IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
The Precariousness of Sacred Space
Friday, August 21, 2708
Another of our wounded has died. The ground’s too hard to let us bury her, yet we can’t find enough loose scree to build a cairn, though Tanjin tried, still burning with shame over his failure of nerve on the cliffside path behind us. So, under the day’s last embers, I carve her name in the soft sandstone, then cut her outline all around her, so that when some future explorer finds what’s left of her scattered bones, upon this barren apron between the peaks, he’ll know that here once lay someone honored by her mates. Even though I swear I’ll forget her name as soon as I can, oh ghosts forgive me!
A snow-dusted wind sweeps away the grit that my knife carves from the grooves as fast as I work. Some blows in my eyes and that’s why they water; I’m too worn out for real tears.
Sometimes I wish we all could fight as nameless as the wild animals, and die unmourned. Sometimes I wish we had no meaning to what we do, that we just did it, questioning nothing, living to live till at last the predator closes in, and finally, if only we could know no special failure about dying, just that it happens. Sometimes I wish we had no speech, no self-examination, nothing, please just complete our poverty to a state of purity where nothing matters anymore, oh God, can You answer a prayer like that?
No, I don’t suppose You could. We ate the fruit, for better or for worse, there’s no turning back, now, and on some other day I wouldn’t want to. Some other day—if I get one.
The aching never stops. The leaf can make it distant. inconsequential, but it really never stops, the weariness stays in the muscles and makes them shake, the leaf can make it seem like excitement but I know it for what it is.
I hear a distant scrabbling of feet over gravel. It might be a mountain-panther salivating for the scent of death upon the air, it might be government troops, it might be something harmless, maybe birds—but I can’t tell anymore.
“Come on, troops, let’s keep moving; we’re not safe here.”
* * *
(Joel has claimed sick leave. And I’m not surprised. Jake and Don have gone through the motions of the school day in a daze, Don nearly as much as Jake, but they’re not the only ones, interestingly enough. I have to remind them to do simple things. The prank with the rubber snake seems ages, not hours, ago.
I finally get a moment with Don by the water fountain. He whispers to me, “I could feel it. Physically. Whatever stinking thing they had in that cellar, I didn’t even have to touch it. It filled the room.” He turns wide, scared eyes to me. “And Randy, it…it felt familiar.”)
* * *
The wind whistles her secrets to me, but I already know them all. Over and over she sighs and moans about the miles and the danger. The miles and the danger. The miles and the danger and the danger and the danger…
Cold water rushes down my back. I stop dead in my tracks and stare at Tanjin, who squirted me. “What on earth do you think you're doing?” I cry.
“You looked overheated. Greenfire can do that to people.” His fair-skinned face looks chapped and red beneath the dust, and his eyes redder still, and the wind will just not let up.
“I'm fine—just don't waste any more water!” I restrain myself from striking him. The leaf has robbed him of impulse control, I get it. But I call another halt, anyway. I’ve got to try and get these kids to eat something, willing or not. I’ve just got to sit down a minute, and lean my head back on this rock, and the wind just jabbers on and on…
(The old cook jabbers on and on, tottering out between the tables before we can stop her, because, once again, she’s forgotten to put out the bread before the students arrived, or maybe this time the salt, or the silverware. I wipe my hands anxiously on my apron. The help ought to stay discreetly out of sight, especially the female help, because of course, back in the days before such rules, embarrassing impregnations happened. But nobody would ever dream of leaving rawboned old Hulda with child.
Yet someone must have done the deed, and more than once, for she maunders on incessantly about her two worthless sons, and the money that should have come her way from their father, and her poor dogs, how sad their fates, now many years ago, the same old troubles mumbled over and over till she’s boiled all the tragedy out of them, and they have become (to us, her fellow scullions) just one more irritant, like the steam in our faces or the grease on our hands, the ache in the feet and the small of the back. Hulda doesn’t seem to notice, anymore, that she never stops talking. She doesn’t really expect anyone to listen to her, and certainly not to answer her. Perhaps her years as a servant have convinced her of her invisibility and inaudibility…)
(…But to us s…it has become this unpredictable affront. We never knew when it’ll stumble out of the kitchen and into our world, jarring us from our thoughts, shocking us with those vertical breasts shuddering under the uniform, or the jiggle of that obscenely wide pelvis bunching up the folds of the skirt, out of all proportion to the scrawny rest of h…her, so that whether coming or going it confronts us with uncomfortable distractions. How can anybody expect us to keep our minds on our lessons?
