IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
Assessing the Situation
Tuesday, August 18, 2708, continued.
(“Polite young men,” I think, regarding the agents in my private study: two tall ones—the brunette almost freakishly so—and one disarmingly short, all three of them settled deeply into the leather cushions, weary from their journey yet eager to hear whatever I have to say, sipping cautiously at the kusmet that I’ve poured (since I know them secretly adults) more for show than anything, hardly actually tasting it–strictly professional, then. I might easily have mistaken them for weathered farm-boys or fisher-lads, otherwise. Yet boys would have grinned at each other, not believing their luck, and then gulped at the drinks, and then winced, and laughed again. But these men do not need to fake immaturity in the privacy of my study.)
Music keeps playing in my head, the same loop over and over, from the island parties of my youth, before I passed my adulthood tests, when I could leave all of my responsibilities to my elders in the friendclan, and just play, wildly play the thambriy like I hammered the world into a better shape, a world of notes and chords, while the others fought to harmonize, and Randy kept the beat with his drumming, anchoring me lest my soul whip away on the hurricane of song.
I suppress a giggle fit. Everybody moves to Randy’s beat. I half believe that everyone hears the same music, the whole world dances to it! And dances and dances and dances and the dead right along with the living.
(That short one, the youngest and humblest-looking despite his bright hair, would be the oracle’s keeper. I have the information on each of them, and know their abilities and functions within the team. What strengths must the little redhead hide behind that open-seeming face? What must it entail to keep this giant stabilized and under control, the big man who looks so tough and down to earth, yet I’ve been fooled before by looks, oh yes. What strengths, in fact, do they all hide? That, really, is the question, isn’t it? Almost more than the present troubles of the school. Almost.)
But I don’t really believe that I hear music. I know better. I can stay sane this time. I don’t hear anything but my fellow human beings and the sullen wind, I don’t see anything but stone and sand and sky and my soldiers running with me, and I don’t feel anything but a pleasant quiver of excitement. Just what I signed on for when I became an agent. It’s going to be all right.
(I still feel it—that faint sticky tendril. Irritating. And yet dear, somehow. Associated with my beloved Jake, or…? Whatever, no matter how much it rankles, I must not let go. He wouldn’t want me to let go.)
Night has long since closed around us. Night, the rebel’s friend, out here where none can see us but the staring stars. None stir to hear the faint scuffle of our feet on sandy rock. I hope to get the jump on the enemy, to keep on moving while they sleep. I hope the music drowns out our smaller sounds.
Yet less distracts me when the colors wash away to leave me nothing but the dark and pale. Memories well up in me out of nowhere, of hanging out with Jake, especially on that long coastal hike that Fireheart Friendclan took, under Jake’s nominal supervision. Not that we minded a word he said, but we took comfort in his overlarge presence anyway, shielded under his muscle from the evanescent nightmares and worries of childhood.
I look out on all the young people, fleeing across this stonescape with me in the cold moonlight. Do I offer them anything near the same comfort, at all?
(Nice office. Comfortable. Much nicer than many a mission we’ve taken on. Real leather graces the chairs, with more than enough padding in them—not like the student chairs I’ve seen. Polished wood paneling reflects the cozy fire in the fireplace, which smells of fruitwood, probably prunings from the school orchard. And oh, the warming of this kusmet, the sweet complexity—the man has excellent taste. But go easy on it, Randy m’boy. You’ll need your wits about you.)
I reel a bit, and then recover, pounding on. Randy always used to warn me against overdoing it—is that why I miss him so? Why I feel closer to him, right now, than to Jake himself—wishing that somebody would tell me to slow down, relax and smell the gunpowder?
And why get sentimental about that stupid coastal hike? Jake lost me! I fell asleep on the beach, and woke up shivering in the dark all alone with sand in my damp swimsuit. Oh, he was mortified when he came back looking for me (on the wrong beach) but still, he left me behind! The bastard lost me for three freakin’ days! If it weren’t for a kindly family camping out nearby I would have had no supper…like right now. Where are you now, Jake? As if I bloody care!
I giggle, just can’t help it—what would he think of me for running around the clock like this? Not that I owe him any explanations, now or ever. Now if it had been Lisa, she'd probably tie me up or something. She doesn't take no for an answer when her blood gets going. But she has gone so far away that I ache with the distance of it. Shouldn’t she be here, or something…but what am I thinking?
