IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume III: Responsibility


Chapter 30

Twin Pines


Monday, June 29, 2708, continued

Our path winds on forever, through a rock-walled canyon with a rushing stream at the base, smelling faintly sulfurous.  ((Rock walls.  In earthquake country.  But then why should the military care about the survival of the inmates of its prisons?)  I touch the water, but it feels cold; if at one time it issued from a hot spring, it has had plenty of time to cool before emerging from the mountain’s flank.

Still, I tell myself, the greenery to either side of our path seems to appreciate the moisture, at least, in this arid land.  I make myself admire all the feathery shapes ruffling in the fading light, and how they give off a softer, greener scent than the paths we’d tread before.  I keep trying to revive myself on beauty, as my training taught, but it doesn’t work as well as it used to.  (Here, in the lowland jungles, the walls sweat; they reek of a perpetual war between mildew and bleach.)

The loss of Gaziley, the Twins, and two Cumenci children weighs on me, heavier with every step.  I force myself to notice, nonetheless, as the day retreats, how the stream sends up a mist that seems to sponge up color from the setting sun, luminous and pale against the deepening shade.  I remind myself to savor this, as well.  (And all of it gray, of course, in this dismal place: gray stone, gray iron, gray uniforms on the guards.  Yet they will at least permit me my own uniform, unless and until they strip me of that right.  My olive and purple stand out here, and my hair shines as brightly as a star.  I remind myself to appreciate this much, at least.)

Heck, the silent Twins might have appreciated beauty more than any of us.  They’d have wanted us to see and feel and smell and hear it all, the whisper of the wind in foliage, the evening calls of the last remaining winter-hardy birds. (We haven’t even reached the locked-down portion yet, and already I hear the distant clangor, ringing through the walls, of that place of iron bars.  And I have nothing to answer it with save the chiming of my handcuffs.) 

I wonder—can ghosts perceive through us, feed a little on the loveliness we note?  Or does that just hold them back?  The day darkens with every step, just like my mood.  (Jordan, would you look on, heartbroken, now, to see where our choices have led—if the cold clay didn’t stop up eyes and ears and sweet, sweet mouth, moldering to feed the roots of plants indifferent to our pain?  But you have gone past caring.  And I, above such superstition, must face our consequences alone.

You have already paid too much, anyway.  Sleep forever in oblivion, my darling soldier!)

 At last we have the rendezvous point in sight: those twin giant pines with no peers in height, framed by a starlit sky.  The encampment at their roots looks tiny in comparison, and evanescent.  (When we reach the intake desk, Sergeant Gentleman gives the secretary all of my relevant data, leaving me nothing to do but stare at a moisture-warped picture on the wall, faded of all color save for brown...of Twin Pines Resort.  It just had to be.

I repress a shudder, reminding myself that it’s just a place, a silly place at that, with nothing more to recommend it than one more hot spring in a nation full of them, named for a mythical pair of giant pines that nobody has ever actually seen, in the hopes of making it a honeymoon destination by linking it to a mountain fairytale.  Oh, and a photogenic mountain background that makes it crop up a lot in cheap prints and calendars.) 

Huskily Damien says, “I’ve heard stories about Twin Pines, though I’ve never seen them before.”  How does he find the energy to speak?  “They’re not from Novatierre.”  I feel like something has drained the speech from me like blood.  “A family from Earth brought along their aged grandparents, married for more than half a century, full of a love that had grown and thickened over time, deep rooted, lofty-reaching.”  But then, bards have special powers when it comes time to tell a tale. 

“Now, these two elders,” he continues, “treasured between them a pine cone.  The couple had picked up a similar cone on a memorable date, and planted a seed from it when they married.  That tree throve throughout their marriage, and its death showed them, when no other persuasion would serve, that the time had come to leave Earth behind at last.  But before it died, it bore this one last cone.”

He sighs, trudging along beside me, and his face looks grayed.  “When they died, themselves, within days of each other, the family found two viable seeds still in the cone, and planted one in each grave, close enough to each other that the roots would someday interlock and the branches touch, so that no one would forget the love from which this family sprung.”

(I will never forget the place, or our family’s vacation there, with all those friends and clients of my father’s, and a military liason to arrange the protection of a shipment—a working vacation for Father, yet a chance for us to see a bit more of him than usual.  He could find no other resort, in that season, with rooms enough for all of us at once, on such late notice.  I forget why he had to make his reservations so late, if I ever even knew, just the rush of packing.  Yet I will never forget the place and time itself, where I learned that I did not, after all, lead a sheltered life, that no such thing existed.)

