IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
Thursday, September 17, 2708
The road stretches long and cold-frost hard. We don't even have that advantage, though, stumbling in the rough land just beyond it, trying to keep trunks and the heaps of white-crowned underbrush between us and them, hiding the trail that we slog through snow. The trees shiver naked in a wind so strong that it lifts even my heavy braids; their bare boughs cannot hold it back. Scarves of ice-particles flutter from every rise. Good folk must all huddle inside, today, leaving travel to those of us with murder on our minds.
For don't I smell a smoke upon the air? The welcome scent of homes and hearths and other human comforts?
Tempting thought! Best not to go en masse, though, to whatever village nestles in these hills—not with the army jumpy. Better to send one person there, to pick up what we need.
And not me. I'd prefer to not be seen in too many villages in a row. I settle back into my disappointment, half-hypnotized on my feet by the endless white between the flickering sameness of the treetrunks all around me.
("Sarge, aren't we going to stop by Lyanfa?" the medic asks. I pretend not to listen.
"You can stop by, if you don't mind deserting, Doc. The rest of the troop's going to keep right on marching." My heart sinks. I am so tired of trudging beside this supply cart—the tread of the oxen, the groaning wood, even the clatter of the pans sounds weary. The wind pushes my hood halfway over my face, but it doesn't keep out much cold.
"We have friends in Lyanfa," says the medic to Sarge.
"I mean the army."
"Friends like that are gonna lose us this war, Doc—and if you report me for saying so, I could say a few things, too." I keep my eyes on my feet, sloshing through the trampled snow.
"I am not ashamed of ending the suffering of good men."
"The judge won't care how proud you are—euthanasia still counts as a felony last time I checked the law."
The medic sighs. "We don't need words like these between us—not after all we've been through together."
"Then don't say any more. We're giving Lyanfa a wide berth—it's not like we're required to check in."
"I was thinking of the child—you can't expect her to march like a man without rest." I think I'm doing pretty good, actually. "Look at her—she's out of breath." So when am I ever "in" breath? "That sounds like a wheeze to me—at her height she gets all the dust and snow kicked in her face."
"Kiril, honey, what are you doing afoot?" He picks me up and sits me in the wagon. Now this is more like it! I can see the whole countryside from here, rolling hills and pretty trees and the mountains all around, much more than the glimpses I'd caught between the marching men. And isn't that the sort of creek, over there, where you can dig up poison-toads, still sleepy in their hibernation as the ground begins to thaw? I didn't even know we travel side by side with a frozen creek. "Where'd you ever get the idea you couldn't ride?")
Lyanfa. I believe I've heard that name, in the last village that we visited, for the next one down the line. A postal node, from which all of the other ones hereabout gather their mail. The name means something, in archaic Charadocian, but I can't quite remember what. Something sacred, I think, something reassuring.
And with that happy thought I come across a frozen creek. The ice itself doesn't look solid enough to walk on, but it has a rim of beach that makes for easier going. Gratefully I lead our band onto it.
The gale dies down to a more comfortable breeze, but not so much that it doesn't still carry scent some distance. I smile, inhaling deeply the sweet fragrance of Lyanfa's cooking, imagining the warmth of a bona fide fireplace, I gaze longingly at distant serpents of smoke now visible with the wind relaxed, coiling in the air from cheery chimneys, blue with the last of twilight. I wouldn't mind touching bases with civilization for awhile.
(As we file into the cafeteria, all three of us catch the barely perceptible nod from the Headmaster, and we exchange glances among ourselves. Jake takes care that when he passes the bottle to me, that it looks "accidentally" visible from the faculty table, for just a flash. Don barely holds back a snicker, also "accidentally" visible. I whistle as I bend suddenly to adjust the stirrup of my hose and in doing so uncork the bottle and slip it under their table with the necessary pellet added, and then rise up, whistling on my way to my seat.
It's a pretty good formula. It doesn't go off immediately, but must wait for the chemical reaction within to take its course, and then to seep out of the bottle, slowly at first, a forgivable whiff, and then stronger and stronger and more embarrassing, until it becomes positively ridiculous.
The row of old men begin to look uneasy, and then mortified, and then disgusted, and then the nearest ones leap out of their seats blurting cusswords that they would've punished in the boys, and then they all back away as the smell starts to reach the student tables, where teenagers react with far less decorum, scrambling to escape, laughing and cursing. And Jake and Don and I don't even try to keep from laughing, ourselves.
But then one small boy falls, choking, to the floor before he can get away. The three of us swoop in on him and whisk him outside, where Don administers artificial respiration till the kid gags and then gasps in the chill night air. Jake and I help him to sit up where he can wheeze more easily. By then the school nurse has run out to join us, shoving an epi-pen into the child's arm. He gives us a look that I won't soon forget.
Don protests, "I had no idea that the fumes could do that! Honestly!"
The nurse says, "Then you shouldn't have messed around with what you didn't understand. He's not the only student with asthma, in fact, just the one who happened to sit closest."
"Yessir," Don says, his eyes downcast. And none of us have to fake how ashamed we feel.
At that point the Headmaster sweeps out to us, his robes rippling in the wind. He points to each of us. "Randall and Jaquar, I saw you pass that bottle. Donald, as the one with the highest chemistry score in the school, I know you must have concocted that mess. Do not imagine that any of you will enjoy a weekend off—report to my office first thing Saturday morning, for detention." All exactly as planned, but I feel the role all too acutely.
"Donald" carries the boy to the infirmary, propped upon his shoulder, with the nurse in the lead. The Headmaster goes into the vestibule, waiting with the students while the help, out of sight, set up dinner in the student-hall till the cafeteria can air out. When we're alone Jake asks me, "Notice something odd?"
"Nobody ran to that child's aid except for us. Not even the nurse, till we went first")