(Someone ought to be here. I see an empty chair, and it hits my heart with a pang. Something that I ought to forget, that our entry should have erased from me. I shall be punished. Now wait one doggone minute—where did that come from? Definitely put the glass down.
I look towards Don while the Headmaster puts the decanter away. Somehow he ought to remind me of something…something he kept repeating on the boat? But all I can remember, right now, is the storm.)
The sandstone underfoot slants now this way, now that, eerily like a ship's deck caught in various stages of a storm. Slippery like one, too, what with the gravel underfoot, sliding over rock. But I can't slow down. Sheer momentum keeps us upright, helps us correct mistakes before they topple us.
We toss a waterskin back and forth between us, but we dare not slow. The canyons carry distant echoes: officers of the Charadocian Army shouting unintelligible orders, marching boots, clopping hooves, rumbles and grumbles of dubious cause. That blends with the music, too, as accents and percussion. The weird rock faces bounce the sounds around so much that we can’t tell where they come from, or how far off.
(I try to remember faces from my friendclan, but fuzzily, not all of the faces there. Fierce-eyed Merrill, of course, but…weren’t there more? I shake my head. One glass of cordial should not affect me so! Trying to remember at least one face, the delicate features…Jesse? No, not him…)
I remember, out of the clear blue, how my friendclan used to call me delicate in appearance. I sure don't feel delicate now! Not even much like a woman at all. I feel like a raw old warhorse, pounding through this desert like the Wild Hunt rides me.
Now comes a sandy stretch, incipient dunes between the hills of rock. We slog through up to our ankles, wrenched into slowness when everything in us cries out for speed, as the sand tries the mettle of whatever footgear we have. The llamas get atop it best of all, carrying the wounded ahead of us, but we soon catch up, scrambling up the side of the next spur of rock.
“Here, drink more water, Deirdre.” Green-eyed Tanjin lopes beside me and hands me a full waterskin. Our hands touch when he does. My heart beats fast because of running and greenfire and nothing else. I know it's nothing else than that.
Kiril comes by now, passing out a tough corn and bean bread that the monks had made, crumbling in our hands, insisting that we eat it even though we have no taste for it and can’t slow down anyway—for my heightened perceptions have started to calculate the rock-angles that would bounce those echoes just this way, and to count the reverberations that can tell me something of their distance, and I don’t like what they tell me. But yes, now I do know. And the sweat turns cold upon my back where the wind never lets it be.
Just in time—my instincts haven't failed me, even if my mind wanders strangely, so that the countryside keeps surprising me as though I've run with my eyes closed, which I know I haven't. Because now I can hear the clop of hooves grow louder, still distant but drawing closer fast. I signal my children to hide in a stony nook on one side of the canyon, while I take the wounded and the llamas to one opposite to it. I chuckle to myself, silently, nestled into that scoop of a cave, gazing across at Kiril and Lufti and Tanjin, our ghosts crowding close around us in the dark. Let them try and send MAT against us! The bulldozer front would have precious little success plowing away solid rock, and trying to climb over would topple a behemoth like that. I quiver in sudden delight for this particular location, of all places in the Charadoc.
(I describe the early tensions to the agents, in chronological order, though my initial lack of evidence embarrasses me. The odd glances I’ve caught exchanged between the boys. The sounds at night, different from the old school’s normal creaks and pops, the footsteps just out of reach, the hushed voices barely on the edge of hearing, but when I got there no one found. The nightmares, the sense of pressure, the intuited growth of something horrible.
They take me seriously, before I even reach the harder evidence. They listen and ask questions. And once, when I hesitate, on the verge of some really absurd confession, the redhead smiles gently, saying “Don’t worry, sir,” and the smile becomes ironic, as if from experience, and he adds, “You are not crazy.”)
I hold back still more snickering. I am not crazy. I will do just fine this time. I don’t see anything wrong with my reasoning, just more vigor that’s all, more appreciation of the beauty all around me, more confidence. Perfectly normal, in fact, other than the oddity that technically I ought to have passed out from a weariness that I no longer feel. Is that such a bad thing?
