IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
A Split Infinity
Tuesday, September 22, 2708
I find the money buried
right where Kiril’s bird-calls told me to find it. Amazing how much directional information you
can convey in a few choice whistles—but oh, the danger, now that we know! My heart shivers in fear for the girl. What if that band rates a Purple Mantle
traveling in their midst? But she has
given us no such intelligence.
Oh God, God guide me!
I take a deep breath. I’m on my own. I must consult my own guidance.
Okay, think. The men don’t know. We’re just going to have to risk the whistle
codes for awhile longer—we have no other way to communicate. But something’s afoot, something more
important than hurrying back to Abojan Pass—the rumor of the land, and our own
eyes and ears, tell of troops massing like seldom before.
I dig my hand into the bag and pull out
coins. Bright little things, once I rub
the cold dirt off. And what’s this? Bills!
Soil-damp denars with a whiff of mildew about them, soft in the hand,
but you can make out every number and curlicue on them, and that’s all the
merchants care about. I hope she had
wits enough to rob just a few from different tents at a time, so they won’t be
missed. Of course she does—we’re talking
about Kiril, here.
I pocket the money gladly,
wishing that the rebels had wasted a birdcall on the word, “Thanks!” It adds up to a handsome sum for the prices up
here—much more than the worth of the wax that we lost. God knows we can use it.
(“I’ll pay for that,” says a cool, familiar voice as I pick up the
bill for my vinehen pie. Meg Cantor
slides into the seat across from me in the banquette, her metal briefcase
clanking softly against the table. (I
notice a few dents in it.) She pulls out some scrip, and leans across the table
with an attempt at a genial smile. “Tell
our sister that I’m doing just fine,” she says, though her make-up doesn’t
quite conceal the black eye when she leans into the window’s light, and the
pucker at the shoulder of her blazer shows the inexpert stitches of someone not
used to repairing her own clothes. Her
hair, still pulled into two tight ponytails, looks lank, washed under less than
ideal circumstances. Still smiling
brightly, she says, “Sorry, sis, I can’t stay.
I have errands to run for Mother.”
She did not give me nearly enough scrip to pay for dinner. What I took for money turns out to be a
folded note inside a single bill, that says, “Last papers on their way.” But she has left already, and I can’t tell
her that it might not matter anymore.
I slip the note into my purse as I bring out the correct
payment. I shall buy some lucky incense
on the way, to provide a reason to burn something out on my balcony tonight.)
Wednesday, September 23,
We have officially tipped
over into spring, but winter lingers in the mountain like a hoary old guest who
doesn’t know when to leave. Here in this
stretch where the traveler’s huts don’t go, we’ve gotten pretty adept at
erecting quick shelters of branch and earth that insulate us decently, aside
from the smoke-hole, and for that the fire wards off the draft, small though we
must keep it. And is it just my
imagination, or are the patches of bare, useable earth getting larger and more
common? Midlands, here we come.
In fact, I think, we’ve
already reached the upper mesas, judging by the deciduous trees that have been
increasing around us for some time, now, mingled with the conifers. Midlands: the realm of farm and orchard,
pasture and woodlot, plentiful little villages dotting hilly mesas that look
like the meads of gentler lands, except for the peaks and plunging canyons fencing
them here and there. A whole great chain
of bucolic sky-islands and mountain-shelves.
Places to grow fruits and vegetables that need both snow and sun, places
to raise children far from the government’s attention, places to lead the kind
of good life that everybody dreams about, except that the slightest upset in
the balance can topple paradise into a nightmare you might not survive. Here grows a life as sweet and precarious as
a mountain flower rooted in a scoop of rock.
Oh, they have plantations,
too, here and there. Whole villages and
their populations can belong to single families. But we skirt around those towns. Ever since Lyanfa I’ve managed to find
someone in our overlarge band from each locale.
I should have done that all along, skirting around each unfamiliar
community, but I get tired, I get sloppy.
Sometimes I just plain can’t seem to focus anymore.
(Oh what a tiring, miserable
waste of time! My eyes go out of focus
from sheer boredom. Is there anything
quite so tedious as a Vanikketan post office?
Beige walls, ceiling, floor, with matching utilitarian furnishings. Oh, and beige uniforms—how utterly
coordinated! No posters here to
advertise exotic stamps, foreign or domestic.
The Vanikketan stamp has nothing on it but the picture of the president
du jour, by way of dating it, in monochromes of six colors for six different
values, scaling through the spectrum from cheapest red to most expensive purple. Philatelists the world over are not
And ooh, the long lines!
My poor feet regret wearing high heels today. And these boxes weigh heavier with every
minute. But I do want to get as much of
my hard-earned loot back to Til Institute as I may, before this job ends
prematurely and the expense-account dries up.