And oh, the hemorrhage of words! The creature has a rough, squeaky voice, and it reminds us all of something, and the flood threatens to burst a dam–but young men should not fear so flimsy a thing as a bony old w...thing like that, and so instead we hate the offender with a pure white flame of malice, but if ever it burned it wouldn’t know, for it has long since cooked its brains to an overdone mush in the ovens of its service to us. And we hate the beast all the more for that, and wish it’d quit, just take it in h-her head one day to pack up whatever a thing like that might own, and abandon us for good!
And then it vanishes back behind the swinging doors into a puff of steam, and the help just sigh and roll their eyes, and we the students also sigh, but with relief, and resume our conversations.
Something vexing happened moments ago...never mind.)
My eyes spring open. I never meant to close them. Bad news when I can’t even stay awake with greenfire in me. I rummage through the packs for food and wake my charges to eat.
I’d had some dream...
Saturday, August 22, 2708
“Over there, holding the next pass” Tanjin says, and points. Government soldiers around here don’t know the first thing about camouflage in the stone country, whereas the dust has so covered and ingrained us that we don’t even have to try. “I can take them.”
“What?” He speeds off into rocks and bush, a rifle in his arms. “Wait! Stop!” But he ignores my frantic whistles, a radiance in him that I can feel not see. The young idiot wants to redeem himself. I hold Kiril and Lufti back; I can’t go wasting troops on rescuing a fool who won’t follow orders.
We hear gunfire. My grip on the kids grows hard as I bite back tears and curses. I sit there a long time in our cramped little cleft between rocks, trying to nerve myself to consider my next move. A wounded soldier softly moans, but nothing else disturbs the silence, now.
Not till the rustles move in our direction. We hit the ground and Kiril gropes for stones; Tanjin took our only bullets. We wait for a clear target...
“Hold!” I whistle, grabbing Kiril’s arms, as Tanjin emerges, blood all over his coat and the greenfire crazy in his eyes. He stumbles into our midst and drops down to his knees, but I quickly assess that none of the blood belongs to him. Without even thinking I scoop up whatever dust I can scrape and powder the wetness, renewing the coating that keeps the silk dull.
“I hope to God,” he breathes, “that none of them was my father,” and we don’t say a word after that as we rouse up the surviving llamas to take this lesser pass that he has cleared for us, hoping for no trouble at the more difficult one ahead.
* * *
(Sometimes I can remember my father—so long ago, so many decades that I’ve lost count, like the Tilián. Why should I observe birthdays, anyway?
He grew so cold towards the end, even more silent than ever. He wouldn’t even ask me to hand him anything, he just pointed. He wouldn’t look me in the eye. He wouldn’t confront me with his suspicions. He just sailed the boat into the harbor without a word, not a single utterance all the way from Ishkal. The last time I ever heard his voice was when he made the arrangements, promising to pay off the school in installments, whatever it took. He didn’t even say goodbye.)
(Sometimes I remember my father, raining down blows on me for God knows what, all the drunken rages run together, none of them making any sense. Oh I learned the meaninglesnesss of good and evil, all right, before I ever came across that stash of forbidden books.
Oh, the salvation of this school, even with all its problems! Thank the Chaos of the Rift that they allowed free tuition for the children of teachers former or present—an old rule lingering from the days when teachers still had offspring—no matter how fallen. For my dear father certainly couldn’t have earned the tuition anymore, not without drinking up all the profits.
I still remember my father’s last words to me. He scrawled his signature upon the page, threw down the pen, and then glared at me, shouting, “Here you are, and to Hell with you!” And with that he staggered out of the room, and I never saw him again.
Thank you, father, for sending me where I belong, and away from you forever. I like Hell just fine.)
* * *
Again the road leads us in a heart-pounding climb, but we haven’t far to go to make the highest pass of all in these steeply folded heights. And after that a kinder land, greener and warmer, soon shall lead to the shelter of Koboros.
The miles have whittled our charges down to two wounded soldiers, who try not to grumble as their llamas lurch beneath them. We all cough, now, not just Kiril, spitting out muddy sputum with the deeper hacks. The Tumblebugs scarf wrapped over my face doesn’t help much, nor do the various prayer cloths and rags for the others. I worry about dust pneumonia. I worry about a lot of things. Yet at last we rise above the grit of the Canyonland gales and gulp in the freshness that we need even more than rest.
