IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume V: Sharing Insanity


Chapter 13
Gauging Trust


Thursday,  November 5, 2708, continued

(Zahir never fought a government soldier.  He never faced the tests of fire and blood.  But not all veterans serve on battlefields; I don’t know if I could find his kind of courage in me, all alone out here on the farm that his parents left to him.

“You’ll have to watch your step in these parts,” he tells me as he brushes off the straw-dust and pulls his shirt back on, shivering slightly now that work no longer heats him up.  “Folks have it good here, no real caste to speak of, and they don’t all sympathize with revolution.”  I see that his sleeves show enough fullness for the homespun cloth to let him move comfortably at his work, and so did Ben’s sleeves, come to think of it.  He sees me looking at his shirt and smiles for a second.  “Nobody around here collects fines on the sumptuary laws—no money to collect, no high-born to see and take offense, no budget for police to waste on things like that.”

“What about soldiers?”  Have I left them behind at last?

He puts away his pitchfork, not speaking till he fetches the lamp from the barn, and walks with me uphill.  “They come by, sometimes—more and more as time goes on.  Some of the worse lot pick out somebody wearing clothes where they don’t like the cut, and they’ll make an example of him.  They have their fun and then they go away.”  He stops before the two graves.  “People around here say let it go, lie low and they’ll pass through without remark.  Most soldiers understand the realities out here.”

I’d be a fool if I didn’t see the meaning in his gaze upon those graves.  “But your parents...”

“Not everybody survives the fun and games.”  His face looks hard and golden in the lamplight, not quite human, almost...what’s the word I learned?  Illuminated.  Like one of those stars that fill up the sky behind him had come down among us.  “They felt bad about it, they said.  Accidents happen, they said.  They gave me a wad of bills; I still have them somewhere.”  He shrugs, saying, “I can’t read the writing on ‘em, so I don’t know how much.”  Then he scowls straight at me and says, “Some blame the rebels for stirring up trouble—without them the soldiers might not come at all.”

Such fiery eyes!  I feel exactly where my knife rests against my thigh, trying not to look obvious about keeping my hand free for it.  “Do you believe that, Zahir?”

“I dunno,” he says softly, and looks away again.  “No,” he finally says.  “We shouldn’t have such rules in the first place.  We shouldn’t have to think about what if the soldiers come by.  We shouldn’t have to make our own hidden country in the middle of a nation that wants the food we grow but not us, ourselves.”  He lifts his eyes and gazes out over the hills; I follow his look to what I had missed before in the dark: a construction-site on a distant hillside.  “And we can’t stay hidden for long; the rich build manors everywhere.  They have discovered the beauties of the mountainside.  Soon we shall become fashionable.”)

* * *

I hear the new recruit whistle—it’s the only tune we teach somebody that we’re sniffing out, maybe the only tune left that’s safe, if only because we handle it with caution.  I put down the knife I’ve been whetting and nod to Bijal.  He gets up, too, and we head out into the night.  That beard of his has come in so nicely that it almost covers up the scars.  I approve, though, that it doesn’t quite—if the sight doesn’t scare away recruits too fainthearted to serve with us anyway, it will at least teach caution.

The night smells even more like spring than day.  I must still be young; I keep wishing we were sneaking out into the night for something fun.

(Looks like we’ll sneak out just fine.  Pauline finishes stitching Anselmo and bandages him securely while I clean up.  Then I go out to the reception room and stuff some bills into the pocket of the tan-skinned night veterinarian, where we keep him tied up and blindfolded.  “Buy yourself a stiff drink when your shift ends, dear boy, and forget we were ever here.”

“Much obliged,” he says faintly.  Nearby Dalmar spoons activated charcoal slurry, through the bars of a big-dog cage, into Kimba.  Raif urges her to keep swallowing, no matter how much she mislikes the taste, that the sooner she finishes, the sooner he can put her back on the leash and let her out.  I add a few extra bills as payment for a light, fold-up cage we can take with us, so that Kimba can sleep unbound.

