IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
II: Tests of Fire and Blood
Wednesday, April 29, 2708, continued
I don't know how long I've wandered in a daze, coughing on smoke that gives me no lift whatsoever, seemingly asleep on my feet. Dawn begins its own fire overhead, all the more brilliant for the dirty air. Somewhere along the line I must've stumbled back onto the main road and now trudge along it, my damp clothes clinging to me, gathering dirt in the hem. For an hour or two the night's buzz had finally died down, presaging the coming day; now the first birds wake, but through it all the dreary slap of my sandals has stayed the same. When do you ever get a moment's quiet in the Charadoc, really?
To match the sound, I hear the groaning creak of wooden wheels. I turn and see an ox-cart lumber onto the main road from a side-path. Fine with me; there’s room enough for both of us.
A second glance shows the purple piping on the olive uniforms--Charadocian army. I feel too wiped out to care. Stupid uniforms--only in the Charadoc would anyone mix olive and purple.
The cart goes the same way I do, piled high with supplies, soldiers perched atop of those as the team of oxen plod sullenly along. Make a note of that: they have not yet manufactured enough combustion engines to cover all of the army's needs--at least not enough fit for heavy loads. Those tanks we fought might have been the only ones they had.
"Hey you! Come over here, now." A rough male voice shouts at me, yet with more good cheer than the words imply.
"Aw, leave her alone, Karol. She's just some peasant broad, on her way to the day's business." They haven't had a chance to shave yet; they look quite unpolished and very young.
"I dunno, she might be a rebel--they do have women fighters, you know.”
“So do we, now.”
“One. Foreign trained. She don’t count.”
I start to walk away while they debate whether or not a female officer will hurt the army. But Karol notices and points his pistol at me. “Come on over here, honey; you just be sweet and I won't hurt you." Then he holsters it and grins, his arms held wide and open.
I turn towards them, dumb with exhaustion, and before I know it big, coarse hands haul me up into the cart.
"Got to hand it to you, Karol, she's a pretty one–but oh, the bruises on her! Somebody don’t know how to treat a lady."
The big man called Karol grins and says, "Well, we sure do! All the same, though, we've got a duty to interrogate any suspicious persons in the vicinity, and my oh my she sure looks suspicious to me!"
"What we've got a duty to do is turn her over to the Mantles."
"Oh, them!" He spits over the cart's side. “Now they, my lads, haven't got the foggiest notion of how to treat a lady, rebel or no." He pulls a flask out of his gear. "You don't have to always hurt people to get what you want from them." He pulls me over into a crushing hug against his side, his sweat-smell strong, but I honestly feel so weary that I don't mind resting my head against his chest. "She's gonna be real friendly, ain'tcha, honey?"
"Uh huh." I have the training to fight my way out if I need to. I think. In the meantime, the cart carries me along and my throbbing feet appreciate it.
"So why don't you join us for a little drink?" He hold the flask out to me.
"Karol," his friend protests, "this early in the morning? Besides, we're on duty."
"She's not," he says. "I meant 'join us' figuratively. Painless way to loosen tongues, that's all. I'm a decent man--I don't do torture." He shoves the flask against my lips. "Come on, dearie, you could use a sip, now couldn't you?"
Actually, yes. Scotch, it turns out, not that abominably cloying chaummin you get around here--they pay their army well. Surprisingly good quality, in fact, nice and smoky, almost like the tobacco that I could surely use even more right now.
"There, that wasn't so bad, was it? Ah, what a smile! Another? Good girl. There you go."
"I don't think she's a rebel, Karol."
"Shaddup. So, dearie, would you like to answer a few questions for us?"
Shyly I say, "Maybe after one more sip?"
He chuckles and says, "Of course, honey, anything you want." With a wink to the others he says, "She probably never tasted real whiskey before." To me he says, "We can get all kinds of nice things for women who like to travel with the soldiers, you know, keep the men happy. We like to please those who please us. Have some more...there you go, dear."
"Karol, you said she's a rebel! Rebels can't travel with the army."
"We don't know that for sure. That's what I mean to find out. Now stop interrupting me and let me get on with the interrogation." His fingers trace the curls and wrinkles of the soggy skirt on my thigh. "Now how'd you get yourself all wet, honey?"
