IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
II: Tests of Fire and Blood
Escape from Sargeddohl
Wednesday, May 27, 2708
(I yawn, put away the files, and tell my aide-de-camp to let nobody disturb me, not even if they bring cannons. I sit on my cot and slowly, wearily, pull off my boots. The orders have just gone out to compensate for the tanks that will not show up. So I can—finally—afford to sleep.
Training prepares us all to pull a twenty-four now and then. Just not back to back. Oh, the means exist to drive on anyway, but one has to set it by after awhile—too much of that can ruin a girl’s good looks. I twist a crick out of my neck, shrug off the uniform shirt, and release myself from the bra’s stern embrace.
My aide has kindly provided a pitcher of warm water and a bowl, with my favorite scent of soap: starlight gardenia. I finish stripping and I wash the hours off of me, gratefully. Rearranging military movements take a lot of paperwork—people have no idea how much warfare we must wage, ingloriously, from a field-desk.
Ah well, the loss hasn’t hurt us nearly as much as it might’ve. I hope my fellow generals take note and give me credit, though of course they won’t. Peshawr Industries took my advice and multiplied factories all over the country—good for employment, too. The people ought to thank me, as well. Production goes faster than ever. Those bratty revolutionaries haven’t accomplished a thing. Well, not much. Not that much.
I put away everything, soldier-tidy, as it should be. Then I unbind my hair and shake it all around my shoulders. At last I flop back onto my cot, feeling my pillow try to comfort my aching brow. My aide comes in and spreads the blanket over me, bless his crusty heart.)
My head hurts by the time we finish for the night, and I recall the past few days in aching clarity. The old nun's incessant muttering doesn't help one bit, though it seems to have tapered off to nothing, now, come to think of it. Maybe she got as tired as I of hearing herself.
She gives us water when we ask for it and clucks her tongue when we turn down breakfast. I can almost hear her commenting on how growing children with naught on their bones but skin have no business turning up their noses at food, no matter how debauched their little tummies, but no, she doesn't say a word. I guess I've gotten so used to Sr. Assunta’s style that I can imagine precisely what she'd say. She does stuff bread and cheese into our pockets, "For later," she insists, and we try to express the gratitude that we surely shall feel...later.
Now back again, by yard and by alley and by ditches behind the estates, and this time the prospect looks evil, the night darker, the ground feels harder beneath our feet, and patrolling police seem to lurk everywhere--I can feel them in my queasy gut. After the revolution I will put this dissolute life behind me, oh God I swear! This isn't really me; Deirdre Keller is a good girl. She doesn't normally have any need to drink away memories or hide from police; she is not actually a...
As we split up to make our separate ways back to the brothel, I find myself walking with Fatima and we chat about events without alluding to anything illegal.
"Good bit of volunteer work you did at the infirmary," she says. "I don't know anybody who could've done as well in the same, uh, situation."
"Oh, after the cooking-accident? Thanks. But I tell you, I thought that old woman's jabbering was gonna drive me out of my mind."
"The Big Woman. You know very well whose."
"Her? Ms. Silent Treatment? She hardly said a word the whole time, just things like 'Pass me the saline solution,' and 'Not that door, the other door.' I would've loved it if she'd said one word about what she obviously had on her mind about all of us, but she wouldn't give me the satisfaction of telling her off."
I stare at her in amazement. "You didn't hear her? She had plenty to say, believe me!"
Fatima stares right back at me, looking a little concerned. "You imagined it all, Deirdre. You were very drunk." We walk in silence after that; I feel a wee bit concerned, myself.
"She's one of them!" I hear a sudden shout. "She's the one who shot my brother!" A whistle pierces high into the air as we take off at a run. I hear pounding hooves behind us--oh God have mercy, it’s the mounted police and we're on foot! We dive into another alley, then I boost Fatima over a fence so fast I feel like I fling her up, then I climb after; she tugs me to hasten me so that I wind up scraped by the wood and bleeding--oh great! Now they can send a protein sample to Istislan and get my DNA, or send to Til and tag me psychometrically, or...never mind! I kick away the little barking dog and scramble over the next fence, straight into the rosebush that makes instant rags of Fatima's negligee, and leaves more blood samples for the Sherlocks on our trail.
