IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
Sunday, September 6, 2708
(“Uh, Zanne...what’s your ethnicity?” Cybil asks in a pained voice. “And what is your religion?” Not the sort of questions I expect when out with a woman-friend on a morning spree downtown, amid all the pretty windows and the lively city sounds. But then she’s been acting uncomfortable ever since she picked me up after church.)
We pass around the little bits of potato bread and grieve that we have none to give Kiril. We pass the bottle of sour wine aspiring to be vinegar, and Kiril cannot take a sip with us. We pray for her as though our prayers could light her way home on this cloudy, sunless dawn, but it all seems so futile, everything futile!
(“Both are rather...complicated,” I answer. “I guarantee you have no equivalent of either in your country.”
She frowns. “That could be a problem.” She nods to the lines to the matinee—parallel lines, for different categories of persons, who don’t look all that different to me.
I laugh, “My dear, I’ll be whatever you are for the day. I’m a trained infiltrator, after all.”)
Infiltrating, she whistled. Taken prisoner, yet she does not want rescued just yet. Cool-headed, that one, almost too cool for her own good. And too smart for her own good, too, for somebody her age. I think of Jesse—dead so young.
I promised her I’d never leave her again!
Stuff that, Deirdre. The child left you. She took off after spices you didn’t ask for, without a by-your-leave. This isn’t your fault.
Children don’t always have much impulse control. Even the geniuses. Especially the geniuses; sometimes their thoughts distract them from common sense. But damn if we don’t make the same mistake, over and over, of expecting them to think like miniature adults. I just plain forgot to watch over her. I of all people should have known better.
(Even now, sometimes, the mindchange can make me impulsive. I wink at Cybil and murmur, “You know, you
can join a different group, too, if you want,” and I take her hand, heading
towards the shortest line of light-skinned people. But she blanches and pulls away, saying, “I
don’t think I want to see the movies, anyway“ and vanishes into the crowd.
I scale a boulder and scan for the campfires of the enemy. Over there, marked by thin columns of smoke. They took the other fork in the road. We’ll have to go out of our way, then, to follow close behind. Okay, good as done. We can subvert the villages along that route as readily as this.
And that will mean...no. Don’t think that way. Don’t assume that we’ll go so far off-schedule that we’ll need the greenfire to catch up again. We have no schedule. We have no need, whatsoever, for the loathsome leaf that Rashid so kindly provided for us, just in case.
I take a deep drag on my cigarette and gaze out over the tumbled miles that we'll have to cross. I feel a sore throat coming on; I shouldn’t smoke. Stuff that, too; I’ve few enough pleasures as it is. I listen for bird calls, but only hear the natural keen of raptors native to these peaks.
I won’t leave you, Kiril. I promise.
Monday, September 7, 2708
(He caught me! I put down the bread that I’d been stuffing in my mouth out of turn, but crumbs still cover the coat they gave me. I didn’t gobble it fast enough and now I feel I’m gonna choke!
“Hungry?” Sarge asks, just standing there at the opening of the commissary tent.
“I didn’t mean any harm!” I blurt, but it’s no use—there’s no excuse for eating more than your ration.
“Of course you didn’t mean any harm, sweetheart!” He comes straight over to me and kneels down before me, his hands on my shoulders, a painful look in his eyes. “You’re skin and bones, girl—half-starved, are ya? I felt your ribs clear through your clothes when I took you down from that tree.” He picks up the piece of bread. “Here, this is too dry as it is—let’s see if we can find some jam to spread on it.”
“You mean I can...”
“The cook can help herself to anything in the cook’s tent.” I stare all around me, at crates and barrels of food piled up so high that they make a maze of walls.)
* * *
No reason we can’t play with the troop along the way; what’s a guerilla for, otherwise? We brainstorm as we go, all of my band coming up with new, inventive ways to tweak the soldier’s nerves and bleed away morale. They say that with enough mosquito bites you can kill a moose. I’m not sure what a moose was, but something big, I gather. We can do small things at first, so they don’t blame their change of fortune on Kiril—and not yet, wait a few days, though my heart burns with impatience as though I chew on greenfire instead of on regrets.
(“Do you ever have regrets?” Joel asks Don. I’m not supposed to hear. I’m not supposed to watch them between the books, over in the other aisle of the library. But I might as well wait for Jake here as somewhere else.
“Regrets? About what?”
“Coming to this school. Leaving Lumne behind. I’m an island-boy, too. I miss the sea.”
“Do you now? I…I love the sea, too.” Don steps closer, facing Joel. “I miss the surge beneath my feet, I miss the rush and sigh of waves, the salty air, oh God I miss it all! The curving green, the rippling blue, the sparkles of light…” I see sudden tears streak silently down his face. “I miss…I don’t know who…I don’t know what I miss. I want to embrace…the water. I want to embrace the water!”
“I am here, Don. We can remember together.” I watch the arm steal around Don’s shoulders, and I feel a stab of…jealousy? Yet I have Jake!
“I have friends,” Don murmurs. “So why do I feel so…so lonely?”
Joel presses his forehead to Don’s. “Me, too.”
Don’s tearstained face looks confused, wide-eyed, but he does not resist the hand that cups the back of his head, the first brush of exploring lips…
“Maia Angelina,” Jake intones, suddenly joining them.
And at once Joel straightens, his hands dropping to his side, staring off as if in a trance. Quietly Jake leads Don away.
I join them exiting the library, out into the blustery air threatening to rain. Don asks, in a shaky voice, “Why did you say that, Jake? Maia Angelina. What does it mean?”
Jake’s brows knit for a moment. “I don’t know,” he says at last as we stroll under a cloudy sky. “It just felt like words of power. Like it had to be said.” Then he shrugs and says, “Let’s get inside where it’s warm.”
Why do I feel that we should have remembered some other name as well? And...it’s a name?)
The good news is that the army seems headed downslope (where we’re supposed to go anyway) to warmer climes—the Midlands. I peer over the edge of my worn-out scarf at a landscape of white that I wouldn’t mind putting behind me for awhile—how recently I fancied that the Charadoc could never get too cold! I pull down the scarf for a moment to breathe in air that doesn’t smell like dirty cheir, then regret it the instant the ice hits my lungs—particles too fine for snow swirl in a faintly sparkling mist around us, getting thicker by the minute. Doesn’t do my bum throat any good. The children around me march on doggedly; I think they could keep stumbling forward in any climate, terrain, or condition by now. They have grown up enduring.
Tuesday, September 8, 2708
Here’s the first village we’ve come to since that sulfur-miner’s town, and here I’ve got laryngitis so bad it hurts to whisper, though I itch to try out the songs that Damien taught me. Only one inn, but it barters an herbal tea gathered up especially for throats like mine, common in these hills, in exchange for the beeswax that we carry for trade when the coins run out, courtesy of the hives of Koboros. Gratefully I sip the steaming, aromatic brew and let it do its stuff—the first painless swallow I’ve enjoyed for days.
Chianti, a young mountain beauty who owes her life to Rashid, flirts with a man on her left, who turns and smiles till he sees the eyepatch on her right. At his changed face she glances down and blushes. He apologizes for his gaucherie and takes her hand, as she shyly (subversively) murmurs how she lost the eye. Chianti’s my age or maybe even older; she’s fought for the cause longer than most of us can imagine, and she knows her business. I kick back and sip my tea, discreetly admiring her technique as sedition and chivalry flare in the eyes of hormonal youths all throughout the common-room. Why should I think it all has to ride on my shoulders, all the time?