seem too troubled for awhile.
Kiril has made me a porridge with fresh berries mixed in after the cooking, smooth rubies that burst in the mouth with a sweet, tart tang; my body responds favorably to what surely must be vitamins within them. We have no milk to go with the porridge, of course, but I don't know if I could handle milk, anyway. Then Braulio and Khouri help her into the saddle and lift me up behind her.
Alysha rides up. "I wouldn't mind having a wounded-wagon for the lot of you," she says. Cyran now rides behind her, looking more alert than e had been, though struggling to pretend e's not in pain. "But it could be worse. At least we have good steeds."
(Empty tents and pavilions surround the truck when we get up, a little later than usual, thanks to the long evening feast that followed yesterday's funeral fasting. Occasional lurchers and terriers nose around the encampment, so I know that their humans can't have gone far. The Romani would never abandon their dogs.
We soon find the whole Romany community standing in silence by an old railroad turnabout, next to some silos with long spouts overhanging the track. Merchants must have loaded grain here, once. A derelict train blocks the nearest track. In fact, pretty much all of the tracks have become impassable at this point. I suppress a shiver of memory.
Some of the cars in the railyard have plainly sheltered people, and some have stabled horses, but all these habitations have a temporary look about them, though clean enough. More Romany come out even as I watch, more than Lijeh's band, several bands, in fact, with distinctions in their garb. They've been waiting here even longer. The field around looks overgrazed and I pick up a restlessness in man and beast.
As we draw closer, we see that no one wears mourning garb anymore. I admire the embroidery with which these people have brightened and individualized the modern, common clothes of Vanikke. And now we see more homemade garments than before, on more than just the young, fuller in the sleeve or skirt. We see hats, scarves, aprons and vests, sashes and loops of beads. They will no longer hide who they are.
We remember what Lijeh said the night before. We know what to expect. In silence we join the crowd by the track. With barely a side glance fingers brush ours; we hold hands with strangers, awaiting what comes next.
And there we stand, hand in hand, a light rain sprinkling on us. A horse whinnies softly. A child sits down on the ground. And we wait. The rain doesn't last long; the sun comes out and shines on the slick, slightly steaming rails. And then the sun slips back into a gray blanket of clouds after stirring up a touch of fog. And we wait.
I feel the vibration in my feet before I actually hear the train, and hear it before I see it, in the quiet, mist-soft morning. At first the sight fills me with memories so bad that I want to rip them right out of my heart, bleed any trace of them away, but no blood stains this engine, no horror or fear.
A wave of emotions does come my way, though: a melancholy of relinquishment. They have only enough fuel left to finish this last journey; they wonder if they even have that. But a brightness starts to glow over the horizon of that shadow on their hearts, for the next journey that will come after the train's demise.
We feel the slowing from some distance. By the time the train rattles into our midst it runs only on residual volition, almost gently nuzzling into the obstructing engine, ceremonially crashing, with the slow scream of metal folding in on metal, seeming to go on forever, each layer a crumpling month of these terrible times, till with a final groan it shudders and is done.
With ringing ears I hear Lijeh faintly, saying, "Georgi always likes his symbolic gestures." I'll assume that that's the conductor.
I hear some neighing and shuffling about within the train itself. I hear soft voices soothing. And then the dawn indeed breaks over the horizon of our long night, as the boxcars fly open, ramps go down, and horse after glorious horse trots down, pulling behind them the most incredible, wonderful bardo wagons that I have ever seen in my life, each one uniquely carved and painted and gilded with love! A sigh surges through our crowd, then the silence shatters into a thousand sparkling greetings and conversations as people hurry forward to claim their new homes, each one designed with a specific family in mind. And I see that they have a few left over, less ornate, blockier, waiting for carving and painting, in case these bands find other lost Romani.
For months their kin down south, in a hidden valley, have labored on these bardos, curving the wood of wheel and arching roof, decorating to specs, training the stout draft horses who pull them. For months they've missed the cousins who went ahead to scout the lands, sending swift individual riders back and forth with messages. Now all has settled down enough for them to hit the road and take up their long-forgotten birthright once again.
And now the sun breaks out from the clouds once more over the rain-jeweled land, and oh how the gold gleams and the bright paint shines and the wind plays with the manes and tails of the big, beautiful horses! And all of our hearts soar at such a blessed, blessed sight after our many months of grief, so much that we can hardly stay in our bodies for joy!
Lijeh leads Ozwald and Dayin to their wagons, showing only rudimentary carving, but bright, one in blue and silver, the other in black, red and gold. He warns them to take care when touching them; apparently they'd only been painted last night. They're smallish bachelor bardos, yet bestowed not just for the year and a day that the boys will travel with the Romany, but for the rest of their lives, if they maintain them, for when they split off on their own.
And I smile and smile as if by the power of my face I could force the sun to shine on the days ahead of me, without Tshura, without Cybil, and without my men.)
I try to hide the sound, but Kiril can feel me crying, when she shares a saddle with me. Ah hell, I think she can feel it even when we don't. I don't even fully understand...but then, why not weep? Somebody has to. Everyone has so locked up their tears that someday they'll all have to erupt like every volcano in the Mountains of Fire going off at once. Or else they already have. Maybe the revolution is one big eruption of pent-up tears.
And Kiril doesn't say a word. She just pats my knee and then leaves her hand there, trembling, doing her part to bottle up all the tears of the world. Lufti smiled even when he died.