IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
The Big One
Monday, September 28, 2708
We must press our advantage, keep the fear up at a crazy pitch and give the enemy no respite. Tonight seems ripe to haunt a man with a guilty conscience, what with the wind moaning in the trees like that. So a gaunt, hollow-voiced girl named Betany (who knows how to read!) worms her way completely into the tent that the luck-doll guards, to whisper the name that she read by moonlight, embroidered on his pack, till he whimpers in his sleep. Next, her escape-route planned ahead by whistles with Kiril, she drags a frozen feather gently across his brow and ducks out fast. Screams confirm that I have pictured everything exactly as it happens.
Kiril has to hide her in among the tins and bags for hours before the commotion dies down, but homely little Betany comes back to us licking jelly off her lips and looking quite pleased with herself. She tells me that Kiril’s got it made. She also tells me how she snapped the head off the luck-doll right before going in.
* * *
(“Wallace,” a high voice whispers. “Walllllace.” I did not hear that. “Wallace, honey, can you hear me?” No. I do not hear you. I will never hear you again. “Let’s play pirate!”
“NO ! NO! NO! NO! NO!” I flail out of my bedding, waking myself up with my own shouting. I find myself safely in the Academy after all. Only a dream. No ghost would dare to set an ectomorphic foot in this respectable establishment.)
Tuesday, September 29, 2708
It takes a certain doing to parallel the movements of the troop without being found. We glide silently through the woods (mercifully growing denser as we descend) not daring to share the road with the army, but we travel light, with only one llama—one with a pelt the color of snow speckled in brown patches like exposed earth or dirt. It does help that the army moves with creaking carts and bellowing oxen, their boots tramping like an orchestra of drums, so that they miss our small sounds in their own cacophony. They smell their own tobacco and cooking fires and cattle and their imperfectly bathed selves and don’t catch our scent upon the wind. They march eyes forward on the road, and if they cast a nervous glance to either side, they don’t know how to look for us. They must feel exposed out on the open road, knowing that we’re not.
Still, we’ve got a ways to go before we can pare our numbers down to the few that I prefer for guerilla work. We need to work harder at seeding this countryside with new rebel cells. And I need to give thought on how to get messages back to Cyran about our compromised security—but how do you spread a whole new code among forces as irregular as ours?
* * *
(I put on) (my lipstick,)(battle-red) (with a touch of wine)(of course,) (better for blondes.) (Which of course Randy reminds me, at every opportunity.) (Which of course nobody in this tasteless country ever taught me—I had to go abroad to learn a proper color sense—I am surrounded by savages!) (I am surrounded by the most inane bureaucrats and cattle that I have ever imagined! They don’t even know how to be properly corrupt.) (Sometimes I hate the Charadoc!) (Yet sometimes I love Vanikke.) (So why not be a savage for real?) (So why not herd the poor dears onto the best cow-track possible for them?)
(Tomorrow’s) (the Big)(Event.) (Tomorrow) (I finally) (get to meet Arigo Vosca, the President of Vanikke.) (get to spring the trap long in the planning.) (And Merrill) (And the army) (will have to see) (the worth) (of his) (of their) (pet) (blonde) (playmate!)
Wednesday, September 30, 2708
(Now comes the big one.) (Now comes the big one.) Now comes the big one. I’m going to need especial alertness and vigor, under the weather or not. So just this once I let myself chew half a leaf, savoring the bitterness and the tingle in my mouth, feeling a flush of happiness and confidence warm me like a smile from an old friend. And the weariness just melts away.
Lamp fuel, huh? Well we can light a lamp that’ll shine clear to Sargeddohl! I chuckle inside just to imagine the pretty sight.
(I chuckle inside just to think of the power, the sheer power of those three someday bound to me. And I know those pretty stones in Don’s rings are no mere garnets.
It will take more than the usual to rope them securely. Rats won’t do. I must make the strongest preparation that I know.)
(I chuckle sadly at his hope, the sheer stupidity of his hope, to think that I could ever save anybody with a stomach wound. I hold back my envy as he sips the tea of oblivion. Not this time for me, not yet. I must make the best prep that I can.)
We can pick around the patches of snow at this altitude, yet the ground remains too frozen between to make much of footprints. We have colored our clothing and our faces in burnt bone and grease; we smell like fire before the first flame leaps. The moon swells towards the full, brilliant on the drifts, making us look all the darker in the shadowy paths between. But I seek a hotter light.
(I paint my face, black and white, with old, rancid greasepaint, purloined from behind the locked doors of the closed-down drama department. Finally, when I grin at the mirror, a skull grins back.)
(I wash my hands three times in the icy water, waiting for him to go under. Finally, when I see him go completely slack, I paint Daba’oth’s wound and all the swollen belly around it with the pungency of Akhbar’s Ox Ointment.)
Upon my cue we circle, and counter-circle, and then surround the base from all sides, so that they will never quite know which direction we came from, or where we fled. No one can move as silently as a guerilla child, so small and thin as to scarce leave a mark upon the ground. We don’t dodge this time; Tanjin and I and a few other tall ones slip up behind each guard with garrotes woven from our own hair, to strangle each outcry before it can shear through the night. I wrestle my man down just long enough to slit his throat with the razor that I already grip in one hand to end it quickly. Less thumping around on the ground, that way. I don’t ask how the others do their jobs.
