IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
Wednesday, October 14, 2708
Gently I peel back the blankets in which we’ve wrapped my patient, to check her wound, close to the brazier’s warming coals. (“Catch up, Reno—gawd, soldier, how many times do I have to kick your tail back into line?)
“Hush,” I tell her as I wash the hole out with my balsamic antiseptic. “Save your name for the bards.” She winces against the sting.
I stop right there. “General Aliso?”
“Yes...on the move...” She fumbles after the gory clothes that she arrived in. I scoot them closer for her, so that she can reach into a pocket sewn inside her skirt. I help her extract a blood-soaked piece of paper. “‘Sall there...” she gasps. “Can’t...read...” Neither can I, now—not this water-soluble ink.
“I got it, honey,” I lie, and kiss her brow. I tape on the new dressing, wrap her back up tight and lay her back on the packs and bedding that keep her propped up with a big space left to spare her wound. (“The whole army ain’t here to prop you up, Reno—keep your end up or you’ll be seeing KP duty again tonight.”) We’ll have to get her back to Rashid somehow, if she’s going to survive—those bone splinters could break through at any time.
I leave in search of hard-to-find herbs—herbs that few should know about. Bijal’s experience tells me that they must grow in the vicinity, but either one alone does no good—you have to know precisely how to combine them. Maybe I shouldn’t even give them to her; they might depress her already struggling respiratory system. But I should keep them handy for the relief of other soldiers.
(No relief among these soldiers! No relief, no relief, just the sound of marching pounding in my headache till I want to scream!
“Reno, you’re falling behind again!)
Thursday, October 15, 2708
I watch her leave on our last llama, with two escorts from our force picking their way back to the hospital that just discharged them. She called herself Messenger Girl; she never gave me any other name. I’m not that clear on the couple who escort her, either; I wouldn’t know what to chip on a tombstone if they died at my side. This is good, as it should be, and it hurts like bone needles in my chest; I hardly dare to breathe as I watch them disappear behind a hill.
I take my time walking back to the farm that hides us. Why shouldn’t I, just for a few moments, appreciate the poignant beauty of the Charadocian mountains in spring? Isn’t every nodding flower as real as a gush of blood or an explosion of gunpowder? Hungrily I gaze out at the peaceful hills beyond, greening up with spring, glinting with
I run zigzag like a rabbit, nowhere near the barn as the rifles strafe where they thought I’d be. I dive panting behind a tree that feels too thin to hide me just as bullets pound into the trunk as fast as my heart. Gasp. Gasp. Gasp. I did leave a trail, after all! How clear? How direct? Gasp. Gasp.
Those bullets could chew right through the barn’s plank walls—they must not know that anybody hides in there. Dare I whistle the “Stay put!” signal to the children? What if these soldier come from Lyanfa? Or they might be Aliso’s personal guard, to have so doggedly pursued Messenger Girl for what she knew. And that could also leave them informed of more than the average soldier.
Can’t risk it. The kids’ll figure out to lie low on their own. In the meantime I’ve got to lure those snipers as far from my young as possible.
I’ve got a trace of levitation ability without my magentine, just enough to boost me in a scramble up the tree without jarring the branches too noticeably, enough to offset my weight on the thinner boughs. Now I tremble in the bole, with nothing between me and guns except a screen of twigs and thin spring leaves. Swiftly, teeth chattering over my caution, I scurry from one bough to the next, gliding in place with my heart in my mouth, till I reach a point some ways away from my first spot, where I drift silently down behind the next trunk, swing around it, and shoot at those who shot at me.
Up again! Quick! Quick! Farther! More distance than a normal person could make without my gifts. Down, shoot again, skip up the trunk, move on, make the forest seem thick with rebels. And there is nothing, nothing in this gift of lightness that I have, to keep a bullet from my flesh—oh God, why didn’t You gift me with an impenetrable hide?
Forward again. Drop, shoot, slip up the tree, double back a bit so I don’t form too obvious a pattern, drop, shoot, rise, forward some more. That’s it...come on this way, you monsters...come on...come on...the barn drops out of sight as I run out of ammunition.
That doesn’t let me off the hook. The next time I drop I run noisily through foliage before flitting up the trunks again, going over to one side a bit, dropping again to make a fleeing noise once more. And again, a little over on the other side, but always further on. I throw branches and stones to make the retreat sound wider, as all the time the bullets sear through the branches towards me.
I begin to enjoy the fear, the weaving in and out from the path of thundering death, the bullets that whiz by so close that sometimes I feel their heat and wind. Holding back the heart-pounding hysteria builds up an almost sexual tension till my veins could explode with all the adrenaline simmering through them. It’s sick, this joy. It’s that or go mad.
But I can’t do this forever. One last time I glide up a trunk and crouch in a bole high overhead, stilling my breath, making no move, listening and watching as the soldiers jog on past below my feet, in search of a rebel army that has mysteriously vanished into the forest. Finally they go far enough afield that I can gulp for all the air that I starve for, sinking down to curl up in the bole like a nest indeed, falling suddenly into an exhausted sleep.
(“We’re out of dish soap,” Minerva says, tossing the empty bottle into recycling.
“How can we be out of dish soap?” Cybil wails. “Tshura just bought some!”
“Well, don’t shoot the messenger.” Minerva leans back against the sink, eyeing Cybil haughtily.
“We can’t be!”
