IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume V: Sharing Insanity


Chapter 2
An Easing of Tensions


Thursday, October 29, 2708

 

Dear Dogs of the Government:  Congratulations!  We have spared you in honor of Cyran's birthday.  Be happy!  Celebrate!  See you later!  Sincerely, your friendly neighborhood Egalitarian Rebels.

 

(Sarge crumples the paper up and throws it violently into the fire.  I wish I knew what it said.)

* * *

(Relief spreads all through the academy.  You’d think it was somebody’s birthday or something.  Smiles, camaraderie, even the bullies greet us with a smile and a wave.  Nobody else questions why, except we three.  I feel a bounce in my step, a lightening.  I pick Don’s pocket while he waxes earnest about his chances on getting picked for red team over blue, and urges Jake to try out for the same.  “There’s no way Blue could beat the two of us, working in tandem, Jake.”

“You’re forgetting my trick knee.”

Don blinks stupidly while I verrrry quietly ease the rubber snake I’d purloined from him into the coat-collar of a student passing in the opposite direction.  “You have a trick knee?” Don asks.  Hopefully, the lad won’t notice, until he takes off the coat and the snake falls to the ground in a nice imitation of life.  Real snakes do sometimes get in from outside, after all, though they don’t stir much in the fall.

“Oh, that’s right. You were down sick when…when…zzzzzzzzzzz” and he stops cold, sweat beading on his brow.  “When…guys…why can’t I remember?”

I say, “It’s happening again.”  And even as I say it I wonder what I’m talking about.  But I turn to Jake, hold his hand and say, “Talk around it.  You were about to tell Don how you got your knee dislocated.”  I do and I don’t know what he referred to, just now.  I do and I don’t and I do.  I hold a thread, and even though it’s not the same thread, it’s related.

Jake turns a haunted face to Don.  “You were sick,” he says.  “Relapse.  Staying at Merrill’s.”  And he stops.

“I do remember that,” Don says, and shudders.

“And…and…” Jake stops to think, shivering just a little.  “I started to relapse, too.”  He looks at me.  “Randy made me drink a whole bottle of castavín, to knock me out, to dampen the neural overload, and to try and put me beyond Alroy’s reach.  But a vision came through anyway.”  Now he’s gone dead white.

I grip his hand.  “Jake, don’t.  If it hurts you this much, don’t.  We don’t have to remember everything.”

“But this we do,” he insists, and a little color comes back to him, as he firms up.  “I had a vision about you, Don.”

“Okay,” Don says, a little uneasily.  “I’m listening.”

“I knew you would recover that day.  And you’d want to leave.  And we had to stop you.”

Don laughs.  “I wish you had!  That’s the day Alroy’s crowd took me captive.  But then I would never have met…somebody.”  And now he frowns as hard as Jake.  “Why didn’t you?”

“Because Alroy did break through.  He couldn’t stop the vision entirely, but he misdirected it to, to rescuing…”  Again panic starts to pale him.  “I…I…she…SHE!”  He turns to me.  “Randy, who did we send Merrill to rescue?”

I hold the thread.  I make myself follow it, through the labyrinth, my short hair standing on end.  At last I say, “Deirdre.”)

I feel myself named.  I don’t know why, I just do.  Maybe that’s a good omen for the coming recruitment.  Or maybe it means that the new folks will name me, betray me.  Then again, it’s probably just another of my weird notions, popping up, getting in the way.

(“Deirdre?” Don says incredulously.  “Deirdre kneecapped you?”  And we all burst out laughing, the tension relieved.)

So what?  At the first sign of funny business I could always kneecap them or something.  And where did that idea come from?  Shoot them.  We’d have to shoot them.  And my stomach suddenly feels sour, though of course it’s been hours since we ate.

(“No!”  Jake roars with laughter.  “Zanne!  It was Zanne, you numbskull.”  Then we all stop laughing.  “Zanne…” he says thoughtfully.

“Why’d she do that?” Don persists.

