IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
No Illusions Allowed
Monday, August 17, 2708
I’m a bad, bad agent. I hate my mission. I hate the Charadoc. I hate this endless scramble through a harsh-rock landscape, listening for the enemy till I feel like my eardrums could crack on the moan of that blistering, sandblast wind. I hate the fear of death and I hate this life and I just wish I could go back to my home, my real home, return to my own friendclan, way back to a time before I knew how awful an agent’s life could be…
(I wake up feeling very young. I know the truth, of course; the hypnotic suggestion doesn’t sabotage my ability to reason or remember. But I relish this dawn-of-life excitement, the intensification of feelings and perceptions, the sense of endless possibilities stretching out before me, with nothing to regret and everything to hope. Dawn of life? I laugh where I lay; I’ve slept in just like a teenager would if allowed, and the bright sun pours into the porthole; the last morning I’ll ever get away with that for awhile. I shrug on a bathrobe, reluctant to spoil it all just yet with that dadburned uniform.
I shave with gusto. Older students can shave, of course, indeed must, by the grooming codes. In some ways this evokes the best of both worlds–youth with wisdom and experience. How often does anyone get a chance for a do-over? To repeat the most awkward years of life and this time get it right? I whistle as I run a comb through the inch or so of hair remaining to me after last night’s shearing (with especial care for the curl of the longer forelock permitted) till I render each strand Toulin-perfect. This cut’ll make the morning routine go so much faster! “Short-cut, hee hee!” Oh, I look forward to this!
Then I go to the galley and see nobody but Don, brewing up the sort of breakfast tea common in Toulin. Don hands me some of the last of the ration-flour biscuits to go with it, asking. “Where’s Jake?”
“Ohhh no!” I slap my forehead. “I should have thought of this!”
I hurry to Jake’s cabin and find the man still in bed, gripping the blankets tightly, staring off into nothing. “You okay, Weed?” I ask him. At the sound of his private nickname, permitted only to me, Jake relaxes just a little bit.
“I will be,” he whispers. “I...just give me a minute.”
“Take all the time you need,” I tell him. “I understand.” I sit in silence by the bunk for a moment, waiting for any sign from Jake to stay or leave. At last Jake reaches out for my hand and gives it a knuckle-grinding squeeze, but only to say, “Go on–get breakfast. I’ll come out soon, myself.”
I come back to the galley and Don gives me a quizzical look.
“That’s right,” I say. “You weren’t there when it happened.”
“When what happened?”
I spread sea-plum jam on my biscuit (Jake having finished off the raspberry) and eat it. “Back during the whole Alroy mess. Jake had one jolt after another—oracular, you know...”
“I know,” Don says softly, laying down his cup. “Part of it had to do with a vision to rescue me.”
“Yeah. Alroy twisted that one off-course really good. But the part you don’t know, the part he wouldn’t tell you, was that something had to snap, and well, it took the form, of...uh, maybe he wouldn’t want me to tell you...”
“I became a child again for awhile,” Jake says at the door and we both jump.
I stutter, “Jake, Jake, I-I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have...”
“It’s all right.” Jake pours himself tea. “Oracles who don’t face the truth die young,” He turns to Don. “For a little while I couldn’t handle adulthood anymore. I believed myself a child.”
“Which was exactly the right thing to do under the circumstances,” I put in with my mouth full, then swallow. I turn to Don. “Zanne researched all this. She said it saved his sanity in the long run, maybe even his life.” Then I feel Jake’s hand on my shoulder.
“It’s all right,” Jake says in that deep, soft voice of his. “You don’t have to defend me.”
“I get it,” Don says. “This mission brings up bad memories for you.”
Jake picks up his blue baseball cap and rotates it till he can see the golden laurel embroidery around the Til emblem. “Something like that.”
Don leans against the fold-down table and crosses his arms. “Well, then, man, just don’t go quite so far back this time. Dial it back to oh, say, that time when you had freshly passed your adulthood tests–that’s probably about the right age for the mission, anyway.”
Jake grins despite himself, color coming back to his cheeks. “You mean the time when the rest of you declared me ‘adult supervision’ to all of your housemothers, and dragged me off to that coastal hike that went on and on forever, and ignored every word I said, but left me all the responsibility?”
Don grins back. “Yeah. That one.”
Jake snaps the cap onto his head. “It’s a deal!”
I have to say, “Uh...you’re not going to wear that to shore, are you?”
“What? My head’s cold, that’s all. Shorn like a spring lamb. Wait till the morning warms up a bit.”
“Then it goes into storage and waits for us here?”
“Then it goes into storage,” Jake agrees.
By the time we don our new uniforms Jake’s head no longer feels cold, I’m pretty sure. It feels like he’s worn his hair short his entire life, by preference, free and light and cooling to the brain, same as it does for me. And Don pulls the boat into harbor just like coming home.)
* * *
No home, no shelter, not so much as a place we can trust to sit and catch our breaths. Hours grind on. Hours. Hours. Hours. And our feet just keep on beating out the minutes, as we age and age, mile by mile. I have grown so sick of wildernesses! Beautiful or not, these bright rose and amber carvings of the wind, curving all around and under us, feel hard and cold and gritty, painful to our pounding feet, sanding our hands raw when we have to climb. But whenever we start to slow we hear pursuit again.
What harm in escaping into fantasy, if a part of my mind stays detached and minds the trail? This bad mood does me no good, I'm sure. Fantasy. And where might it take me? Just for a little while I'd like a sweet manmade world, everything under control, everything quiet and privileged and utterly isolated from the outside world...
(I stroll these grounds, these beloved school grounds that have had my complete devotion since childhood, these precise green hedges, these warm and protective bricks, the peace, the order, so different from the chaos that I fled to find my refuge here.)
