IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume IV: Braided Paths


Chapter 21

Your Presence is Known


Saturday, September 12, 2708

We move towards drier, stonier land again, but I won’t leave a trail in the scant dust of snow if I time it just right, allowing enough bitter night hours to fill my footprints in again with frost.

This troop, a patchwork of several companies with different color tents (pulled together, I gather, by an officer doing far more than his rank) doesn’t rate jeeps.  Not very efficient in snow country, when you have to haul carts of fodder to fuel the oxen, along with everything else.  Not that this leaves me nothing to sabotage...

I find the pen easily by smell in the dark.  Maybe I don’t need to give up the tobacco just yet.  Big, docile brutes huddle together for warmth, shoulder to shaggy mountain shoulder.  Shorn of horns and testicles, they blink at me stupidly when I climb in to slit a throat or two.

Easier said than done.  The beasts keep moving out of my way.  I think the bovine brain must contain one of two possible thoughts at any given time: “I like this!” or, “I don’t like this!”  The oxen have clearly placed me in the latter category.  Their eyes roll as they get more and more skittery, and they begin to make loud moans that could call altogether too much attention—I’ve got to cut this short.

So I satisfy myself with a few quick pricks of the knife to stampede them all against one fence that can’t stand the combined weight thrown at it, and so send them bawling off to carry their excitement to the sleeping soldiers.  I slink away in the opposite direction, catching a glimpse of the first tents trampled before I can safely duck out of sight, suppressing giggles.

A pity.  I had looked forward to slicing myself a nice bit of beef tongue before leaving the carcass for the troops to find in the morning.  But this outcome turns out more effective, actually.

(Bellows burst the night, with pounding, pounding, louder and LOUDER!  I run from my tent and scream at the sight of all these mad beasts running straight at me!

But arms swoop around my middle and boost me up into the tree branches before I can catch my breath—I grab quickly, just short of falling.  Then I crouch up there in the needles and the frost, while the trampling chaos surges underneath, thick with the stink of cattle and fear.

“Head ‘em off in the rocks!” I hear Sarge shout.  “Easy...easy...they’re calming down now, don’t rile ‘em up again.”  Gradually the commotion subsides, and Doc checks on the injured.

“Sir, I think you’d better take a look at this.”  I watch Sarge touch an ox’s flank.  I see his finger come back dark with blood.

“Rebels!” he says like a dirty word.  “So that’s who’s terrorizing the countryside with banditry.”  I hope he can’t see me grin up here.  Good ol’ Deirdre!

Sarge helps me back down from the tree.  “Stick close to base, kid,” he tells me.  “Those ‘bandits’ are something altogether worse than we thought.”

Am I really?)

 

Sunday, September 13, 2708

This morning, as expected, Kiril’s birdcall announces, “Your presence is known.”  We make sure we’ve muffled all our gear so that not a single buckle jangles.  After a perfunctory agápé ceremony, we take up our newfound arms, ready to swing them into action at any moment.  Nobody lights up a cigarette, though our nerves whine for nicotine; we gulp deep lungfuls of mountain air and hate it for its freshness.  We take some undyed sheets (picked up in town for this eventuality) and throw them about our shoulders and heads to camouflage us like winter.  Thus we march forth, hushing through a thick, new fall of snow—and here I’d hoped for nothing more than frost!

So we’re known, huh?  That can simplify matters.  We needn’t disguise our sabotage to look like accidents—we don’t have Damien with us to breed superstition in the ranks, anyway.  And we can openly kill.  Let them know the terror of never being sure when or where they’ll find a trooper’s throat slit in the night.  After all, they’ve taken Kiril prisoner.  What else do they deserve?

 

Monday, September 14, 2708

(“Fresh stuff!” I exclaim as Sarge proudly presents me with cabbages—the good purple kind—corn-salad, leeks, and turnips with their frost-bitten greens still on them.  “Where did you get it all?”

“Oh, the army never goes without,” he says while he adds sausages to our store, and corn and potatoes and jams.  “But a good cook deserves good ingredients.”  He opens up a little box; I can smell its aromatic contents before I even look in.

“Caraway seeds!  How in the world did you get your hands on caraway seeds?”

“Now, you can’t serve cabbage without caraway seeds, can you?” he says with a smile.

“I...I don’t know what to say.”

“How about, ‘Lunch is on the way’?”)

(“Lunch is on the way,” Don says with a smile, smelling cabbage and ham—ham smoked right on the premises from homegrown pigs, cabbages grown here, too.  I’ve eaten more than my share of preserved goods—as all agents must—but fresh tastes much, much better!

By the time we reach the cafeteria the food has already been laid out and we sit down to it.  Biscuits, too, with fresh-churned butter—oboy do I love biscuits!  I gobble down mine first of all, then take one from Don’s plate.

“Now wait just one…”

“Hush,” I say, a buttery finger pressed to his lips.  “Isn’t it a big brother’s duty to make sure that his little brother stays well-fed and cared for?”

            Jake just chuckles on my other side, and shakes his head.)

            (We meet over lunch, but Cybil looks nervous, toying with her noodles.  I just enjoy the creamy mushroom sauce and wait her out.  Instead of the carefree patter of normal restaurant conversation, I hear the barest susurration of whispers and murmurs, and no laughter anywhere.

            Not glancing up at me, she says, almost too quietly to hear, “My pastor felt disappointed when I showed up without you yesterday.”

            I take a sip of milk.  “I told you why I couldn’t come.  I can’t afford to identify myself with any specific religion or group.”

            “He says I shouldn’t spend so much time with you.  You’re not one of us”

            I wink.  “Tell him that you’re trying to convert me.  I’ll give you ten minutes at each meeting to pitch your faith to me.  Will that make it okay?”

            Her brows knit, but she nods slowly.  “Maybe.”  Then she looks me in the eye for the first time.  “Zanne, I’ll ask you again.  Who do you worship?”

            “Truth,” I say.  “It’s a complicated religion.”  I don’t tell her that I’m an apostate, banished from my people for sacrilege.

            She frowns.  “Are you a Chapelbodlian, then?  Or is that just a fancy way of saying atheist?”

            “Neither,” I say quietly.  “I wish it were that simple.”)




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