IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume II: Tests of Fire and Blood


Chapter 22

The Weak Totter On Anyway


Sunday, May 3, 2708

Good sleep, real sleep, after laying down a body blessedly exhausted by hard work ungrudgingly given, after staying awake all "day" by tobacco-light--I think I've earned this.  The cushions feel soft again, my muscles feel steady again, and the faint scent of smoke on my fingers smells earthy and reassuring.  I know I will rest well.  But why’d Kief have to get me thinking about my mother, all over again...

(Painfully the old woman (who isn't actually old, just bald, just wizened yet not wise) twists till she can free herself from the blankets and the sheets.  The feet lower into slippers; they won't hold up long, but she'll wear them while she can.  She tugs over the bathrobe where it lays draped across the railing at the head of the bed.  It smells so sweet, so fresh--Deirdre has it laundered more frequently than she herself used to wash her own hair.  She rubs her face in it, then shrugs it on, tightening the belt around her skeletal frame.  Spring gets chilly sometimes, especially when you have to travel by night.

As quietly as she can she shuffles out of the pretty, sterile room with the painted tiles set diamond-fashioned in the walls all neatly in a row.  Her slippers scuff a bit, too large for her heels.  She hardly makes a creak on the stairs, though, so light fall her steps.  She can make good time as long as the narcotic holds in her blood, before the pain begins to slow her.  She doesn't need much before she can disappear into the places where people go to get lost.

Out into the night she totters, hand-bones clutching close the breast of her robe against the evening air.  Soon she shall walk again amid the comforting, familiar smells.  She shall find herself a little hideyhole, away from all the do-gooders who think that she needs some kind of help, just because she dies differently from how they die.  None of that matters, really, though, not as much as going as far as possible from Jacob Keller and the letter that their daughter found, far from any chance of him ever finding out what happened to the saucy little redhead who had once teased his virtue away from him, for a song and a prank, so many years ago.)

My eyes fly open.  It didn't happen that way, it couldn't have--how could anyone possibly guess what went on in that delirious mind?  Mother had no reason to leave--she just went, some random action firing off in her cancer-addled brain.

I don't want to think about this anymore.  There must be something else I can think about.  But memories the daily routine gives me nothing, no brain exercise at all in this skyless place.  And I don’t want to go back further than that.

Petro’s bare feet make hardly any sound on the stones and blankets.  A little light—but only a little—soon leaks from behind the kitchen-curtain, where I hear soft puttering as our host fixes himself a midnight snack.  I look around me at the dim shapes of children nestled into the unaccustomed comfort of pillows, rich blankets tucked around them.  They couldn’t possibly understand someone like Little Bertha, voluntarily descending into the morass of Rhallunn, when she could have had anything she asked of me.  How did I lose her?  How did I fail?  The darkness has no answers.

How did Mother know about the letter?

* * *

          I zone out at the oil-press, which makes tedious work go more easily.  It reminds me of my rookie mission, pedaling a stationary bicycle attached to a generator for The Tribe's electricity.  They named me Dreamrunner, because they said I always looked like I traveled into dreams when I ran that thing.  But sometimes it's a blessing not to stay here and now...

          (Maybe it's a blessing, to send the boy away.  Maybe he'll get better once he leaves the scene of his breakdown.  Already he looks calmer, dressed in the comfortable flannels of his home village, released from the school uniform’s scratchy discipline.  I help him into his coat and walk him out towards the gate.

          He looks up at me and says, “We're going to Hell,” conversationally, like the prospect no longer troubles him.  He moves carefully, his wide eyes now fixed on the gate before us, his hand in mine like a little preschool boy.

          I hear the rumble of the coming carriage, and soon the gates swing open to let it in.  Trees bloom out there, in spring, pastel pinks and whites and yellows.  I've been smelling the blossoms all along.  I just didn't realize it till now.)

 

Wednesday, May 6, 2708

"Well, you've damn near eaten every scrap in my pantry," Petro says philosophically.  "It's about that time."

"Agreed," Lucinda says.  "Okay troop--see those blankets piled up by the wall?  You greenies do as the veterans do."  Chulan and Fatima proceed to fold and roll blankets into packets that they strap onto each other's backs.  I watch carefully, get the gist of it, and do likewise—not that different from how I learned to do it at Til.  When I get a load about as big as I can carry, Kief comes over and straps it on for me.  I surprise myself by the thrill that I feel at his fingers, cool and professional, tying the sash around my waist, crossing my breast, over my shoulders--did they linger, just a little, at my shoulders?