Pauline drawls, “You act as if we were in surgery and you just discovered we’d run out of blood. It’s only soap, Cybil.”
“It’s, it’s sanitation! It’s purity. We can scrub the guilt right off the plate, we can...you!” She wheels on Ozwald. “ It was you!”
“Me? What?” The blonde kid stares at her, his one eye wide and confused.
She chatters almost as fast as my friendclan can. “You poured it all down the sink—you don’t want to do your share! You want to get out of doing dishes! And now they’re going to stink and we’ll all get sick from eating off of dirty d...”
“What? NO! It’s not even my turn.”
“Then it must’ve been Tshura. She never even bought the soap. She just pocketed the money and...” Suddenly she lunges for Tshura, but Guaril and I grab her before anybody gets hurt.
“Sure, blame it on the Gypsies,” Guaril snarls.
I clap a hand over Cybil’s mouth before she can say anything more to regret later, as we wrestle her over to the couch. “These crowded conditions are going to stir up every prejudice we’ve got. Nobody’s immune, Guaril. Didn’t you call me a “greedy gadje” this morning when I beat you to the last dab of rubyberry jelly?”
“That wasn’t prejudice, that was just plain truth.”
Truth? TRUTH? I leap away from Cybil, shouting, “How dare you blaspheme my religion!” For an instant everything looks red. Then I grip myself, suddenly dizzy. “Wait a minute. I’m the blasphemer. I-I stole the Gates of Knowledge, I violated the shrine-pool, I...” My hand creeps towards my throat, my grip tightens, everything starts to fade...and then I feel Cybil’s soft touch, pulling away my weakened arm. How can her eyes look wild and sympathetic at the same time? She and Guaril steer my collapse to a mattress on the floor.
Softly she says, “We’re all going crazy, aren’t we? Just like the people who drove us out. We’ve caught the craziness.” I reach up and hug her, trembling all over.
“It is all illusion,” Jameel says in a soothing voice. “It’s all just an illusion.” He sits down into lotus position on the floor beside us. “Now, everybody join me in a deep breath, in...out...in...out...”step by step he guides us all through his meditation practice until the madness fades.
Shon says, “I saw Tshura come back with dish soap and everything else she went to buy. And I saw the receipt—she didn’t steal it.”
“You checked?” Tshura cries.
“Easy, everyone,” Jameel says. “Find your centers again.”
“I checked because I’m the accountant. I’m just saying...”
“Because people might think...thank you very much!”
“Your centers,” Jameel pleads, looking less centered by the minute.
Everybody starts talking at once, till I jump up on a chair and shout “SCANDAL!” Sudden silence drops as they all stare at me reeling there precariously, still dizzy from half-strangling myself. People always shut up when they hear the word “scandal.”
“Listen to me,” I tell them, steadying myself on the chair’s back. “Please. We all know that we’re dealing with an epidemic of mental instability. But that gives us an advantage—we know! We, we can fight this.” I can fight this. “Now, think logically. We ran out of dish soap quickly because there’s so many of us.” Why does this seem so difficult to realize, even with my enhanced brain? Oh yeah—epidemic. Impaired thinking. Focus. “We can wash the dishes in baking soda for tonight, and then get some more soap in the morning.”
Dalmar steps next to my chair and addresses the room. “Listen to me. I’m working on a theory. Who had rubyberry jelly on their toast?”
I raise my hand. So does Cybil, Jameel, Bela and Tshura. Guaril drawls, “Zanne and Cybil had double helpings. It ran out before my turn.”
Dalmar says, “Lucky you, Guaril.”
Anselmo raises his hand. “I just remembered. I had some, too.” With a wry smile the old mechanic says, “You know, I was kind of wondering why I had visions this morning. I’m not exactly a saint.” Laughter breaks the tension.
Dalmar says, “Now, you six who had some, drink plenty of fluids, and then take a nap. And let’s not buy anything more of that brand.”
Of course. How simple. Rubyberry jelly. Or...what? “Come on,” I say, “ let’s clean up together, and then we can all have a nice, long sleep.”
Pauline nods. “Sleep repairs the brain.” It sounds sooo good, to curl up and pull the blanket over my head, making the nasty world go away, that I want to head straight for bed right this minute. Instead I force myself into the kitchen to help.)
It seems but a minute later that I open my eyes to sun shining through the bright, pale leaves of spring. I lie there a moment, breathing the blossom-scented air, listening to birds that give no signals but their own. The sun has changed angle, approaching close to noon. I sit up, stiff from curling up in a cramped, hard space, and think of what I’ve seen.
That glint that gave me warning—they’re not bluing their rifles the way they should. Discipline’s gone slack. Their morale is down. Does that mean we’re winning? Gaining ground at least. It also means that I must remember to pick up some bluing, myself, at the next opportunity—we can’t have our own weapons glinting like diamonds in the sun. Tricky business, though, with gun ownership being illegal. Maybe Kiril can steal us some. Maybe the soldiers won’t even notice it’s gone.
Wearily I climb down and make my way back to the farm, taking far more care than before not to leave a trail. At least I’m not on the run this time, with a girl strapped to my back. The kids must worry about me by now. I know Tanjin will.
(Privately I ask, “Just out of curiosity, Anselmo, what did you see in your vision?”
He turns grave eyes to me. “A woman in stone.”
“A sculpture? And what did...”
“No. In the stone. In it like it was atmosphere. That wall, right there, became solid rock and I saw her in it, with her back to us...but turning.”)