IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume V: Sharing Insanity
Sunday, November 15, 2708
(I’m beginning to like Sunday Mass, the songs, the chance to sit and daydream while the sermon drones on, the sweet incense covering, for the moment, the odors of the camp. It temporarily erases rank, caste, gender, and all the other inconveniences of my career. I can speak frankly with the men immediately afterwards, get real feedback, and feel out my officers, before they remember what they are, and what I am, and the whole dreadful formality closes in again. Religion has its uses after all!)
Church is as good a place as a pub to meet people of like minds, in the business of killing no less than any other. Anyone could spot the rebels at mass if they knew what to look for—the kids without families, sitting close to the doors, eyes shifting during the sermon, hands straying to odd bulges in their clothing, not quite safe in sanctuary. Light from the arched windows stains them like the glass above in lurid colors; incense barely masks the gunpowder smell.
Some reach out to others with relief in their faces; apparently I’m not the only one who got separated from their ranks. Some I recognize immediately. Tanjin’s face lights up as I nod to him from across the aisle; he pounds Dosh’s arm in excitement and his friends can barely keep him in his pew. Others here I do not know, though their profession scars their every move, fills each eye and twist of mouth. But stranger or not, at this point I think I’d better gather together anyone I can.
(How well do I know you, Reno? Lots, in one sense; you’ve told me tons about your childhood, only a little better off than mine, though we joined different armies to get away from it. And yet I don’t know much at all, not the stuff that really matters.)
Sacred words flow over us like the incense and through us like communion, even unto the heart. Words about the God of Love, the Prince of Peace, the Messenger of Mercy. So long as I sit in that pew, bathed in the incense and the rainbow light, I believe those words with all my heart. Yet even so, as soon as mass ends we gather outside under the shade of the spreading churchyard trees, light each other’s cigarettes, and in soft voices plan the business of war.
( What do you feel for me, really? Pity? Love? Blind fear looking for someone soft to cling to? What would you think of me if you really knew me for what I am?
And all the words you spill out to me, words that bleed like wounds made them come out of you—why do you choose me of all people to share them with? What are you trying to say, Reno? How do I know what you mean when you tell me, “Kiril, I can’t take it anymore!”)
It doesn’t take long for Tanjin to pass from grinning ecstasy that I didn’t die as he thought, to cool professionalism. Too cool perhaps; does he want to punish me for scaring him like that? No, the glad side-glances show that he feels nothing towards me but joy at my survival. It’s just that all emotions freeze under the chill of hatred shared for the Charadocian government. We push to the backs of our minds incidental distractions like love and joy and the sweetness of God’s blood still lingering in our mouths.
(What can’t you take? War itself, or your side in it? Or just the burden of living, Reno? And what are you going to do about it, whatever it is that bothers you? Change something, maybe even something big? Or just let it break you?)
All the reports come back the same: the enemy joins many scattered forces towards one common aim; should we do likewise? Or shall we harry them from all different directions? If we can pinpoint one common gathering point, we could unite and swoop down on them like a great, dark cloud and disintegrate again before they can recoup enough to fight back, scattering like birds from one flock into many. But for that we need intelligence.
(What if change itself breaks you? I have grown too accustomed to your warmth beside me on the wagon, to the scent that belongs to you and nobody else. To your gentle voice with its slight cracks and trembles that others hear as weakness and I hear as something trying to break through, the way the soil breaks before a sprout pushes up. What grows in you, Reno? Can you...dare you let it live?)
Much as I dislike it, we shall have to keep close contact for awhile, until we know more, sending messengers between bands, at least, though it makes us more vulnerable. If this gathering of troops matters so much, Purple Mantles will show up, too; we have to stop the whistle-codes right now.
(You keep saying that everything gets better the minute you find me, Reno, that when you’re with me the world makes sense again. Is that good or bad? Am I waking you up, or putting you to sleep when that could mean making you dead? Body-dead, soul-dead, I’m not sure. Why should I have to be the one to figure these things out?)
