IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
Clues and Dreams of Fear
Tuesday, October 13, 2708
Once again I hear the whistle for aid. Once again I hide my children carefully before I investigate alone, rifle in arms and a knife in my boot, med-gear bouncing on my back in case they really mean it.
The second time the whistle sounds weaker, but still I don’t answer. I wouldn’t have heard it the third time if I wasn’t so close that I practically trip on the little body huddled in the ferns.
Stop the bleeding! I tear back sodden clothes to assess the wound. Bullet in the back, missed the spine, thank God. The ribs took the worst of it. I elevate her to a sitting position, then tie on a compression bandage so tightly that she gasps, and thank heavens and all good ghosts that this time it works!
Then I turn her onto her side, to press my cheek against breasts so tiny that they’re a mere whisper of a promise, if only she’ll survive. I listen, frowning; the harsh sounds worry me. I think rib splinters might dig at her lungs, but they haven’t punctured the pleura yet. Quickly I choose sturdy twigs to bind to her in a kind of corset that will keep her torso rigid for now and minimize the friction—she’s going to have some terrible adhesions inside, but I think she’ll live.
Then I raise my head and see the clear trail of blood leading this way. I think of every word for excrement in every language that I have ever learned, then shift my small pack to my front as I hoist her on my back and crawl through brush in a tangential direction from her path, up a bit of a bluff, to where I can watch from a sheltered place. She lies heavy on me, her loud breath scaring me for at least two good reasons, as I pray for the wind to stir up and shake the branches louder than her rales. Here in the stuffy undergrowth I can’t quite tell whether it does or not; she wheezes right into my ear and it sounds like the end of the world.
Sure enough, soldiers follow the blood to where I stopped its flow. They confer; I can almost swear I hear one of them say, “Looks like she’s had help,” but I can’t tell for sure. Then they start to circle around, looking for any sign of our travels. I try to suppress my shivers and assess the situation objectively. They aren’t of the same troop that Kiril escorts; I know all of those by sight in the dark, by now. Just how many government soldiers rove the land these days? And how many rebels?
And why oh why did I grab a rifle instead of a blowgun? I could pick them off now, sure—and the sound would bring twenty of their comrades running. I sweat under the girl’s weight as one of them finds a twig I broke in passing and a strand of my hair caught on a bush.—oh, my stupid, too-long hair! Now they both come this way, bent like they sniff my trail out, searching for more clues. With quick and shaking fingers I tape thick pads of bandage over the end of my gun. Now they seem less certain of the trail, for I make a point of never traveling in a straight line if I can help it. I finish my homemade silencer, but it’ll only work for one shot, if at all, so I unsheathe my knife at the very last minute!
“Over here!” he shouts his last words, before I shove the knife into the man’s throat where he bends over me, so fast that he stares in shock even after his soul escapes, his hot blood gushing over us. I fire the gun before he even finishes toppling, taking down his startled companion to share his final journey. That silencer didn’t cut the noise nearly as much as I’d hoped, but I pray that it suffices, I might have just enough time to escape.
Quickly I strip off the soldier’s jacket before the blood has time to soak all the way through, and use it to clean up my patient and me, at least enough to not rub blood off on passing twigs and leaves, before we make our roundabout way back to base. But all the way home I can still smell the iron tang of it, this forced intimacy with someone I couldn’t want to make more of a stranger to me if you paid me.
* * *
(Fear. I’m all fear inside. And with Kiril away it just gets worse and worse.)
(Fear...it’s all fear out here, constant dread, the mountains crawling with rebels like maggots in a rotten dog.)
(I have a secret, buried so deeply that even I don’t know it. And Deirdre doesn’t know it, ‘cause if she did, she wouldn’t order...whatever it is that she hasn’t ordered yet. And how do I even know...whatever it is that I almost know?)
( I search the rocks overhead for gun-barrels trained down upon us, or poking behind some tree. They can hide anywhere. I’ve heard that they even have a trick of burying themselves alive, letting the first soldiers walk on their heads without moving a muscle—then they burst up and kill the soldiers in the middle.
“Eyes forward, Reno. We’re marching, not sightseeing.”)
(“Bring me some water, Lufti,” Tanjin says. “Help me clean off the blood.”)
(I hear they’ve got rebels that can fly. I hear they’ve got rebels that can burst a man’s skull with flames just by looking at him. I hear they’ve got sorcerers in the hills who can raise the dead with songs and then you’ve got to fight rotten zombies who keep on coming and coming after you shoot ‘em, it’s no use even trying.)
(Of course I’m scared. And brave. I must be brave. I look down at Deirdre, sleeping in the straw, as Tanjin wipes her arms off, and know that I would do anything for her...I just would.
