IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume V: Sharing Insanity
Tuesday, November 17, 2708
(At this late hour, and with the snow falling outside, we find the weight room nearly empty. Good—we can go all out without anybody remarking on it. Jake especially needs to keep his body in shape, to withstand the demands of his vision.
But after a few sets he sinks to the bench, trembling. I guess I really did knock him for a loop when I pulled him out of that trance.
“I just…can’t.” Don and I can barely hear him. “Too tired. I just want to sleep and sleep and sleep.”
Don doesn’t understand, “Come on, man—we’ve gone short on rest before.”
“But I don’t have…it doesn’t grow here. I need…oh man, tobacco is not enough!” He looks up at us, fiercely, piteously. “Don’t you see? I have to! It never lets up—I can’t let bodily weakness get in the way of…” Then he stops, puzzled.
“You know what?” I say, pulling him to his feet. “You’re right—you do need sleep. Listen, both of you—what harm if the other boys see how strong we are, if we let it all out in gym? It’ll only enhance our reputations.” I tug Jake’s coat and galoshes onto him, and then put on my own. “We’ll tell them that we lift calves on Lumne or something.” I steer Jake out the door and back the way we came, with Don following. Pale swirls and flurries dance in the lamplight here and there.
“But the green fire,” Jake says, bewildered. “I need the…no I don’t. Nor does she.” His face firms up and I no longer have to lead him.
She? I feel a pang, like the thread that I hold has become a cutting wire—but it doesn’t mean to be that, it just got so skinny and hard and tense and…whatever. Randy, you’re starting to think too much like an oracle—who’ll be Jake’s guardian if you become as batty as him?
Some guardian! Look what a mess I made of him.
“No, you’re right, Randy.” Jake talks conversationally, but his eyes don’t focus, fixed straight ahead, so that once more I have to steer his steps. “I don’t want burned. Tobacco’s bad enough.”
I can’t shake the feeling that whatever I did to Jake didn’t hurt just him.)
* * *
Zeb, Rozhen and I sneak together, through the fields at night, to the collaborator’s house. At least Rozhen says he’s a collaborator. It’s up to us to find out. Rozhen saw him chatting amiably with a Purple Mantle in the village inn; he watched the government agent buy this man drink after drink, watched them laugh together, speaking in low voices, and saw with his own eyes the man smile and nod at something that the Mantle said.
I feel sick at the very thought of someone working voluntarily with one of those monsters—for what return? His neighbor’s wealth? Vengeance on his enemies? The woman of his choice? One night’s gluttonous feed? My stomach rumbles in sympathy, and I hate the organ for it; with more rebels than the countryside can adequately feed, and with so many government troops looting as they go, we’ve been on short commons and they’re getting shorter every day. But I know the cure for hunger—and for the mysterious fatigue that has hounded me of late.
And then, chewing, I remember Aron like the ghost rides my shoulder and won’t let go. I remember Fatima and the tunnel that she didn’t dare escape through lest she betray her own, I remember Malcolm in a cage, the burns on Bijal’s body, and everyone dead or living who has ever resisted the malice of such men at horrible cost to themselves. And someone freely works for them for greed? I tremble with hatred—such hatred as I never thought anyone trained in Lovequest could feel.
While we hide in the brush, surveying the house and the flickering light within, an owl flies hooting overhead, and all three of us cross ourselves. Rebels do not use owl-calls in the whistle-code, ever. They carry bad luck in the Charadoc. Owls search for souls that the devil might have missed, like maybe ghosts lingering to save their comrades, delinquent in their dues to Hell. We can’t count on any of our dead hovering around to help us when the owl is on the wing. But then neither can the enemy. “The saints will preserve us,” I whisper to the boys, “for our cause is just.” But they still look as troubled as I feel. Saints aren’t necessarily inclined to help sinners like us who intend to keep right on sinning till we win the war.
Whistle codes...that brings me an idea. I make the “Help! Wounded!” whistle, and wait. Nothing at first. I force myself to give it time, though the minutes seem to race.
