IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume V: Sharing Insanity


Chapter 37
Witchery


Friday, November 27, 2705, continued

Deirdre took a deep breath when the music came on again, and drank in the notes as thirstily as a drunkard gulps down wine...

... And I also understand my dear mentor now perfectly—Jonathan, father of my soul.  Oh, if I could but stir the will, I would shout for a bottle of something obliviating, I would drink it down to the bottom and smash its glass against the world!

But I have locked myself into a different pattern.  I tether Steddy and tell Nishka to spearpoint the raid, with Rozhen and Zeb for her lieutenants—my three best sneaks.  Who would’ve thought that the big girl could move like an eel?  More of us will stand in as back-up; stealing so many guns from an outfit as spooked as this one will not go smoothly, however well we know the troop.

(If I wanted to, I could smite the enemy with just a glance of my eyes—my fiery, fiery eyes.  If only I could open them.)  They stare at me with fiery eyes, for what I say agrees well with their incinerated souls.  They do not look like children at all, but demon-spawn.  (I am no God—I know that now.  I’m something much more fallen.)  Beautiful and young, but bitterly ancient, too, battered and tattered and gaunt.  And they burn.  (And I burn—oh, how I burn!  See me, Father Man, what a candle I light to God!)

I know, logically, where the enemy shall next pitch their camp.  Armies travel at the speed of their slowest member; these march at the pace of a plodding ox.  We, much nimbler, unencumbered by machinery of war, steal ahead of them, passing them on the road to either side in the forest’s shadow, with the rustle of a fox, a wind, a half-imagined fear.  Monkeys shrill in the vines overhead and the soldiers curse them loudly, shaking fists, and we bless them silently in our hearts, for making more noise than we do.

(It makes the...awfulness...worse when I hear Ozwald ask, “Man, what did she do out there?”  But I don’t even have the strength left to shudder.  I just lie weakly curled against the roots of a tree, my eyes tightly shut, feeling the flecks of dirt and bark stuck to the sweat on my face.

“Something witchy,” Skirnir says.  “Something so dark that even she can’t stand it.”  Part right.  Not all.  Mindblasting can recoil, but...that!)

When we find the meadow we drink deeply of its spring, then scatter to the surrounding brush each to find our nest, to sleep awhile, husbanding our strength for the night.  I unravel my braids and spread my hair over me like a blanket, snuggling into my hidey-hole, pretending I’m an animal.

(When the shadows stretch towards night it gets bad again.  I know those woods are full of eyes—there!  I saw...no.  No one will believe me anymore.)

(“Oh Kiril, the stars—the stars are gonna get me!  See how they pierce through the daylight now?  Even through the canvas!  It’s worse, it’s so much worse, my eyes burn and they feel jealous, I come so close to being one of them, now, that it angers them to see one who has danced, drunk, slept with the dead, to walk among the living.”

“Walk?  You’ve ridden the cart the whole way like a sack of beans, Lufti.  You’re just going through withdrawal—I’ve been through it, too, I know what it’s like.”  But it’s not quite like this.  Something sounds different in his ravings.)

(“I wish she’d rave,” I hear Skirnir say.  “Whatever’s going on, I wish she’d just explode with it and get it out of her system.”

I feel Pauline wash my face.  Cold, but I haven’t got the energy to turn away.  “These things are rarely as theatrical as popular shows would have it,” the surgeon says in her cool voice.

My head still aches.  I felt my fear shoot, amplified, through all those minds at once.  I just want something to make the pain stop, all the different kinds of pain.  Just stop.

Apollo asks, “What do we do now?  Go our own separate ways?  She was the one who had the plan, but now...”

Firmly Cybil says, “Now we wait.  Maybe she’ll pull together.”

“And maybe she won’t.”

Pauline’s voice takes on a scalpel edge.  “I don’t turn my back on a wounded comrade.  Not all war-wounds happen to the body.”

With some sting in his words I hear Apollo say, “So now you think you’re a soldier, Miss Silk Blouse Surgeon.  Well I’m just a thief, but I know what else I am—a survivor!  And I say...”

Raif growls, “She didn’t abandon my sister.  Don’t you dare suggest we abandon her!”

Courtney adds, “She didn’t abandon me when I got wounded.  She didn’t abandon Anselmo.  She got him help.”

They act as though I have value.  They have no idea.

“Then what do we do?” Apollo cries.

Cybil says, “We’ll worry about what to do tomorrow.  In the meantime, we’ve got food enough to camp here for awhile.”  I feel her hand upon my shoulder  “She led us to a good, safe place before she finished breaking—you’ve got to give her that.”)

(I push my worries down as I push aside the med-tent flap.  I have other business to attend.  I make a show of supervising the soldiers on KP tonight, scrubbing up the dinner dishes for me, but they all know the routine; they don’t need me.  I go into Sarge’s tent and stuff my pockets with cookies, then stroll “idly” to the little knot of men clustered over the roster for tonight’s guard duty.

“Dessert?” I offer with my sweetest little-girl smile.

“Why, Kiril, honey!  How thoughtful of you!”