Nayal, and the captain who “replaced” him only to take on a different band altogether, and all the other captains, defer to my counsel, regarding me as the oldest, the educated foreigner, the one with a reputation for taking care of her own (dear Shermio forgive me!) the one believed to wield accursed powers. Meanwhile my mind tells off my sins like a clutch of rosary beads; God in Hir mercy might forgive me everything, but will my ghosts? Oh how I wish I had become the ambassador’s aide that I came here to be!
(What’ll it be, friend? Yes, friend. Shall it be breakthrough, or breakdown? If the first, do I have it in me to tend the sprout before it withers in the war? If the last, could I or anyone staunch the wound that just keeps spilling words, and put you back together right? And who am I to worry about such things, when grown-ups don’t even think about these questions? Oh, how I wish I had stayed a cabin-kid, fearing fists but not guns, making no decisions, following Cook’s recipes!)
* * *
I don’t want to do it. I want to follow rules from nice, safe places where I can find honest barristers and a system geared to justice and most of all time, time, time. I want to weigh evidence. I want to examine witnesses. I want hours to think things through. I want what no revolution ever really has.
(“I wish you wouldn’t do it,” I say in a small, tight voice, as we huddle on a landing in the forgotten stairwell. “Not tonight.”
“Hush.” Jake barely vocalizes. He cradles between his hands the magentine orb that he rarely uses, the candle’s glow glinting off of it, sending rose flecks of light a-dancing on his face as he turns it. Visions usually come unsolicited. I know this, and it bothers me.)
The information comes unsolicited. I never really wanted to ferret out traitors. But that cabin, over there, houses the scoundrel, so I’ve heard. Such a peaceful place, plastered in white that seems to glow in the twilight, while similarly luminous flowers burst out like explosions of peace all around the windows and the porch against their dark leaf backdrops, scenting the air with heady promises, and the raindrops on the fields beyond glint bright with innocence in the fading light, where a calf nuzzles her mother for milk. How can crimes happen here?
All agree that I shall have to come back soon, when I know he’s home. But I will not kill him, not immediately. I will inquire into his guilt or innocence the best I can, under the circumstances. Too many variables could explain the allegations. I need more information.
(Too many variables. Overlapping spells. Something like that. We need more information.)
(But not, pray God, at his expense! Jake’s up to something dangerous; I can feel it in him. I don’t have to be a telepath, I’ve known him this long. And his breath smells like that kusmet-herb concoction. How can he think I wouldn’t notice? He must have slipped some in his pocket the night we took George to the infirmary.)
(Not much. Not the whole damn flask! Just a few swallows, for congruity. And of course I know that Randy knows, and that he realizes the pointlessness of saying anything.)
I need infor…I need rest. Why can’t I seem to keep my eyes open anymore? Stupid sluggard! Would it be such a sin to find a little leaf in the woods, to counteract this weakness that seems to drag me back of late? People need more than I can give, otherwise.
I start to scan for it in the nearby woods—the bronzy bush, the tapered leaves, areolate at the base. But not tonight. Tonight I shall sleep. Turn in early, in fact, save my strength, maybe beat this persistent drowsiness. I shall save the greenfire for that night when I’ll really need alertness, when I interrogate the suspect—if indeed a good night’s sleep cannot mend me. Tonight I’ll just find the leaves, pocket them, and go to bed. Or whatever.
(I look deep into Jake’s eyes, but see in them only the flicker of candlelight.)
(I watch the candleflame in the stone’s polished surface, bent and turned upside down, dyed a smoldering ruby. When it trembles it catches my breath; when it steadies I sigh.)
(I fidget and watch.)
(There comes a moment when I see the flame pulse. It goes in and out of focus, it marks time with my heart, and my heart beats faster. The world slows around me as the trance enhances my awareness of the Black Clam difference. It feels like no other trance; it magnifies, enlarges me, reminding me of hidden powers locked within. The upside-down flame tells me true things. The warp in the image curves like a bid of seduction. It makes everything plain...