“It’s not the first operating room I’ve cleaned,” I assure the vet.  “No one need ever know.  However, if someone should ever be so rude as to mention it to anyone in authority,” and here I rifle noisily through some random papers, “I see your home address, right here on your employment papers.  Now considering, my dear, how easily I subdued you in the first place, you do not want me to have to pay a visit.”

“No Ma’am.”)

I hear the whistle again, this time tentative.  We halt, we hide.  Let them get nervous.  Let them wonder if we’re going to show up at all.  I sit down and make myself comfortable, motioning Bijal to do likewise.  If they go home prematurely, they aren’t the kind we need.

(Pauline comes out and says, “We’re going to need someplace for Anselmo to recuperate, and some way to get him there.”

Unexpectedly, our captive says, “I could help.”

I murmur, “And why would you do that, darling?” as I rest a hand lightly on his shoulder.

“His name.  He’s Latino like me, isn’t he?”

“That’s correct.”

“We take care of our own around here.  You folks seem all right.  Despite everything, I mean.  Or maybe because of it.  You’re doing all this to fix up somebody who’s not one of your own.”

“He’s as much ours as any of the rest,” I inform him, rather stiffly I must say.

“No, really, I caught just a glimpse before you blindfolded me—you’re not all Latino, not even most;  you’re a great big jumbled-up mess.”  My hand digs nails into his shoulder.  “But you’re all right,” he quickly adds.  “You fixed him up when you could have left him to die.  I wouldn’t want any harm come to people who help out Latinos, I don’t care who they are.”

What’s that rustle?  I’m not handling the papers anymore.  Don’t be silly, Zanne.  The place reeks of caged animals—of course you hear rustling!

“I’m going to take a big risk on you,” I say for show, even as I scan him telepathically and find only sincerity.  I lift off the veterinarian’s blindfold and then untie him.  “Let’s talk.”)

I’d like to discuss the routine with Bijal one last time, but silence serves us better.  I have no real reason to doubt that he knows how to manage, anyway—he’s done it and I haven’t.  The contact (meaning me) brings a Captain (meaning Bijal, or whomever one finds handy to promote in a pinch) to the first meeting, wary every step of the way for a betrayal.  My hand strays to my knife; I prefer it to a gun for close combat, and Bijal feels the same.  Captain stays with the new recruits, Contact leaves.  Captain trains them and, if they turn out worthy, initiates them, or leads them to someone else for the honors.  I favor the latter course, myself; something tells me that Cyran could use the company, and I know from personal experience that a journey makes a good way to sort out recruits.  But Bijal has to make the final decision; once I leave the picture it becomes his command.

(Zahir leads me down the hill again, silent for awhile, before glancing at me sideways, and asks, “Did you get supper?”

“We rebels don’t eat supper,” I say, but my mouth waters.

He grins, suddenly, surprisingly.  “Well, I won’t tell your officers.  Come on in, let me fix you something,”  And he opens the door for me.

His home looks dusty but orderly, with lots of carvings on the furniture.  Folks up here in the mountains do that, when they get snowed in, to pass the time.  I sit at the table and the back-support feels just right.

He goes down into the cellar and comes up with a basket full of vegetables and sausage in one hand and two mugs of home brew in the other.  When he sets one mug beside me I say, reluctantly, “I’m not supposed to drink on my mission.”

Zahir just winks and says, “I won’t tell your officers that, either.”  Good beer, the way I like it—thickish and a bit sweet, with just the right touch of bitterness.  As he chops up cabbage and potatoes, I notice that no two legs on the table or the chairs match each other, and I like that just fine.  The food smells so good and warm and homey that I feel downright sleepy with contentment—but not so much that I’d miss that dinner!

He sees me rest my chin on my folded arms.  “I’d offer you a sleep on the couch, tonight, but rats got into it.  I’ve got it ripped up to reupholster, and I’m still collecting hair and feathers to stuff it with.  Barn okay with you?”

“I’ve slept in so many barns that it feels like home.”

“Good, because my bed’s got room for one.”

“So I’m staying the night?”

“Yep.  Benomi says you’ll need some teaching before you go.”  And he checks on whether the frying bits of sausage have released enough grease yet before adding in the vegetables.  “So it’s settled, then.  Ol’ Ben says you never learned to ride a horse.  We’re gonna fix that.”