My thoughts dart about, fast as sparks. Somewhere, somehow, I’ve heard that the enemy knows our codes, I just can’t place where.
“Miko knew,” I catch myself whispering. “He knew and he didn’t tell us. He held back, trying to keep his options open on all sides—maybe the ghosts did guide that snake and lured me into tying the tourniquet in the wrong place.”
The other two stare at me. Then I recognize the craziness of such thoughts, the paranoia. Miko was just some dumb recruit, Deirdre; he didn’t know anything. Maybe I’d better ease up on the greenfire a bit. When I get a chance.
I whistle again, more weakly this time. On the third and faintest trill a man opens the door, peers left and right, and whistles “Coming!” I give one more call, lead him right to me, and we jump him in the shadow of the woods. I knock him hard when he tries to shout, then we drag his limp body to a cave behind a waterfall good for drowning screams in its spring flood’s crash.
He wakes up shivering on the hard, wet rock; I only know his shivering by my grip upon his arm, for none of us can see a thing in that pitch dark. He moans, then discovers his bound condition and flops about like a doomed fish for a moment before I shove him back down, laughing grimly.
“So,” I say to him, “rushing to the rescue without any med-kit whatsoever. Don’t you think that’s just a little suspicious?”
“I don’t know any medicine. I just wanted to bring the wounded inside, so I could send for the herbwife.”
“How touching. Tell us how you passed your tests of blood and fire,” I suggest as I yank him up by his shirt. “Don’t spare any details—we’ll catch it if you lie.”
I slam him against rock. “You don’t know? THEN HOW DO YOU KNOW OUR WHISTLE CODES?”
“The whi...oh. Oh. My wife taught me. My, uh, late wife. She...”
Zeb says, “I saw a woman’s silhouette in the window when you went out. You keepin’ house with a dead woman?”
“Leave her out of this! She came after. She has nothing to do with this!”
“So she can’t verify your story,” I say.
“I just wanted to help! I heard somebody out in the woods was wounded and I just wanted to help.”
“Tell me about your late wife’s military career,” I suggest.
“I, I don’t remember. It was years ago...”
Rozhen thumps him, shouting, “Then how come you remember our codes?”
“I don’t know! I just do! Stop it! Please!”
I find Rozhen in the dark and push him gently back. “Try to remember what you can,” I say to our captive, “anything your wife might have told you.”
“She fought years ago, before your time. I seem to recall...I heard her mention that she fought under Damien of Koboros...”
Smack! “I saw Damien of Koboros recruited—he’s a boy half your age. Now tell me the truth!”
“That is the truth! I’m not talking about the bard, but about the general—you think Koboros only named one boy Damien in all its history?”
“Nice try, but if my Damien knew of any namesake prominent in his village’s history, he’d have told us the story.” I inflict pain.
The man screams, “He was on a secret mission!”
“And you knew all about it, huh? But you don’t know about the tests of fire and blood?” I inflict more pain.
“My wife told me in her delirium—she told me everything!”
“But not about the tests of fire and blood?”
“No! Please! Stop! I know only what she told me!”
“You trying to say that a woman could whistle complicated bird-calls with her dying breath?”
“She hurt—she called for help but nobody came. She was delirious. I don’t know how she did it, she just did.”
“You’re gonna hurt big time if you don’t stop lying to me—you’re working for the Purple Mantles, aren’t you?”
“No...NO! A Mantle visited me, sure, but I didn’t tell him anything!”
“Zeb, hold a knife to his throat. Rozhen, unbind one of his hands. Prisoner, guide my fingers to where the Mantle tortured you; I’ll be able to feel the scars.”
He mumbles something.
I grab him by the hair saying, “Speak up, please.”
“He didn’t torture me. He offered me a cow.”
“A pregnant cow, if I could tell him what he wanted to know. But I didn’t know anything he could use.”
“So you thought that maybe you could bag yourself a wounded rebel to give him?”
“I just wanted to help.”
“Help who?” Then the nasty thought dawns on me. “He paid you on spec, didn’t he?” Then I grip him by his shirt. “Did you just sell out everything your late wife stood for—for a cow?”
