IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
Saturday, September 5, 2708
Another sod and branch traveler’s hut swells up by the road, barely more than a wart upon the mountain; I could have missed it in the deepening twilight and the swirling snow. We’d have perished without a whole chain of such common properties, patched together and maintained by generations of shepherds, merchants, and wayfaring bards. Yet this one might prove a little different from the run; a man at that tavern a couple days back (one in a shepherd’s coat and army boots) slipped me a diagram with scarce a word before we left. I can’t wait to learn what we find when we move the designated floor-stones.
For now, though, I have other concerns. “Where’s Kiril?” I ask Lufti.
“Off hunting cooking-herbs.”
“In the snow?”
“Spices, I mean. Tasper-buds. Kiril says a cook does best to gather ‘em in winter, before the sap flows.”
“She should never have gone off without telling me!” Still...tasper-buds. My mouth waters at the thought of those aromatic little nubs and what they’d do to the sweet-cured jerky that we’d bought back in town.
“Don’t worry.” Lufti pats my arm. “She saw the hut and knows where to catch up with us.”
“Even so—we’ve got government troops on the loose around here. We shouldn’t take chances.” Tasper-trees—why didn’t I smell them? I’d always had a reputation for my olfactory talents. I glance down at the glow of the cigarette in my hand. Maybe I should give up the tobacco. Yeah, when things cool down. After the war, when I don’t need the boost anymore.
(Getting dark. The sky still glows blue between black twig and branch, a whole pretty mesh of tasper-boughs above me, but all flat-looking with the light slipping away. I’ll have to find the buds by feel.)
Everybody crowds into the cozy little hovel, llamas and all. Lufti starts up a dung-fire, from the carefully stored and now-dry offerings of the last tenant, as I organize sleeping-spaces, soon warmed in its tawny glow. When you get as cold as we do, that good ol’ aroma of dung-fire smoke starts to smell mighty welcome at the end of the day. It feels so wonderful to thaw out that it almost hurts.
(I shinny up the tree and collect buds—never more than a couple off a twig, never next to each other. You gotta leave some to grow—you owe the tree that much. Every time I break off a bud it gives off that sharp, orangey-clove scent that tastes so good with squash, yams, cured meats, certain kinds of cakes and candies...my mouth waters just to think about it. I guess I owe Cook, just a little bit, for all the things she taught me. I suck my sticky fingers and it tastes sooo fine!)
In snow country I believe in dinners. But food can wait till Kiril gets in to cook it up right. Anyone can fix a breakfast, but she can make the oldest camp-rations taste like gourmet fare. In return for her services, I won’t give her a shift at watch.
In the meantime I count stones to the left of the fireplace, then count stones away from the wall, then shove aside a bleating llama who’d laid down on just the stones I want. They feel loose...yeah, they are. I feel around the edges for any sort of trip-wire or other trigger. So far so good...
Cautiously Tanjin and I pry the stones up and find a fresh-dug hole beneath. I sniff. Nothing dead down there, nor toxic, nor flammable. I do smell gunpowder and jojoba oil, though, so I motion the others back. The nearby fire hasn’t triggered anything, though (and just how stupid-tired was I to let them light that, anyway?) So I light a lantern...
(So far so good. I got about as many buds as I can use for awhile. I slip the pouch into my pocket and turn to climb down.
“Well, well, well! What have we treed, here?” I freeze, heart pounding.
“Looks like a girl, sir.” I hear snickers.
Another says, “Too young for what you’re thinkin’, mate!”
“Not much use, then,” says the officer. “What’s your name, little girl?”
Quick—alias! Gotta come up with an alias! “Uh, uh, uh, Kiril, sir.” Should’ve thought of an alias long before this.
“Well, Uh Uh Uh Kiril—what are you doing up in a tree out here in the great godforsaken nowhere?”
I hold out my pouch. “Gathering tasper-buds, sir.”
“Tasper-buds—you a cook?”
I swallow. “Uh huh.” Then I get hold of my dignity. “One of the best of cooks.”
He chuckles. “My oh my. You might turn out useful after all.” I dare to breathe.
“Watch out, sir—she’s packin’!” Clicks all around! Guns point!
“It’s for bandits!” I shriek. I drop my sling. Thank God I didn’t bring the blowgun! “B-b-bandits, sir! Mountains are full of ‘em.”
He picks up my weapon. “And you think that a little slingshot’ll protect you when you’re jumped of a sudden?” He shakes his head. “Poor child! Where’s your parents?”
“Dead. Both dead.” Papa probably is, by now. I don’t know.
“And you’ve been wandering since? Poor little waif!” He reaches up and lifts me from my bough to set me down among the soldiers. “Well, Kiril Best of Cooks, looks like you’ll wander with us for awhile—and not wonder where your next meal’s coming from.” He shakes his head. “Damn, but you’re a scrawny thing!”
“Excuse me a minute, please,” I say. “I need to pee.”
“There’s a bush right over there a ways, kid.”
Can I make a run for it? No, not a chance. They’d figure out pretty quickly what I am if I bolted, and their rifles shoot far, with me a black dot against the snow. I really do have to pee, so I do. But then I do one more thing...)
“Guns,” Tanjin barely breathes the word, when I call the others back in. “Enough for all of us.”
We all stare in awe down the pit under the floor. I say, “Looks like government issue, too, recently...hush!” Across the distance I hear two long, wailing birdcalls from birds that don’t flock together. “Prisoner,” says one call, and the other says, “Infiltrating.”
Kiril’s been taken by the Charadocian army—but they don’t know what she is. They must have conscripted her. Lufti looks up at me, wan faced, his knuckles white where he clenches his fists. “Don’t worry,” I tell him. “It sounds like she’s in control of the situation. If she’s smart—and I know she is—she’ll get commissary work.” And then I add, grimly, “But if they put her to some obscene use, I’ll feed them, all right, I’ll feed them their own guts!”