IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
Meetings and Separations
Tuesday, August 18. 2708
"Incoming," says Lufti on watch. We wake up stiff and sore, but so refreshed from actually getting some sleep that once we plod out the first zombie-like stumbles and loosen up the muscles, we start to feel as if we could make it to the sun and back. No time to cook, but Kiril passes out slices of dried kanya, sweet and leathery, for us to gnaw on as we run. And I feel okay, at first. I don't need the bitter leaf that I gathered in haste as we broke camp, stripping almost every twig on that poor bush against the evil of the days ahead.
But after the first hour all the weariness from before catch up with us, our break notwithstanding. I moan, under my breath, "Oh, what I wouldn't give to have some nice, comfy mode of transportation! Anything would do."
"Me, too," says a shy voice beside me. I glance over and discover the boy with the ash-brown hair running beside me, close enough to hear.
(The carriages have arrived. Carriages! They look like something out of a fairytale, beautiful pieces of construction, perfectly balanced on their leaf-springs, smooth and dark-sealed wood with its own utilitarian grace, drawn by well-curried horses steaming at the bits, controlled by drivers who seem to like the work, who smile as they call the boys over.)
"Slow," I call out. The pursuit sounds distant enough that we can risk walking for awhile, to conserve our energy. The boy (or man, he might be a man) smiles wryly, looks at me with gentle green eyes, then away, then back again, and the woman in me can feel that he finds me attractive, even here, even now, dirty and disheveled as I am. I can smell my own odor, but when he looks at me like that I find that I don't mind, it's not unpleasant.
He wears a long, brocaded vest, camouflaged in mud, but he has been in the revolution for a while; his last jacket went to a naked old man in the first wave of
refugees. His skin-color wound up somewhere midway between his two parents, a maple sugar tone, and it looks so soft and young, a little weathering notwithstanding: suede leather. Anybody can see that he's not pure Mountainfolk, but he has our cheekbones and that diamond shape of face–close enough.
(Since each carriage carries four apiece, Jake, Don, and I share ours with a quiet fellow, strong and slim, the dark hair curling on his brow; he has a sort of diamond-shaped face, but long, not compact like Mountainfolk. "I'm Joel," he says, and shakes our hands, each in turn, while we give him our names (or at least it feels as if we do.) Older than the average run, his family hadn't saved up the funds to send him to boarding-school till now; that happens a lot around here. He stands taller than the average, too (enough that I can tell he feels glad to find Jake and Don, so that he won't stand out too much) and his big hands bear fishing scars and calluses. His shyness seems to veil the steady confidence of someone whom people have depended on.)
He tells me that his name is Tanjin. He saw me out there, back at the pass, cowering behind that dead llama without a rifle, and fear for me wouldn't leave him be till he'd run out there with my rifle. He hesitates, then asks if I'm mixed-blood like him, and hopes he doesn't offend by asking. Not at all, I tell him. I explain about my mother, Bertha, and my father, Jacob, the romance without a future, my upbringing at Til Institute. It's a sad but pretty tale—and luckier than some, as I soon find out.
Tanjin doesn't know who his father was, except that he must've been a soldier, for his grandparents cursed the army whenever he brought the question up. The man probably had the same ashen-brown hair as his own, and might have had eyes as green.
His grandparents wouldn't let his mother stop him in the womb, and they wouldn't let her kill herself, either, at least till after he got born. They couldn't watch her all the time, his grandam told him sadly. He had to join the revolution, he tells me, to give his birth some meaning, to see to it that he didn't just come into this world to make his mother die. He stands taller than most and I think he's handsome, and maybe close to me in age. A few lines crease his brow and cheeks, in fact; he might be older still. Who can say, out here?
"Thanks for coming to my rescue back there," I say, and feel my own cheeks heat in the cold wind's bite. I have to take care. Feelings move fast out here, on the edge of death.
"Least I can do for my commanding officer," he says shyly. He steps back from my fingers that almost took his hand, though desire in his eyes plainly mourns the move.
"Uh, yes, I am," he says, and turns bright red.
Another virgin. Damn!
(Don and I ride backwards, opposite Jake and Joel, watching the land recede through the windows. The countryside has the same fairytale beauty as the carriages, green miles of intricate hardwood forest, where every so often the golden sunlight flashes through, between the clouds. Wild, untouched, gnarl and bend of bough and shuddering leaves a-twinkle—O my Jesus, such creation!)
Just when the sandstone curves start to look lovely to me again, rich in their autumnal swirls of color, I hear the echo of marching boots bounding through the canyons. "Time to run," I tell my folks, and we start loping again. God help us!
(Joel gazes out as raptly as the rest of us. He says, "My island doesn't have much in the way of trees, mates. Pity. I'd love to see this lot in autumn. Man, they say it's a sight."
I can't help but ask, "But isn't the school right in the middle of the forest?"
"The school...oh well, you know the school." He shifts uncomfortably on the hard coach seat. "You don't look much beyond the school, once you get there. Not if you know what's good for you."
Don asks, "And what else should we know that's good for us?" He puts a hand on my shoulder. "My brother and I, we're the first in our family to go to school, and all three of us hail from Lumne."
