IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
Monday, August 31, 2708
I don’t know what to say to Malcolm or Rashid, on this, our last day together, and they don’t know what to say to me. Silently we tend the wounded, and the routine feels so homey that I can almost breathe the rainforest perfume of our lost Home Base, I halfway listen for the jungle birds. But all I smell is medicine and disinfectant, all I hear is wind and distant water bubbling through its ice.
No one in the entire Charadoc can understand me as well as these two do, knowing what it means to fight to save lives right in the midst of this war that compels us to cause death. No word exists for the specific kind of love that grows between people dedicated to the same work, who struggle together to make some important thing take place, who endure the same sacrifices and feel failures and triumphs together. And so we don’t say the word that doesn’t exist, we just show its meaning by the way that we support each other, as we have so many times before.
Tuesday, September 1, 2708
Our ranks have swollen on the way back, with soldiers that Rashid has healed, even after I sent back messengers to Cyran with Rashid’s plans for the pass. Some might be too quiet, and some too loud, but you can always feel something a little bit different in the soldiers who have fallen to wounds, risen again, and gone right back into the fray.
And we shall have even more soldiers than this, soon. Cyran made hir instructions clear: recruit all the way home, and take the long way around to pick up more, looping into the Midlands. Recruit twice as many peasant supporters and saboteurs. Create or bolster stable rebel territory as much as possible.
I review in my mind Damien’s last minute lessons on the art of sedition, lessons that he learned from kinsmen long dead, perfected in Cumenci till an entire village sacrificed itself for us. I don’t much feel like singing the songs that he taught right now, with the heaviness still in my heart, and I know for a fact that I will never sing them as well as he could, anyway, but we all do things for freedom that we didn’t think possible a year ago.
We shall also shed some veterans as we go, to train new rebel cells, but that won’t drop our numbers much; we’ll need armies soon, we need them even now. The war changes, like ourselves. After generations of blood-soaked stability, for better or for worse.
Rashid had unearthed maps in Koboros, one of which shows alternate routes less likely to crawl with the enemy. So now, following it, we skirt past a slightly live volcano that stinks like rotten eggs. “Spirit Mountain,” says the map; I’ll have to ask Damien about its history, if ever we meet again, both of us alive. Tanjin says that government soldiers won’t go near the haunted peak for fear of ghosts boiling up from Hell. But hey, we have so many ghosts on our side that these local haunts can’t scare us anymore. I’d camp us up there, safe between the fumaroles, if I didn’t fear the fumes more than anything supernatural. Even so, I avert my eyes from the rising smokes and mists, knowing that I would see shapes in them, and I don’t need that. My nerves still haven’t gotten back to what they should be, greenfire be cursed.
Rashid. As we march I think upon our parting. Malcolm hugged me for a long, long moment, strong muscle in his arms under drapes of extra skin. “You'll be careful of the greenfire, won't you?” he’d asked of me.
“Of course,” I said, and tried to smile.
I'd watched for Rashid, but he stayed working indoors. I accepted that—his right, to snub me for leaving him yet again. Or maybe he just had his hands full this morning with the wounded.
But I had already begun the march out when suddenly he burst from his infirmary, running after me, his gingery curls wild and bouncing all about, just like that time when Jonathan nearly bought my freedom, when I had seen that same look on his face, the one that told me I could never go free, the chain had reached my heart. He stopped short, though, catching his breath, flushed with the thin air, and left it to me to turn back the rest of the way.
When I reached him he clutched my hands and said, breathlessly, “Remember me, Deirdre. Remember what I need from Cyran. Don't forget us out here—the war rages here, too, long after the bullets have all stopped flying. Remember me.”
I do. I remember how I clutched him to me, his head nestled on my breast, how I felt the shaking of the sobs that he couldn’t give voice. “How could I ever forget you, Rashid?” I said at last. And then I turned away.
Wednesday, September 2, 2708
(Why does my mind keep going back to...to somebody left-handed, like me?) How could I ever forget any of them, ever, more dear to me now than my own friendclan? The guilty thought beats through the tramp of the hard, cold road. Zanne, Merrill, Jake, Randy, Don and Lisa seem farther away than miles could measure. (Why do I think of taciturn ol’ Jake right now? Why do I miss him more than my husband—he who I know, despite his caution to conceal the fact, would never take a wife?) September—moving towards spring. Icicles have begun to drip from every outthrust rock, sparkling in the sharp glare off the patches of snow that linger between boulders. (September—Autumn’s on the way, here in the northern hemisphere. At home it would almost be Spring.
Silly Zanne! There is no “home”! My chief base of operations lies in a shapeshifty institution with nothing stable enough to miss, really.)
The mountains have grown fangs, it seems, and they drool in the hungry waste. Scratch that thought. Greenfire residual.
