IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
Friday, October 16, 2708
I can’t put this off any longer. I’m sure I’ve taught him everything he needs to know. At least I hope so—how can I ever be sure? “Ready, soldier?”
Lufti salutes me with that exaggerated zeal unique to young boys. But just to make sure, I bend over him to confirm that his waterskin’s full and his boots laced tight. I pull his knife out of its sheath and approve the sharpness of the blade. He can’t take his gun with him, though; the mere discovery of one on his person would more likely get him killed than offer him protection. And he, one of my best shots!
Has he grown? Yes, noticeably. With Kiril’s help I’ve made sure that he’s gotten the regular meals that a growing boy needs, better than his own family could. Does that justify what I’m about to do? Not really.
I swallow back the sob so thick and hard in my throat that it hurts; nobody else must know that it’s even there. I straighten out his poncho, give him a little kiss on the forehead (brushing aside the hair that some attentive mother ought to trim, it's starting to get long, but if it makes him look like an orphan, so much the safer for him) and then say, “Go soldier—go back to Cyran, tell him what we’ve learned, and what we’ve done, and find out all you can along the way. Then, by God’s grace, return to us again!” I hold myself upright, rigid; if I move I might hug him and murmur, “Don’t go! Don’t go!” into his hair. “Now, remember what I said to say if anybody asks why you’re wandering around on your own?”
“That I’m looking for my father. Lots of kids hit the road looking for their fathers, when their mothers die.”
The soldiers leave an obvious trail for now, but that could change. And have I taught enough of tracking for him to follow it? “If you...” No. “When you return...will you be able to find us?”
“Blindfolded in the dark,” he declares with a laugh. Oh Lufti, Lufti, let nothing ever blunt your confidence! With a wave he disappears off into the woods and the wind sounds sad in the trees.
Saturday, October 17, 2708
(“Tomorrow night,” I tell my twelve roommates, all of them uneasy from the car that keeps on parking outside, watching us. “I’ve paid off the landlord for a full month, plus a little extra; he’ll keep up a pretense of occupancy till November. But we have to slip out by tomorrow night.” Some didn’t want to leave, at first, but that car has convinced them. “Around three A.M. might be best, when the bars close and the constabulary have their hands full. Take only what you need. Cybil, have you found us a new place?”
She nods, her face perspiring in the steam of her cooking. “Down by the river,” she says, “on the marshy side.” I just love her creamy chicken stew! Especially with Beyla’s biscuits to go with it. And I feel more stable the more I eat her home cooking; Dalmar might be on to something. “It’s easy to find vacancies there because of the smell.”
“That’s nothing new to me,” I say with a wry smile. “Bigger, I hope?”
“If you count the basement, but it’s kind of damp down there. Smaller, otherwise.”
I shrug. “We’ll make do.”)
* * *
(The hot shower feels so good I don’t ever want to step out of the cubicle, never want to leave behind this fog of steam and the lye soap’s tallow stink. Ah, Randy, you always were a sybarite!
But soon I must wrap the rough towel around me in the school-approved tuck, put bare feet to the cold concrete, and take up that dreadful uniform again. For a moment I chide my failure in immersion, to criticize the native garb, but every boy in the academy hates these clothes.
I carry them up the stairs to my dorm room, in line with others
similarly attired in terrycloth kilts and goosebumpy skin. Some of the shyer or more chilly boys wrap
their towels at armpit-level, and that’s allowed, though sometimes jeered. Lis...somebody would’ve fit right
in...what? What did I think just now?
We’re supposed to pull the nightshirt on over the towel, and then drop the towel out from under: I shudder into my own flannel so fast that I almost miss the note sticking out of the pocket of my jacket lying on the bed, waiting for me to hang it up.
I read it quickly, before anybody else can see that I have it. Tomorrow night. George wants all three of us tomorrow night. Jake and Don come by, with notes of their own concealed in the palms of their hands until they show them to me, shielding us from sight with their bodies. Don also pulls out a flask, uncorks it with a twist of telekinesis, and sniffs at the content. “Strong stuff,” he says so quietly that we alone can hear. “We’ll all need to trigger our memorization routines right before, I’m thinking.”)
* * *
A coney’s gastric acid may not be the strongest stuff in the world, but it’s the best we’ve got, and should suffice at least to scare, certainly to sting the eyes something awful. I scan in the dark, then find a good position hidden behind an ideal tree...and then I see a child leaving the latrines.
“Here,” I whistle, knowing that her soldiers, at least, know nothing of our code. She starts, then turns towards me. Kiril! What’s she hiding under that cut-down army coat? I whistle the bird-call again and she comes over and sits down on one of the tree’s roots, pretending to fiddle with her boot.
“Whatcha up to?” I hear her whisper. I tell her. She says, “Stash the acid somewhere and go back for reinforcements.” She speaks firmly, like she’s the officer, not me—I like that. “The second shift guard’s feeling the sleep-loss more than most. When he nods off you can raid the kitchen supplies—over there.” She points behind her, her hand hidden from the camp by her body. “Then you can hit the guard in the face on the way out.” I overhear her murmur to herself, “It’s not right that I should get all the bounty.”
“Don’t worry about that,” I tell her. “What about you staying there? I won’t have to beat you up for show, will I?”