As we struggle up the slope, Damien tells us, “They say that the pines will shelter anyone who comes into their shade who claims descent of that old couple.  Protect them and bless them.”  He manages a wan smile.  “As they were Mountainfolk, with many great-grandchildren who married far and wide, even some outside the country, that might mean any of us.”

When I see Kiril and Lufti frown, I find it in me to say, “Relax, kids—you’re with me,” and they brighten up.

“I do have a Mountainfolk great-grandfather,” Lufti says.  “Maybe he came from here.”

Damien nods.  “Bound to be someone in our number who’s related.”

(“You’re with me,” says a gruff MP with a bristly moustache, coarse skin, and prominent Adam’s apple.  His large ring of keys jingles with every step and twitch.  Guards step to either side of me and Sargent Gentleman won’t look me in the eye before leaving the room.

My new Sargent Gruff opens a different door, and leads me, with my escort, out of the office and into the corridors proper of the big rock dump.  Keys rattle, iron gates clang open before me and shut behind me, and more besides that, and more still till we finally reach one bleak little cell.)

We reach some stepping stones and cross carefully; nobody wants wet feet on a night this cold.  Lufti holds Kiril’s hand to steady her.

“A hot spring’s supposed to issue somewhere around here,” Damien goes on, “With healing powers. They say that it’s warmed by the old couple’s love.  Nobody has ever found it, though, that I’ve ever met or heard of.  The stream only leads to a hole in the rock too small for anyone to crawl through.”

He sighs again.  “Some say that our warring has hardened layer upon layer of stone over it till nobody can reach the warm parts anymore.  That only someone with a heart pure of any violence could ever find it.”  He glances sadly over at Aichi, who looks back with weary eyes as close to innocent as any of us will ever get, her rifle heavy on her shoulder.  She tries to smile now and then, at the ferns and reeds that crowd thirstily around the water; I catch her nodding to them as they nod back in the faint breath of a breeze.

We pause for a rest.  Lufti sits with Kiril and takes her hands in his.  “If my great-grandpa really is related to the pine-couple, Kiril, I ask right here, right now, that all of their protection for me will fall on you.”  She stares back, not knowing what to say, but then takes his tired head on her shoulder and rocks him gently.  When he starts to snore, I tell them that it’s time to get moving.

And so we stumble on, even our bard now too tired for any more words, tired beyond our exertions, almost beyond bearing, like centuries have dried and cracked and emptied all our bones.  Does anyone, anywhere, really have any shelter for us?

          (“We have no facilities for women,” the jailer grumbles.  “We’re going to have to put you in solitary, for your own safety, until your trial.”

          “Dandy,” I say with as much of a smile as I can muster.  I will at least have room to exercise, though the stone floor bears no resemblance to a yoga-mat.

          He gives me a dark look, his mustache bristling, his eyes a-glitter.  “Can’t trust the men in a place like this.  They don’t come here for being nice.”  Does he secretly enjoy the thought?

          I keep on smiling.  “I’ve dealt with rough types before.  I enlisted, you see.”

          “Not like this, Sugar.”

          “Do you mean rapists?”  I enjoy watching him turn purple.  “Honey, you don’t arrest them all.  You don’t arrest half.  I have had to take care of myself before this, you know.”  And I let my eyes sparkle with danger—it’s not only the inmates that a woman must worry about in a place like this.  “I have broken men’s bones.  I have ruptured organs.  And if you will look at my records, you will find that I was exonerated for murder, once, on grounds of self defense.”  I make myself keep on smiling, trying to think of my exoneration and not what led to it.

He shoves me into my cell, growling, “Bloody females don’t belong in the army!  What did you expect?”  The door slams shut behind me.)
          We totter into Base.  Cyran takes one look at my pallor and leads me by the arm.  I find by then that I really do need led.  E mutters to hirself, “What did you expect, Cyran?  The road you sent these poor souls on!”  Nice to see that he has shed his bandage, revealing a great, purple bruise around the new-closed scar upon his brow.  E fiddles with my rifle and bandoliers, unburdening me.

          (As he fiddles with the lock, I tell him, “Did I mention that I was thirteen in that last instance?  I hadn’t enlisted yet.”  I do shudder, then, remembering, against my will, the terror, the broken lamp, the shard of porcelain cutting my hand even as I finally managed to slash my assailant’s throat.  “Did you think that I had no reason for learning how to fight?”  I push my hands between the bars for him to unlock the cuffs at last.