Ah well, weightlifting burns calories, and I could use a bit of that.
I suppose it could be worse. I hear that Toulinian stamps are all black
and white, marked with the price and nothing else. But at least they use personal seals on the
My turn at last. I
fill out the forms, smile as the clerk approves my excellent packaging skills,
pay postage, and turn to leave.
Wait a minute, please.”
“Yes?” I smile charmingly instead of groaning over one
“We have a letter for you.” The wan-faced clerk smiles, embarrassed at
breaking protocol. “We might as well
give it to you now, rather than wait for the post office to deliver it tomorrow.” Then, anxiously, “Is that all right with
“By all means! Thank
you very much!” She hands me a delicate
paper envelope, standard for Vanikke.
Their excellent postal system makes our sturdier cylinders unnecessary
for the local post, bless their hearts.
So I suppose I shouldn’t rail against them too much for their drabness.
Outside I study the envelope.
Could Meg have sent it? I can’t
tell much from the stationary, though the cancellation on the stamp shows it
mailed locally—not much of clue in a city this size. For a return-address it shows only an
eternity-symbol split with a zigzag line.
Firm, dark strokes, slightly jagged, not Meg’s thin hand, nor Cybil’s dainty
Laying the last bough of
our shelter in place, I bend to scrub sticky sap from my hands with snow and
dirt, then quickly pull the fingerless gloves back on. That pungent scent reminds me that I’m
supposed to remember something about the gum’s medicinal properties...um...a
superior wound-wash, that’s it, when dissolved in alcohol, then boiled into
water. Good thing to recall—the evergreen
still grows plentiful around here, and will for many mesas yet. I straighten my back with a couple pops, then
hear the “Where are you?” whistle.
Kiril has escaped! “Here,” I whistle back. After that one or another of us gives out the
“Here,” whistle every so often as we load our stuff into the hut for the
night. I stay outside, last of all,
watching till Kiril finds us, rifle in my arms just in case it’s not
Kiril. The stars already begin to glitter
the sky by the time she peeks out from the woods, an enormous pack on her back.
“I can’t stay out too
long,” she says as I whisk her inside.
Kneeling before her in that
low space, I smooth her hair from her face.
“Are you so afraid of the soldiers, Kiril? They can’t get you here—I won’t let them!”
“No. They all treat me good.” Indeed, her face has rounded out a bit; she
looks rosy and healthy.
“Better than on the ship?”
“Oh, much better!”
I laugh with relief and
say, “At least they’re feeding you well, I can see that much.” She blushes and turns her face away. “It’s okay, honey. I’m glad.”
She swings around the backpack and spills the whole heavy thing out onto
our dirt floor. Firelight glints on can
after can of meat of every kind, plus yams, potatoes, rustling bags of beans,
every kind of treasure. How strong, this
dear, small soldier, to have carried it all!
We gasp as one and crowd around to admire the loot, pictures on the
labels giving the good news to those who can’t read.
“They made me cook—I get
free access to the food stocks,” Kiril tells us. “I’ll get you more, whenever I get the
chance.” And with that she accepts the
order that I didn’t want to give—that she should go back to spy upon our enemy
“Do they abuse you in any
way, any way at all?” I don’t have to
make that order official, if I can find an excuse. “You can tell me, Kiril.”
“No. They even talk kindly to me. They think I’m a little girl.”
I stare into her big, dark
eyes and wish that I, too, could see the child in them. “I’ll always stay with you,” I promise
again. “I’ll never go too far away.”
“Me, too!” Lufti asserts,
and all the others nod.
I swallow, then ask her, “Does
a Purple Mantle march with you?”
“The whistle code has been
compromised. The Mantles know it, but
the common soldiers don’t.” As she takes
that in, I say, “So we won’t drag this on forever. We’ll find out what we can, then rescue you
back to us. In the meantime, do you have
any intelligence that we can use?”
“They call their leader
Sarge, but he’s had so many officers die ahead of him that he’s probably
field-promoted to lieutenant or captain or something by now—all of those troops
march under somebody not trained to manage so many. Some of the soldiers fear that you’ll put
acid in the water bladders next. They
keep ammunition in the tent with the patch over the ridgepole. They keep pigeon-cotes in a tent that they
always put on the highest ground. The
soldier that hangs a luck-doll by his door-flap fears ghosts and has a guilty
conscience about something—I’ll try to find out what. The soldier in the tent with the patch shaped
sort of like a horse’s head has a crazy fear of bugs. They store lamp-oil in a tent with buckets by
it at all times for throwing on snow if it should ever catch fire.”
“Whoa! Take a breath!”
“That’s all I can remember
for now. Oh, wait—don’t free the pigeons
just yet—they’re on their way to some base, and they’d just replace them before
they had much time to feel alone and scared.”
