IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume V: Sharing Insanity


Chapter 15
Sacrifices


Friday,  November 6, 2708, continued

The weather warms up, but not so much as to make the humidity unpleasant.  Fragrant, rather, full of young green growth, moss, and the second round of blossoming.  I ought to appreciate it more, and would if I felt better, and if I didn’t need a smoke and maybe another hour of sleep, perhaps with less painful dreams.  But who gets everything?

Today, thanks to those dreams, I can remember precisely the whistle that the twins used to use, its every pitch and plunge and tremulo.  I had no idea that its shrilling contained so much pain!  But never mind that now, pucker up and let it loose, pierce the wall between man and beast with a long and loud warble, and wait...wait...listen for the sound, soft at first, of hooves pounding across the turf...wait...the pounding grows louder and louder and there!  I see them!  A silver-white steed speckled black, and a black stallion blazed in white: they gallop straight for us, beauty in motion of muscle and bone and glossy, shining fur, prepared by someone who knows the whistle, too, for their reins flip loose on empty saddles.

Exactly what we require, delayed as we’ve been, and here it comes, for love of our lost ones in the hour of our need.  Now we can race to our date with men who have no knowledge of our coming, thundering like Valkyries to steal them from this life.  Oh Yan, oh Yaimis!  Thank you, thank you, and thank you again!

(Blood.  The red stones want red blood.)

“We set a fine feast last Wednesday,” I murmur to Betany.  She nods, but then  looks at me, wondering why I’d bring that up now.  “Those horses,” I say, “are dead men’s steeds.”

* * *

 (Smile sleepily, girl!  Don’t let Sarge know that I feel like biting the heads off of those disgustingly fluffy little squirrels cavorting across our path with such insolent cheeriness, because the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed little rats couldn’t care less about my edginess.  Children who nibble on pot-laced cookies don’t get a bad case of the grumpies—only the ones who suddenly quit do.)

Smile bravely at Betany across the gap, as she takes her place on the far slope above the road.  Commanding officers don’t acknowledge hangovers.  Act like it doesn’t hurt in the least to braid my hair as tightly as possible and coil it so that I can stuff it back in a hood and disguise myself from that trooper who thinks he’s seen me somewhere.  By rights I should just snip it all off; vanity over having never cut my hair in my life (beyond a little trimming of split ends, at Zanne’s insistence) does not become an Agent of the Tilián.  So whoever said I had to be the perfectest agent on the planet?  And dang, but there is some silver in it!  Where’d that come from?

Hide—quick!  Can you almost hear them coming, Betany, on your hill opposite my hill, with the road rising up to cleave a passage in between?  Or do I listen to the double-time march of my own heart beating?  Quick, faster—it may be them!  Hide yourself, like me!

(Act like I fit right in with all the lazily grinning soldiers who don’t notice that they march annoyingly out of step.  See how well I keep my promises, Sarge?  The men so much liked getting special biscuits for breakfast that I outdid myself the second time with some REALLY special biscuits—morale has never been so good.)

I can recall every gesture and caress that the twins used to use on their horses, like some key in my memory has unlocked a secret chamber in my head.  The black horse lies warm and docile beside me under the bushes, my arm around his neck as if we conspire together.  Betany cowers in the foliage, now, with the other horse, on the other side of the road, touching her silver steed exactly as I told her to; now nobody could tell that she’s there but me.  I stroke fur silently and the horse smells so much like Yan and Yaimis that I struggle not to weep.

(I  found Sarge’s cache of buds—the hidden evidence that he’s been making new drugged cookies, out of my sight, keeping the box stocked.  I thought I saw him washing a mixing-bowl in secret, at the last creek, and I know the Dutch oven went missing and then mysteriously returned.

Still, to watch the soldiers, I didn’t expect such a response —just how much have I gotten used to?  I’m sending men to hell for this!)

Men’s clothing feels strange on me; I haven’t worn trousers since I came to this country, so some part of my mind keeps trying to insist that it’s all over, that I’ve made it safe and sound back to Til Institute and everything’s all right.  Dream on, Deirdre!  But a “tall woman” can make an average-sized man when you’ve got as little breast as I do.  Who was that guy gone AWOL at the tavern, anyway, and why does he notice things that others miss?  Has he dreamed of me, the way I sometimes dream of people I have yet to meet?  Or did I just get sloppy?

(Reno doesn’t nod at the reins the way he did before—maybe he’s just a bit more accustomed than the others by now.  Or maybe it’s his curse to always wake up a little more than normal people do.  I hope it saves his life, today.  I shouldn’t, but I do.)

I clearly hear the marching boots now, no doubt about it, coming up over the rise.  I try not to hold my breath.  The steps don’t quite match each other as strictly as they should.  I don’t know how you managed this, Kiril, but well done!  I wait...the sweat trickles down my body where I lie.  This will be the most daring daytime assault I’ve tried yet.  Betany says she can ride a horse, but can either of us match what these steeds expect from comrades lost?

Now I see the troops pass by below us.  The horse stirs at the smell of gunpowder as the munitions cart rolls by, but I pat his neck and calm him down again.  I hope, I pray, that the squeals and groans of the great wooden wheels drown out the twigs that snapped under his flank just now.  Easy...you’ll get battle enough to suit you soon, my friend.