Joel whistles. "No kidding? Those hermits? I thought Lumnites almost never come into shore."
I grin. "Well, Mom has her ambitions..."
Joel interrupts me. "That's a big one, right there. My cousin told me—he's been to school. Whatever you do, once you get inside the walls, don't mention your mother. Ever." He squirms like he tries to find some position that could make his uniform comfortable. "People take it as a sign of weakness.")
* * *
Hard to push on. Painful. The breath catches, the side stitches, the feet throb. Push on anyway, for enemy hooves pound on our trail, enemy machines grind up and down the rocky terrain. Stupid, weak tears streak down my face; I hope the others don't see, too preoccupied with their own struggles. Yet still I hold off from the leaf. I haven't yet hit The Wall. ("I see the wall," Jake says, and Joel nods. Don and I twist around, poking our heads out the windows, to bring in the view. Yes, now we can see roofs and more stone walls beyond, maybe even hints of towers here and there, growing rapidly in our field of vision.) Close, though, very close. The pain mounts, the cloud behind the eyes that no blinking of the gritty lids can dispel, the pounding in my ears…yet the last time I used greenfire I killed the man I loved.
(I get this feeling, weird yet definite, that we shall soon leave the breathing world behind and enter into a mineral kingdom. I feel almost a quiver of fear.) Yet how can I stand one more hour of running in this unyielding mineral kingdom, without help? How long can they stand it, these children who stumble after me?
(Now the wall grows and grows, till we can't see even the roofs beyond it, and we face the great, oaken gates, bound in iron, closing off an arch large enough to admit two carriages abreast.
"Sit back," Joel tells us. "Savor what happens next. My cousin told me all about it.")
"Malcolm," I call him over to me, haggard and sweating as he is, still possessed of much more weight than the rest of us to carry at this hellish pace. "Distribute the leaf." And I put one in my mouth. And chew. And the bitterness explodes!
(And the gate divides into two halves, bending inward to admit us, and even before these close behind us we feel the wilderness shut off. Like that.)
And suddenly I clutch my chest in a pain like I've never felt before in my life!
(Something happens. Something freakin' happens! Something goes out of us, but then...aren't we supposed to want rid of it, anyway? We catch each other's eyes. Jake has gone dead white, in fact. A pity we hadn't brought a telepath with us...but for the life of me I can't remember which members of Fireheart Friendclan have that capacity.
"What do you feel?" Joel asks, "They say that the first moment in the school will stick with you forever. What do you feel?" And we know that he means it on the deepest level.)
Oh God oh God I lost something! Something just tore right out of my heart!
(Don's brows knit for a moment. "An exquisite loss, a hollowness...or release? Safety, now, from something frightening that has occupied my thoughts too much of late?" He laughs at himself, suddenly lighthearted. "I feel more adolescent by the minute!" I kick him discreetly, hoping that if Joel notices at all he takes it for brotherly roughhousing.
Joel turns to me, so I gather my thoughts. "I feel the loss, I think, a little less, though it hits me, too, whatever it is." Then a smile spreads through me as though from some outside warmth beaming onto me. "You know what? Whatever I've lost used to cause me sadness!" Something on the voyage over? No matter. "And...come to think of it, better than that...I feel newly freed of the opinions of…someone-or-other, someone lost many years before…" I try to puzzle it out, "… yet whose potential disapproval I've felt acutely nonetheless...but the name...I can't name this one. Oh, it makes no sense! And hey, come to think of it, why should I bother even trying to remember?" I find myself chuckling as freely as Don. And yet…
Still pale, Jake tells us, "I think I felt all that in reverse. The liberation hit me first, strange, of something I'd always wanted to push far away from myself, the memory of…of a traitor, or something like that. But now the loss…it doesn't just hollow me, it…it…Oh God–it rips something fundamental…oh Jesus!" And just like that he pitches forward with a cry, and we all stop grinning. "Something sticky…" he gasps, "… disentangles…tears in leaving…" then he speaks no more, his face taut, his teeth clenched. I grab him, and for one weird minute I hear myself with his ears, gabbling something or other over and over, but Jake can't comprehend a word of it, he can only gasp, too overwhelmed now even to groan.)
I can't even breathe, it hurts so bad! When did Malcolm show up to take my pulse? But I have one hope left, one thin strand of hope left…I don't even know what that means.
(And I feel it, that sticky strand, belonging to Jake, sort of, but still clinging by one thread to me. And it scares me, and it reassures me, and…and…and I don't know what sort of nonsense!
And then I can see the pain subside in Jake, just like that, a retreating tide. "...talk to me, Weed! Tell me what's going on!" I can hear myself make sense again. I must have jabbered the entire time.
Jake still looks raw, but he pushes himself upright and forces a grin. "Just a cramp. I'm better, now. You know I'm prone to them."
"Weed?" Joel asks.
Jake turns stern eyes on the boy. "Only he can call me that.")
And I push myself back up, and the tearing pain subsides, just like that, so I know I didn't have a heart attack, just some stupid anxiety thing—and boy do I feel great!