“Same goes for ammo,
then. And Kiril, try to find out more
about that base. How’s morale?”
“Down the sewer and going
lower all the time. They’re afraid to
sleep and none of them can function at their best.”
“Sounds fortunate for us.”
“More than that—all the
troops spread fear to each other every time they connect—don’t free the birds
till they get to spread fear to the next base, even if it takes months.” She grins at me. “Egalitarians must be busy all over the
I laugh with delight and stand
up. “Excellent! Kiril, I am so proud of you! You turned what could have been a disaster
into a victory for the revolution.” But
she looks uneasy again and pulls me aside from the others, who still run their
hands through the groceries.
“Deirdre,” she asks me in
almost a whisper, “Am I bad for feasting with the enemy?” She crosses her arms over her tummy as if to
“No, no, honey. It’s good.
Think of it as stealing their food—as they’ve stolen food from the poor
for generations. You’re just taking back
your own.” I give her a hug and she
does, indeed, feel just a tad softer than she did. “Your father would have given you all that
food, and more, if he could’ve—he’d want you to have it, Kiril.”
thoughtfully. “I gotta go, now,” she
says, and ducks back out of our hut before I have time to say goodbye.
(The leaves have turned, I see, gazing out
the library window at a few branches illuminated by the window's light. All day the trees on the
campus have flaunted their fire-colors in the face of all our grays and browns, and
sometimes they even fall too fast for the gardeners to scoop them up before we
see their disorder loitering on our fading lawns. My red hair fits right in for a change. We have entered into a saucily disheveled
time that reminds me of something...gone.
It’s almost worth the added chill to the old stone building. And indeed I smell a whiff of woodsmoke, and
hear a welcome crackle, and turn to see my fellow students, at last, permitted
to build a fire in the fireplace.
I leaf through my workbook, blotting things out and
scrawling substitutions here and there wherever I can squeeze them in, some of
them deliberate mistakes. I keep having
to remind myself to maintain an A- or B+ average—bright enough to impress (and
to counter anti-Lumnite prejudice) but not freakishly so.
Don has already finished his homework, and curls up in a
window-seat, adding to the Book of Pranks a recipe for an invisible ink that
will stay liquid for a long time, and will turn a bright blue after a few
second’s contact with skin.
“Better add a reminder,” Jake tells him while rummaging
through the Common Room bookcase, “That they have to write backwards for it to
come out the right way on imprinting.”
“Already got it,” Don answers with a smile, “In the
intro, explaining what it’s for.”
“Hello,” Jake says.
“The books won’t go all the way back, here.” But he says it so quietly that only the two
of us overhear him amidst all of the students struggling over algebra and
Silently we leave our seats to join him. Don pulls out a few books, and we see the
hidden one, behind and perpendicular to the rest. Another student workbook in its binding, much
like the Book of Pranks, but this one has a symbol on it instead: an infinity
loop, split by a lightningbolt.
Jake opens it, saying not a word. I peer over his shoulder. It holds rituals. Diagrams, scripts, recipes, choreography, all
of a magical nature. The earlier
writing, in fading ink, doesn’t seem bad at all, a rather innocent sort of
nature-cult, and not without possibilities for integration into the locally
preferred Christianity, or even winning acceptance as a standalone. But later annotations, oddly enough in the
texting shorthand of ancient Earthian English, modify these increasingly
towards darkness; they become what I can only describe as evil.
Jake flips the pages, one by one, and we psygraph each
and every one, triggering memorization responses, deeply implanted in all
agents, by a few quick taps, in a certain rhythm, of our fingers on the same
hand’s palm. Forewarned is forearmed.)
(I can’t wait till I get home to read this letter. I take a seat in that lovely fudge shop that
Cybil first shared with me, and while I wait for my hazelnut brownie I tear the
mysterious envelope open. It contains a verse
in Tilianach. Archaic Tilianach, such as
I used to speak in my youth.
“Oh take me, Byron Lord, to tan and freckle
on thy distant shore,
“Just thee and me, for more would be a bore.
“Oh take me on a steamy beach, with wild
trees for canopy
“And teach me all the art of love, just
between thee and me!
“Let me lick the febrile sweat from off thy
“And let me learn the ways of passion as only
thou knowst how!”
I stare in horror.
I wrote that “poem” as a stupid adolescent. How could they...of course. Some evil telepath, untrained in ethics in
this psi-ignoring culture, has plucked this from my mind, and sent it to me to
embarrass me. Doubtless someone in the
government who doesn't approve of my mission here. They’re trying to rattle me.
I crumple the paper in my hand.
How dare they!
How dare who? No ordinary telepath could break through my shields, let alone an amateur. And suddenly my white-hot anger plunges to a cold, cold fear.)