THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
VIII: The Final Conflagration
The Bright Stampede
Tuesday, May 20, 2709
I stare upward at the slats of the ceiling, fanning out from the doorway in this pie-slice of a room, one of many rooms built around a central space. I see landscapes in the grain. I can recognize the folds of the cliffs that I have traveled past over here. Over there I can see the vague shapes hinted at through the fogs of the cloud forest. Over here I see the striations of caves that I have sheltered in. Just beyond my feet I see a pattern of a river spied from aerial height. And over there, in the corner, I can just make out a hint of a steep mountainside leading to a river, but burls in the wood make billows and swirls, sort of like smoke half-hiding the countryside.
Adobe-plastered stone make up the walls. Hooks driven in between the stones hold my poncho, my backpack and my bandoliers. Nobody has restored my rifle to me since Cyran grounded me for life. But nobody has formally mustered me out, either.
Through the doorway I can see a sliver of the great and complicated hearth in the middle of the common area, and noncombatants coming and going to cook the noonday meal there. I can smell potatoes boiling, and somebody chopping onions. And of course more cuy cooks to go with it. The rodents breed quickly in captivity and take up little space, returning a fair bit of protein in exchange for kitchen scraps. Wounded farmer-soldiers, many rendered unfit for battle, or simply deciding that they have paid enough dues under the hail of fire, have stayed on to make this a self-sustaining operation. In fact. Rashid hardly ever has to show up in person at all.
(The cook gets about well on a whittled leg, though not agile enough for guerilla tracks and mountain roads. I feel embarrassed that she gives me a double portion of potatoes and gravy on account of the baby. It reminds me too much of Sarge at the dairy, but the woman has a neutral face, neither judging nor cloying, just following Rashid's instructions.
"Any cravings?" she asks in a matter-of-fact voice.
My face burns. "I just, um, I have this overwhelming desire for something sour and salty."
"Mm. One minute." She turns aside, goes back to a barrel, clomp-step-clomp, and comes back with a dish of pickled cabbage. "This should set you right," she says, setting it on my tray. I start to leave, but she says, "Hold on, missy. You get milk, too. Good for healing bones and making babies, both." She pours me a big mug of milk from an ice-box below the counter and puts it on my tray. "You need help with that tray?"
"I can manage." I brace one side of the tray in my sling and steady it with the other hand.
She nods, smiling her approval. Resourcefulness gets big points in Koboros.
The round room where we eat and hold meetings, surrounded by smaller rooms full of the patients needing special attention, is so big that it needs a tree-trunk pillar in the middle of it. So I don't fully see, at first, the boy wave me over to sit next to him, but he waves a second time as soon as I come around the trunk; he must really want to meet me.
I think he's around my age or a bit younger, but it's hard to tell after what he's been through. He has blonde hair down past his shoulder on one side, but it burned off on the other. His fiery eyes fix on me and won't let me go.
When his foot pushes out the chair for me, I can see that a burning bough with three craggy branch-stumps must have smacked him in the face, missing his eye and mouth but scorching one side of his nose. The scars seem more healed than not by now, shiny with salve, but he's obviously ambulatory; I saw him practicing fighting in the courtyard, earlier, favoring one shoulder a bit, and then doing some stretches to make that shoulder work.
He takes my tray from me so that I can use my free hand to help myself sit down. "Name's Zahir," he says.
"I know. Damien told me you were Lufti's woman."
I pause, then nod slowly. Nobody ever called me that before, not to my face. It feels weird and true.
He hesitates, then says, "This is going to sound strange."
I can't help but smile. "Of course it will, if it's anything to do with Lufti."
He nods solemnly. "I already told the Bard. He said that I should tell you. Better to hear it first from me than a song, he said."
"Well, uh, don't laugh, but I had a dream about him. So did a man I knew called Benomi. Benomi Marst."
"I know that name! Lufti said something about Benomi saving his life. But then it got all garbled up with stuff about Lucinda introducing them, which can't be right, because Lucinda had died by then, of course, so."
"Was she a big, scar-faced woman?" Zahir interrupts, leaning forward and glaring more fiercely than before.
"Yes. Yes she was." I sit back, staring at him.
"She shows up in dreams where Lufti's concerned. Benomi knew her from dreams. So do I, now. I told you this would get strange."
"No, no, it makes sense. Believe me."
"Eat your food before it gets cold. You're carrying a powerful man's child."
I should blush but instead I go pale--I feel the blood rush to my toes. And then it flushes back up to my face. What did Deirdre call Lufti? An orkle? I carry a powerful orkle's child.
After several mouthfuls of shockingly delicious pickled cabbage I say, "Lufti...Lufti was always more than meets the eye," I turn to the potatoes, steaming in their gravy. "Even before he went mad, I think. I sensed something even then."
He takes a hissing breath, then turns away. "I heard about that. He was quite sane when I met him. But that ride." he looks at me again, but this time more drawn in on himself. "I taught him horsemanship for that ride. Does." he pauses, looks away, looks back. "Does that make it my fault?"
I pat his arm and smile at him. "If it is, then you saved lives. His power came from his madness in some way. Anyway, you wanted to tell me about a dream."
"Yeah. That. I found myself in a weird, misty place. Strange, tall plants loomed into sight, then faded out again. Lufti came to me with the scar-faced woman. 'Save the horses!' he shouted, as the woman grabbed me and shook me till I woke up. "
"But it's all that came after that makes the dream important. As soon as I woke I smelled smoke. I ran out and saw a glow behind the slope that backs my ranch. As fast as I could I opened up the barn, scrambled bareback up a horse, and started herding out my animals. I saw Benomi in the distance riding for me in his pajamas. He shouted that the scar-faced woman had come back with Lufti, but his wife wouldn't believe him...and that's when he saw the same glow I did. In seconds we both watched the fire crest the hill and come straight for us. He turned back to get Marta out of the house. I never saw him again."
