IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume III: Responsibility


Chapter 41

Blood in the Snow


Thursday, July 16, 2708

"Listen," Cyran says softly.

After a minute I say, "I don't hear anything."

"That's right.  The blizzard has ended."

With a gesture from hir, Marduk and Malcolm untie a window.  While Malcolm puts his shoulder to the shutter to hold it back from spilling too much snow in on us, Marduk reaches around and shoves with all his might, punching and packing with leather-wrapped fists to stabilize the snow till Malcolm can let the shutter swing wide.  Now our dentist crouches beneath the window and lets Marduk stand on his back to continue the tunnel, stoically enduring the snow that falls on him in the process.

Light breaks through, as sudden as a spotlight, but Marduk works a little more.  At last he tumbles back in, puffing with exertion, sweat on his flushed cheeks, pride in the pitch of his grimy head.

 "Deirdre," Cyran says, "You go up.  No one else just yet.  You know what to strap on and what to carry."  I already have the flit unfolded, the children staring at it curiously as I tighten the straps around me.  I suppose they think it some kind of armor.  I take a blowgun from Kiril and slip it into my straps along with a pouch of darts, because I can't risk recoil if I'm going to hunt in flight.  Nobody else could traverse that snow until we can improvise some pine-branch snow-shoes.  I’ll bring the wherewithal on the way back.

Rashid hurries up to smudge around my eyes with a preparation of grease and soot to protect me from the glare.  Rest assured, little healer—I'll make sure you get to keep your mule another day.  I’ll keep an eye out for fodder, too, if I can.  I smile briefly, wondering about the skull-like appearance that this must give me, in a face probably already a bit gaunt.  I give Rashid a thumbs-up and he smiles back.  Then I go out the window.

I don't let Marduk know that I didn’t really need him to pack the snow so hard, and into footholds; others will, when the time comes.  I make climbing motions till my body rises out of sight, then I shoot up into the blinding light that I haven't seen for days, amplified by pure, white snow till only gods could bear it on unshrinking eyes.

But I revel in the third dimension, head and arms thrown back as I spiral upwards, exhilarated again, drinking in too much light as though it could compensate for a lack of food.  My hair streams back behind me and then tumbles into my face as I level out; its blackness protects me like a cloud of night that I carry with me.

I get serious about hunting down some prey.  And as I do, I thank God...no, Merrill...for the neural alteration that enables my eyes to adjust so quickly.  I scan over a sparkling, purified landscape, smoothed out and rounded by crystalline white, searching for the ruptures in the snow that could tell me where an animal has gone.

An hour passes...two...three.  Flight doesn't come of nothing; most psychic gifts burn negligible fractions of calories, no more than thought, but this one eats them up like a winter-starved wolf.  I have to concentrate not to wobble, not to lose my loft and plummet to my death.

Is that...there!  Yes!  Tracks—an entire herd of tracks.  Corries, by the look of them, the little, sure-footed, wild llamas that they say only Mountain Maidens can tame.  Mid-flight I pry my knife from my belt and cut off a long lock of hair, then let it drift down and scatter on the snow, an offering to the mountain, a rich source of nitrogen for the impoverished soil.  Rebels need all the good will we can get; we don't poach from anyone, human or otherwise.

I swoop lower to follow the tracks that weave in and out between the spare mountain trees, now boulder-hemmed, now fanning out over snow-clad meads.  I ride the icy currents of the air, eyes wide with hunger, as though the sight I yearn for could feed me of itself.  Then I whip around a slope, my hair momentarily blinding me again, and...there!

They do not see me.  They cannot hear my flight behind them, and praise God and the Mountain Maidens, the wind blows my scent to stream behind me.  Slowly, carefully, I pull out my blowgun and...

Cough attack!  I nearly plummet from the sky.  My ears ring with the pounding of many hooves before I gain control of my flight again.

No!  They stampede away—don't let them out of sight, you fool!  After them, so fast the air blasts my face like a blowtorch of cold, the once-blessed wind fighting me the whole way.

Too much...faltering...flight ripples...the wind tries to buck me off and I can't fight it anymore...too hungry to fly...blood sugar craaaash...

So dive!  Pounce upon the straggling doe like your life depends on it, for it does, it does!  Cling arms and legs, cling fingers clawed into the wool, pine-branch ribs scratching up blood, wrap arms choking-tight around the neck—and you thought the wind bucked before, Deirdre, so how's this!  Feel it, the dance of life and death as the doe spins and cavorts trying to rid herself of me, dainty feet cutting up the snow, rear and kick and skitter sideways and SLAM! the rider's body against the trees.  And all the while hear the strangled bleats of rage and fear—feel all the crazy animal-thoughts as the world goes wild, up and down and around and around and desperately hold on for dear life while trying to free the knife-hand that can end all this.

She weakens...she weakens...got the knife!  So end it!  End it!  Feel her sag beneath me as though my own legs buckle under the weight of two and the loss of blood...twist to take the hot gush in the mouth, gulp down the savory protein drink, quick, before I faint...

...faint...

...I come to myself sprawled on the hot and woolly back of a fresh-dead animal while the snow falls softly all around, blood all over me but satiation warm inside me.  I sit up groggily and wipe my mouth.  Just look at all that pink snow.  It’s all just so...real.

