IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
Return to Koboros
Tuesday, August 25, 2708
I pull myself up the steep slope by rocks, old roots, what comes to hand. My eyes burn and blur in the cold wind; they keep wanting to close no matter how much leaf I chew, bitter as the weather, bitter as the world. Four hours sleep on a cliffside road didn’t count for much after days without but we felt too wound up for more than that and too much risk anyway and I don’t even want to sleep, I just want to close my eyes, just close my goddam eyes, is that so much to ask?
Of course it is. Everything’s too much to ask but they ask it of me anyway. Keep on squinting into the wind. Hold on any way you can, Deirdre, and keep on climbing, grab the rocks, grab that root, grab the stiff, pale fibers of the winter-slain weed, the strands that look too much like Zanne’s long hair!
I let go, shrieking, and so tumble down, down, bruising thumps and whirls and FEAR! before walloping right into a spur of granite and coming to rest. The others scramble down to rescue me, their eyes wide and horrified. “Deirdre! What’s wrong?” “What happened?” “Are you all right?” “Oh God, please answer!”
I get my wind back. “I’m alive,” I gasp. I beat back hands reaching for me. “Wait—don’t move me till I check myself out.” I feel at my ribs, very palpable under the cloth. No fractures. I grope gingerly at my neck. All in line. Reflexes kept my head from banging against anything. “I’m okay,” I say, and let Tanjin and Kiril help me sit up. “Just banged up a bit—but who isn’t these days?” I try to laugh, licking blood off my lip.
And then suddenly they all fall away from me, everything falls away, even the rocks, even the mountains. I walk in a city. I sway on high heels, liking the tap, tap, tap. I admire the architecture, the bright colors in the shops. The scent of chocolate leads me to that world-class confectionary that my contact told me about. I feel right at home, here—a lovely refuge from too many primitive missions. I know I’m going to like Vanikke...
“Don’t feel at home, Zanne!” I shout, my heart pounding.
“What?” Kiril asks. “Who’s Zanne?”
I grab Kiril. “She’s not safe! The mission’s not what she thinks. It’s not just trade and politics, something that she can sort out and go home in time for spring. She...it...what am I talking about?” Dizziness nearly overwhelms me.
“It’s okay,” Tanjin says, without needing to understand what I don’t understand, myself. “Nobody’s safe. Come on, Deirdre.” And he helps me to my feet.
(“Somebody’s not safe,” Jake murmurs, right in the middle of chemistry class.
“Who?” I ask, helping myself to the stinky carbolic solution, ignoring the weird sensation that something inside me just went twang.
“I...I don’t remember,” he says. “We linked, once, but...something blocks the old connection. I can’t warn...whomever. Something in me tried a...a backdoor way, but found it all messed up, just...no.” He starts trembling all over, and I feel oddly shaky, myself. “Just can’t go there,” he says helplessly.
I put the acid and base together in the wrong order and it bubbles all over everything, hissing and staining as it goes. “Can we deal with this later, Jake?”
“We’ll have to,” he says, and helps me mop up.)
(Suddenly, right here in the chocolate shop, I feel unsafe. I lick my lip nervously and glance around. People laugh, sharing malts or brownies or chocolate fondue—nothing to fear here. Little lalique hearts in a deep rosy pink dot the walls. Why do they look ominous to me, like frowning, staring eyes?
I glance down at my own dessert. Into the chocolate frosting I discover that I have incised, “Deirdre’sPlatonicMarriage”. What’n’earth?)
(Suddenly Jake smiles. “It’s not all about fear,” he says as he gets down on his knees to scrub.
“I know,” I say, surprising myself to hear the words. “Perfect love casts out fear.”)
“Easy,” Tanjin says, catching me when I start to slip again. “Your shoulder’s got a funny angle to it.”
“Oh?” Then I see how it hangs. “Oh. The old dislocation. Didn’t notice. Will you help me pop it back into place?”
“You just tell me what to do, and I’ll do it.” I show him how, gasp and cry and then laugh at how it does and doesn’t and does and doesn’t hurt, as he binds my arm. Then he circles my waist with one arm while the other helps me climb, almost an extension of myself.
(“And whatever it is, it doesn’t follow the pattern that he fears.”
“Who’s he?” I ask.
Jake stares straight out the door as the Headmaster passes by. “I have no idea.”)
Wednesday, August 26, 2708
I can feel the climate change almost step by step as we descend into the warm, moist, welcoming gorge, a sheltered crack between mountains that leads us back to Koboros, aligned east to west (odd as that may be in this range) so that it gets maximum sun despite its steepness. I watch snow dance high above us, falling on the peaks, yet not quite reaching here.
Ah, sweet prospect of refuge! My heart soars to see an end to fear, so that I almost feel buoyed up in flight. Of course Rashid will certainly ground us all. I kind of look forward to that, actually, to lay down this constant jangling of the nerves that substitutes for energy. But then I think of the darkness lurking behind the sun, and what monsters might lie in wait for those who sleep, and I dread the crash that surely must follow.
As soon as the roofs of Koboros come into sight Kiril and Lufti run ahead, though children who’ve slept one night in a week have no business running anywhere. Tanjin sighs, somewhere between relief and fear. Me, I whistle “Safe?” down to the ghost-town and listen for “Safe!” to waft back up.
Now—do I know for sure that Rashid did the actual whistling? All bird-calls sound the same from any lips. Government soldiers could have captured him and tortured the whole code out of him...
“Deirdre?” I stare up from the ground at Malcolm. This morning’s leaf wore off faster than I counted on—all of a sudden. “Is it safe?” I rasp from cracking lips, only now realizing that I’ve been forgetting to drink water. He bends down to me and fear seizes my heart. “How do I know you’re not disguised to look like Malcolm?”
“Shhh, shhh,” says the man as he picks me up in his big, soft arms. I struggle feebly, hampered by my dislocation, but soon shoving against such solid bulk wears me out. I fall back against his cushioned breast, feel his heartbeat steady through the cloth, and surrender to the lulling rhythm of his steps as he carries me to the infirmary.