Dolores J. Nurss

Volume VIII: The Final Conflagration

Chapter 33

The Canyon



Friday, May 16, 2709, continued

     Chulan asks, "Is there a canyon up ahead?"
     "Yes," Alysha tells her, and both Cyran and Chulan cross themselves, quick, furtive gestures before anyone else can notice that they hold canyons, passes and cleaving waterfalls sacred. Interesting...so Cyran espouses the Old Religion too? "How did you know?"
     "It's...weird. I guess I could hear the sounds ahead getting a bit echoey or something. It's...it's the sound of water, I think, water echoing off rocks? I...I really don't know how I know it." I close my own eyes and get what she's saying, more strongly because of my altered neurology. It's not just sound; the currents of the air feel different, shaped by the two peaks to either side of the road. But I remind myself that I've come this way before. The road leads right through the canyon.
     "Shhhh," Damien says. "I think I hear something more...soldiers! Marching soldiers and ox carts." He listens more carefully. "They're in the canyon ahead of us!"
     Hekut swallows and asks, "Is there any other path?"
     Quietly Damien says, "No. Not from here, not for miles out of our way. The canyon--and the road--do fork some distance in, though. The more traveled road heads towards a lead-mining town. The soldiers probably head that way; it has a factory for bullets." He grins sourly. "That's how Koboros stayed so well-armed for so long."
     Cyran nods."I know." E smiles at Hekut. "I've come this way many times before." Then e looks thoughtful. "We'll just have to go to ground out of sight, wait them out, then, and hope that they take that fork." E has sounded quite reasonable ever since Hekut lanced hir infection, not so feverish, and e rides by hirself, but e looks ghastly and probably could use the rest. "We'll have to go in a little ways, but then turn off on a small branching that doesn't lead anywhere. It should be safe enough." "
     Which side of the road going in?" I ask.
     "Then we should go single-file as far left as we can squeeze. The sand will be less compacted, there, and should muffle our hooves."
     "Good thinking."
     The ride feels peaceful. My fever's light today, just a bit dreamy, but I can think pretty well. The road's little more than a wide, sandy beach on either side of a trickle of water that probably turns into a river of snow-melt in the spring. The trees that huddle in the canyon's protection still hold onto their golden autumn leaves, punctuated here and there by a few deep green mountain pines, all rustling softly together over the music of the stream. Behind the trees the red and ochre cliffs rise tall, polished-looking from the floods that carved them. I feel safer for them, as they would make it harder for an enemy to surround us, and they don't gape at my feet. I rock in the rhythm of my mule and think of nothing but beauty for awhile.
     Thunderclouds gather, now, but at first it doesn't dim the day. Rather, they make the light in front of them eerily bright and the shadows beneath mysterious. They pile up in an intricate froth of white and blue and gray, shading down to a moody charcoal below, immaculately complicated, and I hear their distant rumbles like the deep muitterings of Mountain Maidens towering over the peaks. For a moment I think that that's what they are; then I blink and realize that they're just clouds.
     Soon Cyran shows us the turn-off. It doesn't take long to run out of room for big, hoofed creatures. But farm animals go feral all the time; no soldiers would remark on them if we take off their tack and let them loose. They're tired, unlikely to wander far in unfamiliar territory, with so much green grass right here beside the sand, and water close at hand. And whatever else you can say about Damien, he knows a tune to call them all back in again.
     Our broken bones make crawling hard for Kiril and I, and Cyan is spent. Khouri's bad teeth don't deter him at all, however, and Chulan can crawl closely behind someone else. Hekut could almost walk in bent over. Damien's better suited for crawling than walking right now anyway, but that doesn't stop him from dragging Kiril in on a blanket, right after Alysha drags Cyran in on another. Then Braulio does the honors for me while I hold on tightly to the cloth with my better hand. It's a bit of a bumpy ride, but also slightly fun, and soon over anyway.
     Soon we find our safe haven, snuggled under some leggier bushes striving after light, with good stone behind us. Leaves crackle under blankets, but few prick through. Is that a tremor in the ground? No, it's in me. But that's okay, I'm lying down, I can afford a bit of a shiver; I'm not likely to fall any farther. We're losing Cyran again, though; when I turn hir way I can see that e looks gray and e breathes in short, quick gasps. I don't feel so good, myself, come to think of it. So Alysha assigns our guards.
     I doze off. I dream of a beautiful, brown, muscular Mountain Maiden, joyfully dancing out thunder in each stomp and pirouette. She laughs out thunder, too, as her head swims in and out of clouds above the mountain peaks. Oblivious, her bare feet smash things to pieces, making ruins of everything we've built, everything we thought we needed, but it's okay, I see new flowering vines rise up out of the rubble to make something better, fairer, carpeting the bland beige bricks with color and leaves and quivering blossoms full of scent.