“She’d have wanted me to have it. She felt bad about the cow the rebels took, after all we’d done for them, too.”
“Liar!” I cry. “We do not steal cattle!”
“Well somebody sure did!”
I hurl him furiously against the rock. “You are not leaving here till you tell me the truth!” But he says nothing now, and I have a sickening feeling about that kind of wet-sounding crunch that I just heard. I grope forward in the dark, and the fluid that my fingers touch feels hot.
Zeb says, shakily, “I don’t think he’s ever gonna tell you the truth, Deirdre, and I don’t think he’s ever gonna leave.”
By reflex I cross myself in horror, but the moist touch of my finger to my brow does not convey holy water.
“Zeb, Rozhen,” I say, “let’s get out of here.”
“Rozhen’s already gone,” Zeb tells me. “He heard enough. He left to set the fire.”
“The fire. We always set fire to collaborators’ homes. That’s how it’s done in these parts.”
“Christ!” Just then I remember that Zeb and Rozhen are two of those irregulars who never passed the tests of fire and blood, themselves, who don’t know what Egalitarianism means. “Come on!” I grab him in the dark and rush out of there right into a storm sweeping down from the higher peaks.
“Wait! Stop! Where’re we going?” Zeb shouts over the downpour and the thunder as I drag him tripping over stones and tree-roots at top speed.
“You saw a woman in that house didn’t you?” Lightning cracks like the wrath of God overhead as I haul him onto the road. “Nobody deserves to die in fire, Zeb! And what if they have children?”
“What if?” he protests. “Nobody ever asked ‘what if’ about me when I was a kid.” But he doesn’t fight my grip anymore, matching my run stride for stride.
“So you wanna spread more of the same, huh? What’re you fighting for, Zeb?”
“Not for some collaborator’s get!”
I smack him in the face so that he staggers back, disbelief on his face, and the rain crashes down so hard it roars. Then I stop wasting time on him and slog through the puddles without him, my soggy skirt clinging and dragging every step as I pray like crazy that the rain soaks any tinder that Rozhen tries to light. I hear Zeb splashing behind me, trying to catch up. I hope I shamed him, but I think he just has nobody else to follow.
How dare you, Deirdre! How dare you feel morally superior within minutes of interrogating a man to death!
I had to, I had to, I tell myself with every jog. Had to defend my children, had to stop a traitor, had to...
What if he really did come out just to help the wounded?
I come skidding around the corner of the accused man’s house and tackle Rozhen as he crouches over a glow. His match sizzles in the mud as I wrestle him—so why do I still see light? We tumble the right way to let me see—Jesus God! Where’d he get the dynamite? Fire eats the phosphorus-rich fuse oblivious to the rain. I lunge for the bomb but that brings Rozhen close to it, too; I grapple frantically to keep him away from it, as the fuse sputters and shrinks. I’ve got him, I’ve got him now, all I have to do is...No! The mud-slippery boy pops from my grip, grabs the stick and hurls it into the thatch. We dive for cover just in time when it blows; I hear screams through half-deaf ears throbbing from the blast. Yes, there were children.
Rozhen can’t tell that tears run down my face in all the rain, where we cower in the wood. I’m gonna thrash him, I swear, the minute I know that no one lives to hear him squeal. “If there weren’t collaborators to begin with,” I hiss in his ear, “there will be, now.”
From our hiding place we watch the neighbors run to the sound of screams and the clanging of a bell.
“Lightning!” someone cries. “Lightning struck Melli’s place—come, hurry!”
“Are the children all right?”
“Every one of ‘em got out safe.” I fall to my knees and pray thanks, shuddering. “Pity about Melli’s man, though.”
“Why? What happened to him?”
“We don’t know for sure, but Melli says he went out to help a wounded freedom-fighter and never came back.”
“Brave of him,” someone else said, “Considering how that Purple Mantle’s been sniffing around him lately.”
“Yeah, I heard of that. Curse ‘em, every one—they must’ve gotten him.”