"Now you do me," he says.  And so I have a reason to put my hands on his body, across that broad chest of his.  I keep a strict focus on my work--I hope--but my hand does stay long enough over his heart to feel it beat.  "Let me set these straight," I say, "so they won't chafe."  I feel my face burn--could I be more obvious?

"This way," Lucinda says, and leads us down a long tunnel, slowly, at Petro's pace ahead of her.  Soon the blankets grow heavy indeed and hot upon our backs.

I ask Kief, "What are we doing?"

"Helping him go to market.  While he's there he'll find out if the heat's off yet and whether we can come out."

The tunnel narrows and we wind up bumping against each other.  If my cheeks burn any more they'll glow in the dark.  Fear wells up inside me--sheer terror that I should feel what I feel, heart and body, an intimate betrayal!

A draft so strong it almost qualifies as wind moans through this passageway.  Several of the others light up and that bittersweet aroma wafts back at me, safe enough with this much ventilation.  I light up a cigar, myself, turning the tip in the flame as I’ve been taught; only after I taste its brandy-soaked sweetness do I realize that it's one of those that Kief had given me.

"Good idea!" he says.  He turns and I can see him grinning in the glow.  He takes a cigar of his own and grips it in his teeth, then bends to light it against mine, twisting it (and himself) with a sensual relish.

The stupid tobacco doesn't do a thing to slow my heartbeat down to manageable levels.  He turns back to our path and now all I can see of him is this big blob of blankets in front of me with his legs poking out from under it.  Exceedingly muscular legs, mostly bare, his pants mere rags torn off above the knee.  The kid goes about practically naked, happy to get rude about the limb-concealing consciousness of his "betters".

If I dared...!  But terrifying memories assault me, from the very verge of adolescence, the tiniest budding of the breasts, so strange and sensitive a transformation--abused.  First came the love notes, then the accusations, then the attempt to kill me for not understanding what the pervert wanted of me, for not wanting what I even guessed.  No!  I could never permit such emotions if they could please a man like...

But Kief's not like that.  Kief wouldn't be that man.  Kief, so gentle...

Kief kills.  He has known no guidance save for war.  Why shouldn't his idea of courtship prove to be at least as rude as his naked limbs?  He loots for a living--if I please him too much, would he look on me as loot?

And what of me--on Judgment Day, wouldn't I stand beside that monster who once stalked me, still more guilty, if I took advantage of this child?

Yet can I name him "child"?  Let's just step outside of cultural immersion for one second, Deirdre, and look at him from Til's perspective.  Wouldn't he have passed his adulthood tests long since?  Isn't he already older than I was when I passed them, myself?  For all I know, he might have seen as many years as I!

All the less reason to trust him, then.  I steel my heart against further glances at those striding legs.  I'd have to know him a whole lot better than I do before...before what, Deirdre?  Absolutely not!

The passage starts to lighten; the walls reveal themselves in grays and browns.  Soon the sunlight pours in so brightly that the others squint and raise their hands to shield their eyes.  I make a show of doing likewise; no reason to let them know that my pupils, like everything else, have faster-than-natural reflexes.

We come to a great crack in the roof, a shaft up to the sunlit world with ropes descending down from it.  We load blankets onto a wooden pallet, and then Petro climbs up to the top of the heap, sprawling happily.  Now Lucinda sets her great arms to hauling at the ropes, and we do likewise at her nod.  Slowly, swaying, Petro and his wares rise up the shaft, the ropes and the winches creaking and groaning all the way.  We feel a jolt when it docks high above us, then sigh and release the ropes to rub our arms.

"He will light a fire up there," Kief tells me, "And sometime within the next day or two his cousin will see the smoke.  Then his cousin will bring a wagon for all his blankets and take him to market.  Petro will sell them all and revel in the marketplace in the broad daylight--hopefully, he'll save enough money for supplies.  Then his cousin will pick him up, and his supplies, and his new load of yarn, and a bell will summon us back to haul him down again."

"So why does he ever travel along that crack we came by?"

"No help.  Without us he hauls one blanket at a time, and that one painfully.  He needs us as much as we need him."



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