We climb at the long-shadowed end of the day, rosy stone and yellow grass around us, with an occasional scrub tree or wild shrub exploiting whatever cracks in the bedrock that their roots can find. The dry air tastes sweet but raw, a chill to the edge of it though the day had seemed almost warm; I drink it in thirstily, not just because the heights starve my lungs, but also because something in its savor reminds me of Sharane’s best brew, and it makes the dizziness of the climb almost seem benign.
I look upwards to the reassurance of the tall stone cross that marks the pass for us in the sometimes confusing jumble of the rocks. Do even the government soldiers hold the height sacred? For I see no sign of warriors here, and I wouldn’t shoot first, either. Beautiful, white stone! I need all the reassurance I can get, for our journey aches all the way past the bones and into the soul, where I cannot find anything left of myself to keep us going—if ever I needed a higher power to tap into for my strength, it has to be now; I couldn’t run again if General Aliso herself poked a gun into my breast.
I call a halt when we reach the cross, painfully regretting that we cannot settle in to camp, but must march another night; we didn’t leave that last enemy troop so very far behind, and we can’t run anymore, we can barely totter. Sacred doesn’t count for much, when you get right down to it, not in war. I remember in pain the aborted chapel behind us, way back in Abojan Pass. Tomorrow, though, or maybe the next day, we shall rest. We need to conserve both greenfire and ourselves.
Kiril and Lufti sit with their backs to the cross and declare the stone still warm from the sun. I pass around a bit of the bitter leaf and take a nibble myself. It cuts the edge off of the aching some, but it doesn’t reach the marrow, not like it used to, not the way I need. It just makes me edgy—edgy and weary do not make a good combination. I settle down the wounded and our four tough llamas, nod to our faithful ghosts darkening the shadows, and then sit on the other side of the cross from Kiril and Lufti, with Tanjin nestled in beside me, his hip and shoulder bony against mine. I take a deep breath and listen to the little creatures stirring as the night comes on, the ones who emerge at twilight when the predators rest.
Sinking my head back against the cross, I think upon my ragged troop. Little creatures? Nope, predators. I twist to look over my shoulder, around the cross. Kiril and Lufti fall asleep against each other, weapons still leaned upon their knees, leaves still in their hands. I nudge them awake, and then Tanjin, and watch the hands go to the mouths by reflex. When they finish chewing and their eyes burn bright again, I rouse up the wounded and the llamas, and we leave the cross behind, going down into the moister air on the other side of the range.
Sunday, August 23, 2708...
We march into the sunrise, into that beautiful feeling that somehow a new day will make everything right, despite the weariness grinding down to pain—the sunlight’s got to mean something. Somewhere a single bird sings out one soaring trill, regardless of the cold, believing in something, too.
One of our wounded actually unstraps herself and sits up to greet the dawn; she looks better, even with what minimal care I’ve been able to give her on the run. The other still sleeps, cheek buried in the llama’s wool, snoring softly, but she looks better, too.
And wouldn’t you know it—it’s always the females who survive. Your man-soldier has the strength, and you need him in droves if you can get him, but when the war turns to a contest of endurance you’d better have women fighting on your side, as well.
“It’s Sunday,” Kiril tells me softly. So we pause and break the bread. I can’t think of any words to say, not even crazy words like Father Man, I just say, “Lord...ohhh Lord...” and they moan “Ohhh Lord,” back at me, and heaven understands.
Today of all days we will have to rest.
* * *
(Today of all days we really ought to be on our best behavior, even though the dim light in the chapel, what with all the boarded-up windows, does set sort of a sinister mood, menacingly ornate, hints of secrets in the shadows. But that whole row of legs behind us, kneeling while the minister drones words that nobody knows, in what had doubtless been a vernacular tongue way back on Earth, those legs invite some action of a less mature sort. Just got to keep my hand in, after all, maintain my cover as a callow youth.
Yet with a grown agent’s penchant for prestidigitation. With my left hand I toss the rubber snake behind me to the right, and then slowly pull it towards me with the right hand, wriggling over leg after leg, all in a row. Boy after boy starts, then glances, then jumps up with cries.
Belatedly I realize that the string, of course, leads right back to me. The ritual stops mid-sentence. The minister glares at me, and points one long, wrinkly finger. “You! Redhead!”
My hand goes to my breast. “Me? Redhead?”
“Yes! You. Detention tomorrow, after dinner. The rectory. And surrender that serpent of Hell right n…” and he stops, blinking his rheumy eyes in perplexity.
“What, er, serpent, sir?” He never saw the snake slip into Don’s sleeve while I had all of the attention. “Sir, are you all right?”
The mouth opens, shuts, and then, for lack of any other course, the ritual drones on.)