(Enjoy the late summer, enabling me to wear that off-the shoulder piece that I bought just yesterday, before the nip in the air sets in. Open the window, let in some fresh air...no, it’s not very fresh, is it? Everyone in Vanikke drives around in vehicles powered by noxious combustion engines, squandering precious taroleum just because they can, because the only known tar-peat marshes lie southwards on the same continent, lucky us.
I close the window. I also close my eyes, till I can recenter on my cultural immersion, and then open them with a bright smile once again. I allow myself just one more of those divine cream-puffs that Cybil brought over, and sit down to the stacks of Meg’s papers, waiting for me to sort out the problems that plague this country.)
(I sit down to paper and pen, to practice “Gentlemanly Penmanship”—the art of packing as much grace as possible into a limited space, though the Toulinians no longer lack for paper. A nuisance for a lefty like me, the extra care to keep from smearing the wet ink—but it’s beneath an agent to miss a proper console. At least I’ve found something where my prior education won’t show.)
(Uh huh. Evidence of corruption. Naughty, naughty! Pitting ethnic and religious groups against each other, oh my yes, divide and conquer. Time-honored diversionary tactic—look how well it worked for Earth. And more evidence of corruption...more corruption...oh you bad boys! I see I have my work cut out for me. But wait a minute...)
(Wait a minute...)
(What are they after? Some of this doesn’t seem to serve venality at all. Or secret affairs, or anything. More and more the pattern seems to fit undermining the social order just to do it. What’n’erth?)
(Why do I keep practicing a capital Z, over and over? I have it down—time to work on something else.
My hand won’t obey. It draws more ornate, larger variations on Z, as if my left hand remembers something and tries to tell me about it. What?)
(I’m sure it all has some explanation. I’ll figure it out eventually. No need to suspect pure evil, or a country going mad.)
(What is it...gone. Whatever I was thinking, gone. Start over, now, with the letter A.)
What was I thinking anyway? I used to feel that icicles were pretty.
Thursday, September 3, 2708
Snow comes down again. Another stony mountain village nestles ahead in the natural rubble, complete with a rough little chapel, a general store, one smithy, one cobbler’s shop, an office each for the wool-buyer and the sulfur assayer, and six bars. Sulfur miners come here to hack out the last of their lungs and watch their paychecks vanish, while llama-herders render down their year’s work to a few small coins for drink.
I steer the kids towards the most wholesome-looking of the taverns, Hara’s Haven—one that rents rooms and serves meals along with the beer. Nobody enforces drinking-age laws this high up in the mountains, nor do I, although we should. After all these young veterans have seen, though, they deserve a bit of R&R. Their scars still gleam a satiny pink, and careless moves still give a tug of pain. We have pooled together a little cash; we can afford it. Besides, this looks like a good place to try my hand at recruiting.
We trudge gratefully into the dim warmth, steamy with aromas of cooking food and alcoholic esters, surrendering layers of wool and fur to the pegs by the door. How gladly we wash hands and faces at the basin grimed by many a miner before us, the shock of cold water not half so bad with a fire crackling on the hearth.
How like men and women grown do we accept our mugs of beer while waiting for our food, sipping cautiously, more afraid of falling asleep where we sit, before the chance to eat, than of any danger. It almost feels safe here, in this womb of walls a yard thick. How good to let the miles dissolve off of us like the dirt we washed away. How comforting to hear the common talk—of the price of wool and pumice and volcano-smelted sulfur, of the rare finds of raw rubies forged in magma, of women who cheat and women who stay true even when their man’s too sick to work, of men who drink too much and men who live like monks—and not one word of killing.
(How good to relax, to finally, truly relax, to blend in with the other travelers with not a soul the wiser about us deserters in their midst.) But does anyone wonder at the sight of so many scarred and hardened children gathered together at once? (But does anyone notice our army boots? We couldn’t find anything to replace our boots.) We speak (We speak) as little (as little) as possible (as possible.) Can anybody smell (the blood still) on our hands (that nothing can ever) wash away? I shake my head; I’d better go easy on the beer—weariness already makes my brain flicker like a candle ready to go out.
(I meet Cybil at her favorite restaurant: the Hound and Hare, where Meg joins us. Meg looks slightly awkward, as though she does not indulge often in dinners out, but her manners are impeccable, tucking the linen napkin into her neckline with pristine folds in the approved Vanikketan form. Cybil orders a nice marechal-milló from Toulin and it arrives with our dinners.
As I cut into my steak, soft music meandering in the background, I start to say, “Those papers you sent me...”
“What papers?” Meg asks coyly, looking at me over her glass of wine.
“My mistake,” I say, resisting the impulse to look around. “I got you mixed up with Janine—you know, the one who suspects her son’s been cheating on his tests?”