          His look softens; I hadn’t expected that.  “I still have to put you in solitary.”  The cuffs join the keyring on his belt, and I rub my wrists.  “Sorry, but that’s the way of it.”

          And then I recall how Jordan, our military liason, found me there in the board room, when he came to fetch some forgotten papers—half-naked as I was, sprawling in the blood, staring up in shock at the ceiling, my assailant dead on top of me.  I remember Jordan pulling me out from under the corpse, taking me to his own quarters because I didn’t want father to see--I blamed myself for accepting the invitation into the board room, from the nice old man who offered to sneak me a sip of Father’s whiskey, not that I ever got it.  I remember Jordan peeling off the remaining rags of my bloodsoaked clothing, ignoring the stains that his uniform picked up from holding me, then bathing me so gently, so very gently, and I didn’t care right then that his family wore sleeves and had less than half the servants we did.)

I feel so spent that only when the cold air hits me do I realize that Cyran strips off my stinking shirt and poncho like the servant that e’s been, and scrubs my back clean.  And so help me, I just stand there and let hir do it.

          (“A woman needs some comfort, though,” The jailer says more to himself than me.  “Solitary’ s just not right—a woman likes to talk.”  He regards me for a moment in my cage, before saying, “I’ll see if I can scrounge up some visitors for you.”

          Jordan knew how to comfort me.  He walked me to the police station after dressing me in a spare uniform of his, cinctured tightly to make up for the difference in size, the cuffs rolled up—the first time I ever wore sleeves, and trousers.  And it felt good.  Safer than a petal-dress that someone could yank up.)

  I only come to myself when e hands me one of hir own shirts, and then, once I’ve shrugged it on, wraps me up in hir own blanket, before settling me by the fire, nestled against a low bank underneath the pines.  Then e forces me to sip a strong tea of heaven knows what herbs (but I do know that they laced it with Chaummin) as I husk out my report, surprised in my weariness to find that I have any voice left at all.

          (“My cousin Minnie, now, she’s a talker.  And sometimes she does visits over at the women’s civilian jail in town.  I’ll see if I can bring her over.”

I hardly notice him speaking, lost in my memories, as a strange weariness comes over me and I sit down on my assigned hammock.  Within a week, as we stayed in town to testify in the local court, Jordan and I had become lovers.  If love you could call it, really—I just wanted somebody nice to have my virginity, before anybody could take it from me by force.

I had trusted that other man, one of my father’s silver-haired investors--so respectable, such perfect manners, so rich.  Who would have thought that a closed door could change everything?  Who else might turn out...just like that?)

Others tend to the rest of my band; they tell me not to worry about that.  Vague figures move in the dark.  One such turns into Mori, leaning my own pack against my leg, then disappearing back into the shadows beyond the fire as I slowly turn to thank him.  I reach into a pocket of the pack, just to hold Fatima’s gift once more.  The rosy-purple focus rests heavy in my hand—it cost a lot, this stone.

(Oh God, I just remembered why Father planned this vacation in so much haste!  I’d overheard it, hardly paying attention as I told the servants what to pack, and then I forgot the overhearing.  Until now.

One of his investors, he’d said, had gotten into a bit of trouble, and needed to leave town until his fixer could clear things up.  But not to worry, he told my mother, he was sure that there was nothing to it.  Spiteful, envious people tell lies about their betters all the time.  But this man was far too respectable for anything like that to actually be true, so impeccably polite...and so very, very rich.

 I turn my face to the wall so that my jailor won’t see how my eyes fill up with tears.)

I close my eyes, fighting against tears, but in the end my exhaustion makes weeping too much trouble anyway.   And I feel my nerves relax and untangle, one by one, with every sip of tea, enjoying the silence brushed only with the wind in the pines.

(No wonder Father never spoke to me again.)

I regard the rosy stone, flickering with firelight in its translucence.  What would Fatima have done, had she still marched with us?  Would she have read scriptures over that bridge, exorcising it?  Or would she have cursed it like a whore?  Maybe both.  Yes, probably both by turns.

          (“Minnie likes to read her Bible to the fallen ladies.  I’m sure she’ll make fine company.”

          “She...I beg your pardon?”  Too late I return to the conversation here and now.

          He smiles warmly under that messy mustache.  “I’ll come back with your dinner,” he says, and the gates clang shut behind him, one by one.)

"I'm glad Malcolm finally cut that evil ol' bridge down," Cyran murmurs, "however strategic.  I could tell you tales about that bridge..."

"Please do," Damien says faintly.  I didn't even notice that he sits nearby, wrapped up like me with a steaming cup of his own in hand.