I engaged in no act of war here.  Nor did I murder.  I did what I had to do and the corries know the game.  This time I won.  I and my cubs won't go hungry tonight.  And the herd runs with one less doe, stronger for the culling of the lame.  And the mountain gets good nitrogen and phosphorus when all that pink snow melts.  Someday my own turn will come, and I will pay back to the planet every particle that I’ve borrowed through the years.

Now where the devil did I drop the blowgun, anyway?

* * *

(Don takes long steps, but I’m used to keeping up with Jake, so it’s not a problem, really, walking through the chilly campus with him, stepping through a whole forest of statuary, trying to remember which ones are illusions, and which have always been here.

I start at the sight of red splashed upon the snowy bosom of a marble statue.  I touch it—no stickiness; it’s not really there.  “Some illusionist has a sick imagination,” I say.  Don doesn’t seem to notice; his brow furrows over something else entirely.

“They won’t have Lisa,” he tells me.  “The letter arrived yesterday.  Not much explanation, just that even in disguise she would be inappropriate for a boy’s school, and they couldn’t allow it.”

“I see,” I say.  “Well, look on the bright side: it means that you two can marry that much sooner.”

“Why?” Don asks.  And I glare at him. “I’m still going on the mission, Randy.  Somebody’s got to sail you two to Toulin.”

“We both know how to sail,” I grate.

He stares at me, perplexed.  “You sound angry, Randy.  I thought you’d be glad that you could count on me.”

I can’t keep my voice down.  “And what about Lisa counting on you?  You just proposed, man!”

“Oh, she understands,” he says with a shrug.  “It’s all right—she said so this morning.”  And I wince, thinking of what it must have cost her to say that, after…the night before.

          There’s no point in arguing.  I do feel glad, on one level, to have Don come with us.  But…men!  Can’t he see just how not all right her “understanding” is?)

 

Saturday, July 18, 2708

The march halts in its track, gathered around Rashid as he stands there helplessly, staring at the floundering mule, watching the futile kicking at the snow as the animal tries to get up.  That's all we can hear, the weak braying and the thrashing limbs.

"He's suffering," Cyran says, softly but firmly.  "We have nothing to feed him, and spare nibbles of bark and needles don’t help."

"I know," says the boy and slowly, slowly, he unsheathes his knife.  A few stiff steps, a topple to the knees by the miserable beast, and then he takes the great head into his arms and sobs over it.  For awhile we think that he won't be able to do it, and who can blame him?  But just as Marduk steps forward to take over, Rashid steadies his hand and performs the necessary surgery, opening the throat; bright red gushes the blood, steaming as it sinks into the snow.

Then, determined, he unbuckles the pack with gory fingers.  Cyran gives orders to distribute medical supplies among all our baggage, except for those very sensitive compounds that one should trust only to the dispensation of a medic.  But luxuries have to go.

Rashid knows this without being told.  He cleans his hands in the only way available, till they turn raw with cold.  He unfurls his precious tent and takes the same knife, cleaned with stabs into snow and wiped on the dead mule's back, and he starts to hack away at threads, separating off prayer cloths for all of us as the tears frost on his face.  Then he surrenders the freed canvas for Cyran to do with as e sees fit.  It promptly reinforces several worn boots, and strengthens the packs of those who had not gone through the rich man’s manor on the way, with enough dry tatters left for tinder.

I never told anybody, but I've still got my St. Luke prayer-cloth that the nuns gave me; I had it in my pocket when the brothel burned down.  I take it to him now and give it to him, more medic than I'll ever be.   I wipe the frost from his face with it, and salve the skin beneath.  He accepts my help stoically, except for his shivering.

I receive from him, in exchange, my choice of his store: the ecstatic visage of St. Teresa of vila.  I hold it, trembling in my hand, as I try not to cry, myself, knowing how the cold would punish me if I did.  St. Teresa, patron of levitators, and of poor Sister Fatima, God rest her troubled soul.

Then my stomach growls at the smell of all that blood.  I hate my body for rejoicing that soon we shall have meat.

(St. Joshua!  You hardly ever get a prayer cloth for St. Joshua, patron saint of spies.  I stroke its silkiness—what a gift!

And maybe I should give it back.  Somebody could kill me if they find this on me.

No, I tuck it deep inside my shirt.  If anybody catches me, then St. Joshua isn’t doing his job.

But…if this came from the medic’s tent, then somebody already died carrying it.  Who else but another of Cyran’s spies?

Maybe the other spy died of a disease, or a climbing injury, or some other cause having nothing to do with his profession—something out of Joshua’s jurisdiction?  Or maybe he led a sinful life.  They do say that every venial sin is a blow to your guardian angel, and your mortal sins stab him in the heart, so that the angel becomes helpless, can’t resurrect to save you till you go to confession.  Maybe it’s the same with patron saints—the worse we live the weaker they get for our aid.

Or maybe it’s just not safe to carry this thing.)

While Marduk butchers the mule (and precious little meat left on it, I see) I notice Shermio offer the prayer-cloth he just got to Cyran.  “Here.  You need this more than me.  May it draw to you all the intel you can use.”

Cyran smiles, but when e looks at the cloth e winces, and hands it back.  Then e tries to smile again.

“No, go ahead, Shermio.  It’s a rare find; I can’t take this from you.”

(Damn!)

          (My brother carries just such a cloth, or used to.  How could I tell anyone that I can’t stand anything that reminds me of him?)



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