IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
Memory and its Vagaries
Thursday, August 20, 2708
We push on through the night. I tore almost every leaf off of that poor, bitter bush so that we can. We rise and fall over the black and silver landscape, under a thousand pulsing stars in a cloudless heaven, some alien place, some cold, dry Hell. But Hell cannot burn like the greenfire leaf—we shall prove more powerful!
And our ghosts accompany us, just on the edge of sight, gliding up and down over the curves of rock, silent shadows to the left and right, staying with us mile after mile after damnable mile. And someday I, too, will glide just as they do, beside the living rebels, never off duty, never to rest for all eternity.
(Jake jolts us from sleep in the middle of the night, screaming. I rush to shake him awake, then wrap him in his blanket and hustle him out of there to shiver out on a landing, in the dark stairwell. I take his hands in mine and say, "Talk to me, Jake. What did you dream?"
"I was in Hell," he gasped. "It, it looked like a Til Peninsula beach, the one with the sea-wall walk beside it, but I knew, Randy, I knew Hell when I saw it. I chased little kids, I threw them, smashing against the sea wall…and, and, I remember a red honeysuckle in there somewhere, a mutant, but I…I can't…and somebody walked away, Randy! Somebody very, very tired walked away. Or maybe a llama, stumbling, tongue hanging out…why'n'earth would I dream about a llama?"
I pat his shoulder. "There there, it's over now. What associations do you have with llamas? What might they symbolize for you?"
He looks blearily at me. "Zero, Randy. I never think about llamas." He shakes his head. "But I, I didn't want this…person, llama, whatever, to leave, but sh…but it left anyway." Again he looks me in the eye, more intensely this time, irises glinting in a faint shaft of moonlight. "Randy, somebody used to defend me, back in our youth, when kids would harass me about being too big and old to study with the little kids." He grips my shoulders. "Who was it, Randy?"
I open my mouth, close it again, frowning, chasing a fugitive memory with a half-asleep brain. Finally I say, "Nobody, Jake. You did quite well enough defending yourself."
And yet I feel a tenuous thread of coppery quicksilver, stretched to almost fatal thinness, somehow in the hand of my soul, and this matters for some reason, this has something to do with Jake's dream. I must not let go, must not forget my duty, no matter what.)
* * *
Tanjin knows this other way. His eyes burn when he turns to me despite his haggard face. He had visited Koboros once, by a northern route. He hopes he can remember, but he'd been such a small child at the time. And yet... Cold wind moans in lieu of words for quite some distance before he talks again, leading us the while.
He'd had an aunt there, it so happens, who had married into the village. The guide who'd escorted him said that he would love it there, in Koboros, in the land of bards and magic. But the aunt didn't want him, and sent him back to his grandparents. She had loved her sister too much to stand the sight of him, he says matter-of-factly, the tale too old and familiar to him for the hurt to show on his face anymore.
Yet some events etch everything on a person's memory, all the little details that framed the shocking moment. He's pretty sure he remembers every stone, every tree, every slope and vista on that route. He can't forget it even when he wants to.
* * *
("Tonight?" I whisper, as Aaron and I set down our trays and sit for lunch, praying to God that nobody can hear us the crowded, noisy cafeteria.
"Yes, Joel, tonight indeed." Then I remember that I've got no business praying to God for anything.
"Uh…well. Yes. That's good news. Wonderful news." I hurry to hide my expression by gobbling down chicken stew—too hot! I choke and grab for water. I should have waited.
"You know, if you're not up to this…" and my new friend does not sound the least bit solicitous when he says it that way.
"Oh, I'm up to it!" I butter a bun, not looking at him, my tongue still stinging.
"We don't normally initiate first years so soon. You haven't been here long enough to learn our ways—just a few days, in fact."
"I feel honored."
"You ought to—a big hulk like you, only just now starting your education. And hanging out with Lumnites! You ought to be ashamed."
I glance over at the blonde, the brunette, and the redhead, chatting happily together farther down the table. "Oh, them? I just happened to wind up in the same carriage, that's all. They mean nothing to me."
"Aw, I was only yanking your chain, mate." Aaron cups my cheek in his hand, turning my face to him, and I sit perfectly still otherwise. "The Changewright wants you to stay close to them. Become best friends. More than friends, if you can swing it," he says, his hand caressing as it leaves my face. "He knows things, Joel. He knows more than any of us can imagine."
"My cousin told me a little…" and I feel the fork shoved into my side.
"How much?" he demands.
"Not much! Just that if I could manage, I should try to get in good with somebody called The Changewright. That's all! Honest, that's all I know!" I feel the fork relax.
"Maybe you're worth the risk," he says at last. "Changewright knows better than me. You're a mature one, not like most first years. So yeah. Tonight. You do remember the way, don't you?"
"Yeah. I've got a good head for directions."
"Could you find it in the dark? Because we can only dare to show you once by daylight."
"I can find it."
"If you get lost, you know, that automatically knocks you out of the reckoning. No initiation. Ever."
"I'll find it!"
"Shhh! Keep your voice down."
"Oh, and one more thing. Part of the ritual." I feel him slip something cold into my pocket, slick and curved, a little less than a hand's length long. It gurgles when I move, but I more feel it than hear it. "Don't betray to anyone that you have this."