"Later," Cyran tells him.  "Not so soon after the trauma."  No, I don't want to hear those stories right now.  It's all I can do to listen to the wind moan in the ancient pines above us.  "It does something to those who cross it, and you'll need at least a day to recover.”

"Gregor force," I say, and they look at me quizzically.  "Must be magentine deposits in the rocks up there."

"Gregor force?" Cyran prods.

"Psychic pollution.  An accumulation of strong collective emotions near high concentrations of magentine can build up and take on its own life.  Do I guess rightly that someone fought a battle on that bridge?"

"A number of them.  But I think it has more to do with the original architect sacrificing his own two sons, one at each end, to guard the bridge—without getting specific enough about who to guard against."

“That'd do it.”  I refresh myself with a deep breath of pine-sweetened air and another sip before asking, "And were the posts driven into cracks in the stone full of crystals that looked something like this?"  I raise my focus with a smile and then drop my hand limply again.  Whatever's in this tea works fast.

"I wouldn't be surprised.”  Hir eyes narrow intently.  “What is that, anyway?"

"Magentine.  Different kinds of people can do different things with it.  Strap this one into the right sort of framework and a natural levitator—like me—can lift it and myself and soar offff into the skies."  It sounds too dreamy to be true right now, but I lean back against the bank and don't care who believes me.

Cyran slaps hir thigh and laughs.  "Medic, markswoman, picklock, officer—every time I turn around, Deirdre, you show me a new ability!  'What's she going to do next?' I asked myself the other day.  'Fly?'"

I smile weakly and lapse back into an herbal fog.

"So now you'll provide us with aerial reconnaissance—be our spy in the sky—excellent!"

I stop smiling.

"Which we'll need in the coming days.  The army knows our movements all too well, and wants some explanation for our numbers.  So we're going to have to give 'em a reason—we'll have to take a strategic high-point and defend it like it's worth something, to divert attention from the real work of establishing the hospital."  E bends to sketch a map in the dirt that I only half attend to.  "Preferably something that we really can use, if we do happen to hold it." E gives me a closer look. “Deirdre, do you feel up to memorizing what I have to tell you?”

I smile again; do I appear as loopy as I feel? “We Tilián have training in memorization; we can do it in darn near any state but dead.”

“Good, because I never know when I'll need to split off for awhile, so you'll have to fix the path in your mind.” I nod, and trigger the necessary partial trance.  The tea actually helps in that.  Then I pay attention to his scrawls.

Cyran traces the way on the map for me. “Here, Deirdre. It's not too far, really, a couple day's march if you push it—and I do want you to push it, because our intelligence reports that government troops march hot on Majid's tail. Then, after that...” hir fingers brush one part of the dirt sketch as e says, "Damien, correct me if I'm wrong, but your village used to farm a mesa...here?"

"If those two nearby peaks are the ones I think, yes.  Maiden's Knees, they're called."

"A perfect base for our hospital, since government maps no longer show it, and it has all the infrastructure we need, just waiting for a human hand to fix it up again. I'll want you to set Rashid up there.”

The hand moves on.  Insanely, I keep thinking how alive his fingers look, how alive!  “Then there's a few more peaks this way, overlooking a fairly useful pass...here.  A gateway to Stovak–handy, if we need a border to cross.  On the west slope of this peak, far from the social whirl, lives a wealthy, retired couple devoting their last years to good works and the church—investing, as they always have, in whatever seems most prudent for the time.  They've had a change of heart in their old age and feel led to support our cause.  And so, as it happens..." e says as e marks a cross on the map, "...they're building a chapel to St. Teresa of Avila...right here...next door to their home—patron of high places and, if I recall my studies correctly..." e says with a nod in my direction, "...levitators.  Yes, Deirdre, I’ve heard of your kind, though I never thought to meet one."  I sit up and shake off some of the fog as e says, "I'll take your acquisition of a...focus...at this time as a good omen."

Of course.  E didn’t ask what magentine was because e didn’t know, but because e wanted to see if I’d level with hir.

Then e turns to Damien.  "Your girl's doing fine, Bard."

Dark eyes look up suddenly from the map.  "There?  You found Kanarik?"

          Cyran reaches out to his shoulder.  "I know all about your beloved's sacrifice for the revolution.  She's learning to embroider with one hand, gripping the hoop between her knees."  E draws back again.  "We shall establish an outpost overlooking the pass by that chapel-in-progress," e says.  "The sooner you get Rashid safely settled into your old village-site, the sooner you will see her."



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