“Yeah, Kiril—ain’t this your own private stash?”

“Here, give me some of those, you greedy...”

“Easy,” I laugh.  “I brought enough for everybody.  Here, let me divvy them up.”    I leave well-pleased with myself.  I...eyes burning in the dark?

Reno!

He grabs me by the wrists and wrestles me back behind some empty tents and trees and I don’t dare scream.

“Just what the hell are you doing?” he hisses in my ear.  Not loud—that’s something.

“What the hell are you doing?” I snap back just as hissingly.  ‘Grabbing me like that—what are your intentions?”  I lean forward angrily, knowing that the top of my dress will slip a little when I do.

“What are you, Kiril?  A....”

“Someone who never got to be a little girl!” I spit, before he can call me a spy.  “Is that it?  Is that so offensive to you?  Like I had a choice!”

He stares at me, I know that much, but I can’t read his face in the dark.  I start to go but he grabs me again.  “Kiril, why did you give the men those cookies?”

I freeze.  Slowly I say, “Nobody will believe anything you say, Reno.  You’re crazy.  Everybody knows that.”  He jolts back like I slapped him. “Go ahead and tell people that Sarge—Sarge!—drugged cookies and you saw Kiril giving them to people for some bad reason.  Tell them all your screwy theories.  Tell them about eyes watching you from the dark, too, while you’re at it.”

The hand on my arm goes limp and I trounce away with offense in my every stomp.  I hate myself for doing that.  Maybe later I’ll invite him to come with me to the med-tent to watch over Lufti, and he’ll escape all harm.

But I’m not through yet with this night’s work.  I’ve got the same routine to pull at the tents around the ammo-cart—good thing I’ve been saving up the cookies!

But there’s still more.   I have words that Lufti copied from a paper that I stole.  This big bad base that everybody’s gathering at—it’s a school.  A live-in orphanage school, built for thousands from nine different counties.  It’s perfect—it’s got barracks for the soldiers, cafeteria, plumbing, classrooms for storage, a big ol’ playing field to drill and muster in, even a chapel so the soldiers can pray before they kill.  I glance with satisfaction at the note that Lufti wrote out, pleased that he could pull himself together for a whole  quarter-hour to copy the right stuff in time for me to return the dispatch—into the white rice canister it goes.

And so off I go just beyond tonight’s perimeter...here will do nicely.

“Whatcha doin’, Kiril honey”

I school myself not to freeze, to look carefree as I reach in for a handful of rice.  “Just feeding the birds, Daddy Sarge.  You don’t like this stuff anyway.”

“Well...I suppose there’s no harm in it.  Just the white rice, though.  Not the good stuff.”

“Okay, Daddy Sarge.”  And I toss grains around till he moves on, hating myself for wasting food, but at least the rice will gleam in the dark and help Deirdre find it, if the birds leave any.

All those children, all those nuns...)

All these children...nimble little imps, useful for the work at hand.  After I stash my flit where I could grab it if I need it (I want nothing hindering my moves on a stealth job) I watch from a tree as Rozhen slips past a sleeping guard;  I can hear the snoring from here.  Kiril delivered, all right.  I see and plunder the cannister unimpeded and then look around.  Yep, another guard sleeps over there, within line of sight, nestled sweetly against a tree.  I may have time to braid my hair again.  It looks like they all...

GUNFIRE!

The soldier leaps out from behind the sleeping man, his green eyes big and crazy as he pours lead into Rozhen, then spins and takes Zeb down.  I throw a knife, but he dodges with a madman’s speed and sprays my tree, so that I shouldn’t have escaped, only my reflexes saved me, my body doesn’t believe it yet as I crouch panting behind a trunk, feeling bullets thud into wood, hearing the camp rouse up against us.

I call in my reinforcements—stealth serves no purpose, now—and force myself back into fire.  I’ll be damned if I’ll let Zeb and Rozhen die for nothing!  Nishka must be halfway to the munitions wagon by now.  I don’t have a gun; I’ve left that to the children who need it most.  I pull up tent-pegs and knock silly the men who wake when the canvas falls on them.  I wield the pegs like daggers, clubs, hooks, against the stunned and stumbling men, fighting my way back to the man who shot my boys, to...

Reno.

My silver-streaked hair falls into my eyes, but I flip it away.  “Hello, Lover,” I snarl, and then jump him with both stakes in hand, before he can recover from the shock.  I knock the gun from him and gouge, but he twists so that I open up the underside of his arm instead of his breastbone.  Someone else grabs me by the hair so I have to fight that person dead before I can finish off Lothario there, but no, he’s escaped, no time for him, hurry!  I hear the crash of guns tumbling out the back of a wagon—Nishka needs me!  I’ve got to open the way for Dosh and his second wave to grab the goods.

A whole line of men come running, squeezed single-file by the tents—I kick the lead man back into them, and knock a series of jaws and pates as soldiers struggle to their feet.  Blood flies from brows and my own head throbs with the memory of where it’ll hurt the most. Duck, leap, twirl on your heel, lunge and stamp and kick!  Oh yeah, I can do this dance.  Tent-pegs whirl in my hand, point and bludgeon ends spinning to my needs as the soldiers just keep coming.