Whatever she orders, I will go forward with it, secrets or not, no matter what it does to me. For her and Kiril. Oh Kiril—if only I could hug you just one more time!)
(“Eyes forward! Gawd—I’d say you act like a scared little girl, but I won’t insult Kiril, here, with the comparison. Now pull yourself together, soldier!”
Up yours, Sarge. You don’t know half of what’s going on out here.)
“Deirdre? You okay?” I open my eyes to the moist touch of a damp rag on my cheek. I find myself in a barn stall, sweet with hay, but cold in the night with the absence of the livestock that the army requisitioned. Tanjin bends over me, concerned.
“I just fell asleep, that’s all.”
“You’re exhausted,” he says, “and shivering, to boot.” With his arm and a half he tucks a blanket around me. The blanket smells like the horse that used to wear it. “Come on over with the rest of us—the farmer has some chickens left, and killed one for our soup.”
Sounds delicious. To stick by the no-dinner rule when so generously offered would offend against hospitality. I rise on stiff legs. “I guess the trip back took more out of me than I reckoned,” I say apologetically. My nerves still shudder at the thought of that crouching run, always wondering if enemy sights had found my back, just like they’d found hers before. “No big deal, though,” I add hastily, as I catch Lufti looking queerly at me—what am I thinking, showing weakness before my troops?
“All the same,” says Tanjin, “I think you could use this.” He hands me a home-bottled ale, the farmer’s best brew, after pulling the cork out with his teeth. I’ve seen grenades primed like that.
I don’t argue. I nod my thanks and hunker down around the brazier that’s all the heat we dare without setting the barn on fire. “Bijal,” I ask, “could you brew some rosehip tea for our patient?”
“I already did,” he says. “She’s sipping at it now.”
Tanjin says “Relax! You’re off duty. Everything’s taken care of already.”
I take a swig from the bottle, and then another. The ale goes off like the gentlest explosion, radiating its warmth swiftly from my empty belly to my weary brain, obliterating care and its pinching grip upon my muscles as I wait for my bowl of soup.
I’d dreamed something about fear...
(I’d dreamed something about fear…) (Civics class. I could so easily fall asleep, right here at my desk.) (I don’t ever want to sleep again.)
(I dutifully take notes on Toulinian scale voting, in the properly cramped, paper-saving script that they use around here.) (They’ve sent me my ballot once again. I try to concentrate on it, pushing aside all of the other written demands on a headmaster’s time, clearing a space on my desk back to the old, nicked, polished wood, and center the document there.) (Each voter must rate the candidates by number of preference, #1 being the most favored; the larger the number, the less desirable the candidate. The candidate with the lowest tally wins.) (I try to rate the names, knowing nothing, really, of the politics behind them. I haven’t kept up on that sort of thing, yet I ought to do my civic duty.) (Numbers given must not exceed the tally of candidates, lest the ballot-counters throw them out. Thus, if you decide to get cute and give a politician you really hate a score of 20 with only ten hopefuls running, your vote becomes a zero, increasing his chances of winning. Likewise repeat numbers get thrown out for both candidates.) (I rate them, one to five, then look again. Seven candidates. There are seven candidates.) (Et cetera. I yawn. Nobody gets to vote before age thirty, anyway.) (I try again, and rate them one to five, then realize that I have again left two blank spaces. Rapidly I pencil in six and seven, not looking at the names, Something feels wrong, terrifying, about those names—I mustn't even try to read them. They have some connection with my bad, forgotten dreams.)
“Come on, Deirdre, wake up, honey. Just have some of this soup. Please. You could use it.”
Mmm...warm in the mouth, delicious chickeny goodness, nourishment spreading in my chest when I swallow...but then I feel him take the bowl before I drop it, I feel him tuck the blanket around me again, and I wonder when my eyes closed and why they won’t open now, but oh the relief...
(I feel nothing but relief when I feel the paper ridges of the latest crumpled message nudged into my hand. Let’s hear it for a break in the monotony!) (I get a paper-cut shoving the ballot into its cylinder. Angry, I pull it out, crumple it up and throw it away instead. Who says I have to vote, when I haven’t even heard of any of these candidates? How exactly is it my civic duty to skew the results on ignorance?)
(Saved by the bell! I can’t wait to get out of here!) (I can hardly wait to get out the door for my evening walk around the grounds. Guiltily, I realize that I have wasted paper. M…somebody, somebody would have smacked my hand for that.)
(Jake, Don and I shrug on our coats and caps, wrapping scarves around our necks, pulling on galoshes. We have a study-break and we don’t need to study, but for all intents and purposes we are cutting classes to step outside into the rich, autumn air.)
