IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
Obtaining the Needful
Friday, August 28, 2708
I tell Rashid, “You’ve got too much on your shoulders. Need another doctor by your side?”
“I’ve trained some helpers from the recovered wounded. But I wouldn’t mind...”
“Sure, then. I’ll help you do the rounds if you give me just a little leaf to get me on my feet.”
“No,” he says. Again.
Frustrated, I sink back into the scratchy old blankets, drowning into an angry sleep.
Saturday, August 29, 2708
“I’m quite sane, now, Rashid. Let me help you work.”
“Come, then.” I force myself to my feet and plunge my hands with his into the basin of cold water. He hands me a graygreen rock of soap. “Made it myself,” he tells me. “It’s just as good as what they use in hospitals.” It smells sharp and herbal, but I can barely coax any lather from the lump. That’s okay, though; lather’s overrated.
“Is there a lot needs done?” I ask.
“I think I could get more accomplished if you let me have just a tiny bit of...”
“No,” he says and passes me the towel.
Sunday, August 30, 2708
I sit out on the rocks, smoking quietly, watching the sunset and seeing a little beauty there. No monsters in it. Of course not. I think back on how I’ve begged for leaf these past few days and I feel sick with shame. The worst of it is, we didn’t even need to flog ourselves on without sleep for the last few days; we’d reached a perimeter of safety. I don’t ever want to see another sprig of greenfire for as long as I live. Yet there it grows, bush after bush of it down the slope, where Rashid cultivates it.
That doesn’t mean I have to touch the stuff, or even look at it. He has many other, more useful herbs in his garden, along with plants for food. Darn good job he’s done with those hot boxes over there—miniature greenhouses of scavenged windows, broken glass and clay, heated by the ferment of llama manure. A whole line of them gleam and stink in the sun, rudely defending the struggling life within. I can relate.
And, beyond them, hollow logs cut into bee-gums hum sleepily even in winter. Rashid says they were already there, left by the original inhabitants and overflowing with good honey and wax, but the wounded murmur that he has herbal tricks to lure bees where he wants them, that he can even cause the bees to swarm out of season. They tell all kinds of stories about him, these grateful ones, dependent on his healing magic and needing to believe.
“You’ve done good,” I say to Rashid as he comes over and sits down beside me, thinner than I remember him, with permanent bags under his eyes.
“I try.” He takes the cigarette from me, gives himself a couple puffs, and hands it back.
“Aren’t you supposed to tell me not to smoke?”
“Tell yourself, Medic.”
I shrug and take a deep drag. And then I cough up mud. I don’t know if I can ever wash my prayer-cloth clean of it. Or my lungs. What did I expect, after all that running through dust storms? But I just don’t care enough to hold back on the cigarettes. Leave me some scant ghost of pleasure. “So how’s Koboros treating you?” I ask when I can get the air required.
“Better than I expected. The beauty here can be...breathtaking.”
I nod, though at the moment the only beauty that can take my breath away is the taste of the tobacco.
“I can see how magicians would live here,” Rashid almost whispers. He gestures expansively all around him at the looming piers of rock that surround this village, almost sculptural, almost featured. “You can practically feel their lingering power.”
He can, anyway. “I suppose you could *cough* call Damien’s songs and stories a kind of magic.” I fold my fur serape closer as evening chills the air.
“Yeah,” Rashid says, and for a moment I hear the child still in his voice. “I used to think that herbalism came close, too.” He shivers and stands. “But I sure as hell can’t perform miracles.”
He starts to leave, then turns to gesture me to follow him. We walk towards the infirmary, where I can hear a patient moaning in an aimless, hopeless way, hardly even listening to himself. A new party of wounded made it in last night, and medics don’t get Sabbaths off. “I’m not achieving full pain control,” Rashid says, just outside the door. “I never seem to have enough supplies.”
“That’s something we all can say.”
He turns to me earnestly. “We can do better. I’ve figured it out. We need to do two things to get us all the supplies we need, all kinds.” He grips my serape like I could save him but might not bother. “Talk to Cyran. First thing we need to do is man a base to protect the smugglers from government raids. They’ve been robbed so often by both sides that they’re starting to write off the Charadoc as not worth the risk of doing business.”