Shot!  No, the bullet narrowly missed me, killing the man I grapple with.  I whip ‘round on my unwilling benefactor and kick the gun from his hands before diving into a tent, stomping the throat of a man who sleeps too deeply for nature, grab the pole and whirl it about me as the canvas blinds me.  Thank you, Damien, for that story of Ro Jo Raymos!  The pole hit hit hits so I know that felled men lie thataway—I dive forward, tumbling over bodies, rolling free of the fabric and up to my feet again.

Soldiers block either end of this passageway so I run straight through the tents—only habit makes these cloth walls barriers.  I swim through khaki, knocking things down, tripping on soldiers and hidden things to a hail of shouts and curses and the bullets whizzing past as drugged men ineptly shoot their own.  Oh my ghosts, my ghosts, direct the bullets, yes!  We’re all damned to fight this war together for all eternity, so let’s make the best of it!

A tent catches fire in my wake, dropped on some knocked-over lantern, which draws off some of my pursuers.  I lure the rest away, screaming insults like a madwoman, pulling half the damned army after me so that my young can take what they need—who cares if I die?  I know now that I’ll keep on fighting, I’ll still protect my own, I have absolutely nothing to lose, nothing to fear, as I stampede the troop off into the woods after me, with a great levitation-enhanced leap right over the broad patch of cashew-vine that they plow through in all the excitement. 

I get ‘em all headed one way, then I skitter up a tree to run along some boughs faster than they can imagine, drop down somewhere else and shout for them to follow me, laughing as they skid in their tracks and veer left.  Keep ‘em confused, keep ‘em spooked, make it look like I have magical powers and all they have left is bad luck—the less educated Charadocians never even heard of levitation, and nobody but my friendclan knows about accelerated reflexes, so I throw in a few more maddening twists and turns, shouting for their attention every time though my heart pounds for escape.  I get them so turned around dizzy that they forget what I discovered when I cased the terrain earlier.

I snatch my flit out of the bush where I’d hidden it and strap it on running, those poor dogs of war hot on my heels in the dark, then I keep right on running over the cliff’s brink, swoop down, soar up again, and watch the screaming soldiers trying to stumble to a halt, but their lemming brethren push them right on over.  Oh, the looks on their faces, the horror as they die!  I laugh from my height, a princess of the air beating against the wind, then I dive again with a veer to fly back to my nest.

At least I wounded Reno so he couldn’t follow me here.

(Reno—he’s wounded!  He stumbles into the med-tent with his arm pressed to his side and the blood squeezing out and I cry out, I can’t help it.  But he glares at me as he falls to his knee, gasping with pain, his black curls falling into his wild, wild eyes.

I turn and continue to help Doc give aid and comfort to the enemy while I feel Reno’s eyes on my back, calling me traitor, though he speaks no word, just pants for air.  Soldiers groan all around me, a big, bloody mess.  I follow Doc’s instructions and bandage, bandage, bandage, while he hurries from cot to cot to stop the bleeding.

I surprise myself by how much I know about this sort of thing; I guess I must have picked it up watching Deirdre in the infirmary back when she was omigosh I forgot all about her having been my prisoner!  And did she feel then as I do now, all mixed up inside, pitying people that I really want to hate?  How much has changed in less than a year’s time.

More men come in.  Doc tells soldiers to unfurl the accordion-folds of the tent’s backside to extend it to its full emergency length.  I’ve seen it expanded some, but never so long before.

Then Doc finishes cleaning and stitching Reno up and waves me over to do the bandaging while he moves on to the next patient.  Reno averts his eyes.  I should  fear; I can feel the anger trembling in his arm.  I know he could tell Sarge everything; Sarge knows what he himself put in those cookies, he’d believe Reno.  But all I feel is awful, and I really don’t care whether I live or die—I’ve served the revolution enough with this night’s work—look at my harvest, all around me!

Two men carry in another patient, body all twisted up and broken, hollering his head off, raving about flying demon witches leading them all to Hell.  While Doc tries to quiet him enough to tend his injuries I whisper in Reno’s ear, “When you turn me in, see if you can get Lufti out alive—he’s harmless with his mind wiped out.”  He stares at me in shock, and I stare back, hard and sure of myself.

“Kiril, over here,” Doc calls, before Reno can nod or shake his head or anything.  I pick up my bandages and go.  Doc shows me how to help splint a broken bone—lots of those tonight, a whole new wave of ‘em coming in; I wonder what Deirdre did to them?  I work on body after body after body, arms and legs and ribs and shattered skulls, I forget everything but the human skeleton and how to mend it

When I finally get a breather I remember my woes and glance back to Reno.  He’s rousing Lufti to try and make him eat some bread that’s going ‘round.  I baked that bread this morning, quick and flat torteeya-bread like Deirdre showed me how.  Then Reno’s eyes meet mine again, and they look softer now and full of pity.  But I still don’t know what he’ll do.)



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