IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume V: Sharing Insanity


Chapter 38
What Are We?


Saturday, November 28, 2708

Oh, it is sooo past midnight.  The road stretches on forever ahead of me, charcoal framed in thick black foliage, as I lead Steddy stumbling through the dark, three injured children on his back and another on my own.

 My saddlebags bulge with stolen ammunition and bandoliers drape over the horse’s drooping neck.  That poor beast has no idea why I’ve laden him so heavily, but he trudges uncomplainingly where I lead, trusting me like I’m some kind of god or something.  I hate this war.

(I hate this war.  I disobey Doc and leave the med-tent for a breath of air; that wicked woman tore my arm up, not my leg—I am quite mobile, thank you.  And the whole tent stinks of fear and bedpans and disinfectant; I don’t feel like getting any better in there.  Especially not with Kiril fussing over the wounded like she cares.)

A handful of children march around me, too weary to care who sees us bearing arms on the open road, but we left our enemies with too many wounds to lick to pursue us, and the late hour argues against discovery by random travelers.  Where would such wanderers go?  The only nightlife to break the silence in these parts is the trill of frogs, bugs, and nocturnal birds.  They and the stars above will keep our secrets.

(Yep, nary a cloud in the sky, tonight.  Not quite natural, in these parts—but then what’s natural, anymore?  I wish that that crazy kid wouldn’t go on about the stars the way he does–it doesn’t do much to make a man comfortable, to have ‘em staring down like that after hearing all his raving.

I shiver in the cold, and the shivering jars the ache in my arm; I think the pain-killer’s wearing off.  But to get more means going back into that stinking tent; thank you, no.  Besides, I’ve got so much that I need to think about.)

I wish I could just submerge into a trance of exhaustion, but I’ve got too much to think about.  Paper crackles in my pocket with every weary step, scrawled in a childish hand with the secrets of generals, a few grains of white rice still clinging to it.  So, they’ve picked an orphanage boarding-school for their rendezvous—it makes a certain fiendish logic, I’ll give ‘em that.

It weighs on my steps, to think that we’re the ones who taught them to mistrust orphans and to...God, I wish I could just stop thinking!

(So here I stand beside Sarge’s tent.  Fancy that; my feet just seemed to draw me here.  Light glows through the canvas; Sarge sits up, making his plans, trying to fix the mess he’s in.  We’ve lost so many men that we haul more empty tents than set up full ones anymore.  Maybe that’ll hide how much we’ve lost in arms, as well.  No, Sarge will not have a glowing report to make when we finally reach the base.

But as bad a night as he’s having, I can surely make it worse.  I should, in fact—that’s my duty.  It would take a duck and a step and I’d be right inside that pool of light, I’d smell his fear for a change, I’d be the one in full control of myself and he’d be the one trying to pull it together, as I calmly tell him what his make-believe daughter...

What I suspect, merely suspect...

What I know.

No.  No.  I can’t know anything.  Everyone tells me that I can’t tell real from fantasy.  Why should he believe a word I say when I can’t believe myself?

Later.  Maybe.  I need more time to think.

What ARE you, Kiril?)

What am I anymore?  I really don’t know what I’m doing.  Honestly, I haven’t since I arrived in the Charadoc.  I just follow the current, figuring that these native children have a better idea than I do of whatever their country needs.  I don’t even know what my mission is, anymore.  To win a revolution that has not resolved for generations, maybe even centuries?  To just stay alive?

Lovequest, Merrill would say.  Always Lovequest, no matter what else might change.

Is this love?  I think of Kiril and Lufti and maybe yes, their love does motivate me.

Yeah, right, that’s why I…God damn me.

I’m not an agent anymore.  I don’t now what I am.  I don’t care.  I have a war to wage, and not even God weighs in on what I do these days, so why should Til?  But oh, its absence aches, a cavity in the soul.

So who in this godforsaken country doesn’t hurt?  What makes me exempt?

(I cradle my wounded arm, throbbing in the cold, against my throbbing heart and the ache just goes through and through as the cool, indifferent stars stare down, twinkling as if they think the whole human tragedy’s some kind of joke.  I’d love to shove a fist right into every sparkling eye up there, if I could only raise my arm.

I used to like the stars.  I used to like strolls in the dark.  I used to know who were the good guys and who were the bad guys, believe in my government, earn my votes, listen to the Chaplain, and trust in the innocence of little girls.

The predawn wind starts up, making me hug myself tighter, shivering.  The pain gets worse and worse.  I can’t think straight in this much hurt.  Like it or not, I’ve got to go back to Doc, take my medicine, and try to get some sleep.  What was I thinking, to venture out in the chill with a wound like this?

Oh, Kiril!)

The wind stirs up, and I see the first blue glow begin above the trees as the stars grow dim.  The dayshift birds begin to sing as the others fall silent, and I hear rustlings here and there, wildlife waking up, going about in search of breakfast.  I feel my hunger stir as well, but I stuff a leaf in my mouth to put it back to sleep.  Then I make sure the kid on my back didn’t slip when I did that, and move on.