     I open my eyes to our refuge in the bushes once again. And I can see, through the foliage, the well-made shoes of one of our guards.
     I feel misgivings. I whisper to Alysha, "I can relieve Braulio."
     "Deirdre, you can barely relieve yourself."
     She's got a point, but I try to tune out the wooziness to sit up and say, "Listen to me. I've traveled with Braulio since he became Egalitarian, but I've only ever been able to half-discipline him."
     "Then you should give him a chance to learn how to take a stand without your apron-string to hold him there."
     "That's not it--he's as brave as they come! It's just that he's…" But just then we hear the marching draw nearer, very near indeed. And we freeze like coneys, holding our breath in the brush, hoping that the passing pack won't smell us. Our hearts beat as fast as coneys, too--with excitement. Some say that prey animals love the chase as much as predators, that our instinctive relishing of roller-coasters and scary tales dates back to ancient hominids racing with wild hoots of triumph beyond the lion's jaws. How else survive the stress?
     Louder...louder...I listen to the hoof-falls mingled with the boot-falls, and the creak of oxcart wheels and the thrill builds up, like greenfire, like fear. I shudder harder. I can almost feel the straining of the cattle in the groaning of the wood, under the load of so much leaden ammunition.
     And then the crack of shots fired! More shots follow, the oxen roar with fear, confused men shout and rebels shrill--and I hear Kiril's voice screeching in the din with every jolt of pain when each recoil pounds into her broken arm. To hell with fever--I'm going in!
     "Braulio's trigger-happy," I growl in passing to Alysha as I reel into battle in nauseating heat. And I'm not armed--when did they take my weapons off me? Well, so what? I rip a wire off a crate in the back of a wagon and grab a soldier by his coat, wrap the wire around his neck and pull so tight so fast that he doesn't know what's happening. Kiril speeds his death with a knife to the kidney, having given up on the rifle, her sling loose and her broken arm dangling--I feel the gush upon me, warm and wet. I snatch the knife out again as he groans; I need it. With one hand I stuff it into my belt unsheathed, while the other hand grabs my enemy’s gun--oops, broken hand, shouldn't use, oh well. I run with it.
     No, it's not me shaking--it's the whole damned mountain range! Rocks hurl bouncing down both sides of the canyon, crashing, sparking, pounding onto the heads and backs of the screaming army!
     Cyran shrills out, "Thank you Lufti!" with all the joyful fury of terror, hope, superstition and fever but I believe, too, oh do I believe in our ghosts right now, firing against a force that should have easily overwhelmed our sick and wounded rebels if they weren't all fleeing an earthquake that doesn't frighten us at all--it's our quake, dammit!
     "Oh my God, you're right," Kiril cries. "We buried him in an earthquake fault!" With a loud crack I see a tree topple from a height along with the ledge that her roots had clung to, hurling straight towards people firing at me. Way to go, Lufti--roll in that grave! We lurch on our feet, but we advance--we bloody well advance!
     "Dance, Lufti, dance!" Damien shouts, firing, skipping away from a rockslide, falling, climbing to his feet again.
     Down! Beside this rock, panting for air. Bullets whiz overhead; some send sparks off the granite with a whiff of burnt-rock ozone. I twist around the rock and fire where the bullets came from. I leap to run again. Forward, we’re making progress forward. Oh, and now the storm has decided to get in on the excitement, as if we couldn't make thunder and lightning enough on our own count! Just as well, for the quake has subsided.
     A child falls in his own blood to my right; I can’t see who before I duck behind a tree, just in time. The trunk vibrates against my cheek with the thunk of bullets slamming into it, bark abrading me and I it till sap and blood run together. I fire around the tree, run out of ammunition, and stand there, breathing in gasps, my bad hand throbbing, my knees shaking like a bullet-raddled tree, my head in a full-tilt spin.
     I look to see who fell. Braulio. And I will never, ever know what triggered him this time, why he suddenly chose to shoot the first shot, because even as I watch the boy's eyes glaze over and he lies very, very still, rain trickling down his unmoving face and flattening his curls.
     I hear men scream in the whoosh! of a firebomb going off. One of my proteges had to have made it, thrown it...I always knew this destiny awaited me, to teach new skills to children. No, it was Damien, who knew the ways of explosives before I ever met him, and he didn't even make it anyway, he stole a grenade from the back of a cart. And there he is out there, ignoring hurtling rocks and gunfire alike as he fires off round after uncannily accurate round, drunkenly making no effort to protect himself!