“Because I was drunk and out of my mind,” he says rapidly, “but never mind that right now.  Zanne.  Deirdre.  We’re remembering again.  Something stole it from us for awhile.  Deirdre, Zanne, and you, Don Khmi, are engaged to marry Lisa!”

Don looks thunderstruck.  After a long moment, staring off into space, he nods and says, “Yeah.  You’re right.  Yes, I am.”  And the most exquisite yearning washes over his face.  “How could anybody rob me of my Lisa?”

And I find myself asking, “Who is Lisa?”  And Jake slaps me so hard that my neck wrenches.

“Don’t you dare forget the first woman you ever romanced!”  His face has gone white again, livid with fury, even as Don blushes.  Maybe because I could forget him, if I forget her.

Her.

Oh dear God forgive me—and remind me!—of my tender sin!  “Romance” puts it mildly.  Boy-faced, woman-hearted Lisa, tall and lanky, scruffy and practical and yet she can get wholly absorbed into making intricate jewelry that she never wears, that she gives away to friends.  Tough and temperamental collector of wildly delicate fantasies of lampworked glass.  People have called her a bitch, and she laughs and agrees, as loyal as any hound.  Oh my Lisa!

Our Lisa.  Don’s more than mine, now.  And our Zanne, and especially our Deirdre, who has never “romanced” anybody, so far as I know.

A scream interrupts us.  And then laughter.  I shrug.  “Somebody must have found the snake,” I say blandly.

But Jake grips my arm and gives me a little shake.  “Don’t let it distract you,” he says.  “I need you more than anybody to remember our Friendclan sisters.”

I rub my burning cheek, to bring me back to the real.  I find, in my love for Jake, and for Lisa, and paradoxically for God, the strength that I need.  “Don’t worry,” I say.  “I hold onto the thread.”  And he looks puzzled for a moment, and only then do I realize that I’ve never explained to him the private symbol that my mind has found.

George comes up to us, pale but whistling.  And somehow the sound makes me feel snapped, bounced by the thread that I hold—it pangs with a chord that lances through all of us.  George Winsall tries to act casual, but I see shiny tracks down his cheeks.)

Chianti and I hear the new recruits whistle from where we lie in wait, hidden in our pine-needle burrow underneath the resinous undergrowth, and somehow the bird-song pierces me, poignant, lost, a homing-call for children who have killed, a mourning for lost innocence.  I shake my head.  I can’t afford such sentimentality—not anymore.

I glance over at Chianti as she adjusts her eye patch, she who actually graduated from adolescence a year or two ago.  Losing an eye may have spoiled her aim, but Chianti knows more about tactics and strategy than the best books you could find, and she’s a natural leader.  On the signal she runs a quick brush through her glossy, blue-black hair and rises from our shelter to stride towards the whistler: a fortyish farmwife with sleeves wide enough to denote a handsome amount of votes, but skin browned and weathered by hard outdoor work, all the same.  I notice the arm in the sling from here—wounded during her farm’s occupation?  Then let the wounded teach the wounded—she and Chianti have enough in common, status notwithstanding.  I see Chianti take her elder’s good hand, and the two women go off together to plan their role in this war.

(George stops whistling and wipes his face.  “Forgive me.  I shouldn’t fall apart like this.  Tears are womanish things,” he says, then stops a minute, pales even further, then flushes, as he whispers, “Womanish things,” feeling the words in his mouth.  Suddenly he turns to Jake.  “We have things in common,” he blurts.

Jake nods.  “Like resistance to something—something very wrong in this school.”

“I know,” he says, and he takes Jake by the hand as we resume walking, wandering across a lawn in lieu of the sidewalk, which makes the other boys stare, but in a good way—it helps cement our reputation as rule-breakers, even if the wet grass does make our slippers damp and clammy.  “Sometimes I resist, and sometimes…I don’t know.  Sometimes it feels like I think I resist, but struggling pulls me deeper into the snare.”

“Tell me about it,” says Jake.

Suddenly he blurts out, “But I know I did the right thing.  I know it!”  He grips Jake’s hand so hard that I can see the big guy wince.  “Tell me I did the right thing!”