(The rose garden looks depressing, watching the leaves turn brown, the petals all gone from the useless orange pips, soon nothing left but pips and thorns.) ( Slouching shoulder to shoulder, looking thoroughly delinquent and a little dangerous, we make our way to the brown-leafed tree with that gap in the trunk like a scream in wood.)
(It started in a rose garden. The dream or a memory or something. I hasten out of there. But that, too, happened—I had found a clue and hastened out of the rose garden, eager, on to the next thing, not knowing my danger.)
(Oboy, a clue! I reach into the rotten wood and pull out the paper. “Red in spring, now thorns sting. (17-x)2=22. (2+y)3=12. Northwest tops the page.”
Jake says, “The next clue waits in the rose garden.”
Don adds, “X would be 6, and y would be 2.”
I put in, “Using the northwest edge of the rose garden as the top of a page of graph paper, that would mean the 6th rosebush of the 2nd row. Simple.”)
(I don’t follow my usual route at all. I wander, absentmindedly, into the herb garden, stop at the rue, feel my face flush, and walk out of there rapidly.)
(We reach the rose garden, finding the next note, carefully hidden close to the base of the designated bush, in a crumbling clump of leaves, stuck to a thorn.
Don reads, ‘Flavor for some, tonic for others, we all had such plants, grown by our m___’”
Jake frowns. “Can any of you figure out what fits in the blank?”
I snap, “It doesn’t matter, Jake. It’s obviously talking about an herb garden. What’s the next line, Don?”
“It says, “A document in madness.’ “
“Wait,” I say. “Wait…that’s from Shakespeare. But they don’t teach Shakespeare anymore, not here.”
Thoughtfully, Jake says, “Come to think of it, we haven’t had a single literature lesson—even though they teach us British and American English so that we can read the classics. But no classics.”
We all stare at the paper, stumped. Frustrated, because we’re not used to anything stumping us.
Don murmurs. “We ought to remember Shakespeare.”
“I do,” I say. “Only…only in tatters. Bits and pieces.”
“Rosemary!” Jake exclaims. “The line has some connection with Rosemary…and pansies.”
We head for the herb garden, feeling the wind turn just a shade colder, rattling dead leaves. Don says, “George knows that we have familiarity with Shakespeare. It’s not taught in class, and it’s not what anyone would expect from an ignorant Lumnite. Do you suppose he suspects what we are?”
“Hurry up,” I say, “before that wind blows in another rainstorm.”
“No,” Jake says. “He’s following intuition. Nobody would ever suspect that the headmaster would invite in agents from the Tilián—the unexpected path, steered like a true oracle.”
“Well, the boy certainly suspects something about us,” Don grumbles.)
(I find myself standing by the old, abandoned well. We should have capped it long ago. I ought to give orders to that effect. I touch the ancient rope, leading into unfathomable darkness. I feel an urge to pull on it. I dismiss the urge. The rotted old thing must have dropped its ruin of a bucket long ago into the mud. Time I went indoors and stopped all this nonsense.
But my feet don’t take me inside. They take me to the gate. And before I can stop myself I lean on its thick and ancient wood, a bronze strip cold against my cheek, tears welling in my eyes, yearning for the outside world with all my heart.)
(The rain begins to patter on us, softly. We find a thick rosemary bush and, digging our fingers in on the side next to a row of pansies, discover the next clue. All it says is, “A very deep subject.”
“Well, well, well!” Don laughs. “He has certainly paid enough attention in English class to remember that old pun.”)
(But I don’t deserve to go outside into the free world. Never, ever, ever! I followed the clues, I found the pirate’s treasure and all its pretty damnation, and…good lord, man, why dig up that past? Forget everything and march right back to your post!)
(We pause at the garden wall, peering around just in time to see the Headmaster going inside from his evening constitutional. Six AM and six PM, like clockwork. He wouldn’t punish us, of course, but for his and our sakes we must appear to fear discovery, so we wait until we hear the door close in the distance, then stroll over to the abandoned well.
There, hidden by the old rope, we find a much sounder fishing-line, slimmer but more sturdy. We pull up three flasks, gurgling and clinking against each other, tied at the necks, glossy in the light despite a little mud. The well still holds some moisture, though not water per se, and so the ink has blurred slightly on the labels, for George has stripped off the top, glossy layer of the labels and on the fuzzy white paper beneath he has penned our instructions: One bottle for each of us. We read about drinking the contents all at once, at a place soon to be revealed, on whatever date and time that George shall next select. We must not waste a precious drop of the herbal elixir that he went through such pains to gather.
Thoughtfully Don asks, “I wonder what herbs he puts into this?”
Jake uncaps and sniffs his. “Rosemary,” he says, “Among others.”)