“No,” she says. “I share Sarge’s tent, now.”
I drop the acid sizzling into the night-frosted ground.
“No! It’s not like that!” She whips around the tree to me, her face surprisingly round.
“Keep your voice down,” I say, mastering myself. “What’s it like, then?”
“He’s a perfect gentleman. He curtains my bed off from his.” I hear a catch in her voice when she says, “He treats me like...a daughter.”
I look with pity on her. “That makes it hard, huh?”
She nods rapidly, a tear streaming down one plump cheek. Glancing around first to make sure we’re not seen, I reach around the trunk to caress that tear away. “Just keep focused, Kiril—this is the hardest part of spy work. You can get lost in your role.”
“I’ll try, Deirdre.” She looks back down at her boot and fumbles at the laces as though she could untangle something there.
“Take ‘em for all their worth, but keep in mind that that’s all it is—they’re not giving you gifts, you’re getting back some of what they steal.” I lean forward, cheek pressed close to her ear, and say with quiet firmness, “Always remember your real father, Kiril. Make him proud of you. Avenge your mother.”
She turns back to me; the soft face hardens and her eyes looks more determined. “The medical tent next to kitchen supplies has carbolic acid,” she tells me.
“And Kiril? Whatever you’re hiding under your coat is too much. Anyone could see the bulge.”
An awkward pause, then, “I’m not hiding anything.”
* * *
(Ahhhh! I sigh with relief when I unfasten my skirt, then study critically the red line it left behind. I hope that the cracks in the mirror distort my reflection, and that I’m not really that big.
“Cybilllllll,” I growl. “This is your cooking that’s done this to me!”
“So? Now you’ve got an excuse to shop for more clothes.”
“You act as though my funds are bottomless,” I grumble, then turn in the mirror for a back-view. “My body surely isn’t!”
She laughs lightly and hands me one of the still-warm jelly doughnuts she’s spent the afternoon preparing, filling the house with sweet aroma. I nearly throw it at her, but then bite it angrily. Oooh, raspberry filling! She laughs again. “You look like a wild animal, do you know that? With red goo all over your mouth!” She passes the platter around to all of our roommates as I stand in line to brush my teeth, licking jelly from my lips.
“Can’t you people read? Minerva groans from her sleeping-bag, and she points to a sign taped to the wall, in her handwriting: “Lights out at 9, please! Some of us still have jobs.” So we switch off the lights, standing now only in the glow of the bathroom as we wait our turn.
“Watch out,” I murmur to Cybil. “You’re stuck in the dark with a wild animal.”
“Awww, haven’t I tamed you with treats?” She reaches up to pet my head and I snap at her fingers, getting yet another laugh from her.
Tshura comes out toweling her thick, black hair, saying, “No more hot water, folks. Sorry. I went as fast as I could.”
Skirnir just gives her a hug and says, “No problem, sweetheart. I’ll just pretend I’m a big, tough Viking scrubbing up in a glacier-stream.” And he winks as we laugh, for he’s as short as I am and slight of build. Next in line, he takes off his shirt while going through the door, and I see the still-pink bullet scar in his shoulder.
Tshura hands him her shampoo and joins her tan and handsome boyfriend, Guaril, already robed and in earnest conversation with eye-patched Ozwald (still in his lucky blue sweater) about whether runes or cards can better tell the future, while Pauline argues on behalf of good ol’ common sense instead. She says something that spins them all off into a giggling-fit.
You know, if I must live on the run, I could do a whole lot worse than this, and find companions worse than these.)
* * *
(Deirdre depends on me ‘cause I can read. I’m not scared of the dark, either. I’m not at all scared that everybody else in this tavern’s three times bigger’n me and some wear knives. I’m brave.
“Ain’t much nutrition in that soup for a growing boy,” says a big guy whose face is mostly mustache. He throws a hunk of bread down by my bowl. “Here—have a bit of that to go with it.”
“Thank you, sir,” I say, and grin. The bread’s a bit on the stale side, but sopping up some soup’ll fix that.
He pulls up a chair beside me. “What’s a wee bit like you doing traveling all alone?”
“Looking for my father,” I say with my mouth full.
He says, “Hell, maybe I’m your father—tell me where your mother’s been and I’ll give you my best guess.” He laughs loudly and so does everybody else as he ambles back to the bar. I sit perfectly still; if you pull in your shoulders and react scared or upset in any way, you look like a victim. If you puff up and act mad, you look like a threat. At my size a funny threat, but somebody to mess with all the same. I have to not look like fun.
“Leave the kid alone, Robar,” says the bartender.
“Aw, I don’t mean no harm—I gave him bread, didn’t I?” The others around the bar nod and agree that he did indeed give me bread, ol’ Robar’s a good sort, and then they turn back to their beers. Deirdre expressly forbade me to drink beer or chaummin or anything like that on this mission, so I don’t. I’ve got coins just enough for food, and I’ve got to make them last.
I finish my soup and then slip quietly out to find a warm, safe place to sleep. That barn looks good. The barn-dog barks at first, but I come armed with a sop of bread dripping broth and still steaming; it takes no time at all to make the dog my friend and guardian for the night. Kiril told me how to do that (Oh Kiril, how I miss you!) I nestle into the fragrant hay with his warm and smelly fur pressed close to me, and we both sleep well.)