IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
Thursday, October 1, 2708
(“Where’s the child?” Headmaster Weatherbent tears through the dorms, the closets, the storerooms. “WHERE’S THE CHILD?” He throws open chests where a small one might crawl in and get trapped. He overturns tables and large trash cans. He crashes and slams and swears through the stillness and reserve of the ancient establishment, his white hair falling in his eyes, his hands bleeding from unheeded scrapes as he pries open long-shut cupboards, rips time-weakened curtains from their rods, heedless of the stares.
And suddenly he stops, and a horrible expression drags at his face, the mouth open, the old eyes fixed on nothing. And I think, “He remembers a game, something involving searching, and the memory’s unbearable.” I shiver, because I’m no telepath, I’m nothing at all like a telepath, and I shouldn’t know such things.
“Borders blur” I think next. I feel that maybe that comes from Jake, and I shudder harder at a sudden blast of cold, rainy air from the opened door.
For the Headmaster has burst outside, in garb unsuitable for rain, his robe sodden around his ankles where his slippers splash through puddles. Then he sees it, and he stops, and he sags where he stands, murmuring, “Noooooo. Not another one.” We look to where he stares, at the gate, still ajar.)
(The sacrifice lingers on me. I still taste the herbs and the kusmet, still smell the sweat of my disciples all around me, and the blood. The herbs play yet in my veins, though faded enough that I can pass for normal. But even now the world still tingles slightly.
I should go back to bed. Instead I keep on scribbling in Txt: the secret code, the arcane language of the ancients, that mystic combinations of letters and numbers by which those wise and wicked folk compressed space and time, sending messages everywhere instantly—the magical shorthand passed on in secret year after year, generation after generation, by schoolboys in the know. I record my visions before they slip away from me. Nobody’s going to get any more sleep anyway, not after the Headmaster’s spectacle.)
(Ow! Something snapped, something stung, something changed one notch closer to terrible, and I feel fear, soooo much fear! I reach for Kiril’s hand in the dark, but she’s not there, she hasn’t been there for days and days now. Deirdre’s standing guard; I can’t disturb her at her duty. I huddle in our blankets all alone.)
(Sarge looks old as he takes the report on the dead and wounded: old and shivering cold and smeared with soot and what might be blood, I can’t tell in the dark. None of us get any more sleep.
Everything starts to look all in shades of blue instead of black and gray, so I go back to my tent to fix breakfast for the day. I see some soldiers looking weirdly at me, then I realize that I stepped over a dead man’s arm to go my way. They keep thinking I’m a child.
I rinse the night-soaked beans, and soon they simmer along nicely, a bit of tarragon thrown in—my secret for bringing out their full flavor, along with the savory government-issue ham. I look up from my work and see the men loading bodies into long, zippered bags, then piling them into an ox cart with snow on top. They want the luxury of bringing home their dead. I don’t think anybody will ever find all the rebel graves scattered throughout this land; farmers and builders come up on bones all the time. These people treat me well, but they take so much for granted!
And what about me? Am I one of the privileged, now? I do better than anybody in my own troop these days, and I’ve undone the knot that I used to need to keep my waistband snug. Do any of them envy me? Should I resent myself?
I grind up some stapleseed that I found in the other supply-tent, to use later for lunch. They feed oxen on this stuff! They don’t know that the special, nutty flavor, that richness in the cornbread that I fix them, comes from a liberal helping of stapleseed meal in the batter. To have so much, and to never know what they’re missing!
I mustn’t sing over my work. The sorrow of the camp weighs down my heart as though it belongs to me. I watch one man stop right before he pulls the zipper over the face of a friend, and I see that soldier break down and cry, kneeling on the ground right there in the snowmelt, unable to continue. Somebody else finishes the job for him.
I hear Sarge order a pigeon sent to report on their misfortunes (so far they’ve lost half the force they had in someplace-or-other; I catch that much.) and he relays their need for replacements of supplies and men (never mind that he’s supposed to only be a sergeant, in charge of no more than twelve.) Good. It’s not enough to scare one company—everybody’s got to share the fear.)
(The borders blur. I can see her. Herrrrrrrrr. Long blonde curls. Sassy. Like me. And Jake loves hurrrrrrrrrr, but not that way. Old friends. Jake’s friend is a hurrrrrrr. And they share an old bond, once tangled mind to mind.
And her eyes widen. She rises from a restaurant chair, then stumbles back, knocking over several other chairs, and I feel a toad drop from my mouth, and I say something in Vanikketan, but I’m so screwed I don’t know what I just said. And others around me close in on the hurrrrrrr, too, but oh, the lightning reactions! A hurrrrrrr who can fight! And she (sheeeeee!) shouts something also in Vanikketan, trying to break through to us. I catch the word, “Gregor” from her shouts. We are all under the spell of a...gregor?
I am the President of Vanikke! And I...I...I am nobody.
“Winsall? George Winsall, are you all right?”
I come to myself with my head in my scrambled eggs, back at school. I must still have the potion in my veins, the strong, strong herbs. I sit up and mutter an apology to the table-monitor. “Long night studying,” I say, and some of my boys chuckle under their breath.
Magentine. I’d said something about magentine. How it transmitted something, a new mode of communication. I’d held a crystal in my hand, and so did all the other men, stretching out their glowing fists. I told hrrrr that it sang to me.)
(I serve them breakfast, and they thank me gratefully, but they don’t finish all I’ve cooked. If morale stays down this low, I’m going to have to adjust my recipes for lighter meals. I can freeze what they leave untouched in the pot, but they won’t have later what another soldier’s left on his plate; any that I can’t eat will go to waste.
