IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume V: Sharing Insanity
Saturday, November 21, 2708
Dawn finds me hidden in a barn with the other waifs, straw in my hair and Tanjin nestled under my arm. A tender ache stirs deep inside me as I feel him warm my side and I breathe in deeply the cumin aroma of his unwashed youth. I hate the customs that make us virtual brother and sister. I hate the blood-washed pedestal that war has thrown me on. I hate the killer-virgin Tilián witch captain or general or whatever they feel like calling me today, that hides Deirdre Keller somewhere underneath it all. I didn’t want to become a soldier, and certainly not the one in charge. I never counted on winding up the oldest; I’m not supposed to have silver in my hair.
Then I see the scar on Tanjin’s shoulder and remember how he got it. I remember last night, how he almost got shot again, if I hadn’t hurtled into him and then covered his retreat, leaving the army down one ox and one bad man. I kiss his war-thinned arm, barely a flutter of the lips, not enough to waken him.
Enough self-pity. Gently I disengage myself; Tanjin murmurs, “Father?” in his sleep and turns over; he does not dream my dreams. I go into the main house, to help a nameless sympathizer farmwife fix a breakfast of fresh eggs, potatoes, and diced spring greens fried up with all the rest. Oh, breakfast—God be praised! I wasn’t so lucky yesterday. I chop with enthusiasm, releasing fresh scents on the air. I don’t know the names of all the greens; just that some taste tart and some sweet, some have resinous herbal flavors and some hardly have any taste at all. Kiril would know the name of every one of them...dear Kiril. The longer she stays in captivity, the easier it gets to kill soldiers, even if I do sometimes make mistakes.
The husband comes in, yawning mightily, and then suddenly stares at me. “Where’s your gun?” he asks me.
“You’re supposed to keep your gun on you at all times—don’t you know that? Damn fool!” He puts some water on the fire for coffee. “If the soldiers burst in on us this minute, how’re we supposed to say you held us at gunpoint?”
“I’m sorry, I...” The growl of the coffee-grinder drowns me out as he cranks it furiously. Ooooh, but that smells good! I leave to fetch my rifle. When I return it feels as cumbersome on me as the chain that I used to wear.
(Back in the dorm, on my old thin cot, under the scratchy feather quilt, more quill than down inside, I watch the coming dawn just beginning to gray the windows. My wound still stings, but I have rested enough. Or so the nurse decided, after conferring with the Headmaster, and agreeing that we delinquents do not need overnight supervision after all. Subtext: Wallace wants me in the dorm, observing.
I’m here and Jake is not. Two interrupted trances in a row have crashed his immune system pretty hard. His fever won’t lift and I feel sick with worry for him long after the hangover has officially worn off.
The ruling has come down to us. We will not be expelled, but we will have to do detention. The Headmaster will not hold against Jake any act committed while delirious. However, he does intend to assemble the entire student body for a lecture on the dangers of moonshine, and hold me, Don, George, Joel, Jordy, and Aaron up for public castigation. Jake will attend by mention only, as the Headmaster depicts him as hanging by a thread to life. thanks to our collective folly. Even knowing that Wallace intends to exaggerate for effect, I don’t want to hear it; I honestly don’t know how true it might be.
I told the Headmaster to mistake Aaron for the ringleader, lest George think that I betrayed him. Accordingly, Aaron will have to scrub every toilet in the building, under the janitor’s watchful eye, while George and Joel shred paper for recycling by a tiresome hand-cranked machine.
Unfair? Maybe. But somehow, even knowing him for a murderer, I think that George has fallen into some kind of trap, whereas Aaron’s just plain nasty. Maybe. Anyway, whatever, he’s the one who got the bright idea for the party. I could gleefully murder him for that, if God didn’t frown on that sort of thing.
On learning officially that Don has “some rough Lumnite medical knowhow,” our Headmaster has determined that he shall spend this weekend assisting in the infirmary, emptying bedpans or whatever our medic decides to do with him. As his “brother”, I shall accompany him, while the good nurse keeps an eye out to make sure that I don’t strain my stitches—which burn like crazy right now. Good plan—that positions us to monitor Jake closely.
I hear the bell, calling us to rise. Time to face the music.)
* * *
We can’t miss an opportunity like this, with so many soldiers converging on the Midlands at once. So we dissipate with the morning fog, each to commit one sabotaging act on a different troop (with orders not to hit carts for the medic, the kitchen, or communications, for strategic reasons best known to the commander.) And then, after that, we’ll hide out, still scattered till the heat cools down, after which we can make our separate ways to Zofia’s later in the dark, for a meeting tonight.
So many simultaneous attacks on so many targets, even before they have drawn conveniently together at wherever they’re going, should enhance the rumors of our numbers. Leaving them with communications will, of course, help them spread the fear.