One of them guffaws at that, but I take one more swig and say, "Chasing a goat. I fell into a creek." I let my eyes go all wide and frightened-looking. "I, I heard explosions in the night. The animals all panicked, and some broke out. I been up all night long trying to get 'em all together, and, and I saw fire, and heard things, and, and I never got my goat back!"
"Karol'll get your goat," someone says. "He's good at that." And the others laugh.
"You pay them no mind," Karol says as he cuddles me up against him. He feels warm and pleasant, his arm protective around me. "You just tell me the truth and we'll get along fine. Another sip?"
"So. Are you a rebel?"
"Are you married to a rebel?"
"Have a sip. Are you married to anybody at all?"
"Engaged? Got a lover? Got your sights set on anybody?"
"No, no, and no. This stuff tastes delicious."
"Have all you want, honey. You ain't a lesbian, are you?"
As innocently as I can feign, I ask, "What's a lesbian?"
He blushes gratifyingly. "Um, a woman who does it with women the way a wife does it with her man."
I look up at him tipsily, playing up the wide-eyed bit for all it’s worth. "Is that possible?"
He chuckles richly and hugs me. "Men, I officially declare that this woman ain't no rebel! There's not a vice known to humankind that rebels don't engage in."
"Sounds like proof to me," his friend agrees.
"So how come nobody's snapped you up, honey?"
I pout and say, "Mama watches me like a hawk. Smacks me around, too. She never lets me have any fun."
He gives me the most sympathetic look, very gently stroking my cheek, careful of the bruise. "Well, you won’t have to worry about her, ever again--here, drink up, you can have all the fun you want, now. If she tries to interfere, she'll have to reckon with the Charadocian Army."
They all look so rough. Big and rough and friendly like barnyard animals. I start to giggle uncontrollably. Then I think about men like them in that tank I hit and I burst into tears.
They stare at me, perplexed. "What's up, honey?"
I giggle all over again. "Don't play with fire," I say as I lunge back for the flask. "I'm the kind of gal that can burn a man alive." After another pull I say, "That's what Mama always says," and I try to bat my eyes as innocently as before, but before I know it I find myself weeping again.
"Uh, listen, Karol, I need to tell you something." A soldier leans over to whisper in his ear, unaware that I can hear everything he says with my ear pressed to Karol's chest, sipping like I pay no attention. "Listen. You ever hear of maniac depression?"
"Maybe. Some kind of craziness, ain't it?"
"Well, I've seen it in
action--everything done to extremes, way over the top, man.
"Why're you telling me about this?"
"'Cause she's acting just like my cousin Tika did before going bonkers. Same thing of laughing and crying for no reason, back and forth real fast like that. Girls like that, they go on to delusions--you smile at 'em and they think you're gonna marry 'em. Frown and they think you're gonna kill 'em--and maybe they'll kill you first. Or maybe they’ll just scream and wake the neighbors up, and next thing you know you're trying to explain to the cops that you never hit her or nothin'. You can't do anything right around 'em, once the disease gets going. And folks around here, you know, can’t afford the medicine to set ‘em straight."
Karol stares down on me. Dizzily, it dawns on me that it's in my best interest to play along, so I giggle again and give him my craziest, tear-stained grin. "You don't say," he says.
"Sure. I bet her mother has good reason to watch her close, maybe even bruise her up a bit to wrestle her away from something worse. Her idea of fun'd prob'ly damn near kill you."
Nervously he sits up straighter, gently pushing me away. "Uh, listen, honey, now that we've ascertained that you're no rebel, you're, um, free to go."
"Aren't you gonna protect me from Mama?" I just can’t resist.
"Your mama loves you and she probably misses you." He pries the flask from my fingers and corks it firmly.
"It's been real fun, honey, but we got duties, and, ah, I just remembered several regulations against keeping you on board after interrogation's over. Sorry about that." Beefy arms lift me out of the cart.
"Go on home, honey. Your mama's looking for you."