Time to pack up for the next march. Like a good camp-follower, I get all my pots and pans neatly organized, little ones inside the big, and tuck them into the mess-cart with the bags and boxes and jars and bottles of my trade. But then I see Sarge take my bedding out of the cart, and the comb and mirror that he gave me, and the wash basin and pitcher.
“It’s not safe for you to sleep with the supplies, anymore,” he says to me, his face grim. “You’re going into my tent from now on.” Ohhhh no! Suddenly this mission doesn’t look so privileged anymore.)
(Borders blur. I myself change them. This rebel enclave has become the property of the Charadocian Government once more. Even if all of its citizens have died.
I walk through the dawn-gray streets of Chicamoq, through the smoke, the rubble, the bodies. Even this early my hair feels too hot and heavy on my shoulders; I miss working in the cool of the high country. But I refuse to braid it up like a peasant woman, not when I can help it.
Already my men dig graves, temperatures being too high to transport corpses, and no ice available. They mutter superstitious prayers over the enemy as well as our own. Stupid, backward country—do they think I cannot hear? And my boots go click, click, click on the crude stone pavement.
Not all stone. Here and there the peasants seem to have patched in gaps with some dark gray concoction that smells unbelievably horrible when it burns. Whatever it is, it probably uses dung or some other foul substance as a binder. Barbarians.
It would take too hard a march for this troop to make it to the Midlands in time. I shall have to catch a jeep and change companies. Just as well; the men need rest after the resistance that the village put up—protesting the while that they had nothing to do with any rebels. Did they take me for a fool? Rebel gear turns up with Chicamoq markings on them all the time! Nice little commercial hub for the lower classes, including nice, illegal weaponry.
I pause to renew my lipstick. But no, the perfume of it disagrees with me; it mingles nauseously with the odor of the dead and the smoldering street. I do not want it on my lips right now. I put it back in my pocket.)
(Bruised. I feel so bruised. And ripped up. I got out of the restaurant alive; those paunchy bureaucrats couldn’t kill a well-trained lady like myself that easily. But I could never have foreseen President Vosca and his entire cabinet physically attacking me.
People ran at the sound of smashing crockery. Of course. But I didn’t expect to hear the sound of applause when I ran down the street, stumbling and bleeding, clutching at my side and trailing rags. Unsmiling faces on the early shopkeepers and the late-hour janitors, but applause. For the President? For me? For the spectacle? And not one hand to help.
Bruised. Ripped up. Inside and out. Why do I feel so much damage in my head? Or heart. Or Truth help me, my speculative soul. And why do I feel so acutely my connection to Jake? Shouldn’t he bond with....someone else?
Worse than that. We connect with a whole web of others. Almost like that time, three years ago, when together we fought against Alroy. Why does it feel that three years haven’t passed at all?)
(Time. He ripped time. And space. And…something else, something for which no word in Toulinian or Tilianach exists. Things bleed through, mingling where and when and how they shouldn’t, a little bit more every day—and now he’s upped the pace. Or maybe I did it, somehow, I don’t know how. And I we I feel a blurring, a merging, I don’t even know whether I’m Jake or Randy right now, or somebody else, I just know that I’m afraid.)
Kiril feels fear and I feel Kiril. “Remember me,” I say to someone. “Remember us all. Tell our story. Don’t let us die again.” Fear shudders in my loins and makes my breakfast taste like ash, even with the syrup and the nuts. I am Kiril. I am a soldier—a soldier of the Charadocian government? The wound aches in the cold but burns like fire when I move. “Remember me. Remember us.” I am Jake, Zanne, Merrill, I am...I stalk an evil private school, where fear presses down from the hallowed, time-stained walls. I clutch a broken rib. I ride a jolting jeep from town to war-torn town. I become abruptly sick as I realize that this tasty bit of bacon didn’t come from any pig. “Remember!” But the minute I wake up I realize that I’ve forgotten almost everything in the dream—except that I told someone to remember me.
When did I even lay down? Wasn’t I supposed to...oh yeah. Lufti relieved me at guard duty. He said he couldn’t sleep. I see him out there, now, his eyes wide, almost mad, clutching his rifle close, turning his head slowly this way and that, now snapping to one side at a sudden noise, now shuddering and resuming his scan.
I go over to him. “You’re off duty, soldier. You’ve got time to catch a nap; I’ve got wounded to tend before we move.” He nods, his eyes suddenly sleepy with the words. He goes back to the blankets that I’ve left warm for him.
* * *
With the light of day I get a better look at Tanjin’s wound—surface shoulder, open to the air the whole way, no major blood vessels hit, but he’s still pretty ripped up; he’s bound to have some repercussions, certainly weakening of the muscles in what little flesh he has. Oh, how I wish I had never learned his name! “Did Rashid leave us anything for pain?” I ask. Betony rummages through supplies for me.
“I don’t think so. He had a hard time keeping enough morphine for surgeries.”
I cuss softly over Tanjin’s taut and sweating face. We could numb him with snow, but the flesh needs circulation to heal, and I have not yet found the herbs for that special tea—they aren’t so common, and you need both; one enables the stomach to absorb the other. I wash the wound out with the resinous antiseptic that I’d brewed all night from sap.
Well, Deirdre, what did you expect? You can’t take on an operation on the scale of last night’s raid without casualties. Four wounded, five dead, and suddenly our numbers don’t seem quite so cumbersome. But we got more of them than they got of us; I need to keep that in mind. I think we did.
Can we still find Nayal’s band? We could absorb them now. But no, they’ve faded off into the countryside, as good guerillas will.
Tanjin manages a smile my way. “The pain’s less, now,” he says. “It’s dropping off fast.” Yeah, right.
For a little while I had lulled myself into believing that we’d come all this way just to play pranks upon our enemies. I didn’t even know that I’d let myself slip into that fantasy. So alluring is anything that can deliver our thoughts from this horrible, horrible war.