IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
Change of Route
Saturday, August 15, 2708
We start out at dawn, our beasts more laden than before, the jingling harnesses setting a jaunty percussion in counterpoint to the weather’s never-ending moan. Everyone seems in the best of spirits, with bellies full of food and hearts full, too, of imagining Rashid’s joy when we deliver so much of what he needs.
Even Malcolm has more bounce to his step this morning; indeed, the more weight he sheds, the more buoyant he becomes, as if his muscles, accustomed to old burdens, almost pitch him to the sky. He told me, last night, what he’d been through to come to this point, and what liberation he has found at last. He told me everything.
Soon the road cleaves through the mountains down a different way and we leave the worst of the wind behind. The sandstone takes on new colors along this turn: rich hues of ocher and rust, melon and black, sienna and bittersweet and gold—ai, the swirls upon swirls of folding geologic history! The vegetation, though still sparse, grows thicker and more confident along this road. It doesn’t take long before the children start to sing, “We the wanton, wild vine...”
So why does my heart leap with fear?
“Hush,” I say, and the softness of my voice silences them more soundly than a shout. “Halt. Hold the llamas. Muffle the tackle.”
We stand there, scarce daring to move. I listen, listen...the wind still whistles high overhead, a faint rustle of...
Not animal rustling!
“Down! Scatter! Shelter!” I whistle piercingly like three different kinds of birds, out of season and far from home. Warriors and wounded and llamas all scramble for what hiding they can wrest from rock or tree or under bank, what little the ravine can afford to either side of the road. Bullets chase the last of us.
Where...I scan the road ahead. Of course, you idiot, the perfect place for an ambush! The government knew what kind of man paid the bribes for Malcolm’s sake, and they knew why he had to stop. They must have staked out this pass from the moment our dentist escaped.
But how many? It’s been awhile; they might have reduced the numbers over time, as calls came for soldiers elsewhere. And maybe that’s all they need.
There...the glint of sights, searching, moving like no fleck of crystal in the rock should move. And...over there, another, on the other side. Two bases, maybe only two gunmen. I review my knowledge of geology—where will the rock best fission the way I want? Okay, I see the faults—the safest, most efficient way to get out of this. Not that “safe” or “efficient” mean much here. All right—go for it.
I wriggle on my belly to the llama with the cooking supplies—then roll behind the next rock just in time to miss the burst of fire! Three bottles of cooking oil, we can spare that. Good ol’ volatile stapleseed oil—we know what that can do. I drop handfuls of bullets and matches into each, then tear off the hem of my winter outer-skirt and stuff rags into the bottles with flannel tongues hanging out for wicks...
It’ll take our tiniest, most agile little soldiers. The hardest ones to see. The ones I know by name.
Kiril and Lufti have followed me with every move. Good thing they did, and I wish they hadn’t. I hug them tightly under each arm and whisper their instructions, pointing out the weaknesses in the stone till I’m sure they know exactly where to throw. I tell them what paths to take, then I hand them two bottles as I strive not to weep till they can’t see me anymore.
But if the soldiers spy them—No! I must divert the enemy! Now! I seize the snipers’ attention by riding out underbelly, gripping the llama’s harness as the frightened animal bolts at the gunfire hailing down at us. I know that the soldiers can see my feet poke up out from under the wool—they wouldn’t fire at a mere animal otherwise, they’d know it for a ruse. When she takes a bullet I swing behind her to use her body for protection as I light my own Molotov and fling it uselessly down the middle of the pass. Lead, glass, and fire whizz in all directions. Blood blasts over me as the next bullet goes right through the beast and narrowly misses me, a red gush steaming in the cold, cold, sweating hour as I shout rebel slogans like a madwoman and wish I’d had the sense to grab a gun.
“Deirdre! Here!” A wild youth zigzags from his shelter to throw me a rifle, then dives down beside me and fires over the llama like his soul depends on it. Who? What name? I shoot and thank God for the grace of the gun and can’t even take time to glance at the ashen-haired head beside me. Keep their attention, keep them firing, keep them...
BOOOOOOM! shouts the mountain, falling down into the pass with sharp knives of rock taller than the men who tumble down with them. Dust and smoke roil up and come right for us—but so do Kiril and Lufti, alive, oh alive, running as fast as their little legs can pump! I sweep them up in my arms and lead the retreat from the road that no longer exists, before any reinforcements can see the explosion and come after us.
Sunday August 16, 2708
They do come for us. The guard wakes us before dawn and we take off, eating on the run, the boy with the ash-brown hair tossing me a water-skin with which to wash it down. Forces must have indeed lain in wait all this time, their soldiers rested to the point of boredom, fresh and eager on our trail.
