IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume V: Sharing Insanity


Chapter 17
On the Trail of Fear


 Friday, November 6, 2708, continued

(Even with the thinning leaves, this band of woods seems to make a good place to hide for awhile, on our way to at least one node of Vanikke’s troubles: the cookie factory that poisoned our child.  Dense brambles cup the area on two sides.  Ah, feral berries from the long-lost Earth: an irascible friend in temperate zones wherever humankind has gone.  It brings back fond memories of berry-washing my hair in Duerlongh, so that a lavender tinge would counteract the blonde and make my hair look moonlit white—such a useful annoyance of an invasive species.

 I climb up in a tree to keep watch, while Ozwald and Guaril peel potatoes below me; I’d have eaten them skins-on and relished every mouthful, but all the many kinds of Vanikketans agree on how uncivilized that would be; let them get hungrier before I push it.  Cybil heats water for supper while Lula chops smoked sausages.  Pauline does wound checks.  Kimba plays with her leash, humming to herself and smiling weirdly, while her brother watches her anxiously.

“Do you remember,” Ozwald asks, “All the potatoes you and Tsura bought when we first hit the road?”

Guaril laughs.  “Do I!  We crammed the car to the roof with supplies, spending all the money I had on hand before I could liquidate my assets.  But I’m surprised you remember—you were in pretty bad shape, then, before we found Pauline.”

“All the different kinds and colors of potatoes—how could I forget?  I remember lingering over them with my good eye, appreciating them like jewels.  ‘Cause, you know, losing an eye makes a guy wonder about losing the other one—things you never think before, because you just sort of assumed, you know, that your eyes would always just be there.  So I look at things differently now, and I really did right then.”  He pauses a moment, saying, “Thank you for chucking everything to go feral with me, Guaril.”

The man ruffles the blonde hair with a dark hand.  “Hey, you and Skirnir taught me the joys of skateboarding!  Right when I needed a break from the pressures of work most of all.”  Then he smiles lopsidedly, saying, “Not that my career had as much of a future as I thought.  I didn’t give up anything, Ozwald; you had the good luck to get hurt right when I lost my job.”

Tshura smiles where she breaks up firewood.  “Their loss—they got rid of the best salesman on the floor.”

Guaril’s brows knit.  “We all knew who really stole from the till: the boss’s daughter.  She had expensive tastes, and resented Daddy.  But you know how it goes—when the truth would embarrass you, blame the Gypsy.  And that’s all it took, the mere rumor of a false accusation, to rile up the neighborhood.”

“Harsh, man,” says Ozwald, as Magda shudders.  “That’s just so unfair.”  Magda spits and makes a banishing-horns sign.

Guaril grins anew.  “But that’s when my cousins and I appreciated our heritage the most, Ozwald!  I had a good idea how to manage on the run, from old family tales.  Leaving behind a stable home didn’t faze me as much as somebody like Shon or Cybil, who see living in a settled home as the proper way to do things.”  Shon laughs with gallows humor.  I feel gratified to see how well he can relax around Romany these days; I thought he wouldn’t sleep a wink the first night we shared quarters with them.

Tshura comes over, sits snuggled into Guaril’s side, and reaches for a potato.  Paring it with her pocket-knife, she says, “And I thanked God that you and I didn’t have kids.  Stable looks a whole lot better when you have a family to worry about.”

“Awr, our ancestors managed all right.”  He gives her a squeeze and she moves the knife away just in time.

“Well, maybe if we had one of those cute little carts to live in.”  Her giggle sounds refreshing, out here in the middle of nowhere, among people who’ve lost everything.

Ozwald, says, “Seriously man, without you Skirnir and I would be, like, dead!”
            “Naw, Skirnir’s ribs caught the bullet.  He’d have done okay.”

“Not for long.”

“And how long would I have stayed sane on the road without my skateboarding buddies to lighten things up?”

I smile up in my tree.  People like this make all the effort worthwhile.

I stop smiling when I see the deputies with bloodhounds on the forest’s edge—probably not after us specifically, just “vagabonds”.  More and more people at loose ends, during an insanity epidemic, in an increasingly suspicious culture, can make for some messy confrontations...and bizarre penalties.

“Pack the potatoes,” I say quietly but audibly to all, “and bury the fire—now.”  I don’t think we have time to hide our campsite properly...yet we might not have to.  “Throw some sausages into the bushes, and let’s get out of here, quick!”

They do as I say, without a grumble.  I smile as I drop out of my tree to help.  Once those hounds get a good whiff of meat, they won’t care where we went.  I do wish I could grumble, though—I so looked forward to eating those myself!  I lead my buddies out of there as quietly as we can go, upslope from the river.  Once the dogs prove unhelpful, the lawmen will expect us to drown our scent down in the water, only to leave tracks in the mud.  We won’t even have to go too far, just find a good place of concealment and let them pass.  The more they search in the wrong direction, the more the poor dears will fear that we’re faster than they thought.

Cybil murmurs to me, “I saw that rat again, when I tossed the sausage.  Same patchy fur.”)

 

Saturday, November 7, 2708

How many times have I crouched in a tree waiting for soldiers to pass?  (How many times have I stood at attention, arm raised in answering salute, while way too many men marched past?)  With the dim light of a waning moon glinting mysteriously off the edge of leaf  and bough, I feel like something gone feral, barely able to remember any other life.  (But never before with this number—nor with so much pain, the wound in my side tugged by my raised arm—don’t let them know!)  Soldiers!  Every time we kill them, two more spring up into their place (Damien would have some tale to tell about it, I’m sure.)  That last attack has really riled up the ant’s nest—even as we planned.  (Show no weakness for the men to attribute to my femininity.  I can barely control the troops as is, with them so stirred up by the escalation—even as we planned.)  But I didn’t plan on having to track a wounded comrade, destroying her blood-trail as I go, ten steps ahead of the enemy.  (Yet somehow I had not expected to sustain a wound so soon.)

