IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
The Care of Children in Time of War
Saturday, September 26, 2708
Plaintive birdcalls waft over the hills, blown like ash upon the wind. “Help! Wounded!” they cry to those who know. I shudder, remembering the first time I whistled that, myself, when the snake got Miko. But I hold the troops back. “For all we know,” I tell them, “It could be ol’ Whitesleeves himself singing us in.”
Little Hekut turns dark eyes on me. “You’re gonna let ‘em die—is that it?”
“Nope, I’m going in after them,” I say as I pack up a few supplies. “Alone. I’m a medic, remember? Bijal, you’re in charge.”
“You’re in charge.” He’s long overdue to ride the horse that threw him. “See that I’ve got an intact troop to come home to.”
“But how will you find us on the march?” Bijal asks.
“When I make the ‘Where are you?’ whistle, I’ll cut it off abruptly in the middle the first time, do it whole the second, and add an extra trill on the third. Do not respond till the third call.” Before anyone can say any more I take off through the woods, rifle in arms, in the general direction of the last whistle.
Oh great! Cashew-vine interlaces the underbrush at every turn. A pretty plant, with tasty nuts—if you burn off the capsules around them full of poisonous oils—but the slightest brush gives you the most miserable, burning rash wherever it touches you. I zigzag through a maze of the nasty stuff, losing valuable time. At last I get far enough from my own people to whistle “Where are you?”—original version—to the alleged wounded. It takes several tries before I get an answer, as I move closer and closer towards where I saw the gunfire flashes.
Finally “Here!” comes the reply. I twist and turn their way, holding a dialogue of trills back and forth to keep me on track in this devil’s garden, till I come around a boulder and see eyes staring at me from the bushes in its lee. I strike a fighter’s stance immediately, barrel pointed their way.
“The bird-code’s compromised,” I say, “So come out with your hands up till I know what to make of you.” No response. “Out with you!” I bark.
“We can’t all...”
I shoot off some bush-twigs. “Don’t argue! Everyone who can stand, on your feet! Pull back the boughs so I can see the ones lying down, too.” Gunsmoke hangs on the air as they file out, one by one, about a half dozen youngsters, all told (including the two lying inside in dark-encrusted rags) children dirty with mud and blood and the kind of powder burns you get when you make your own artillery.
I lower my weapon; they’ve shed their blood too recently for the cause to have changed sides, I decide, and none of them look up to torturing me for secrets if I’m wrong. “Sorry,” I say, as I dig out a lump of Rashid’s antiseptic soap. “I’m still changing bandages on a man who trusted a turncoat in Lyanfa.” They look at me blankly, till I repeat myself loudly. The barrage must have half-deafened them.
“Lyanfa!” they exclaim. “Nobody ever goes there!”
“We’re not from here, normally,” I say as I pour icy water from my canteen over my hands and lather up, then rinse, feeling their eyes all over me. Glad that I filled the skin nearly to bursting the night before, I hand it over to them; they look dehydrated, but haven’t dared light a fire to boil snow. As they pass it around, I crawl into the crackling shelter of the bush to examine the two kids down, my elbows taking my weight to keep my hands clean. “So now we know better.” I probe and sniff the wounds as my charges moan and jerk away, then press my cheek to fevered brows, trying to estimate their temperatures. “Hey—save some of that water for the wounded, okay?” Both have lost a lot of blood, but a bullet only grazed the boy’s ribs. The girl’s abdominal wounds, on the other hand, should have killed her by now.
I crawl back out. “Who’s in charge?”
A craggy-faced mountainfolk boy steps forward and shakes my hand. “I’m Nayal,” he says. “How’s it look, Doc?”
I take him aside. I turn Nayal to where he can read my lips and say, “The boy needs his infection taken care of, but I can show you how to debride the wound and brew up the proper medicines.”
I force myself to look him in the eye. “She needs last rites.” His eyes water as he turns away. I put a hand on his shoulder. “I’ll send over some oil with the supplies coming your way.”
“Supplies?” he says distantly. I wonder how close this “officer” is to cracking under stress. The others gather around closer, guessing what we speak about and wanting to hear more.
“Sure. We can spare some. Medicine for fever and for cleaning wounds, food, even a couple guns and the ammo to go with them.”
“And oil for anointing,” he sighs. The others look punched by the words, but not as if it had been the first blow to land on them.
“Also a few fresh troops, if you can use them; too many march with us right now.”
“So you can’t absorb our numbers.”
“No,” I have to say, “I’m afraid I can’t.”
“Three bands,” he tells me. “We took ‘em on, three bands all together. And, and, and this is all we have left.”
I pull him closer to me, my arm around the boy. “I heard the barrage you endured. The fact you have any survivors shows damn good leadership.” Except in the original attack. That troop has some hardcore firepower.
His hand lightly touches mine on his shoulder, and it looks too small for this business. “Can you spare another officer? I just got patched in because everybody better died.”
“You bet,” I tell him softly. “We’ve got nothing but veterans.” But the others shake their heads, wide-eyed, and a girl says, “We follow Nayal. Nobody but Nayal.”
Sunday, September 27, 2708
“Here,” Tanjin says, passing me a carrot as we strike camp.
“Eating out of turn?” I hand it back to him. “Officers can’t set a bad example, Tanjin.”
“Take it,” he insists. “You only ate half your breakfast ration.”
“She does that,” Lufti puts in. “She wants to make sure we all get enough, so sometimes she goes without.”