For my part, though, I’ll do enough for the cause when I transport Betany to Zofia’s. Everyone agrees that I’ve seen more than my share of danger already, and I’ve earned a bit of a break, though nobody calls it that. What I don’t tell them is that I honestly don’t know if I have the strength, right now, for a mad dash fleeing soldiers. I wonder if they guess it anyway?
(I feel watched.)
It won’t take long. I’ve walked this route several times a day so often that it feels like my garden path, a circuit to pace and pace again in this beautiful prison Charadoc. Birds watch me and chirp warnings about my coming, but my feet make no sound in the thick road dust. I walk past Zofia’s fields, through the rich aroma of hay mowed by several battle-scarred young “farmhands”, thus freeing the widow to take care of any among us who might have bad luck today.
(I feel watched!)
Let the others do their deeds and then find their various nooks and crannies to hang out in till the gathering tonight (“Not the pub!” I ordered them; it will test my authority to see how many obey) but for my part I find myself a quiet woodlot and nestle up into the bole of a tree. I’ve done enough sabotage for awhile. For once I have actual time to think!
Is that what I want?
(Is that...? Maybe. Eyes in the shadows? I’m almost certain of it!)
I flick old leaves out of the bole and watch them flutter to the ground. What have I got with Nayal’s crew? Newer recruits, younger, very scared; they’ve so recently survived their first devastating defeat that they haven’t washed all the blood out of their clothes yet from the buddies who didn’t make it. They’ve got this look in their eyes like lost house-pets, after the thrill of freedom has worn off. (Yes! Everywhere! The shadows, full of eyes—all watching me, every one of them.) My own crew can help there, being mainly survivors of serious wounds, fresh from Rashid’s care, older and experienced. They’ve been to the brink and back. They can show the newbies the temporary nature of defeat—if you survive, rejoice! And reload.
(No matter where I go, no matter how fast I ride...)
(No matter where I march, no matter what the strength of the troop around me...)
Among the scattered others, now, captainless waifs for the most part, I’ve found more like Zeb and Rozhen—insurgents who never even heard of Egalitarianism, who don’t know what the Test of Blood and Fire means, though most have gone through something like it by sheer chance. (The eyes, the eyes!) Around here some kids just wake up one crazy morning and make the decision to rebel. They don’t know how, or who to contact, or where to go, they only know why. And some of them find each other, and then they act. I find a lot less fear in this crowd—not near enough fear, actually. Talk about having nothing to lose—as far as these kids are concerned, they’ve already died. (I think they must be the eyes of the dead.) So what is this—Valhalla? Except we Valkyries can’t always patch them up after every battle as good as new.
Maybe they think that death’s just oblivion, an eternal passing-out and you never wake up to a hangover again. But they don’t know about living in between. (Got to find Kiril—she’ll make it all right.) You can lose an eye or a limb, or go through life with a face so scarred that babies scream to look at you, or maybe you just crack and the pieces never quite fit back the same way, and in all these cases you have to go about your daily business, year in and year out, with something permanently missing. My veterans can teach them about that, too, and the wisdom of some caution.
Ah well. I hope that most of them have found as good a breakfast as I have. I hope that some, at least, have better luck than I at finding lunch.
* * *
(“Ghosts,” Jake moans in the infirmary. I put down the towel half-folded and run to his side. Sweat beads all over him, and his tossing has grown more frenetic.
“Don?” I call. “I think his fever’s worse.” And then the shuddering starts.)
(I love this time of year for fresh and juicy fiddleheads, before they get too tough and dry to eat. And if you look under the bushes you can find delicate shoots that taste just like the fanciest chives that the rich people eat, maybe even better—oniony, with just a kiss of garlic to them. And there’s leaves that people like Sarge would never think to eat, except that at this time of year they uncurl at their very tenderest and most edible to add rich new flavors to the pot.)
(Kiril? I can’t find Kiril. We’ve almost finished setting up the camp and I can’t see her anywhere...Kiril! It’s bad, oh Kiril, it’s bad, I can feel the ghosts watching me so hard I can almost see them, I do see glints in the shadows and those shadows stretch awful long and they’re just going to get longer and longer till they all run together and cover us completely and then the sky will fill up with glints...)
(...of eyes, I should have known that that’s how people read the stars, it’s like reading the expressions of faces because THEY ARE EYES! And night, oh night, oh night...)
(...is so damn CLOSE! Oh Kiril, Kiril, Kiril, where ARE you?)
(It only took an hour, maybe two, to fill this basket up—much better than that last campsite, where I depleted everything within walking distance days before we could replace the oxen. Oh, won’t the men be pleased with their fresh spring supper tonight!)
(She’s gone, she’s left us—oh, I knew this would happen. And now I have nobody to talk to, no one who understands, nobody to intercede between the ghosts and me. Can kindness to one young girl hold all the ghosts at bay? And if she flees? Damnation! Damnation to us all!)