Stupid, Deirdre!  You’re an officer and people depend on you.  You should prepare for every contingency.  (Stupid Layne!  You know enlistment means a career of getting shot at.)

I watch, tense fingers digging into the bark, as they walk right on past the gap that I recently covered, caused by a horse crashing through the brush.  The glows of their flashlights arc back and forth, blinding me to all else, but they swing haphazardly; they can’t cover everything.  Still, they do have flashlights, and I do not.  I see light glance over one tiny drop of blood that I missed (my held breath hurting in my chest) but they step on past it, scratching distractedly at the cashew-vine rash that bubbles all over their hands and faces.  Oh ghosts, my dear ghosts, keep them preoccupied!  As soon as they’ve moved on far enough I slip down the trunk and duck into the foliage, myself, rearranging the branches behind me.

Rapidly I continue the trail-disguising work.  I kick dirt and plant-litter over the hoofmarks and the spatterings of blood, I snap half-broken twigs and pull horse-hairs down from branches, and God help us but there’s a lot of blood to cover up!  How much do I miss, how much will betray us all when the sun rises? 

Yet the delay burns like cashew-vine sap—my brain itches with it.  I’ve already lost so much time!  Is Betany even alive?  Do I waste my energy, keeping the soldiers from tracking a corpse?  But if she found refuge, even if she died, we don’t want anyone who helps us to pay for their kindness with wounds of their own.

(And on to the rendezvous.  I climb into my jeep, grateful for once that my rank puts me above marching, and that with Ed driving I needn’t even raise my arm to turn the wheel.  Up and down we ride, back and forth among the marching men.  Official policy, supposedly good for morale, to show their general watching over them, and to keep them on their best behavior.  The men shoot dagger side-glances every time I pass, though.  I’m not what they had in mind.

I tried to argue against concentrating so many of our soldiers in one place, but all the other generals insist that the rebels need a show of force to daunt them.  Madness!  We don’t daunt them, we anger them into greater and greater efforts against us.  We need to lull them, seduce them, gentle them…and then quietly slit their throats when we get close enough.  Less bother that way.

But no, the gorillas must thump their chests, inspiring the other gorillas to thump their chests back, and hoot at each other and throw rocks in broad daylight.  They will not listen to me.

Open road.  We can pick up speed.  I can feel the wind tangling my hair, and today I don’t care, I like the savagery of it, freedom from the carefully piled-up curls and braids, the hours before the mirror while a maid tugs at my locks.  I like the gun, the useless but pretty sabre, and the uniform that confronts men with the rough shape of my limbs.  I like breaking all the rules!  And I like knowing that secretly the men like it, too.

Which absolutely guarantees that they will not take me seriously.  Foolish Layne!  What makes you any better than a female ape, flaunting a fluorescent pink butt in heat?  We all have our illogic.)

Whatever possessed me to fall asleep along the way?  I dust leaves off of me, embarrassed at myself—again.  If Betany dies, I know it’ll be because I just had to take these little naps.  But every time I get near those soldiers my head starts to spin with weariness or something.  Testers once told me that I have a dyslectic trace of telepathy—is that all it's good for, then, to pick up contact highs at the worst possible moment?  Thanks a lot, God, for all your “Gifts”!

I didn’t meant that, God.  I’m grateful for everything, honest—don’t smite me, please!  Not now, not when Betany depends on me.  My heart races with the knowledge of just how easily God could smite me down right this minute for all of the bad things that I’ve done.  I laugh silently at myself—and here I worried about a moment’s ingratitude!

Soldiers ahead—a different search party.  Wait, tiptoe, dart ahead, circle around, silennnnt...oh Lord, they’ve paused over something!  Three flashlight beams shine on the same spot as one hunkers down for a closer look.  Can I kill all three and make no noise?  Ohhhh Lord, what do I do?  I’m still boy-clad; I pull off my belt and hold it in both hands.  Maybe I won’t need to...Oh filth! That’s a whistle he’s raising to his lips!   I lunge out of the brush, whip the belt around his neck with a jerk and drag him back into the foliage before they have time to make my face out in the night.

Christ!  Now they shout and shoot and come thrashing around looking for me—pray God they destroy the trail while they’re at it and please God don’t let ‘em destroy me, too!  Good—somebody just tripped over the guy whose neck I snapped.  I make noise of my own as I flee, feet pounding like fear in the dark, to lead them far from Betany’s track.

Flashlights veer crazily through the woods, making weird patterns through the leaves as I run and they run fast behind me, skittering around trunks, leaping over vines.  When the lights go briefly one way and I dodge another, I take to the first bough that’ll bear me and move quietly now among the branches...please not up...don’t let them turn the lights upward, Lord...and why should God answer any prayer of mine after all my sins?  Why not their prayers, instead?  I don’t know, I’ve just got to pray anyway, trusting in mercy—maybe it all comes down to who remembers to ask for help.

Hushed, I watch the lights move further in the direction where I feinted.  Sooner or later they’ve got to figure out this monkey-trick of mine.  When they do, though, that’ll just mean that they’ll have to spread their attention out still more thinly and they’ll miss even more.

In uttermost stealth, cloaked in shades that a weak and cloudy moon cannot defeat, I double back and finish off the trail the best I can in the blindness of the night.



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