I shake with weariness from just that job alone, and the evening has hardly begun. I wonder if maybe, just this once...and as it so happens, I discover, I happen to have half a leaf in my pocket. Now how convenient is that?
(And then I…) (And then I…) (Plunge) (in) (the) (bbllaaddee)
And I suddenly feel the ground shudder under me. I hold my breath for a moment. But it’s only a little quake, typical of the region, enough to leave me shaken, enough to disturb the dreams of troubled sleepers but not quite wake them up.
(I can’t quite wake up, but I can feel it, I know that I dream, and that this is not just my own dream, but everybody’s dream, and everybody’s reality, and everybody’s tale and truth.)
One by one we whistle the “Ready!” in calls of birds that actually do sing at night at the beginning of spring, though not quite so early this high up in the mountains; our foes come from the lowlands and wouldn’t know that, and if any Purple Mantle marches with them, he’s kept silent on so much already that he must not prize this company. We move into the uneasily sleeping camp, as edgy as the insomniacs who toss blindly inside their tents, more quiet than any nightmare, and each of us bears a gun. Every one of us makes careful note as to which tent has the cook-fire beside it; we won’t shoot there. I feel the tension build up a thrill inside me as exciting as greenfire, like fear has become my friend and wants to come out and play. (Oh wait...I did chew it, didn’t I? Yet only half a leaf.)
(I feel the thrill of this thing, this terrible, liberating thing that I have done! And the thunder, oh how the thunder laughs!)
(I feel a sudden thrill, a sense that this time, this one time, the surgery will succeed! Some power surges through me, something…)
(I feel a thrill of fear—he did it again! He tore the hole a little wider…to…to…to make room. For?
I cannot see who for.)
We have feasted on the carrots and the dark gold yams that Kiril brought us, the vitamin-A-rich gift of the mountains, that fights snow-blindness and sharpens eyes in the night. We mark which tent has the buckets beside it, already filled with snow. I give a gesture in the moonlight; we steal those glinting buckets first of all. Now, as one by one my soldiers slip back into hidden corners here and there throughout the camp, permeating every quarter, the time has come for me to do the honors.
I choose my hiding-place well, behind two trees grown close together right in the midst of their camp. Someone has hung a shaving-mirror and a towel off a handy branch. I slip the barrel of my gun between the trunks, I light my Molotov and send it sailing in a swirl of sparks towards the tent. The fuse lights the canvas before the bottle bursts...I wait, emotion flaming higher with each leap of light as I begin to hear sleepy voices, murmur, “What the hell...?”
EXPLOSION! EXPLOSION! EXPLOSIONEXPLOSIONEXPLOSION! All the fuel goes off at once, a fireball that swallows tents nearby, beating my face with heat. Men run swearing, screaming, out into confusion, barefoot on the frozen ground. We pick them off as they scramble for buckets that aren’t there, trying to figure out how to put the fire out.
“No, over there!”
“They’re everywhere!” I keep my laughter silent as I pick off my man, then retreat as fast as I can. I gave strict orders for each to shoot one foe, no more than that, and then skip out as fast as possible. I run like crazy, zigzagging at the wild shots around me, but the bleary men don’t know which way to concentrate their gunfire.
One stands before me, grim, unshaven, raising his gun—I dive! I shoot while I roll, I miss, so does he, but then the night drives him mad and he charges me bodily, knocking my gun aside and forgetting his own. We grapple in firelight and shade, groping for each other’s necks and I grin right into his hot breath, a little mad, myself. I knock him against rocks and the blood flies, but not enough to weaken him. He gives as good as he gets. We roll over something hard—a gun! I twist in his arms and loose my own grip long enough to grab up the firearm, bury the barrel in his belly even as his claws in my throat make the firelight dim, then pull the trigger. Hot and wet sprays his life over my body and I feel warm all over, then cold, so cold, as I drop his body and take off for the woods. Okay, so Captain gets two—I make the rules, here.
(I drag the body out into the night, across the rain-washed lawns and pavement of our campus, where the storm cleans all trace away. Nobody moves in the darkness of the waning moon except myself, a glamor hiding me as I go out, as bold as the lightning, the gate parting for me, out into the woods to bury this one alongside the last.
But this time the child twitches, I hear a gasp—he shouldn’t gasp. I thrust the shovel into the wound and push, push with all the weight in my body, till at last the head severs completely. I stand there panting for a moment, really and truly terrified, and then I dig the grave.)
(It didn’t work. He has stopped breathing, like all the others, and no pulse stirs in the neck. I sigh, turn to clean my scalpel, and then hear a gasp behind me. I drop the knife and dive to his side. He lives! Daba’oth lives after all!)
I dive into a wash, bullets at my tail, panting hard, my heartbeats laughing for me. Oh man, oh man, this feels exactly like greenfire in my veins. I can still hear the cries and confusion and...oh Lord, the cattle just broke their stockade again in panic! I curl up around strangled chuckles, at all that ridiculous mooing out there, on top of everything else.“Kiril? Kiril?” I hear men call, and I stop laughing. “Where’s the child? Is she all right?” “There! Oh thank God—thank God you’re safe!” I watch my bonfire light the sky, I listen to it crackle, loud over the distance. I sure wish human beings didn’t have so damned much in common.