They nod, though Janine does not exist. Cybil says, “That little rascal! Is he up to his old tricks again?” So, confirmation: even government workers assigned to get to the bottom of something can no longer afford to be seen doing their job. Duly noted.
“That’s what I aim to find out. But enough about him. Meg, I just love the mystery-book you loaned me.” Meg nods again, and smiles. “Quite enthralling—and intricate! Yet some of the subplots just don’t seem plausible. The villains seem, well, too pointlessly villainous.”
She dabs her mouth with her napkin. “The subtext on that leads to still more plot-twists. One must ask what makes them so villainous.”)
Steaming plates arrive, heaped in yams and strips of llama meat, both cured in sweet sap sugar, with tangled piles of winter sprouts and small cups of spruce tea to fend off scurvy. We pray grace and eat gratefully in silence, rough hands of friend and stranger alike moving in the sign of the cross. Can God see through the violence of our revolution to the beating heart of justice deep within? (Can God forgive what the army made us do?) Ah well—at least E feeds the unjust and the just alike!
Damien once told me that God keeps an inn on the bridge between Heaven and Hell, built over the Gulf of Lazarus after the Resurrection, so that The Blessed may know the consolation of visiting loved ones among The Damned. And in that inn (so say the songs) God spreads a common table where the denizens of Heaven and Hell may feast together on the sweet fare of Paradise. But the damned never enjoy a mouthful of it, always wondering what’s on their neighbor’s plate. It looks the same, it smells the same, but can they ever know for sure?
I think the rich first told that tale, an imprecation against the envy of the poor, and servants carried it home to their children. But I know the truth. I have eaten at the tables of the rich and poor, and this tastes better.
The door slams open and a chill blows in. I shiver even before I turn and see the soldiers tramping in. All eyes follow them, the snow falling from their boots to muddy the clean-swept flags, but no one says a word.
“Hey, hey,” their sergeant shouts with a grin, “but isn’t this a glum crowd!” He slaps some bills down on the bar. “Beer’s on me, all round. We’ve just been paid for three months’ work and I want my new friends to rejoice in our good fortune!” I try not to groan out loud. “Come on, come on, drink up! Make room in your mugs before I change my mind.” Two beers goes over the limit for some of our children; how can I make sure that they all guard their tongues? But so far the flowing tap hasn’t made a dent in the general chill.
“Heyyyyy...what’s this?” Sarge fingers Tanjin’s jacket; much of the mud has flaked off of the brocade. “Where’d a poor boy like you come across glad rags like this?”
“From his father,” I say with a wink before Tanjin can catch his breath. Quick—which of Soskia’s nephews climbs mountains for a hobby? “Cherone Peshawr.” One of the soldiers whistles and they all eye the boy oddly. Sarge scratches his chin and says, “I never heard of Cherone Peshawr having a son.”
“And it’s worth your rank to make sure that nobody outside this village hears about it, either—you think the Peshawrs’d thank the army for spreading word about their little bastard halfbreed?”
Sarge never takes his eyes off of Tanjin as he sips his beer. “Aw, I’ve kept worse secrets than that,” he says at last, his voice not near so loud. Then he eyes me up and down. “And who’s your daddy, sweetie? You’re no more pure-blooded than he is.”
I smile as wickedly as I can and say, “It’s worth your life to know.” We stare at each other awhile as no one moves, only the fire making any sound, and the wind outside the walls. “Drink up soldier, and don’t ask questions,” I finally say. “Leave this village alone.” He nods at that.
“Barkeep,” he calls, “quarter my men and send their meals up to their rooms–the company’s too rich down here for my blood.” He scowls at Tanjin as he pushes away from the bar. “And you, kid—when your daddy sends you fine things, learn to treat ‘em with respect. That jacket’s a disgrace.”
As the soldiers file on upstairs, Sarge pauses before one of the civilians and kicks the man’s army boot as I stifle a gasp. “Shame on you, soldier!” The man turns dead-white. “If the government sends you on undercover guard-duty, fergawd’s sake have sense enough to put on local footgear!”
After they leave we eat in silence. Looks like a bad night for recruiting after all. But when I go to pay from our precious cache of coins, the innkeeper glares at Tanjin and me, saying, “It’s on the house—just don’t spend the night. I don’t want any trouble.”
“No trouble at all,” I say, though I really looked forward to sleeping in a real bed—the thanks I get for keeping this village off the battlefield. The other inns won’t quarter anybody who hasn’t paid for beer, first, and we’ve had quite enough for one night.
Oh what the heck? We can get orders of food taken to our rooms just like the soldiers, and that would serve as well. These teenagers could use an extra meal.
Tanjin leans over to me, his cheeks and nose already rosy, and whispers in a slurry murmur, “I wonder if that sergeant was my father?”“Finish your free beer,” I whisper back, “And don’t say he never gave you nothin’.”