“No!” Randy’s body crashes into me, his voice as wild as a frightened child’s. “No more! No! No!” His arm flails the focus from my hand while the other pulls me to him in a half-despairing hug.)
(“Don’t, Jake.” I sob into his breast. “Don’t. Don’t.” I hold close the man I love. “Don’t...” I moan.)
(I gasp. My heart stutters, my body trembles like my skin cringes from me, confusion ragging my mind. The shock of aborted trance sinks teeth into my soul and worries me like a dog, shaking me past even the thought of anger.
“Why?” I manage at last to ask, bewildered to find my arms wrapped around this man that I stroke by reflex only because any habit stabilizes me.
“I don’t know. Your smile–you smiled like Hell’s gate, Jake. I couldn’t stand it.”
I can’t reply. I try to stir up an obligatory wrath, but none wells up. I feel too weak. I know that Randy’s act will weaken me for days.)
I pick myself up off the ground. I must’ve passed out right on the road, in broad sight of any soldier who might have come this way. Idiot!
Maybe something’s really wrong. Maybe I’m sick. I don’t feel so great.
So what? Revolutionaries don’t get sick leave. We push forward, by any means necessary.
(“...by any means necessary,” I murmur, letting go of Randy. “I have to type into archives...but I’ve forgotten, Randy! How can I forget anything as important as the reason why it’s absolutely necessary to poison a whole country?”
“A whole country?” he pales before me. “What are you talking about?”
“I...I have no idea.” I turn to him, still too stunned for anger. “You made sure of that.”)
(Horses change under me, pale ones, dark ones, mottled ones; when they tire past a certain point, they head for the nearest friendly stable—I had no idea that those little redheads could set up such a network! And none of these ranches know about any of the others; they just switch livestock without asking questions. Who better to create such a web of secrecy than a pair of mutes?
And all these horses will never, ever see their impish friends again. And they will not know why.
The army makes it easy for me to track their boots and cart-ruts; their paths weave brilliantly in and out of each other like scarlet lines on an illuminated page. They scar the wild places with their passage, they crash through villages like the wrath of God. They penetrate the impenetrable. They set fires, they leave trash in their wake, and many ruined things that people could have used. But how will I ever find Kiril’s troop among so many?
I bless the grizzled man who gave me chaummin—I couldn’t ride tireless like a ghost without it—but its harsh sweetness mixes weirdly on the tongue with the bitter greenfire, and the mix gets even weirder in the head. The world becomes vivid and distant all at once, beautiful and dreamy and kind of off-kilter, dangerous and alluring.
I know more than I ever did, for every book I’ve read takes flame behind my eyes. Sometimes I read in the saddle, through the slow parts, whenever refugees choke the road, dragging me down to an amble, for people trade books with me along the way, the readers in the crowd noticing me and pushing through bodies for a change of tale. Yet all the books blur together into one great struggle. Bard-words, all the beautiful new words, roll through me like giant, glowing waves of honey, but I have become more than a bard, more than Damien, more than Rashid for all his healing power, more than Deirdre and her foreign magic, maybe more than Cyran hirself—I can feel it! I’m not a little boy anymore.
Drowsy excitement trembles in my soul, mystical energy, something here and not here and suffused all through me and me alone. I feel no pain, I can do anything—I have the power to ride forever, no horse can keep up with me! Perilous freedom vibrates through my veins and swirls behind my eyes; I feel enormous with it, taller than any of these poor peasants fleeing at my feet, heavier than the world, a giant made of molten gold, threatening the stars!
Freedom! We do it all for freedom...and I, the God of Freedom, ride among my people, weeping for their suffering, hot tears turning cold on my cheeks in the wind, as the dawn leaps up to noon only to fall back again, swallowed into night, till the sun gains courage once again to seize the sky once more...)