We crouch in our high-ground shadows, poised behind the sere land’s piled abundance of weaponry. We must not shoot guns; I have given the order. The enemy must not know for certain which of these erosion-grooves we travel. But falling rocks remain a peril even without a human presence.
There! I see them—and the fear flares up, magnified, and I shove it down by brute force. Not only in myself—if there’s anything to the allegations that I have some trace of telepathy, then let my will reverberate in every rebel soul, shouting, NOT ONE SOUND!
(They speak perfect Toulinian, not a trace of accent. Almost too well; one should expect a touch of Lumne twang in there. But when I mention this they immediately press me to give them some examples. I can feel my face heat up almost unbearably, but I did bring the subject up, so nothing will serve but that I must give my best impression of that uncouth backwoods dialect. They make me go through every vowel, and inquire whether unconventional consonants come with the package.)
Now the enemy comes closer, made strange by moonlight and shadow, sketches, not real people at all. Ghost mules and the skinny, tractorlike killing machines, no MAT in sight. March, march, let them fancy themselves safe, holding their lights before them, trying to track our footprints in the windblown grit.
I wait. No cry nor whistle shall signal my troops, just the crash of the rocks that I shall push, to tell them when to shove their own. I wait…greenfire flickering with impatience in my brain…I wait…NOW!
And the falling rocks sound like applause, and the screams like cheering crowds! And the music surges louder than before.
(Now, once they have the twang of Lumne down, they speak that way for the rest of the meeting–again, perfectly. The blonde one does say, “You understand, sir, that at least one student has heard us speak without an accent before now. We shall have to then say that stress brought the twang back out of us if he mentions it, and then we shall gradually phase it out again. Yet he might not have even noticed.”
I find such attention to detail unnerving, that they can–so instantly!–govern even the slightest nuances of speech. Whatever rumors I have heard about Til training pales in person.
I must assume equal discipline in their ability to fight, I suppose, to defend themselves or others, or even perhaps to serve some principle dear to the Tilián alone. I must assume that they could become dangerous.)
Swift on the heels of the initial stone-storm come the rocks aimed for heads with deadly force. Kiril outdoes herself, accelerated by the greenfire leaf, and Lufti’s always had a good aim, too. Tanjin, I notice, also throws with veteran accuracy. I’ll have to remember that.
(I swallow, hoping that none of these speculations reach my face. What an uncalled-for thing to think! They did come, after all, on my invitation, to help me in my difficulties.
Yet lately rumors have trickled in from the faraway Charadoc down south, something or other about the government inviting in Tilián agents, only to have these turn on them in some ghastly fashion. I normally do not heed such rumors from the outside world, but circumstances make it suddenly pressing.)
And then, once we have stilled them all, we climb down quickly to plunder their bullets and their weaponry. And then we flee, for all we’re worth, before any of their own discover this evidence that the land alone didnt kill these men, for what use do Mountain Maidens have with guns?
(I tell them more, the soft evidence gradually hardening, at least to me. I fear their disbelief, and then I find myself wishing for it, wishing that they didn’t listen so intently, nodding as though what I say means more to them than I can possibly imagine, that they comb my every word for clues to something even darker than my fears…)
“Deirdre, NO!” Kiril grabs my arm. I open my eyes right before I run straight over the brink of a ravine. Heart in my throat, I scramble to exert enough levitation ability to keep us both from falling, realizing just how dangerously depleted I’ve become—I couldn’t fly to save my life! My heart still pounds as I run with the others back to the safest route. With a creeping scalp I realize that the voices I'd heard didn't speak Charadocian, or any other tongue that I recognize, and yet I understood them, every word. And now, in a blink, I remember…nothing.
“I must've fallen asleep on my feet,” I mutter, as we slow to a walk for awhile, to catch our breaths, and to let me reorient myself. “I thought I heard something…vital information…” This windblown stretch of rock, shaped by no human hand, and all the stars above, bears no resemblance whatsoever to...where was I, anyway?
“You were hearing things,” Kiril grumbles. “Leaf can do that.”
(I reach the disagreeable end. “I know that when I sent word I had no concrete evidence of something wrong, but that has since changed.” I tell them of the discovery in the goat pen, and of the poor chickens, God have pity on them. And I confess, as well, the strange weakness that I suffered in the doorway, feeling that this matters, somehow, too.
