IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume V: Sharing Insanity


Chapter 23
Improvising


Wednesday, November 11, 2708

            Kurmal's hands and feet have gone pale and cold, though the rest of him bakes in fever.  His nail-beds each show a spreading spot of plum-color, and he has not urinated since yesterday morning.  His pulse beneath my finger races fast but faint.

I light up a cigarette, take a few puffs, and then hold it to Kurmal's lips.  “Come on, lad.  Breathe it in.”  I don't know if he can understand me in his delirium, but then his lips flutter around the cigarette, and the tip brightens red with his breath.

            The scent of rosehip tea wafts into the room with Zofia.  “What...What are you...?”  She stares at me, pale and bewildered.

            “He's going into toxic shock—his blood pressure has dropped to dangerous levels.  I'm hoping that the nicotine...um, the essence of tobacco...will raise it enough to help him fight back.”

            She gives me a flustered smile as she lays the tray down.  “Oh, well, you must know what you're doing.  I just didn't know that tobacco had any good uses.”

            Neither do I, and I don't know what I'm doing.  “It's a long shot,” I say.  “But I won't give up if you won't.”  I pull the cigarette back from the half-dead man and stick it in my mouth.  “Pray for him; we'll see what happens.”  I can't budge from his side, now, until he either rallies or dies.

(We can’t let the army budge—not till we find Deirdre.  So far I’ve only found Turin and Dosh, and Dosh keeps kicking himself for losing track of Nishka.  I send Turin Wheelwrong to go and do what he does best—to every cart in the enemy camp, if he can.

When I try to gesture him forward my forearm works but the upper arm stays put, the elbow frozen at its angle; it looks weird even to me.  So that’s how it’s going to be, for the rest of my life.  If my father were to meet me, would he recognize my face as something like his own—or would he just stare at the arm, and not even see the face?  It does no good to think like that, Tanjin—what is, is, so just get a grip.

“You know,” Dosh says, not looking at me, “Guerillas do move on without accounting for every single member all the time.  That’s called Guerilla Tactics.  It’s what we do.”

“You want to go on and fight without Deirdre, you go right ahead and splinter off—I’m not stopping you.”  But he doesn’t leave, he just shoves my rifle into the crook of my arm for me where Deirdre’d bent the limb for no other purpose than to shoot, at my request; it cramps sometimes, but hey, that’s life.  He takes up his own rifle and we nestle in behind these big ol’ roots to cover Turin if he runs into trouble.

“If we could dig up some hoof-mites,” Dosh whispers conversationally, “I suppose we could loose them in the oxen-pen.  They can’t go far with all their oxen lame.”

“Yeah, but how’d we keep the lil’ bugs from infesting every farm for miles around?  That’s not gonna win us many recruits, my friend.  Besides, we don’t have any hoof-mites.”

“If we ever find Hekut, he’s practically a hoof-mite.”

I strangle down laughter and try to keep my eyes on my sights.

“I betcha his daddy was a hoof-mite.”

“Watch your mouth,” I say, trying to choke back giggles.

“No, really.  I can just picture his momma feeling, you know, just a little tickle down there and thinking, ‘Oh my—what was that?’”

“Stop it, Dosh.”

In his deepest voice he says, “Little did she know...”

“That’s enough, Dosh!”

“But can’t you just picture...”

I kick him, but he just laughs and kicks me back, so I grab his hair to try and knock some sense into his head against the roots, but he fights back and the next thing you know we’re tussling in earnest, laughing and swearing and getting dirt in our eyes and swearing even louder.

Gunfire!  Oh God forgive a fool!  We dive behind the roots as the soldiers pummel the poor tree with a whole swarm of bullets.  We huddle against each other like a single animal shivering with fear, till suddenly Dosh gets an idea and cuts loose with a scream like somebody dying in pain—it makes my hair stand on end just to hear him, even with my arms around him knowing that a bullet didn’t touch him anywhere.  Even after he trails off that scream seems to hang on the air like a ghost, my ears still shudder with it, so full of fear and hurt and dying young that if I were one of those soldiers I’d feel ashamed.)

“Get some sleep, Deirdre.  My turn to watch.”

            I shake my head, my face burning with shame to let anyone else shoulder the duty for which I’ve neglected my band.  I fan Kurmal’s sweat till his odor fills every corner of the room.