(My neck prickles as the road rises up over a saddle between two overgrown hills—just the sort of place Deirdre would pick for an ambush.  Does Sarge watch for such things?  Or have I made him too happy to notice or care?  Isn’t that the job he wants me to do, more than cooking, to make the troop happy?  Happy and oblivious?   All right, then.)

Can Betany wait for my signal?  She began her bleedings recently and twitches full of impatient new hormonal surges—judgment always gets worse at this age, just when you expect them to know better.

(Do not—I repeat, DO NOT glance to either side, looking for Deirdre or whoever she might have sent.  You know better than that, Kiril.  Do not take the least risk of eye contact, the twitch of recognition.  Half-close your eyes and nod in your seat, and if Reno gets too alert, slump against him till he gives you all his attention.)

There goes the cook’s cart, right in the middle, the safest location.  Do not pass judgment on how fat the child has grown; her labors deserve her pay.  Gladly I let the cart roll by unhurt.  And...isn’t that my tavern Lothario riding beside Kiril?  She seems to have fallen asleep against him—how tenderly he turns to her to rest her head onto his lap.  I shiver at the memory of one evening’s kiss; little moments like that stand out in a life gone mostly hard.  I’m glad he rides in the cook’s cart, far from danger.  I shouldn’t feel that way, but I do.

(I don’t mean to let out a held breath when we get through those two hills, but I do.

“You all right?” Reno asks me.

“Me?  Sure.”  Don’t, Reno; this is not the time to notice too much.

“For a moment there I thought you were wheezing.  You sure you don’t need your medicine?”

I sit up again and rub my eyes.  “Just sighing over a memory about my mother.” That usually shuts the soldiers up.)

More soldiers file by.  The teenagers remind me way too much of my own troop, but then troubled countries always have a low median age—and damn them for it!

How are my own doing, by the way?  I gave Tanjin the scatter and regroup order—with a move this bold, I don’t want them concentrated anywhere that soldiers could hunt them down, not now, beneath the noonday sun.  As long as we pass through this restless territory, we should take advantage of the shelter that the locals give.

Now the medical cart rolls past, and I let it go.  The army might not abide by the Geneva convention where we’re concerned, but revolution is as much a war of ideologies as it is of bullets.  We have to at least make a stab at being better than them.

Now we start to get to the stragglers, as the gaps between men grow wider here and there, fitful irregularities, barely noticeable at first.  Wait...

(Don’t tense up.  Don’t let Reno know I’m waiting for something.  I wish I’d had some of those cookies!  But if I pull any out now Reno’d have reason to wonder.)

Wait...let it get to that nice-sized bunch of stragglers, stumbling along more or less together at the tail end...now!  I let out a loud yip to signal Betany and we leap onto our rising horses to charge straight down on the men faster than they can fumble for their rifles, when we already whip out our own and fire.  My steed rears up and crashes hooves down onto skulls, red spattering bright on the white-blazed chest, as the men scream and the bullets shout, and now the men ahead turn round and fire back but they shoot wide and thank you Kiril for whatever you gave ‘em for breakfast!  We pound away, horses fighting back up the slope with rolling eyes—the men may shoot wide but so many of ‘em blast away all at once!

Betany shrieks horribly and pitches forward, but holds onto her horse as she clutches her side, riding so fast that the blood sprays behind her.  We crash through the forest, twigs flagellating our faces as we leap over roots and duck under boughs and the bullets keep on coming.

“Split up!” I whistle and Betany has the presence to veer off.  Oh God, oh God, grant that her ribs stopped the worst of it, grant that she find shelter with somebody who knows medicine, grant that she live!  I shoot off one last round to draw the soldiers my way.  A horse can’t run so fast in woods this thick, but the men leap through feeling nothing, tearing through cashew-vine like it was ivy—“impaired” can work both ways.

My horse plunges down a steep ravine to splash into the snow-melt creek on the bottom, but cliff climbs steep on the other side; we have no choice but to gallop down the water-course, the spray icy on my legs, right out in the open while soldiers fire from above in the wood’s protection.

My horse screams and rears—I jump clear just in time, leaping from his back to an overhanging bough right before he flounders into the stream, thrashing in his death-throes, kicking up the bloodied water in great, loud splashes while I try to vanish into the woods, but they saw exactly where I went.  Now the soldiers tumble madly into the ravine and I take potshots at a few to slow them, then I swing through branch and vine so swooping-fast I make my own head spin, but no time for vertigo—leap!  And trust your hand’ll meet the bough it needs, and swing out again, let go over empty space before the bending wood can crack under your weight!  Hand and foot touch wood, release, touch again, as I change height and direction at random, dancing in three dimensions like the Lady of the Mast—but did she ever dance around fierce hummingbirds of lead? 

Then come the thick-furred monkeys of the mountain-slopes, oh, blessed fallen comrades!  They screech and scramble crashing through the woods, confusing my trail for me, making their commotion everywhere at once.  Oh brave, brave souls, pay off your debts at last, no cowards any longer nor traitors perished in disgrace, but faithful to this second death.  I watch and hear as monkeys fall thudding to the ground in gouts of penitential blood, squealing as though surprised.  My tears burn the scratches on my face as I believe, I really, truly believe every story that Damien ever told. 

At last I double back in the direction that the army least expects for me to take.  My steed lies still now, a glossy black island that the water rushes all around, and all the creek below him streaks with red.  Today has been a day for the sacrifice of beasts; I hope I’m worth it.  Sorry I had to send you a horse, Yan, but I hope you like the company.



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