And they have transportation, and we do not. Every time we sag against the rock, panting for our breath, we hear the gears of those narrow tractor-things, or the clop of soldier’s horses, or…
“Mules,” Kiril mutters, sweat running in her eyes so that she can hardly open them. “More likely they ride mules up here.”
I stare at her. Then at the pink sandstone that she leans against. Then she pushes herself away from that rough comfort with the rest of us, and we run once more, half in a stupor. I doubt she even knew what she just said.
Has anybody ever analyzed the mineral content of this wasteland? The smaller the particle of magentine, the less controllable. Could it actually mingle in with miles and miles of sedimentary rock—in a wartorn land like this? No wonder the Charadoc has grown so haunted!
Time crawls on, as inexorably as the treads of Soskia Peshawr’s machines. Every time we try to rest we hear them again. The sunset-colored landscape briefly luminesces as the real sun sets, and we rest our pain against the sight, trying to think of peaceful times and places, anywhere but here.
* * *
(The sunset waters look so peaceful, like innocent schoolboys who swear that they would never misbehave, not in a million years, that ol’ storm from days before (and the brief but very wet squall that we got through earlier today) must have come from some other quarter. So now, after my Sunday prayers, I turn to the cabin and light lamps with that combustor-power that God gave me, and Jake hangs one on a hook above a chair, out on the deck beside the cabin, making a ring of golden glow right there. As we do this Don brings out the scissors.
Now we cut each other’s hair. The red and blonde and chestnut locks fall to the deck like autumn leaves (and we've heard that nothing surpasses autumn in Toulin for beauty, though we'll have to wait for it) soon swept overboard: a final gift of our old selves to the sea before cultural immersion sets in. All agents understand this magic moment, when the act of donning the garb and the appearance of our mission-country triggers a change inside, and we start to become new people altogether.
Not quite yet, though, not completely. The full change will have to wait for the morning, when we shall arrive at the dock attired for the school already, proud of the rare chance for a Lumne boy to get a proper education. For now, however, we have time to go inside for a final dinner on board together, of our dried and pickled, canned, candied and salted fare, and one last chance to raise beers together before becoming “underaged”.
For just a little while, too, we desire, as agents often do, an evening’s talk of home. Nothing much, really, just all the little things untouched by worldwide politics, important to no one but ourselves, that we must soon do our best to forget. Not surprisingly, the normally shy Don rambles on and on about wedding preparations. Jake never does say much, if he can help it, but he smiles and listens and nods at all the right places, warming just to hear someone else enthuse.
And me, the extrovert of the threesome? For once I just don't feel like inserting witty jibes into the conversation. I smile wistfully at Jake; I haven’t seen him with short hair for years. I give myself time to honor, mourn, and let go all of those private moments of running my fingers through those long, luscious locks now swirling in the ocean.
My attention returns to the conversation. Lisa wants a bright turquoise wedding-dress, with Don in Prussian blue. She wants to bead it, herself. She might even wear make-up for the occasion. I mull my own memories quietly, my feet pointed at the radiator to warm and dry (stupid Istislan cobblers!) until my thoughts finally can turn and face tomorrow.
I shudder, and finished my beer in a gulp, remembering the uniforms that await us. When people think of the sacrifices inherent in cultural immersion, they picture us poor agents shot at and pursued, or gnawing wild beast over a campfire with troglodytes (which actually sounds closer to some of our camping-trips back home) or enduring strange extremes of climate. They don’t think of boy’s school uniforms.
I glance over the bow, at the lights of Port Iris in the distance. We could have sailed in this very night, if we’d wanted. But we have one last thing to do.
Beers finished, we do that final thing before we turn in for bed. We each clasp hands, and solemnly repeat each other’s new names. Going to bed, repeating a certain rhyme as soon as one’s head hits the pillow, will trigger the hypnotic suggestion set in place back in Til, so that, from the moment that we wake in the morning until we leave Toulin’s borders once more, our minds will translate “Don”, “Jake” and “Randy” into our aliases without effort. Even in our debriefing later we will recall everything as though we'd said “Don”, “Jake” and “Randy” all along. Or so I’ve heard.
Already, before we'd set sail, we'd relinquished our legal status as citizens of Til. But never, ever, can we forget the Lovequest Vow.)
* * *
A thousand icy stars wheel overhead, and still we run and hide and run and hide. The grind of engines echoes through the rocky hills and canyons, never leaving us for long. We have made a grave error, stumbling into a region where none of us know the land—the second most terrible mistake that a guerilla can fall prey to. The thin air hurts in our lungs and the miles pain our legs. A lopsided moon shines brightly enough for shadows and is not our friend. We flee this way and that, pathless in the dark, the clear way home blown up. All of us, down to the smallest child, feel years pile on with every hour. The wounded may not last the night.
But we robbed the Charadocian army of their pass, when they thought they had us in their grip.