IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
Tuesday, October 27, 2708
(I wake up feeling surprisingly good, in the shelter under the bushes that we managed to improvise with the tarps we’ve backpacked. I sit up from my sleeping-bag’s warmth into a refreshing chill, exhilarated by the wild scents of autumn and the dawn’s first glow. I stretch, then run my fingers through my hair, laughing. Oh, but this brings back happy memories! I never lack appreciation for luxury, but after awhile one misses The Edge.
Then I remember...no, stop that, Zanne. Stay in this moment. For this is also True. Happy memories and sad live side by side.
Ozwald mutters from his own bedding, “Well, this sucks cowpies.” Around him the others groan their way into a grudging consciousness, stirring slowly.
“It’s called adventure, darling,” I say with a grin expanding through me. “Relish it!”
“It’s true what they say,” Maury growls from under the camp-pillow that he’s pulled over his head. “All the Tilián are mad.”)
I woke up this morning with a splendid new sense of promise, all golden and sweet, the sunlight pouring over me like good, healing honey. I expected the feeling to fade after awhile as fatigue set in, but here we’ve reached the afternoon already and I’m still going strong, dressing the last wound and looking for something new to do. I haven’t had any taste hallucinations all day, and my appetite’s returned. And my headaches have sunk to such a manageable level that I can even forget, sometimes, that I have them.
The rest of the wounded look fit to travel, too. My friends followed my instructions well when I could wake enough to speak.
“Bijal,” I say, “I’m ready.”
“Just in time,” he says with a smile. “Kiril’s army looks like they’re making the first moves towards packing up again, themselves.”
“Weaning themselves, huh?”
He laughs and says, “I think the tit’s run dry.”
As he calls up the others to make the formal announcement, I load my bandolier for the road ahead. Ammo’s running low—I’ll have to do something about it, soon.
(“How’s Courtney?” I ask. “Can she travel?”
“Slowly,” Pauline says, “Till she builds her blood back up. She’s a little anemic, but her stitches look good by daylight.” Trust our surgeon to put sutures in her pack.
“I can keep up,” Courtney says. “I’m tough. I used to do shot-put for the girl’s track and field team, before...” she shrugs with one shoulder. Before a hit-and-run killed the Class Kickball Hero, and her peers decided that the probably-drunk driver had to be Irish because, well, drunk, so they made her school days hell. She gave as good as she got, and her family got used to her coming home with bruises, torn clothes and bloody knuckles, grinning and saying that once again she’d had the better of the fight. That is until the bullies all ganged up on her at once, and when they had her down they raped her. One of them had been her coach. After that she ran away.
I shouldn’t pry into anything so private. I shock myself. And I didn’t mean to. Why did my telepathy go out of control like that?)
* * *
(“All good things must come to an end,” Sarge says as he wipes his chin after dinner. “R&R’s over—we roll out first thing in the morning.” Roll, yeah—I don’t think I can move any other way, at least not right this minute. I gaze out, dazed, from Sarge’s lap at the ruins of our meal. Nope, I definitely should not have had that last slice of cheesecake. No siree. Not with the topping on it. Not after pie a la mode.
Yet somehow through the haze I get an inspiration, maybe from the dear ghost of Fatima hovering over my shoulder. “Are we gonna tip them?” I ask Sarge weakly.
“Yeah. I hear that that’s what the fancy people do when they eat out.” Cook used to keep all the tips to herself, I remember. “I didn’t make this meal, so that’s the same as eating out, ain’t it?”
“Honey, we’ve already paid these people by protecting them from the rebels.”
“I know, Daddy Sarge.” I can feel him just melt when I call him that. “But a tip’s supposed to add to the pay, if you like the food. And I sure do like their food.”
Reno blurts, “Boy, do you!” and I laugh so the others will laugh, too, and not get mad at him.
“Come on, Daddy Sarge. All the fancy people do it.” I kiss him on the cheek. “And I think you’re fancy enough.”
“Wellllll, I suppose...” and he throws a couple of bills on the table.
“Oh thank you, thank you!” I give him a big, enthusiastic hug. I turn to the others. “Everybody who leaves a tip gets a hug.” I force myself to my feet.
That does it. Coins and bills hit the table as I go around, making good on my promise—just a quick clasp for the miserly, a full-blown embrace with a kiss and a giggle for the generous. I don’t really feel like getting squeezed, not at first, but the sound of that money jingling and rattling kind of gives me a second wind.
Freck shouts, “Hell, I don’t have anywhere to spend my pay around here, anyway!” and tosses two fat bundles of denars down, then throws his arms wide. He picks me up and swings me around as I give him a big smooch, trying not to throw up. I like hugging Reno better, though he doesn’t give the most. After awhile all the affection starts to get to me, this warm and friendly dance around the table with everyone my partner, everybody loves me, everybody’s happy, farmers and soldiers both like they were one, and I’m responsible for that.
I look at the table. I may not be able to read, but I can size up money pretty well, and I think that it might just cover the expense of our staying here. Maybe even more, all added up together, after Freck upped the ante for the rest. Yep, there’s more money over there that I missed, behind the gravy boat.
“Hey, Kiril, I don’t think I kicked in enough the first time ‘round—come on over here again!”