So here I stand, much further on my way without a step taken, and feeling so much better! I wave as the cart slowly grumbles away. Nice guys, when it comes right down to it. The tears flow again as I turn away. Or jerks. Nice jerks. I stagger off the road into the rainforest, the pistols that I stole while Karol cuddled me hanging heavy in my pockets, making my steps lurch even more than they have to. Thanks, Don, for the thievery lessons.
Wow! I have probably consumed more alcohol these past few months than in my entire life before. I shove through branches that shove back, slipping on leaves made slick with a new spate of rain. I giggle again and then hold onto a trunk to laugh my heart out. The rain clears the smoke and then the sun comes out, glittering on every rain-jeweled leaf. I totter onwards towards a clearing that I see, as new steam rises to make everything look soft. A lovely place, the Charadoc. Lovely wuvely muvelly…whoa! Pull myself back off the ground and keep on moving.
Gradually a thought works its way through the fog, about how easily that whole scenario could've turned uglier than anything I'd ever known. Jerks, definitely, and worse! And I went right along with them before any liquor crossed my lips? Insane! But Karol's friend had the wrong diagnosis--shell shock, not bipolar disorder. Thank God for the ghosts who watch over weary rebels on the road!
The trees begin to thin as the ground grows stony and upwardsly inclined, the soil shallow here. Soon I don’t have any trunks to hold onto, though I see thin little copses here and there. I have always had a phenomenal sense of direction, from all those years of hiking in tangled Til Territories; I know that Petro's Canyon lies close at hand. So, having been recently captured, prudence dictates that I veer off that path. I climb further up the hill, out of my way but in sight of it in this space so open that I can see clearly all around me. And yes, I recognize the place. So here I sit at the base of a lone tree, gazing down into the tumbled lands as I try to sober up under the spreading sun.
I doze a bit now and then, propped up against the trunk, with snatches of dreams about feasting in a rich man's house, every kind of food till my belly hurts with it, but then I wake and realize that it's just the whiskey disagreeing with my all-too-empty stomach. I open my eyes and watch Kief and Fatima climb up towards me. I wave.
"There you are, Deirdre! What're you doing here?” I let them do all the approaching, holding fast to my precarious perch upon the planet. “The cave's that way."
I smile up at Kief standing over me. "I know. I got captured and released. They say I'm not a rebel."
As Kief lifts me to my feet his nose wrinkles at my breath. "You're drunk," he says.
"Oh, not very." Yet even as I say it I can feel the last of the whiskey hit my bloodstream. We go down together towards the canyon. "Smart enough not to go direc’ly to Petro's, in case they changed their minds an’ followed me." That copse, right over there--I killed a man, there.
"She's right about that, Kief," Fatima puts in for me, her hand on his arm, her other arm around my waist. "Go easy on her--it’s not like you’re always Mr. Temperance, yourself, you know. Besides, lots of people get drunk after their first time with Molotovs. Remember Chulan?"
He grins despite himself and shakes his head. "Oh Lord, yes! She refused to sober up for three days--I thought for sure she was gonna die!"
We enter the canyon and follow the creek once more. Fatima says, "But she came through, though, didn't she? And you will, too, Deirdre." I feel her arm give me a squeeze, and then just stay there around me, steadying my steps. I can especially use her help when we come to walking on the mossy stones of the creek. Everybody's so nice in the Charadoc, even jerks are nice, everybody's so affectionate. I slip and lurch against her, but she keeps us both from a dunking.
"What's in your pockets, Deirdre?"
"Oh, yeah. I forgot." I hand over three revolvers and an army knife. "Presents from the Charadocian Army."
They laugh till they screech with hilarity, eyes bright on the weapons. Then they both hug me, colliding into me all at once, and we all topple into the creek but manage to hold the guns out of the water all the same, and we keep on laughing as we get up and sort ourselves out--and just when my clothes had finally started to dry out, too!
* * *
By the time I enter Petro's lamplit home the headache has kicked in. I barely hear Lucinda explaining that we’ll have to hole up here for awhile, till the heat dies down. I force myself to eat the overcooked soup that Petro gives me because I know I need it, not because I want any. He looks gently down on me and says, "So--I guess you passed the test of blood, huh?"
"And of fire." I glance over at Chulan, peeking out from under his blanket, and she gazes back with sympathy.