's 


IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume I: Welcome to The Charadoc!



Chapter 21

HARD MERCIES


Friday, March 13, 2708

Hunger keeps me tossing and turning.  I can feel the hours crawl by; my aching body knows that we have passed midnight by, and yet my foolish stomach keeps me awake with its demands.

Yet finally weariness takes over, and at last I can get some sleep, I can feel it coming.  I lie in my hammock, gradually slipping into dream...(...lie in my hammock, gradually surfacing from a blood-dark pool of unconsciousness.  Hell?  Heaven?  Neither?  Does Hell smell like Akhbar's Iodine Ox Ointment?  I move my lips to ask and AI! The PAIN!  My face goes up in flame all over again.

No it doesn't.  It just feels that way.  I'm going to live.  Bandages make it hard to open my eyes, the adhesive keeps one mostly closed but thank God I can see through it, I can see the vigas and the palm thatch roof, and the quirky flight of flies overhead that lazily sway and then suddenly dart, sway and dart, here and there like they have no idea where they want to go they just go anyway just like this stupid revolution, don't really know where we want to go just anywhere but here.

My hand steals up, I touch the thick pad of rags upon my face.  Clean, someone changes it regularly.  Someone has carried me to safety—to Cyran's hideaway?  No, that lair has plastered walls and ceilings, I don’t know where I’ve wound up, just someplace on the way, probably.

My enemy must’ve slipped--the gun in my mouth fired through the cheek.  I can live.  Oh thank you Jesus I can live!  And not even maimed, not even hindered in much of any way, only scarred.  Only hideously, grotesquely, permanently scarred.

Then the tears start, the pain and the weakness and the dread of what the mirror will have to show me sooner or later, the inescapable fact of something changed forever and it just starts with the face, it just freakin' starts with the face but the wound goes through and through.

I can live with that.)

A gentle stirring wakes me up before the dawn, hands trying to unlock my chain without disturbing my sleep.  The moment my eyes open Alysha puts her knife against my throat.  "I have no intention of setting you free," she hisses, "but you'll make better time if we put you on a lighter chain.  We have a cache nearby for this one."

"Oh for pity's sake," I groan.  "Alysha, can't you understand?  I have absolutely no options at this point but to stick with the only human beings that I have access to in a completely unfamiliar wilderness."

"I'm supposed to take your word for that?"  And she snaps a new chain on my collar.  My limbs she leaves unimpeded.  That's something, anyway.  "Now, get some sleep while you can; we march again after breakfast.  The troop has rested long enough."

* * *

Jarred by a spoon clanging on a pan as the dawn streaks through the trunks of trees, we wake to a terrific breakfast that Alysha has fixed, herself, before the light.  The steaming bowl weighs heavy in her hands; she sets it down with a clunk and a splash.  Colors mottle her misshapen face. 

"Didn't your mothers tell you, always start the day's work with the best meal that you can?"  The snares we set yesterday trapped some birds and a lizard; now every scrap of meat has gone into our unsweetened morning porridge, mingling their gravy with the turnippy gruel, along with herbs that Rashid has gathered on Alysha's orders--the best food I've eaten since Jee's place at the refinery-town.

The kids dive in, their eyes all gleaming, their giggles of delight almost a song.  I have to admit that I don't hold myself back, either; I've tried to tell myself that the starvation rations we share don't mean that much to a trained agent, but it's gone on for days, maybe weeks, and hunger gnaws me more than I dare let myself know.

Then, just when we've all had our fill she brings out the surprise--dessert?  How in the name of all the saints did Alysha come up with dessert?  Well, full or not, we just have to dive in all over again.  She has baked more catawlba into little pies of rubyberries, bird-fat, and honey.

Honey?  For some reason my eyes travel to Damien, a dark Mountainfolk boy who speaks earnestly now with Kanarik, hunger in his verge-of-adolescent eyes that has nothing to do with food.  Swellings mark his bare feet, dabbed with mud to draw the poison.  That's where it came from. 

Rashid asks with his mouth full, "I don't suppose you have any honey left over after cooking, do you?"

"Nope," Alysha says as she passes Marduk some more pie.  "Used every last drop of it.  Why?"

"Just that it's about the best wound dressing that money can't buy.  Next time you run across some, let me know."

It catches me by surprise when my stomach begins to hurt.  I have never before eaten until my stomach hurt; I once got very, very full on eclairs, but never more than that.  Of course, my stomach has probably shrunk by now.  I look at my fingers, sticky with honey and crumbs.  Moving very carefully, I turn and look at the glazed-eyed satiation all around me, and then at Alysha, who watches over us with a certain grim and weary satisfaction.  "What are you up to?" I ask. 

"You will all go back to sleep for an hour, maybe two, before we hit the road.”  Road!  I almost laugh at the colloquialism in these miles of vegetation.  “Soon we ascend to the High Country.  The terrain ahead has little food in it to forage, and it will burn up anybody ill-prepared.  Why else do you think I have rested you all these days?"





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