IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
Magic and Misdirection
Wednesday, August 19, 2708
The Articles of War do not apply in an insurrection which the government refuses to acknowledge as a war. A red cross just makes something convenient for the cross-hairs of our enemy to home in on, so we gave up bothering with it generations ago. They find us at the very brink of dawn.
Shellfire chews up the road behind us in loud explosions as we scramble for all we’re worth into the surrounding countryside, but the greenfire speeds our steps and makes us laugh, half-crazy with the thrill. I whistle for Malcolm to take half our wounded and supplies south towards a landmark that he’s recognized. He might have contacts that could help, but we all stand a better chance if we split up.
Or did I do that yesterday? No matter—just run!
Tanjin says that he used to live somewhere north of here, so the rest of us go that way, on bare hope. With us come Kiril and Lufti, hurling their Parthian shots of bullet and stone, but the bullets won’t last at the rate we’re going, they don’t grow in pods in monastery gardens...keep your mind on survival, idiot! Race after the frightened, bleating llamas as the wounded cling desperately to their backs, their pale jaws clenched beneath the dirt.
Tanjin pounces on a llama left unburdened by death, to try and steer the general stampede. Now my arms gather my young to me as I take flying leaps down the mountainside, each stride lengthened by the magentine hidden in the pack strapped to my back, barely skimming the ground with each footfall before I push off again. I can’t fly fully with my depleted body and the weight of Kiril and Lufti clutched to either side, but I make it as close as I can, desperate to catch up with the mountain-footed beasts that plunge ahead. The first colors of morning bleed into the sky beyond windswept trees in glorious silhouette, distracting me, but I fight to keep control of my mind and brush the earth a pounce or two ahead of death.
The children scream when we drop down a cliff that only wild goats and corries ought to dare, but I hold them tight against my pounding breast and break our fall with all the power left in me. With the llamas we thud and roll, then race again, Tanjin and the strapped-on wounded floured in dust, speeding on like the most natural thing in the world—but a person can’t feel real after doing something like that, not when thin air and vertigo, post-levitation hunger and greenfire in the blood spin away all sense of reason, not in the Charadoc, where magentine abounds but few know what to do with it, and those few who do call it magic, not when I can’t believe half the science I learned in some other lifetime at Til Institute. We speed beyond the gunfire while the troops behind us stare in shock, uncertain of what they’ve seen.
* * *
(They regard magentine as magic, sorcerous and evil. I must not will a glow around me. I must not light the morning lamp with my mind. I must fumble with a match. It breaks in my hand. I must remember to only curse in Toulinian. I must sit by, shamefaced, as somebody else snaps a match against a stone, smirking as it flares up brightly. I hear somebody whisper something about Lumnites, and then the muffled snickers, as I pull on the scratchy woolen underwear, the hose, and the ridiculous, pumpkiny pants. An amber glow now illuminates the sleepy, blotchy faces all around us as we pass around the basin and the water, then march down the stairs in step, carrying our chamber-pots to the level where the plumbing reaches in a ridiculously acrid military formation. I feel the marble of magentine in my pocket like a guilty secret, hard and heavy. I wonder if I’ll ever need to use it?)
* * *
Full daylight, now. Gray. Overcast, but the rain will not drop here. Color gradually seeps back into the world. Another leaf and it flares up brightly. We don't feel our feet anymore. We stumble, sure, but we recover. We have all the strength we need. I watch my children, skittering over the rock, down a harsh slope more like a sandpaper slide than a path. But their bravado carries them forward, bless their pounding hearts.
We have to give the animals a break, if nothing else. Giving leaf to llamas only make them uncontrollable, so I’ve been told. Two of them have already foundered, but deaths among the wounded has left us with spares, anyway. I wish we'd had time to butcher the shaggy beasts. Not really, but I suppose I ought to wish it.
Now we have the chance, but the meat lies miles behind us. We sit together on the hard stone ground, waiting out the animals, who have crowded around a little rocky spring, lapping at its green water, nipping at the scrawny epiphytes that cling around its edges. But nobody feels like resting with so much leaf in them. The llamas soon tuck themselves in on themselves to sleep.
So I strap on my flit and tell the others to stand watch. Every single one of them positions themselves on a different rock, turned outward, clutching their various weapons to themselves, glaring out into nothing. I stuff a corked jug into my shirt. I choke down cornbean bread. And I take off for reconnaissance.
High up here, I can see the canyons like parallel fissures scraped into the rock by monster claws. Several have enemy soldiers in them. In our latest one they march straight towards us. In the farthest canyon, away from the action, or so the enemy thinks, they have paused for lunch.
I smile as I hover out of their line of sight, wondering if they’d like some medicinal spirits to go with their potatoes and beans? All of those healing herbs distilled into the powerful cordial, oh what a waste and ask me if I care. I drop it down right onto the campfire and speed away before they even notice that something plummets towards them. They might not even know why their fire exploded.
After the bang, I hear orders shouted all up and down the canyons. I repress the urge to chuckle; they mustn’t learn to look up! I see our own stalkers struggling to get themselves and their equipment up over a ridge of rock, abandoning the trail that leads right to us because they heard us supposedly attack elsewhere. Now every sorry fool of them must try and charge cross-grain to the landscape, thinking to close in on us. Meanwhile I land and tell my folks to move, before they realize the ruse and come charging after us.
Thank you, monks, for your precious herbal concoction.
I don’t think that that small explosion killed anyone. A few shards of pottery might have caused some cuts, a few flying embers might have made a blister here and there. But the misdirection? Priceless!