“Me neither, Kiril—how’s this? Is that better?” All right! That definitely pushes it over the top, and then some. With each bill tossed the family’s eyes grow bigger and I enjoy the cuddles better all the time. Hey, the farmers could sell their goats for less. The family, standing on the side, gives me glowing, open-mouthed grins and something in me glows right back and I feel really good, like something has finally gone right and I’m the one who made it happen.
“Sure you won’t have a bit more cheesecake, dearie?” the farmwife asks gratefully.
“Uh...Maybe later. Pie, perhaps, not cake.” Hey, I deserve it.
“Not till you’ve had a nap,” Sarge says firmly and leads me out with his arm around me. Again he will tuck me in, so tenderly, untying the sashes and easing off my shoes. Again he will nestle the toy pony in with me. Again he will gently stroke my hair out of my face, stand there smiling over me for a long moment, and then he will close the door as quietly as he can when he leaves.
“Daddy is not Papa,” I say only to myself, deep inside my heart.)
I look around us. So many young rebels, and none of them Kiril or Lufti. We’ve sent some off to start their own bands, yet still too many march with us. Al these faces blending one into another, all those names that I don’t know. My head starts to ache again.
Let it go. It’s as it should be. Listen to the birds sing, without a care. They don’t know each other’s names, either, and yet they flock together just fine.
(Mabel. The teenage girl’s name was Mabel. I had hardly noticed her, just another waif, a Swedish Protestant kicked out of her home for kissing a Sephardic Jew. The boyfriend had disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Maybe his family packed him off, maybe somebody lynched him, she had no way of knowing. She’d talked about it sometimes, speculating, worrying, reassuring herself again. Sometimes I’d found it annoying. Oh Gates, would that she could maunder on again and I could this time really listen!
And so it happens. She stands before me now, in the charred and rainsoaked ruins of our home, bleeding from the gashes of her young body dragged across the broken window’s teeth, a raw red hole where somebody blasted out her heart. She glares, red-eyed, and then spits out, “I was true! I am your Truth forevermore!”
My eyes fly open. I listen to the wind rustling in the leaves all around and I shiver in my sleeping-bag. That did not just happen—untruth. She will never confront me. She cannot. I lost for her any chance of ever confronting me.
Not true. I had no choice.
Or did I? What is the point of accelerated intelligence if I cannot foresee contingencies and plan for them?
Yet I did, I did! I had the packs all ready for us in the cellar, the route all planned. It’s the only reason any of us got out of there alive and can sleep now in the comfort of tarps and bedding.
But I didn’t set a guard. I didn’t think the situation had grown that critical.
Can I undo anything about it? Nope. I can only learn from my mistakes, and yes, I did set a guard tonight. Maury sits up, too jumpy to settle in just yet anyway, and later he will wake Apollo to relieve him.
I do what I can. So I turn on my side and force myself to get the rest I need.)
Time for a break; Everyone lies down under the bushes, catching glimpses of the stars though the thin spring leaves, until they can let go and close their eyes. A sturdy boy named Dosh stands guard and the rest follow the ancient battlefield tradition of catching a nap every chance the get.
I toss on the hard ground, restless, my head splitting again, my stomach nauseated, feeling weirdly overstuffed. The twigs crackle underneath me, as I stare up at the night, black leaves on black, and no star seems to come my way. Then I feel Tanjin take my hand, and suddenly I can still myself. Suddenly everything in me can relax, with his bent, stiff arm around me.
(The whole dorm has become restless. Blankets rustle, mattresses creak, as students toss and turn. The room smells stuffy with our sweat beneath the wool, despite the chill. Then the creaking becomes rhythmical, all up and down the chamber, all to one beat, as more and more hoarse whispers gasp, in matching cadence, “Hulda. Hulda. Hulda.”)
(Zia lies beside me in a dead man’s tent; this time I won’t let go. I hold Zia close, so close that the world spins around us and then just drops away, sliding off of us with the unnecessary canvas, leaving us in a swirl of stars. Oh, heaven! Sweet, tender, butter-scented softness! Feelings surge up in me, warm and painfully good feelings right from the center of my being, so wonderful it hurts! We kiss and we caress, and her skirt slides back and her legs wrap close around me and right up here in the sky we play married, spinning and spinning and spinning with the stars winking all around above us and below, till my joy bursts into a star, the biggest, brightest, hottest, whitest star!
“You!” she cackles with sudden anger as I tumble away, blinded by what I’ve done. “All you really care about is killing!” And as my sight clears I see the star still blazing in her—she has become the star, and it has burnt away all flesh, and blasted her skirt clear up over her head, and no legs remain but bones. “Killers don’t belong in Heaven, Lufti!” And I fall, screaming, screaming!
I sit up suddenly in my blankets. Only a nightmare, after all. Then in horror I feel a wetness in my pants. She must’ve been here—something really happened after all!)
I sit up suddenly in the dark, smack my brow against a branch, and sink back down. Ohhh, I didn’t need that. My head throbs when I try to remember the dream...something about bones, and endless falling, and...I can never go to heaven? I kill or make children into killers or something like that?
I turn over and wrap my pillow-bundle around my aching skull. I don’t need thoughts like that, and I certainly don’t deserve nightmares. I do everything I have to; surely I have no choice.