(I hear rustling, somebody rummaging through a pack.  Magda says, “We can’t stay here forever.”  The voice sounds brittle-hard. “The supplies won’t last, and there’s more snow coming.  I can feel it in my bones.”  Didn’t I hear her crying, earlier?  Must have been her.)

Somebody cries monotonously.  One of the walking wounded.  I should have noticed miles ago.  I tune too much out.  “Come here,” I tell her.  “Lean on me if you need to.  Just keep going and you’ll be all right.”

“How long?” she murmurs.

“As long as it takes.”

(“We’ll stay as long as it takes,” Pauline insists.  My lips feel dry, but I don’t lick them.

“What is she?” I hear Minerva murmur.  “Really, we don’t know anything about her.”

“She is Zanne,” Cybil says.  “That’s all I need to know.”

Zanne.  I am Zanne Charlotte of Fireheart Friendclan, Agent of the Tilián.  And I have a mission to fulfill.

My muscles cramp to stand, but I do, leaning on the tree’s rough bark to pull myself up.  I feel tangles fall into my face.  My hair must have unraveled, maybe in our flight, maybe later.  I can feel my body shake, but I will it to stop.)

I can feel myself shaking.  I try to will it to stop, I don’t want to jar the wounded, but I can’t.  “Not far, now,” I tell the children, hoping that I tell the truth, but my sense of time and distance seem broken.

(The Gates of Knowledge demand that we face the Truth.  I open my eyes to all of the weary, startled faces around me.  Cybil hurries to me as to a fevered child stirring from her bed.  I look at her as levelly as I can and ask, “May I please have my comb?”)

(Catch them early before they have a chance to hide anything, I always say.  I run a brief comb through my curls before snapping my cap back on and approaching the cottage flushed in the dawn’s first light.  We can’t give the peasants any reason to look down on an officer of the Charadocian army, can we?  Even if they hate what we have to do next.)

So what’s next Deirdre?

Don’t ask me, Deirdre.  I’m too wired and yet still tired.  I’m sure I have a plan somewhere, maybe the paper crackling in my pocket.  Oh yeah, something about a massing of soldiers.  But first crash.  Very soon.  My time sense comes back with a vengeance.  Very, very soon.

(Because we can’t possibly manage the logistics of a combined force this size without robbing the countryside blind.  The other generals can’t see how this feeds right into the rebel’s hands.  Previously neutral farmers, sometimes even the pro-government pillars of the community, look on us now with a pure, smoldering hatred, just begging for a single seditious breath to fan them into flame.)

Dawn wounds the sky with bright gouges of color.  Our path converges with others, stepping out of the woods or joining us from a rutted country lane.  Many of the youngsters look blood-spattered like me, our clothing stiff and stinking with it.  They say nothing, just nod to us, too beat to care about anything but the end of the road that surely must come soon, now that we’re regrouping.

(I pretend not to notice, not to care, as I direct the soldiers hauling out crates of the last winter vegetables from the root cellar of the latest farm, and the paltry baskets of the first spring harvest.  Now they roll the only barrel of flour out the door to join the soldiers herding a nursing cow mooing softly to her calf ahead of them.  But this is so incredibly stupid!  We might as well go on an enlistment run for the Egalitarian Liberation Front.)

Leaf doesn’t quite refresh me but does do slightly weird things to my head.  I feel as though I herd Deirdre Keller forward against her will, when I’d really rather lie down, and I resent Deirdre for doing this to me.  None of which must show on my face, of course.  We have to show the kids a united front, after all.

(I step inside, trying my hardest not to show my chagrin, no weakness in front of our soon-to-be-enemies.  A protest can’t come from me.  The other officers will blame my tender woman’s heart.  Then they’ll lag even worse than before, the next time I need reinforcements.  And I can’t afford to slip any lower on the priorities.  I could barely get anyone out of that last debacle alive; it took every ounce of training and creativity I had to make up for the promised regiment that never showed up.

The first thing I see on the wall is a framed embroidery of a Charadocian flag: that old familiar scale, silver on navy silk, a star in the heavier cup and a humbler flame in the higher one.  Below it I see the patriotic slogan, “We Earn Our Merit” in flame-red chainstitch.  By the way that the sourfaced housewife regards us, I don’t think she believes that we’ve earned what we take, though.

That puts my back up—she has no idea what we suffer to protect her!  She hasn’t got the ghost of a clue about what kind of chaos would follow if a pack of illiterate rebels had their way—no one would come through unscathed. Those who can afford a competent education, and they alone, qualify to make the decisions that keep a nation prosperous.)