"We've got to make false trails, fast!" I grab a handful of the flimsy stuff she's wearing, rip it off running, big, wet footprints in a well-watered garden, snag it on one fence, leap to--no, now I'll leave muddy footprints on the rocks. Frantically I yank off my sandals, throwing one in the same general direction as the rag points to, motioning Fatima to kick off hers as well and pocket them--can't leave them here. Then leap! We hop dry-footed from stone to stone till we get to sidewalk again and run like crazy into the other direction, feet barely audible pounding on the pavement but oh we feel the jolt, hoping nobody sleeping by the windows overhead hears anything to wake them. Fatima clutches at her rags more to keep from tripping on them than from any shred of modesty; her little breasts already bounce free like a frantic version of some French painting of Liberty.
Whoa--horses ahead! Veer off! They gallop straight after us and we run and we run but we can't outrun a steed bred for the race.
"Deirdre! Fatima!" Kief calls out. I turn and see him, gray and doubled with pain on the back of a sorrel paint driven by a red-haired imp, Aichi clinging wide-eyed to his back. "Don't go back--they've put Madame's to the torch. We'll regroup at Tumblebugs, one week hence." And off they gallop, heads down in the dark and racing like the Apocalypse.
We swerve and scramble down a direction different from our and their pursuers and our false trail and their real one. Now we force ourselves to slow, to look less suspicious, though the dark won't hide for long Fatima's lack of clothes. We turn and turn again, till we find once more that neglected clothesline gathering dew instead of drying, and we quickly dress Fatima in the damp stuff: boy's leggings and a low-class tunic, a bit too big but we can tie it up. She coils up her braids into one of the kerchiefs that gardeners and fieldhands wear, knotting the corners of the square on either side of her head, and suddenly our harlot-nun has become a fresh-faced peasant youth. "I've learned more from Cyran than how to shoot," she says with a grin as soon as we steal out of there.
Sorrel paint--didn't the twins ride chestnuts the last time around? But those horses must stable miles away. Have they trained mounts all over the countryside? And why didn't Lucinda send them by horse instead of by cab? That could've prevented this whole mess.
"Some among us say that the twins speak to horses, not people," Fatima murmurs to me as we take a brisk but hopefully unsuspicious walk towards neighborhoods with less police. "Lucinda doesn't know half the places they've trained horses or who keeps the beasts for them. Nobody knows but them and they ain't tellin'."
"You're a telep..."
"Shhhh!" she adjures me, then slyly draws out her luck-doll. I see a small cross and a bead of magentine strung alongside it, wound in silver. "All that, and a damn good thief, as well." Then she winks, saying, “And yes, the Big Woman thought everything you thought she’d said, just not out loud. It made me soooo mad.”
"Listen, 'Tima, if you can snatch me a scrap of magentine sometime, I'd be able to..."
"There she is! After her!"
Again we run--it's me! I'm the one they recognize, not her. Why me? You'd think my Mountainfolk blood would blend right in, but...over there--that way! Up those trash-crates, over the wall, across the yard and into the next street--right into the headlights of a car! I dive to the side with Fatima under my arm, my reactions faster than hers, but the car screeches to a halt.
"Get in! Quickly!" a deep voice roars.
"Shut up! Hurry!"
Idiot, Deirdre--shout his name in the street! Fatima and I scramble for the car and we peel rubber screeching out of there. Horse beats feet, but car beats horse--we just trumped the enemy.
Malcolm curses steadily under his breath while veering through the narrow alleys, the shockless old jalopy convulsing under us as he jumps curbs and sails off speed bumps. But soon the streets widen, he blends into the traffic, and then the buildings begin to thin and the pavement give way to dirt as we rattle off into the countryside.