(“Feign sleep,” I whisper to the others, in the relative dryness of an abandoned public garage.  The place still stinks of rancid jojoba and taroleum, the floor spotted with their oils.  Broken glass rims some of the windows, the door stood ajar when we arrived, and thieves have taken most of the tools.  And why do I find more and more abandoned structures throughout Vanikke?)

“Come on, sweetie—you’re nodding where you sit.”  I start at the hands that tug at me, but find them gentle.  Zofia puts an arm around me and guides me to the bed, still warm and rumpled from her recent occupation.  The sheets still smell like her, too, faintly buttery with the friendly odor of a fellow woman.  My heart nearly breaks in me that they will probably never smell like Kurmal.  At her urging I strip off the cumbersome clothes, lie down, and surrender to the softness.  Then she takes the candle with her, leaving me in shadows, sinking into dreams...

(We wait and listen, but no more bullets fire our way.  They think they did the job.  It takes a long time more before our hearts stop pounding enough to let us move again, or even let us think.

And then we remember.  “Oh God,” Dosh says.  “Turin...”

“Maybe he escaped in all the commotion turned this way.  Probably did—Turin’s got a level head.”

“But he sure couldn’t do his work with the whole camp woke up.”  Dosh lays his head on his gun where he lies.  “We have to give it up, Tanjin.  We can’t stall the troop now.”

“No,” I say, surprised at myself.  “No, we aren’t giving up anytime soon.”  I think almost faster than I can keep up with, myself, like all the fear in me has turned into greenfire just like magic.  “You’re right—the oxen matter more than the carts.  Repairing carts would only slow them a few hours, not for days.  We’ll just have to gun ‘em down.”

“We can’t go after the oxen now!  They’re all woke up!”

I grin, feeling really high on fear turned into something else.  “Think, Dosh.  We got ‘em used to a pattern.  We attack maybe every other night, or sometimes every night, and now once in awhile by day.”

“That don’t sound much like a pattern to me.”

“But just once, Dosh.  Every time we attack it’s just for once, by night or day.  They might watch for us tomorrow, but they think we’re through for the night, it’s all over, they can go back to bed.”

Dosh grins, himself.  “So all we need to do is just wait a few hours...”

“...Till they’ve had time to fall back asleep.”

He nods.  “The deep sleep of people who have nothing more to fear.  I gotcha.”)

(Our oldest and youngest really do fall asleep; I can hear the hints of snores.  But I can also feel, telepathically, the alertness of my most martial fellow-travelers.

I lie in the dark garage, waiting, reviewing all that I know of hand-to-hand combat, myself.  For some reason sparring sessions with Deirdre keep surfacing from my memory; she might look like a wide-eyed innocent, but the dainty thing can dart like a snake.  And she wouldn’t hesitate to bruise me if it taught me a lesson, unlike my trainer among the True Tilián, who I now realize held back, out of deference to my father.

Ah well, I can fight quite well without her.  I have, in fact, for years.  So why do I miss her, lying here in the dark?)

 

Thursday, November 12, 2708

(“Now, Tanjin?” 

I listen and listen, but it sounds safe enough, nothing stirring but the night-birds and crickets.  I peer over the root, and see, in the distance, the backside of the night-guard on his rounds.  No tents have lights in them, and haven’t for awhile.  The campfire hardly even gives off any smoke anymore, having fallen into embers long ago.

“Okay, now.”  Rustling as little as possible, we emerge, crouching, from behind the root, guns in our arms.)

(Now I hear the soft tread of unfamiliar boots.  I tense, hand on my knife within my sleeping-bag, which I have discreetly left unzipped.  Closer...wait...closer...wait...closer...NOW!

I spring on him—the Twitchy Man—wrap my limbs around him before he knows what hit him, and bring my knife to his throat.  I shout, “Who are you and why’ve you been stalking us?”

But he twists out of my grip, tripping me.  I turn the fall into a roll and spring right back with a head-butt to the belly, but he dodges and grabs me around the waist before I can straighten, but I flip him over me, but he lands on his feet.

By now, though, Jameel, Guaril, Apollo, Courtney, Maury, Toni, and Pauline have all piled onto him at once.  He can’t fight off so many.  As they hold him down, I place my foot upon his chest, wishing that I still had my high heels.  I pull out my nail file and set to work on my fingertips (the beast made me tear a nail!) while he sputters and jerks.

I look coolly down on him.  “Now now, settle down; you’ll ruin my manicure.”  I sigh.  “I really hate to repeat myself, but who are you, and why are you stalking us?”)



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