With only a slight stab of guilt I say, “Near Abojan Pass, you mean? That makes sense. And we’ve got it, Rashid. We took control of the pass to divert attention from you.” He laughs faintly at that. Does he ever laugh full-strength? “So what’s the other thing?”
He steps back, abashed, only now aware of how he’d been mauling my clothes. He doesn’t look me in the eye as he says, “The bases can also support raids. There’s a couple of ski resorts nearby, where...”
“Whoa! Wait just one minute, Rashid. What about winning the hearts and minds of the people?”
“They’re rich. They aren’t the people.” He turns a hard face to me. “We need something to pay the smugglers off or they’ll stop making the journey.” Again he fingers the fur of my serape, this time with a critical eye. “You made this out of a rich man’s rug, didn’t you?”
“I’ll talk to Cyran,” I say. “But I can't promise what e'll answer.”
(Meg Cantor looks the very pinnacle of respectability: thin and tall in an expensive aqua blazer that would make anyone else look chunky, her shift beneath in a dove gray wool, round glasses on her pointed nose, and narrow lips that never seem to smile. That she wears her honey-colored hair in two ponytails looks incongruous only to me; children wear their hair like that in my old village. Here in Vanikke, however, it reveals a woman too stubbornly conservative to deviate from approved office custom for the latest fad in multiple asymmetrical buns. I can’t help but touch one of my own to make sure that I have every hair in place.
So why does she glance about to make sure that no one followed her? Why does she slip into my door like a smuggler?
She doesn’t even greet me. She walks right past, checks to make sure that I’ve unplugged the phone (does she think me an imbecile?) and only then turns to breathlessly, quietly say, “I have the paperwork you requested.”
She unlocks her briefcase, one of those unadorned aluminum models resistant to all likely mishaps. “Copies, but precise down to the coffee-stains. We have equipment that...”
“I am familiar with photocopying,” I say with a smile. “And as I am not a psychometrist, a psi-print would do me no good anyway.”
“Psi...my apologies” She humanizes for a moment. “It’s just your accent...I forget that...” She blushes, suddenly realizing just how much prejudice she has revealed.
“Thank you for the papers,” I say as earnestly as I can. “I appreciate how much difficulty you must have gone through on my behalf.”
She makes a sort of acknowledging sound, nodding to me, and still blushing, ducks out again, her metal briefcase in hand.
Maybe I should drop the accent. But I kind of like being the exotic foreigner, while I have the chance. I shrug, carrying the papers over to the couch. It’s not like they don’t know I’m Tilián.
I know what I picked up, wearing my magentine discretely hidden in my belt. She really did smuggle these papers to me. )
* * *
Malcolm and I finish the night-round while Rashid brews more of his antiseptics and other potions in the kitchen of this old rock house. Who builds in rock in earthquake country? And yet it apparently has stood for a long, long time.
I glance in on Kiril. She sleeps at last, propped up, wheezing less than before, thanks to the sweet, medicinal steam with which Rashid has filled the room. Lufti has also fallen asleep on the same bed, curled up around the book that he had been reading to her, his head pillowed on her lap.
“She’s going to be all right,” Malcolm says beside me. “She coughed out the worst of it today, and her sputum’s white again.”
“Thank you,” I say, and move on to the next patient. I glance up to see Malcolm carry Rashid, fast asleep, out of the kitchen.
(Joel could teach agents a thing or two about smuggling. His cousin never ceases to amaze me how many ways he can find to hide cigarettes in care packages, which of course the old men always search and then leave, crumpled, for the students to find in the chapel vestibule on Sundays.
Nobody expects Lumne boys to get packages, of course, with the water-journey so chancy and the leagues so far. So we just stand by while others receive gifts from brothers, fathers, uncles and friends. Jake’s brows knit as he says, “Somebody’s missing. Some kind of giver. Should be obvious.” But when we press him to elaborate, he shakes his head, confused.
