IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume II: Tests of Fire and Blood


Chapter 6

Nursing

Wednesday, April 22, 2708, continued

          (Ooooooo.  Pain causes the nausea.  Nausea causes the thirst.  Thirst causes the pain.  The bed, too soft and warm, nauseates me.  The floor, too hard and cold under bare feet as I run to the bathroom, worsens the pain.

          Randy waits just outside the bathroom door, staring at me oddly as he hands me a cool glass of water.  His hair looks painfully red to me, but the water tastes sweet compared to the sourness in my mouth.  It makes me feel slightly better.

          “You slept the day away,” he says, “And no surprise.”

          “And you,” I say, trying to remember anything that could precede so much misery, “spent the night.”

          “It's my home, Jake.  You're in my home.  I had invited you over for dinner.”

          I look around blearily, trying to force my eyes to focus.  “Oh yeah.”  What the devil is wrong with me, anyway?  Have I caught some sort of bug?

          “You needed looking after, anyway” he grumbles, but his hand feels firm on my arm as he guides me out to the couch—stronger than me right now, though I’m the one with all the muscle and the height.  Once he settles me in, he sits on the couch arm and informs me, “I'd invited you over for dinner.  I had fixed us a nice pasta dish, with sausage in a vegetable sauce that I’d found in an old cookbook.  It seemed to call for wine, so I bought some for the occasion.  You ignored my pasta, and finished off the entire bottle.”

          “I...” I stop massaging my forehead and look at him.  “I did what?”

          “After that you drank every beer in the refrigerator.  You once swore you'd never again touch castavín, but you did last night; you drank all that I had.  And the cooking wine.  That would be the sherry, the bordeaux, the pinot noir, and a bit of brandy that I like to use on desserts.  If they'd have been full bottles it would probably have killed you.  Oh, I almost forgot, a small flask of scotch that I had bought for another recipe I'd found, saving it for later on in the week—for 'drunken chicken', ironically enough.  And then you polished off every flavoring in the spice cabinet.  When you'd finished with that, you chugged down my bottle of cough syrup before I could stop you.  And throughout all this, to top it off, I don't know where you found it, but you smoked a cigar.  Dusty old thing—maybe the last tenant lost it.”  We blink at each other a moment before he says, “I've never seen you smoke before, Weed.”

          “Did I, uh, say anything as to why?  Did I hear bad news or something?”

          “Not at all.  In fact, you laughed a great deal.  You kept shouting for joy, that we are all one.  You repeated that a lot.  We are all one, egalitarian, and stuff like that.  I don't know how you even pronounced egalitarianism, but you seemed to like the word.  Oh yeah, and dancing.  You tried to dance.  You fell.  Frequently.  When the headache wears off I expect you'll discover the bruises.”

          Instinctively, I turn towards the trash-box by the door.  I see the splintered legs of an end-table poking up out of it.  I glance to my right—yep, the one by the couch doesn't stand there anymore.  “Randy, I... I am so sorry.  Okay, that doesn't do much good.  But...if I knew why...I just don't get it, Randy.”  I look at him plaintively.

          He slides down off the arm to nestle in beside me.  “Well, it's not like you make a habit of this sort of thing.  I'm just happy you didn't knock yourself into an alcoholic coma.  You scared me half to death!”  Then he puts his arms around me, very gently, and I reciprocate, holding onto his solidity, nestling him under my chin.  “When I fell in love with an oracle, I knew we'd have strange days now and then.  I signed on for the unexpected.”)

* * *

Feeling like we should admit ourselves as patients, Malcolm, Rashid, and I make our rounds among the sick and wounded.  It goes so much faster with three--just as well, as far as we've fallen behind schedule.  At this rate, though, we might soon qualify as a real infirmary.  Malcolm's pallor as he moves from mat to mat doesn't entirely have to do with last night's excesses.  I make a comment on how much things have improved since Rashid and I got here, and he goes dead-white. 

It feels weird to just go back to work as if nothing changed.  My neck feels cool, naked without the collar, without the sweat that used to always build up under it.  But other than that, the same people ask the same things of me--few of them even know that I hadn't been free all along.

As I help Malcolm roll up Mischa's mat till the next patient needs it, he says, "Did you know that the murderer's father loves the poor?"  He snorts derisively.  "What a fool I've been--what a sorry, naive fool!"

"I could've said the same," I confess.  "And I came to the Charadoc at least as idealistically as you."  We carry the mat between us like a body; I kind of feel like we put Mischa away.  Rashid and I spent more time with Mischa than anybody, but we can't take still more time away from the wounded to attend her funeral.  That's just the way it goes, sometimes.

"You know," Malcolm says, "I didn't have to join last night.  Cyran told me I could stay here in the infirmary as a respected captive, or even as a noncombatant doctor, beyond all politics, as I'd always done."  He huffs to wrestle the rolled-up mat into the old cloakroom closet where we store such things.  "But Mischa..."

Rashid brings us more of that tea of his, just as Malcolm thumps his weight into the mat and gets it all the way in.  "Thanks, Rashid," I tell him.  "This stuff really does seem to help.  You'll teach me the recipe?"

"Sure.  And Deirdre, uh, thanks for last night...I guess I..."

"Don't mention it."  We kneel to change dressings--this time with real gauze, courtesy of Malcolm.  "Rashid, you're...well, you're just so smart we all sometimes forget that you're still a child."  I had a friend like that, once.  Never lived long enough to shave.  "The evening couldn't have gone any other way."

He empties a bedpan and rinses it with scalding water into the biohazard bucket.  "I don't think I've been a child since they sent home my mother's finger.  It still had Papa's wedding ring on it."

Malcolm says, "Believe it or not, they thought of themselves as gentlemen to leave it on.  They fancied themselves gallant."

"I still have it."  He pulls from his shirt the chain that I had always assumed held some sort of religious medal, but it clasps a silver band.  "Sometimes I feel like she watches over me." (And does she know I killed her?  She must!)

He comes over and helps me change the sheet under the kid with the left thigh wound while Malcolm unloads supplies from his truck into shelves that used to hold books.  "Anyway, the evening didn't end the same for everybody,” Rashid says.  “Branko never had to come to Father Man's hut all night long."

"I know," I say.  "I worry about him, too."

Cyran comes in about then, looking a little better than the last I saw hir, scrubbed up and fresh, without makeup or jewelry.  E walks straight to the bed of a little boy with the kind of big yet slanted eyes that make some Mountainfolk children look like elves, and the same curly, black hair as the devil himself--the one I’d treated for a beating that he’d gotten on some spy mission.

Cyran bends over my patient.  “How you feeling, Shermio?”  The boy moans and pulls a pillow over his head.  Cyran yanks the mat out from under him while I gasp, and e says, “Don’t give me that nonsense--I’m not talking about your hangover.”  E straightens while the boy sits up and glares at hir.  “I saw you sneak out last night to party with the best of ‘em, and your bruises look pretty faded back to me.”  E turns to us and asks, “What do you think, Medics?  Any internal injuries or unknit bones I should know about?”

“He’s past all that,” I say, “But one more day of rest will do him good.”

“I haven’t got another day,” Cyran tells us.  “I need intelligence on troop movements now.”  I overhear hir mutter, very faintly, “My own as well as the enemy’s,” but I don’t actually see hir lips move.




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