He pulls the bun out of my hand, takes a bite from it, and hands it back. "Enjoy your last meal, but go without supper tonight. You must face the ritual fasting. Tell people that you feel a little queasy, maybe coming down with something, and then leave the table early." He snickers. "It'll make a good excuse when you lie in sick tomorrow."
"When I what?" My heart pounds.
Ignoring me, he presses on. "Take the flask with you tonight. Wait till you get to the top of the last flight of stairs. Then drink it all at once. Don't leave so much as a drop. The herbs that the Changewright uses have mystical significance—you mustn't waste any of it." Aaron leans closer; I feel his breath on my ear. "He goes outside to gather them." And I shiver.
He kisses my ear and then draws back, not smiling. "Tonight," he says. "Brace yourself to remember things the adults don't want us to know." And I nod, and pay attention to my cooling chicken stew. And we don't say another word for all the rest of lunch.)
* * *
We squeeze along a crumbling ledge, slick with frost, above a river-torn ravine that makes us dizzy to glance down at all those trees like a green fuzz trapped between pebbles that are really ship-sized boulders tumbled down from heights like this. And potential boulders lean over us, half-cracked from a cliff that towers above us judgment-high; I can feel the rock frowning on me, with rows and stacks of time-seamed faces of stone, deciding whether or not to crush us like the bugs we are. Yet each left hand must cling to his roughness, while the other dangles over sheer nothing, each footstep laid out carefully with no margin for error whatsoever. I glance back and even the sides of the llamas bulge out beyond this path; I never realized, though, what tiny feet a llama has, thank God.
The greenfire is supposed to quell the appetite, but I feel my hunger with a sharpness that has nothing to do with the oblivion of the flesh. I feel it as a flicker in the mind. I feel it in my fear of the emptiness beside me. I know for a fact that I no longer have enough calories left in my body to sustain me in flight, that one slip and I would plummet like anybody else.
Stupid! We have enough supplies. We just keep forgetting to use them. But it's not like we could just stop and picnic right here on the spot.
Suddenly Tanjin crumples to the ground in front of me; I have to catch him before he tips over the edge. "Don't make me do it anymore," he whispers.
"Do what, lad?"
"Lead. I...I can't lead anymore. The cliffs..."
He feels it, too. Leaders face a harsher judgment than those who follow. I sigh; he couldn't possibly get lost on a path with zero other options. Yet I understand him, too; Til Institute trained me to bear that kind of weight, and I don't like it either.
"It's...the path seemed wider, when...I can't."
"Okay," I tell him, wishing that this could've happened anywhere but here. Holding his arm to steady him, I say, "Climb back to your feet, carefully…there you go. Hand me your pack. Here, Kiril, hold this for us for a moment. Now…" and I take a deep breath and let it out again, terrified of the next step. "Plaster yourself as flat as you can against the cliff. That's it.
Heart pounding wildly, I grip stone next to his ear with my left hand, then with my right (leaning heart-poundingly) I grab the stone on the other side of his head, then slowly ease my right foot into the space between his legs. I take another breath and break out into a sweat. I swing my left foot in next to the other, pressing myself hard against Tanjin, feeling his breathing like my own. My nerves sing when I move my right foot to outside his own, panicked at the movement of grit beneath it but then I find solid footing. I reach to outside his right hand, then move my left hand to where the right gripped before, and hold my breath as I swing my left foot over. Then I let my breath out again, hugging the cliff for several long moments, pressing my face against it, sweating onto the rock.
"Kiril," I say, in a voice higher than usual, "you can hand him his pack again."
I fumble in my own pack, then, for a pen and a battered old notebook, fear tightening my chest every time a move threatens to dislodge me, because by now I shake so badly that the pages rattle obviously. Carefully I turn to face him. "Can you write, Tanjin?"
"Then draw a map without words, and give me a moment before you tell me what every mark means." I collect myself, wedging a shoulder firmly against the cliff, listening to the wind whistling through the rocks, tugging at my clothes, but in tlomi rhythm...
"Deirdre?" Kiril asks. "That's going to be an awful lot to memorize on the spot…"
"Do you question my judgment?" I bark, then rein my temper back in. Greenfire, nothing more. Kiril's my friend.
"No, not at all! Not really. But it's just that, right now, you're, uh…uh…"
"Full of greenfire and haven't slept for days?" I make myself smile at her. "Don't worry, sweetheart." She is nothing like Kief. "Til Institute trained me to memorize complex matters under the worst conditions you could imagine, in a sort of trance." I look at the tension in her wide eyes, gaze on her gaunt, old-young face, the miles of dirt and fatigue, and remember that I love her. "Now everyone be quiet and let me concentrate, okay?"
I take one more deep breath, exhale slowly, and I listen to the wind. It changes and it doesn't change. It whiffles and it groans, it has its own pulse, it takes me to a space exactly between the regular and the unpredictable where anything can happen and nothing ever does, into the calm of possibilities. My shivering abates. The wind blows clear a space inside my mind, and in that clarity I know without a doubt that I can do this thing.
"All right, Tanjin, explain to me your map."