(The chaos cannot follow me to school. Here no hand bruises me, no smashing bottles shoot off their brilliant shrapnel, no screams disrupt the night...without my say-so.)
(…except at night, when screams disrupt the peace these days, more and more all the time. What has become of my refuge?
I must put a stop to it.) (He’ll put a stop to it, if he finds out.) (I shall, even if it does demand outside help.) (I’ve made all of the arrangements for a little test of power, just in case he tries.) (I’ve made all of the arrangements. I keep reminding myself. It’s on the way.) (Because I mustn’t fear him, either. I mustn’t fear anyone anymore. Especially not here. My refuge) (and my prison.
I return to the door…) (I stand on the landing just above the door, holding the crystal tight. Any minute now…he is so predictable!) (… the beautiful Zarmo cedar and glass and polished brass of that entry into refuge…
…and here I halt. I did not intend to halt. Why did I…I can’t move! Why can’t I move? My hand rests on the handle, but nothing happens, I feel my will drain from me, the muscles awaiting orders that the brain cannot convey…what in burning hell is going ON?
I push. I feel the drain, but I push. I feel the sweat start but I push, panting. Yes, I can still pant. I take deeper and deeper breaths, hyperventilating till I jar the ribcage enough to topple me forward against the door, reeling dizzy, but the hold on me snaps, whatever it was. I can open the door now. I can topple in, and lurch against the nearest wall, fighting to equalize my breath.
I hear giggling. I haven’t the strength, I find, to do anything about it. I cannot even raise my head to look up. I sink onto the nearest bench. “Somebody…the nurse. Somebody fetch…the nurse. Please.” But I wait a long time, on that hard, wooden bench, before I can climb to my feet by myself and make my own way to the infirmary.
This isn’t my refuge anymore. There is no refuge. Nowhere.)
(I will never fear again.)
Nothing rests me. My fantasy went in dark directions that I never meant. And when I shake it off I see the world, too, toppling down from noon, tumbling towards another night without any rest in it, food gobbled on the run, crampingly no time to digest it properly. Oh God, if we don’t get relief soon…
(The day feels like pure gold. Jake and Don and I savor the brisk sea-breezes and a fine lunch of fish sandwiches in fresh-baked bread by the quay. Snug in the cloaks that we can wrap around our uniforms, we watch the people going by, absorbing more of the Toulin ambiance by the minute. Fisherani, merchants, garden-wives with their carts of the season’s produce, cider-peddlers singing the leering songs of their trade, hunters saying nothing but standing beside the strings of pheasants and hares while servants close the actual deals. Potters shape their wares in public view, even as more surround them to dry in the cloud-flickering sun, awaiting their turn in the kiln. Gadgeteers hawk little household machines, imported from other lands in exchange for the good canned fish and lobster of the cold north seas. It all seems so vital! I’ve witnessed my share of countries in trouble, but so far I’ve seen nothing but wholesomeness, here, wherever I look.)
I hear…no! The enemy’s too close! I whistle bird-codes to tuck my children away into safety, in the folds of stone high above the slot through which we’d run. We hold our breaths, the cold, whistling wind moaning through a stony throat in our stead…
(Then I see Jake rise in horror to his feet. I look where he turns, and see, across the road, that a dog has gotten tangled in fishing-line, frothing and struggling, in fact strangling. People step over her, lifting their cloaks up out of the way.)
Then I hear and see a cavalry on muleback, clip clop clip clop weary drum of echoing hooves. Good guerillas would shoot right now, but I feel too tired for glory. Maybe they’ll just leave us be, pass us by. Maybe the whole front will pass us, and we can rest…
…and maybe a bleating goddam llama will panic and suddenly run straight down towards them! And the bullets ring off the stone, theirs and ours, whizzing and screaming holy murder as we rain down fire on their sorry heads and the ricochets fly everywhere, chipping off sandstone shrapnel knives a-flying and someone in our own ranks screams…
(Jake leads as we run towards the dog, but already her struggles grow more feeble. Yet before we get there the hunter sees where we head, and why. He pulls out a pistol, shoots the dog neatly in the head and ends her misery. Then he cuts the line and picks the dog up by the foot, to hurl her out to the sea. Now he turns a gaunt and empty stare at us, saying nothing.
Over and over I keep repeating, in my head, “But he could have saved the dog. All he had to do was cut the lines around her throat. He could have saved the dog.” Aside from a jump at the sound of the shot, nobody else has even noticed anything going on.)
And in minutes it ends. Nothing but blood, wherever I look, whatever I do. We killed this lot, right down to the mules, their innocent black eyes wide open and staring at nothing. We could have used a mule. Quickly we loot every pack, body, and saddlebag, with a special eye for ammunition and weaponry—the two things that the Penitent Brotherhood could not provide for us.
I almost give the order to butcher the mules, but then I hear more grinding, more clopping hooves, more marching boots. So instead I order my weary kids to run forward around a bend, and then run backwards back to us, footsteps in the sand, so that it looks like twice our number took off down the canyon…and then vanished. Then, quickly, I lead them in a climb, llamas and all, up the unmarkable stone. over a saddle of sandstone into another canyon. That’ll open the soldier’s eyes!
(After that I keep my eyes open. Don makes the usual arrangements to rent pier-space for our boat, alongside those of the other students who have come in by sea this day. It reminds me of Til, where learning to sail counts as a major rite of passage, just like here. I almost relax again. Our landlord (sealord?) shall make regular deductions from our stipend, and then send the rest on up to the school for our tuition; we won’t even have to think about it, once we sign the papers. As I take my turn doing so, I notice that whole rows of boats have taken on water, and a number have sunk, forgotten.)