Today Joel’s cigarettes happen to have made their journey packed into where the corrugations of the cardboard ought to be (but only along the lower part of the box, so that the ripping hands of our elders won’t discover them) with the entire surface then papered-over again. More line the inside of the bottom of the box. Jars of homemade jam, carefully padded, give a reason to label the package “Fragile” and “This Side Up”. But Joel’s cousin is too smart to hide them in the padding.
Joel doesn’t smoke, himself. But his cousin knows well the need to make friends in a school like this, with the “right” people—meaning the class rebels, of course—and how better than through an addiction that calls for frequent contact? Ah, cynical humanity, you never fail me!
Jake goes over to talk to him, while Joel non-demonstrates his skill at sleight of hand by distributing what nobody sees to various friends. He could make exactly the sort of contact that we need.
Jake joins us again as Don and I exit the chapel. But we only go a few yards before he turns on his heels back to face the building. “Look at the windows,” he says.
“Yeah, boarded up,” I answer, turning with him. “We could see the same thing from the inside.”
“But boarded up vertically out here, and nailed from the outside. Indoors they nailed them to the inside walls, horizontally. Boards on both sides.” He looks at each of us in turn, his eyes wide and troubled. “They didn’t just cover the windows—they caged them.”
Don shrugs. “They probably did it for better insulation,” he says, and walks away to catch up with Joel, now finished with the smuggling operation.
Jake looks at me, and I understand what he’s thinking. They don’t care about insulation anywhere else in this whole drafty school.)
“How did you get here before me?” I ask Malcolm after we’ve checked the last wound, carrying the basket of blood-stinking bandages out to a great cauldron of water heating on coals, and another one left cold.
“I wondered when you’d ask,” he says. I steel myself to the icy splashes and give the bandages their first, coldwater scrub. He crouches down to blow on the coals nearby, his face briefly golden, the gilt of emberlight on his beard disturbing me for some reason. “I had good luck. We took a break at the same spring as a clutch of miners, and one of them had a hard time drinking the icy water on account of an abscessed tooth. I didn’t have much to work with, but I drew the tooth with the tools they had in the trunk, while his fellows held him down. Next thing I knew, they’d loaded us all, llamas and everyone, onto one of the trucks that they’d recently emptied of ore, throwing a tarp over us.” He chuckles. “We sailed past every checkpoint, because the driver knew all the guards from repeated runs. They brought us as close as I dared let them.”
“Making friends makes luck.” I say, quoting an old Til saying.
“I hear the water bubbling,” he says, but he smiles as we load the dripping bandages into the cauldron, the steam already stinging-warm on my chilled, wet hands.
* * *
In my dream I watch Rashid strip as the snow blows all around. First he takes off the ring that hangs around his neck on a chain, pulled up from the depths of his winter clothing, all tangled up with his luck doll. Then off goes his poncho, then coat, then vest, then shirt, then the ring on its chain around his neck. Then he sheds his sash and the winter wrap-pants that they held up. Then he bends to unlace his boots so that he can take off the long pants and the short pants under, the chain around his neck dangling down, the ring bumping against his hands. He takes that off, too.
Now, naked in the cold yet unshivering, wind stirring in his gingery curls, he walks over to two clay jars on the edge of the Koboros cliff. I can smell the greasepaint as he dips his left hand into the black make-up, his right hand into the white, and with deft, magical gestures he paints himself from head to toe in the semblance of a skeleton.
“What are you doing?” I cry.
He turns to me, his face made hideous with paint. “I have rediscovered the arcane art,” he tells me. “I shall restore Granny Shtara’s Jar.” The paint grins, but he doesn’t even slightly smile. “All I have to do is die part way—Living Death can meet her halfway.” I see the ring on its chain around his neck, and the dead finger within it.
“No!” I shout. I try to run to him, but the air resists me like the cold has gelled it, so that I move inches with the maximum effort. He raises black and white arms over the brink and shards come flying up.
But he has made himself the magnet for the reconstitution; the pieces of the jar try to re-form where he stands! Sharp edges cut into him and he screams, the blood so awfully bright red against the snow and his black and white body, and I scream, too, and I...
...wake up in a cold sweat.