Funny, I don’t remember telling him that.)

(It’s settled.  When our new friend drives out at dawn, returning a healed horse to his uncle, Anselmo will ride with him, into the nearby farm country.  We’ll be long gone by then.  I’ve told Anselmo, when he gets the chance, to get to a Til embassy, any country, anywhere.  I told him to mention my name, and then ask about his wife and kids.

We, of course, must slip out much, much sooner.  Maury carries Kimba, who actually looks better.  I’ve packed along more activated charcoal with which to dose her nightly for the next couple of days.

Suddenly Raif grabs my arm.  He points down in the weeds.  I don’t like using a flashlight if I can help it; it blinds you to everything outside of its circle, and shows your position from miles away, but I switch one on briefly to see what he points at.  A mottled rat stares back, eyes bright red in the sudden glow.;  Then it scurries away.

“Is that all!” I laugh, shutting off the light and pocketing it again.  “Raif, it was just a...”

“Rat.  I recognize him.  I used to feed him cookies, in the days before we met you, in the old place where Kimba found that teddy-bear.  I don’t like sweets, so I’d give him my share.”

“Are you sure it’s the same one?”

“I recognize the patterns on his fur.  He’s following us.”

I shrug.  “Maybe he’s hoping for more cookies.”)

(I open my eyes in the dark.  I fell asleep beside Gita again, my arm draped over her dry little body, the air thick with dust and her scent.

Am I still George Winsall, Changewright, or am I someone else?  Or something else?  Just now, I think I saw from the eyes of a rat.  Someone flashed a light in my eyes, blinding me.  Somebody with impossibly radiant blonde hair, but I couldn’t make out anything more.  This...person...has some connection with the Lumne Boys.

And I stalk hi...her.  Her.  Because...somebody...has taken a deep interest in all these people.

I suddenly recall that I have dreamed this before, but not with the radiant one.  Maybe I couldn’t see a female before.  I dreamed before of a dark-haired boy feeding me cookies, and the more I ate, the more clearly could I see him.

I turn over, my back to Gita but still comforted by her presence, and snuggle into my pillow.  Whatever the dream or vision or experience, it’s gone now.)

(“Come along, dear,” I say to Raif.  “He’s gone now; there’s nothing we can do about it.  The further we go from here the better.”)

After the fifth forlorn whistle I tap Bijal on the shoulder and we get back to our feet.  “You can do it,” I whisper to him.  “You’re ready.”  He nods, trying to look confident and at that moment I admire his courage for attempting this again.  We stride out into the night with as much command in our carriage as we can muster.  Time to meet our applicants.

* * *

(I spread my blanket out on soft heaps of straw by the horse’s stables.  You know, anybody with eyes to see could figure out that those two fine dappled grays ain’t draft animals.  How could I ever doubt Zahir?  Yan and Yaimis didn’t.

The horses make soft noises as I lay here all muzzy with sleep, blinking at dim shapes in the dark, and I feel safe and warm...yet still I feel the dance in my veins, the dead-dance from the other world.  Something changed forever in me, or maybe the dance just woke me up to changes already there.  I see it all sort of like I’m outside of time looking in, the way that ghosts see things.

I’ve grown up awful fast—will I someday have eyes like Zahir, just another farmer in the distance till you come up close and really look at him?  Or will I go through my life in a hurry and die of old age before I grow a beard?  Or will another twist wait just around the corner to slow me down again?

I think of Zia and her warm milk smell.  I could like a life with smells like that in it, I could settle down into it like settling down into a sweet straw bed.  I could listen to a baby laugh and gurgle, soft and plump upon my knee, and forget all about guns and marching and causes worth blood.  I feel funny tingles deep down just to think of it.

If Kiril and I survive all this, I think I’d like to have that kind of life.  I get along with Kiril—we finish each other’s sentences, sometimes, we know what makes each other laugh, and when we talk of dreams, we recognize the pictures in each other’s sleep.  But there’s something hard and bony about Kiril; I can’t imagine anything about her having to do with babies, and her eyes grow more like Zahir’s every day.)



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