They look at each other meaningly, and then back at me. Are they telepaths? But no, the message from Til Institute had inventoried them quite precisely. One oracle. One combustor. One psychometrist with trace telekinesis. The only available telepath at this time just happened to be...something inappropriate, I can’t quite recall what.
I excuse myself for a moment. I get up and rummage in my desk. In my dream last night I kept reading and rereading that letter, but in the morning I could not recall a word of it. I review it again, forcing myself back to the paragraph about the telepath. A female. Too bad. No helping it. All others on duty elsewhere. They did suggest, if I’d give the go ahead, that this female had a masculine appearance, unusual tallness and a certain squareness of the jaw, and could pass for a boy if I thought the disguise worth the risk. They even included a picture: a tough-looking thing, this Lisa Katchuri, squint-eyed and disturbing. The Til oracles did recommend a telepath for the work. This one even has a relationship with the blonde young man, and could have passed as his “special friend”, and through the privacy thus gained with him conceal h...her gender.
But...no. Preposterous! Too much risk, in too many ways. And so I fold up the letter, put it back into the desk, and forget about it even as I walk back to my chair.
The redhead says, “We have had experience with, uh, religions gone sour before, sir.” His face looks kindly, like a doctor reassuring a patient. “A tricky business, granted, but not virgin territory.” I find myself uncomfortably rearranging my seating.)
We have long since left all paths behind, running through virgin territory. I lead only in the most nominal sense, towards whatever route looks safest, if route you can call that which leads to no goal.
Yet perhaps others have come this way before us. Perhaps the rock remembers their passing. Perhaps it does hold particles of magentine in its rosy striations, and perhaps travelers over the years have left a sort of benign gregor force behind them, marking the trail, a ghost-road for us to follow, if only we can tune into it.
(“Do you know what a gregor force is?” the redhead asks.
“I can’t say that I do,” I answer, feeling almost smug in my ignorance. It sounds like the sort of thing that respectable people have no knowledge of whatsoever.
The blonde says to his fellows (in that twang!) “At least they have no magentine mines anywhere in the country.” Then he turn back to me. “Do you know of any large amounts of magentine imported into Toulin?”
“Absolutely not,” the headmaster says. “We have no need of such...extraordinary...methods around here.” I had almost said “unseemly methods”, but stopped myself in time, grateful for their lack of telepathy. “Our skills of mind and muscle suffice quite well enough for our needs.”
The blonde answers. “I hope it doesn’t trouble you that we ourselves keep small amounts of magentine about our persons–tools of the trade, you understand.” Ah–so they can indeed read much, just in my expressions! The young man smiles, extending his hand, on which four rings glitter in either a deep pink or a pale wine red. “We can say that they’re garnets, a family heirloom. Lumnites get a bit superstitious about family heirlooms, do they not?”
But even as he draws back the hand again, the brown-haired man speaks–the oracle–for the first time, in a surprisingly deep, and even more surprisingly soft voice. “There is magentine about. Plenty of it. Too much in one place, not properly contained.”
The blonde nods. “I thought I felt something...” he says. The redhead looks to the giant with a sudden flash of concern.)
My mind goes back again to Jake, to that marathon hike of our youth. Okay, so he left me behind by accident, but for the most part he did take good care of me. Jake had to drive the van that held all our stuff. He’d drive it to our day’s destination, then hike back halfway alone, and hike forward again when he rejoined us, seeing half of all the trails twice. But not always alone. Sometimes I felt sorry for him and joined him.
Oh such times as we...as we...as the tears surge down my face in the biting wind, I get this horrible feeling that Jake’s not just miles away, but cut off from me in some deeper way, some terrible way like never before, worse than accidentally driving off without me: a shutting-out so profound that it makes me stumble. Was it something I did? Something I am?
(“Come, come,” I say, as though to reassure youths half their age. “We certainly have no such thing! I would know about it if we did; it is a headmaster’s business, after all.” I rise to my feet, and they rise, too. “You are tired, and perhaps your tiredness makes you ‘feel’ things that are not there. Off to dinner and bed with you, then!” As they bow—so correctly—and take their leave, I feel a growing uneasiness. Was there some reason I ought to go back and reread that letter?)