I see the clench in Zahir's jaw. He's lost too many people. I can feel it in his mind. After a few bites of food he speaks again. "You ever ride bareback?"
"You have to sit forward farther than usual, and steer with your legs. It's...well, it's kind of hard to describe. You have to really, really tune into the horse, lean into him and become one with him. It's not easy even under the best of circumstances." He smiles ruefully and adds, "When guiding a stampede down a mountainside with a wildfire on your tail, it's not the best of circumstances."
"I bet it's not!"
This is about to get even weirder."
"I felt Lufti riding right behind me, on the same horse, about the time that the night got all bright and crazy, full of dancing orange light and spiky shadows jumping all around, smoke billowing between me and the stars, when I didn't dare turn my head to see how close the fire came, so he might have been there as much as anything else, 'cause the whole world seemed unreal. I kept hearing ghosts of whistles in my head, and I just knew that I was supposed to repeat them out loud. I felt like I hadn't woken up at all; I just did as I was told within the logic of the dream.
"When I whistled as loudly as I could in that choking air, two white horses showed up out of nowhere, billowing up through the smoke, almost luminous in the flickering dark like ghosts, themselves. That proved to me that I still hadn't woken up just yet, and I had to solve the problems in this nightmare before it could let go of me. So I just kept whistling to them like shepherds do with sheep-dogs, and the ghost-horses minded the other horses just like dogs would do.
"Still more horses from other farms also joined us till I had a whole herd running together, shaking the earth, sending rocks bouncing down the slopes, all in that wild orange light. I swear I never rode like that before, charging down over banks and boulders and crashing through the woods, leaping fences as the blaze grew brighter and brighter and all heading down, down towards the river, steeper than anyone should ride a horse even slowly, and we galloped ahead of wildfire. Soon the branches scratching me and all the jolts and aches convinced me that I was awake all right, terribly awake. It's a freakin' miracle that none of the horses broke a leg!"
He takes a moment to drink coffee, and I drink milk. Sweet, nutty llama milk! I think he's finished his story, but don't know what to say, so I eat cuy and potatoes.
But he's not done. "See this scar on my face?" he asks.
"Listen to me!" he laughs bitterly. "Of course you see the scar--it's the first thing anybody ever sees about me, now. A burning branch did that, when I turned back to untangle a frightened foal. I heard something falling, looked up, and it smacked me right in the face. If that didn't convince me that I rode in the waking world, nothing would! Burned my shoulder, too. But I had no time for pain--I caught up with the other horses and steered them straight to the river, shining like a river of lava in the fire's glare."
He pauses, staring beyond his dish and cup. "And so there we were, already exhausted, and I was burnt, and we had a river to swim. The nearest bridge stood miles away. But I heard a gruff female voice in my head shout, "Get to it, soldier! This is your test of Fire!" And so help me I plunged in, shivering in shock, choking on the stink of my own singed hair, but I plunged in with one arm around my horse's neck, and the other horses followed. I mean, the air had gotten so thick that I felt like I was drowning anyway. A great burning tree crashed into the river upstream with an explosion of sparks, and it sent flaming bits floating straight towards us, but the river quenched them by the time they reached us. I swear that trunk slowed the flow enough to make it possible for us to cross that river."
He gazes off. "And somehow, Kiril, I knew. I didn't find out for sure till later, but somehow even then I knew that government soldiers had caused that fire, that thousands had died and more would keep on dying, people and animals and trees and everything. Somehow that sank in, in a way that even the deaths of my parents hadn't quite touched completely. So many deaths, so much destruction--maybe it was all a careless game that got out of hand, but there's some things that nobody should play at. And yet I and the horses survived--because I was protected. Because I showed some kindness to a rebel boy, and because I listened to him and his ghost-friend in a dream." He turns to me. "But he was still alive, then, right? He didn't die till recently?"
I nod. "He was still alive. We were up in the mountains, traveling through the Cloudlands, when you must have had that dream."
He crosses himself. "Strange things happen up there. There's reasons why nobody human lives on those plateaus."
"Well, we made it out alive. Maybe because Damien was with us, and he knew how to show respect, or because Lufti could placate anything with a dance, sleeping or awake."
Zahir shudders before going on. "And I made it out alive, too, unless I'm still dreaming even now. I remember feeling land under my feet again. I remember dragging myself up onto the far bank, feeling so cold, I never felt that cold before. And I heard the scar-faced woman shouting, 'All the way up, soldier! There's no backing out now.' So I slogged on, up to the top. And then I must have collapsed."
He turns to look straight at me. "I woke up in a barn. A priest without fingers directed a gimpy man on how to treat my burns."
"Father Man!" I jump to the edge of my seat, nearly toppling my milk, but Zahir catches it. "How is he? Is he." and I stop myself from asking if he's still sane.
"Well enough, all things considered. He's got a servant, now, who looks out for him, which I gather wasn't always the case."
"Well, that's good."
"He's a strange one, though, this priest. I told him that I'd made up my mind, I wanted to join the revolution. And he said that I already had. He told me that I now have an E branded on my face--that stands for Egalitarian. I remember that Lufti had called himself that. Anyway, the priest sent me up to Koboros, with my horses carrying wounded, rebels and farmers alike. He said that he'd been waiting for me to bring them. So here I am."