(Got to find Kiril—she can close the eyes, the way she’s closed my eyes when I’d feel all worn out but too scared to sleep—sort of like right now—a kiss on each lid and everything got all right. But what if I can’t find her?)
(A pity I can’t cache goodies for my own crew anymore. But Deirdre gave me the “Silent Running” whistle and I’ve heard nothing from her since.
What if I’m all alone, now? What if something happened to the others? Deirdre could be dead right now for all I know.)
(What if Kiril ran off to join the rebels? What will become of us, now? I think she’s inclined that way, deep in her heart. I know she has temptations....and after all our kindness—hah! After Sarge’s weird twist on pampering her half to death. For what we did to that poor girl in our “kindness” we all deserve to die.)
(What if Kiril’s gone over to the other side? What if she’s laughing, fat and sassy, right this very minute, at the rest of us knocking ourselves out for a revolution that she has no further use for, now that she’s got all those big, strong army men to take care of her? What if Kiril doesn’t love me anymore?)
(Enough gathering—it’s almost getting dark. Remember what happened the last time I pushed gathering-time into twilight. I hurry in and out of the stripes of stretching shadows. Bad luck, gathering at twilight, or at least it changes things. Changes things forever, and whether that’s good luck or bad luck in the long run it doesn’t feel good when it happens.)
(Ghosts call in the gloom, as faint as wisps of ground-mist. I can sense them, I can feel their calling in the prickles of my skin, because I don’t deserve to live—I almost hear their thin, whistling voices in the wind, as the sky darkens and I know that the power of night spreads and grows. I hear the call...oh God, they call!)
(The first stars wink open overhead, staring at me, glaring and I can read them—I can! They’re angry because I promised Kiril that I would never, ever leave her, and yet I rode so far away. If I don’t get back soon she’ll have every right to switch sides and I’ll never hug her again, maybe she’ll even shoot me, because I broke my vow and I don’t deserve to live! Hurry...hurry!)
(Just a little further...oh dang! Twilight already; the first stars peep out between the branches overhead. Hurry, girl; you don’t know what could happen.)
(Heed the call...do what must be done...the gun glints dully, like blue eyes in the dark...face what you deserve and get it over with—all of it, over. Spilt blood atones for damn near anything. And what could hurt worse than living the life that I do now? I can’t take it anymore...)
(Faster! Faster! Let the hooves strike sparks to rival the staring stars! Ride like the god I am, faster than the end of the world! Ride to save Kiril’s soul, and my own...)
(I drop my basket when I see Reno in the distance, just outside the camp perimeters, hidden from the others by the trees but not from me. First I freeze: If I shout “No! Don’t!” the others will come running and they’ll tie him up and send him off to some military hospital to brainwash all over again. If I don’t shout, he’ll die and lose his soul that way, too.
But no, his grip trembles on the gun—I can see it all the way from here. So I just run and tackle him with all my weight, knock him clear to the ground, sweat damp on his shirt in the evening cold and the smell of it thick on him, his scent all over me as we roll on the ground till I pry the gun from his astonished hands.
“Damn you!” I hiss in his ear. “I didn’t help you steal a pistol for this!” He stares at me, speechless, then hugs me, hugs me so hard, shaking and sobbing and he smells so strong, so good, and I hug him back and I cry too, and it feels different from when Sarge hugs me so that I tingle deep inside the way that I think girls should when they’re really loved and not just used.
I push away suddenly, and he sprawls back in the dirt. “Have you lost your mind?” I say, for lack of anything better.
“Have I...maybe.” He wipes tears from his eyes with a shaky hand. “I...I meant you no harm, Kiril. I...just for a second there you felt like my life come back to me.”
I stand up and dust myself off. “You need to get your own life. Now come help me pick up the vegetables I spilled.”
As we gather up the greens, he says, “Um...about the gun...never mind. There’s no explanation.”
“Yes there is,” I say. “Something in you has to die—and you, poor fool, thought it was your body!” I find my wild onions by smell as the darkness deepens minute by minute. “Something has to die to make room for something getting born.” I pick up the refilled basket and take his hand to lead him back to camp. “You keep saying that you can’t take it anymore, Reno, but you never seem to figure out just what you can’t take. Change something. Let something die. Let something get born. But don’t shoot yourself—that don’t fix nothing.”
Only months ago I would’ve rejoiced to see a soldier do our job for us, blowing his own head off. A lot can change in a season.)
(Jake sits up, the sweat just sheeting off of him, his eyes wide open and wild. “He’s almost here!” he cries.)
I wake with a jolt, my heart pounding, in a darkening wood. I shiver and wonder how I wound up curled up in the bole of a tree. I feel eyes on me, and yet at the same time I feel certain, I don’t know how, that I’ll have to travel miles to find another living human being, and this does not comfort me at all.
But for now, sleep. Sweet...irresistable...