“George, what did you do?”

He opens his mouth, closes it, and then he runs away.)

And then I see them start to run for shelter, as we hear a sound in the distance that might be marching troops, and might just be convicts on the long road to the slave plantations in the lowlands.  I slip back into the woods, to return to my own band, silently, secretly, watching each step lest I crackle a leaf or snap a twig.

I’m going to miss Chianti, I realize.  Idiot!  Why’d you have to learn her name?

 

* * *

(Cyran’s birthday, and I can’t celebrate.  Soldiers won’t buy me a beer every night of the week, after all, even if I had found an inn before it got dark.  As it stands, I wouldn’t mind toasting Cyran with a crust of toast; my belly grumbles over memories of meals gone by as I seek some cubbyhole out of the cold.

I wish it was autumn.  I wish drifts of leaves would give me something to burrow into till the morning warmed me up again.  But I trudge through the dark on the bare and dirty side of spring.  Sure, the new green leaves looked pretty in the sun earlier today, sort of twinkly in the wind, but the flimsy things don’t do me any good right now, and right now they’re full of shadows.

I suppose I could burrow into the mud, if I was a frog.  Yeah, that’d be cool to be a frog—one of those poison frogs.  I could wear bright colors and flaunt who I am—not sneak around like I do now—and nobody’d dare to lay a hand on me.

My way meets a crossroad and another vagabond comes down that road to turn onto the one I walk.  His rags look thinner than mine, but his stout limbs double mine in girth, and he towers over me.  He doesn’t look at me, though; the only way I know that he even notices me is that he has matched steps to mine as we trudge together, his hands in his pockets like mine, trying to keep warm, his eyes cloudy with faraway thoughts, his chin sunk down so that his beard hangs like a dirty pelt upon his chest.

“Lookin’ for my father,” I say, just because I’m lonely.

“Lookin’ for a job.  Know about any hereabouts?”

“Wish I did.”

Long silence before he asks, “So who’s your Papa and what’s he look like?”

“Like me, only bigger,” I say, rehearsed for questions like this.  “Mamma called him Jo, but other people said that that was just his pretend-name, that he was fooling Mamma and had a wife.”

“Doesn’t sound like someone to go looking for,” he says, eyes still ahead on the road.

“Guess not,” I say, “Except Mamma’s dead.  Bad cough.”

He lifts his head a little, if only to nod.  “So you’re all alone in the world, huh?”

I shrug.  “We’ve all got Jesus.”

“I gave up on Jesus a long time ago, son.”  Another long, awkward silence before he breaks it with, “So—you got any ideas about shelter along this road?  I’ve walked all day and don’t feel like walking all night, too.”

“Same here,” I say.  “I think we’ll have to sleep rough—I don’t think there’s an inn for miles around here.”

“So who’s got money for an inn?”

Uh-oh!  “Uh...good point.”

Suddenly he stops and grabs me by the collar.  “You hiding something from me, son?  Like maybe you’ve got some money squirreled away?”  I grab his littlest fingers and pull them back, breaking them, before I even know what I’m doing.

“Damn you!” he cries, hands cradled to his chest.  He lashes a kick to my chest but I grab it and push the foot the way it was going anyway, throwing him off balance.  He skids into the mud and I jump on his stomach before he has time to get up, then, with the wind knocked out of him, I jump on his foot at an angle to break it so he can’t follow, and then I run like the devil claws my tail.

Panting fit to burst my lungs, I take the next turn at random, and the next after that, then skitter up a tree.  Deirdre told me that people tend to forget to check out what’s above eye level.  As I catch my breath, the night air chilling my sweat, I cling to the slippery bough and realize just how deeply Deirdre’s training has sunk into my muscles even more than my brain.  I had no idea I could fend off somebody that big.

I laugh silently and arrange my pack and blankets in the bole of the tree, a weight tumbling of my shoulders.  He won’t come after me, not with that foot.  And here’s as good a lodging as I’ll likely find.)



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