“But we’ve got almost more than we can carry,” he grumbles, loading up his pack.
(“No, really,” I protest. “I’ve had enough porridge. Thanks, anyway.”
“But you haven’t had it my Mom’s way,” the freckled redhead persists, “with butter—well, what the army calls butter, anyway—and syrup and nuts.” Oh my—that does sound good.
Sarge says, “You think that flavored grease is good for anything but oiling machine parts?”
Speculatively I say, “If you add some sweet spices to mask the aftertaste, I think it sounds pretty tasty, actually...but no.” I try to stop the freckled man as he gets up for ingredients. “I’ve had quite enough breakfast already—thanks, Freck.”)
“I just don’t have much appetite today,” I say as we pull down the branches with which we made our shelter and scatter them as naturally as possible.
“You never have much appetite.”
“That’s enough, Tanjin.”
(Freck pours more rolled oats into the pan anyway, and adds handfuls of the local cashews. “You have not yet begun, little lady,” he says, adding water from the kettle and mixing in the salt. “Not till you’ve tasted porridge done up right.” It takes no time at all to boil, with the water heated already. He drops in a big glob of butter-substitute and rummages for spices. “Besides, you don’t know what mishaps might befall in this wild world—rebels could spring on us at any moment. Or...”
Sarge says, “That’s enough, Freck.”
He shrugs, but he glares at Sarge as he says, “Any number of things can happen out here. You never know when you might find yourself without...”
“I said that’s enough! You still deaf?”
“No sir,” Freck mumbles. “Fully recovered.”
“You’re on my list, soldier.”)
“Come on...just one bite,” Tanjin coaxes. “For me?”
“I said that’s enough!” I shove him against a tree. “Do I have to punish you for insubordination?”
“Go ahead! Whip me for caring about you!”
I smack him. “I’m your officer—you don’t have to care about me, you just have to obey me!”
I let him go, his face reddening where I struck him, and his eyes as well. He glares at me a moment, then turns away. “I was out of line...Ma’am.”
“Okay, then.” And so we kneel to wipe off the tarps before folding them up and packing them, stiffly, with attention to detail, trying to pretend normalcy.
I mustn’t let them know. I mustn’t let anyone know of the fatigue increasing on me, the soreness and the swollen lymph nodes hidden by my scarf. They need to see me as strong.
(Sarge turns to me. “Would seconds make you sick, honey?”
“No, I don’t think so,” and my mouth waters at the scents bubbling up from the pan despite myself. “But if I have any more I won’t be able to move. And there’s dishes to clean...”
“Not with Freck on KP duty,” Sarge says grimly. “Have all you want.” Then he goes off to have sharp words with the soldier aside from the rest of us.
This does taste good!)
Everyone’s staring at me. I overhear someone whispering to someone else, but I can’t catch what they say.
“Oh give me the damn carrot!” I snap. And I eat the thing faster than I expected to, and it tastes sweeter and more flavorful than I have any right to enjoy.
* * *
(Ah, my favorite shopping district in Vanikke! Time to take my mind off all the recent disturbing developments. Besides, after the purge of my closet, I really do need a dress appropriate for breakfast with the President. Oh, the many bright paints and dyes behind the shimmer of perfect sheets of glass—how lovely to work somewhere sophisticated for a change! And if it ends before I’ve hardly begun, all the more reason to relish every moment remaining.
Noisy? Oh my yes! But rather exciting, don’t you think?
...Don’t who think?
For a moment there I felt like I chatted with Jake. He would hate the noise, of course. Why him? Why not him? Why do I even question it?
Pay attention to what doesn’t fit.
That sounded like he said it right in my head. Maybe he did.
He’s in tune, somehow. Something boosts my ability to home in on him telepathically, without even trying—and boy is the media ever the message this time!
So, I find myself psychically resonating with an oracle who seems to want to point out what doesn’t fit, including the fact that he’s managed to engage me in the first place—especially him, who never fancied my telepathic scrutiny before. And especially since—now why’n’erth would anyone as graceful as Jake have trouble perceiving the feminine? I’ve seen the Big Man dance, after all.
I’m overthinking this. Mustn’t give myself headaches trying to figure out the inexplicable—that leads to nasty forehead wrinkles. Just go with the flow, like turning down this alley that I’ve never explored before, probably because it deals with children’s shops, their clothes and toys and such. The air smells cheery with the sweetness of those sticky globs of candied, puffed-up grain, so popular for rotting the teeth of your little favorites around here. And so much glitter and pastels!
Well, I must say, if Jake wanted to pick an “unexpected path” for me, this would certainly be it. I’ve never been the motherly type—except for that one time, of course, when Jake went through that bad patch, and...oh my! The memory seems to put me on a fast track to his unconscious.
That’s it—he’s reached out to me unconsciously. How else would the telepathy that his oraclism absorbed even work? But he’s not the only one, there’s also...now what was I thinking? I find myself staring in a shop window at a brown-skinned doll with exceptionally long black hair, carefully grouped with others of the same hue. For a second I can’t think at all.
Pay attention to what doesn’t fit.
I stroll on down the pretty lane, window-shopping. Something about the stuffed animals on display bothers me. I stop and look. All cute, chubby, and plush, with goofy smiles and red eyes. Disturbing, translucent red eyes. Noooooo...
Corruption, again. Allowing something as dangerous as that, toxic for untrained babes, on the market. How could they?
Yet corruption only poisons people for profit. Magentine packs a hefty price—hardly a good substitute for a safe, cheap resin.What’s happening?)