     I scramble out into the gunsights once again, the sweat in rivulets down my chest and sides for the thunderheads that press the air down over us have loosed their volleys on our heads, but the silver dropping in the air also includes ammo. I grab Damien, skidding a little on red mud. I hold on half to propel him to safety, half to steady my own feet, still wobbly even as the ground calms down.
     I watch a bomblet fly, faster than most could see, and skip to the right; the blast throws us the rest of the way, but none of the shrapnel connects. I jolt left to dodge a rock the size of a cauldron. Reflexes, again. Where would I have been without you, Merrill?
     And now the rain really crashes down on us, one of those sudden waterfall-hard storms that wash The Charadoc. Nausea and weakness grow in me; I can’t fight back anymore, only dodge and run with the rain in my eyes till I can shove Damien behind a newly split-off chunk of boulder and then half-faint back there beside him.
     Yet Kiril's still out there, somewhere. I force myself back into the open, shuddering in my own private quake.
     Here! Even as I rise a dark young man looms up to bar my way. I knock the gun from his hand with mine, I club him down. Blood bursts from his skull as I finish with the follow-through. So young; he could have marched with us, almost. Who drafted him to fight against his own?
     A scream tears through my head, a scream and the lightning-bolt of pain so fast I don’t first recognize the sound as mine. I’m hit! I’m hit in the leg. I fall to the ground and lie there cursing in the weeds.
     You idiot, Deirdre! Stopping in your tracks to get sentimental over one person in this whole godforsaken country! When was the last time you did anything so stupid? What good are reflexes that you don’t bother using?
     I look down at my leg, at the metal embedded in my calf. Suddenly I remember Fatima, sheered in half by much more metal than this little sliver. I laugh, then faint a bit, then revive, and try to get back up to my feet, but fall with a cry as soon as I put weight on my leg again.
     “Keep your head down!" Is that Cyran's voice? "Slide the kit over—you don’t have to carry it like a picnic basket!” Bodies jar me as a new burst of fire crackles overhead. “Here, gimme that. Stop the bleeding first—don’t you remember that point she taught us? Here, you little idiot!” A fist drives into my groin as they elevate my leg.
     I open my eyes to the grass, thick and green and crawling with a rainbow of iridescent life. “Never mind that, she’s still losing blood. Make a tournequet. You do remember that much, don't you?” I hear fabric rip as I follow the path of an indigo beetle, waddling up and down stems with the authority of a burgher on far more important business than mere war. I gasp at the constriction on my leg, but just then the beetle crawls up a flower. A flower! Here, untrampled yet, hidden in the grass; I had expected nothing of the kind.
     I hear Hekut cry, “Christ, will you look at the size of that thing!” Actually, it’s not such a big flower, tinier than the tip of my finger, a trumpet of rose with purple lines down the throat. Such exquisite detail.
     “No, leave it in. Pulling out shrapnel that size’d start the bleeding again—duck!” I hear gunfire again, but it seems much further away, now, than the flower and the indigo beetle. The air stinks of gunpowder and blood; I wonder if the flower has a scent, something to drown the rest out? I try to crawl to it, but pain lances me in place.
     “Hold her down! She doesn’t know what she’s doing. Kiril, get Khouri and Damien—we’ve got to scoop ‘n’ haul.”
     "Where?" Kiril hisses.
     "I know a place."
     Hekut says, "Khouri didn't make it. I'll..."
     "No you won't, you're too small."
     I can smell that mixture of chaummin, tobacco and sweat that heralds Damien's arrival. "I can carry her by myself," he says as I seek out the rich riparian scents underneath our human stink. "I've done it before." If only I could get to the flower's perfume!
     "No, you're not steady on your feet."
     "Neither are you, Cyran!"
     They jolt me and I cry out, my leg exploding with fire. My brain, too--I burn, I can't think, I just burn. This time Cyran whispers as they drag me bumping to somewhere shady. “Hold on, Deirdre. The real fun starts when we get that metal out. No, don’t listen to me. We’ll give you something. We’ve got something--don't we, Damien? Can’t have you screaming again, Deir. Hold on.”
     They jolt me again; I shriek and claw the grass. A hand jams something stale and flaky with a moldy, musky redolence in my mouth. “Swallow! Hurry! It should work fast on an empty stomach.” I swallow before I can even choose. "Keep her moving! This way!" But it doesn’t work fast at all, the pain goes on forever as they roll me onto cloaks and drag me out of there, each bump and jerk shooting straight through my leg. I clench my fists and jaws and eyes, trying not to scream, but the tensed up muscles make it worse, the scream fights in my chest to break out, my heartbeat pounding like gunfire...
     ...till the flower opens wide and I shrink down, as tiny as a beetle, to slip into its silky interior, safe and hidden in its fragrance.



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