The dawn has now faded into pearly pastels, prettying up after the messiness of the night.  The birdsongs wax fatuous in their approval.  I glance around, half-stupefied, trying to remember what beauty is.  I’m supposed to like this. I’m supposed to breathe in the perfume of the opening flowers and like all of this, but I have forgotten every poem I ever learned, every song, every stirring work of art that ever paid homage to silly countrysides like this, as ignorant as the badger that waddles out of our way.

(My, what a fussy little hospitality bureau.  All that carving, from the winters when the farmers have nothing better to do—gad, what lack of taste!  Still, I might as well have a peek inside, after a smile and a nod to the scowling woman.

Well, well, that’s a nice mirror compact at least.  Smaller even than the army-issue signal-mirror that I’ve had to use lately, but I fancy a bit of decoration in my things, when I can get them, though not as over-the-top as this dreadful furniture.  What are these, river pearls around the rim?  Nice!  No doubt gathered locally, by peasants who have no idea of the value of what they found.  I’ll take it!

I use it to freshen up my lipstick, while my men help themselves to the preserves.  How the housewife glares!  The imp in me enjoys the attention—I like to play the bad girl!  A bit of lipstick gets on my finger and I lick it off, quickly but with relish, right in front of her.)

“We got away with it,” the waif who leans on me murmurs.  “We must remember that.  We got away with it.”

“What’s that, hon?”

“We’re alive.  A lot of them are not.”

“Good point.”  Yet a lot of ours aren’t, either.  I catch a glimpse of Rozhen’s spirit in the corner of my eye, slinking into shadows.  In fact the dark beneath the trees fairly quivers with our ghosts.

(Yet my heart sinks, nonetheless.  Sometimes they call the late spring Hungry Season around here; I’ve heard them—the time after the winter stores run low, before there’s much of anything to harvest.  Usually it only hurts the layabouts who deserve it, the ones too lazy to put up a decent store in autumn.  But our requisitions leave them all on the same slippery footing.

I snap the mirror shut.  There’s no helping it.  Besides, they deserve it.  Rebellion would not have smoldered so long without widespread support from farmers just like these: a vast network of collaborators to the bleeding of this country.  And every time the wretches escalate the violence, they force us to outmatch them, lest they think us weak and the countryside defenseless against them.  Any mercy would be like me at fourteen, smiling at the wrong man, just asking to get raped.

I will never be that weak again!  I go into the kitchen to collect up some baking powder and salt.  What’s this, a home-smoked ham?  Excellent!)

(A hot meal does wonders, but I notice that Cybil serves smaller portions than she used to, and without extras for the teenagers.  I look with longing at the bags of sprouting hamster-feed that Beyla has started, hanging just close enough to the fire to fend off frost, but it’s too early to harvest them yet.

“We’ll need more food,” I say, “to get where we’re going. I’ve studied a bit about living off the land out here, but I can’t do all the gathering myself.  Do any of you know how to...”

“...I do,” Beyla says quietly.  “And so do Magda and Lula.  But we’ve picked this area clean.”  Then a painful pause, before he asks,  “Where are we going?”

“Downslope,” I say.  “Down to the plain that this cliff overhangs: the long way around.  But we’ve got to come back to Montoya Manor.  Knock on the front door if we have to.  Because everything starts here, and perhaps it finishes here.”

Magda nods grimly.  “And then we will avenge my kin.”  She looks twenty years older than a few days ago.

Raif says, “And then we’ll avenge everybody.”

“Then we will set things right,” I counter.  And I shudder, adding, “I’ve done enough avenging to last awhile.”)

Some have already reached our rendezvous point before us: an abandoned barn with the roof part caved-in; it looks bombed by time.  Shadow-eyed kids get a second wind as they greet each other, slapping palms and backs, laughing, whistling, hooting and cheering over the loot that they’ve grabbed.  Oh, how proud they feel of last night’s work!  And we did get a lot of guns, enough for most of us, more guns of better quality than many here have ever seen.

I say no word, I let them carry on, as I unburden Steddy and settle my charges into what’s left of the straw, doing my best to stabilize them till I can arrange to send them back to Zofia.  A little girl whose name I never learned, the one who leaned on me, tries her bravest best to smile as I straighten the twisted-up shirt that her sling won’t let her tug into something more comfortable.

“Deirdre!  Deirdre!  Deirdre!”  I turn; they grin and chant my name, stamping feet and clapping hands in marching-time.  “Deirdre!  Deirdre!  Deirdre!”  I drag myself to my feet and force myself to grin right back at them, to share their sense of victory, though I ache clear to the bone and on into the soul but that doesn’t matter anymore, all that matters is that I’ve made my young ones happy and they don’t get happy that often.

            I spread my arms to them as if I could send them waves and waves of victory radiating from my body; I begin to feel the magic of their chanting, “Deirdre!  Deirdre!  Deirdre!”  I feel so much love for them!  Avoiding names doesn’t do a damn bit of good.  They rush in on me, all hugging me at once and I hug back, and the tears just pour from my eyes.



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