IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume II: Tests of Fire and Blood


Chapter 32

What Matters


Saturday, May 23, 2708

          (Incense and Zora were right.  I have neglected their advice too long.  I must do what I can...even if it won’t work completely.)

          (We have searched everywhere else on the campus.  The evidence seems obvious, the gate left open.  The homesick boy has apparently run away and headed home.  He probably will not make it, all by himself.  Miles stretch without food fit for humankind.  Storms can come out of nowhere.  Wolves prowl, and changing-tigers.  Predators of another sort prowl, too, I've heard, between the villages, where law and order do not hold.  If the poor fool still lives, out there, he will not live for long.

          I sigh, the musty indoor air heavy in my chest, worsening with every weary step down the stairs.  I had a duty to protect that boy!  Searching and searching again will not find him here, in the academy where he belongs, for I have failed already, and nothing can amend it.

          So why do I doubt the obvious?  Where have I misplaced Occam's razor?

          I stand in the darkness of the cellar, lantern in hand, asking, “Why is this room locked?  And why doesn't the Headmaster have a key?”

          The custodian shrugs.  “I dunno, sir,” he says, staring dully at his toes.  “We've never needed that room, seemingly.”

          On impulse I try to study the lock for recent scratches, some sign of use, but the dim light defeats me.  And what difference does it make?  How could a child have gotten in?  I worry about myself, these notions that keep rising in my head like bad air.  Speaking of which...

          “It smells like something died in there,” I say.

          “It happens, sir, in unused rooms.  The rats go places we cannot.”

          “Well, get better control of the rodent population!” I snap, irritable because of all manner of unseen things that disturb me.  “We can't have the Academy stinking like a charnel house.”

          “Will do, sir,” he says, and then adds, “They’ve stolen more chamois, sir.”

          “Hang the damned chamois!  We have a missing child, here, and you’re troubling me about cleaning rags?”

          “Sorry to bother you, sir, but it’s my job.”  I hear his limping steps climb the stairs.  I remain there, standing by that locked door, frightened.  My own irrationality scares me.  Yet everything in me screams that something dreadful, something important, lies beyond the bronze-bound wood.

          Enough of this!  Nobody but a rat could get in there.  I get a grip on myself, turn and go up the steps, after the servant.  And all the way I get the creepy feeling that the door stares at my back.)

* * *

I have barely closed my eyes, I’d swear, and already Kiril shakes my shoulder, hissing, "Come on--it's almost dawn!"  She shoves nutty, greasy stapleseed biscuits into my hands and I wolf them down while trying to simultaneously yank my stinking clothes back on--so much for my hopes of a full-spread servant's breakfast.

I had mercifully stopped noticing the smell of my clothes till now, reminded of a world where people spend money on soap beyond the infirmary's needs.  Ashamed, I think how this would never do in...where?  Some academy in a mostly forgotten dream?

Wake up, woman!  Hastily I splash my face in the basin going around, guided by the aching liquid sound in the dark.  I resolve at the first opportunity to see what I can achieve by slapping my blouse around on a river's stone--then I wish I hadn't thought of rivers.

Now out--hurry!--braiding our hair on the run.  Hurry, before the early-rising Lord of the Manor stirs and glances out the window.  See, the black hills already turn to gray, details begin to show on all the silhouettes.  We run silently through the morning mist to the wilds of a canyon between properties.  Only there, hidden under bushes taller than some trees, can we at last take the time to relieve ourselves.

* * *

 (Jake's eyes open in the middle of the night.  I can feel them open.  I stop pulling on my clothing in the dark and look at him, and he stares back at me, and my scalp prickles; I almost feel like I’ve never known him before.

“They have snagged the mothhole,” he says.  “They don't even know it.  It's almost too late—but not quite.”

“Shouldn't you type all this into Archives?” I try to ask, but I cannot move my mouth.  Like one of those nightmares where you try to scream, but can't.

And yet I don't want to scream.  I fear, oh dreadfully I fear, but not him, although acutely aware of how easily he could overpower me—physically, psychically, any possible way. But he won't, not without my permission.

And then something opens up, somehow his eyes become more than eyes, and my returned gaze becomes something almost palpable, almost a conduit, ready to feed into him.

I teeter on the edge.  I have a choice, I realize.  I pray like crazy for guidance, but only my heart, it seems, answers me.  It murmurs, “Trust.  Surrender.  Drift on in.  He wouldn't ask it if it didn't matter.”

I find that I can nod.  And he smiles back, fiercely, beautifully, but I can sense him wanting to cry, as if I had become a telepath or something.  I find myself crying for him, in his stead, and his strong jaw quivers.

I lean over him now, my arms braced to either side, my tears dropping onto his cheeks, and I won't take my eyes off his, glinting in the darkness.  For an instant I see both myself and him, overlapping.  I feel a tug to merge...

...but the merging doesn't happen.  I feel my soul swoop and swirl around the twists of who he is, and of someone else, some other so dear to me that it feels as though I've known her all my life, and maybe I have.  But I don't merge.  Instead, I feel the Spirit move me to gather her up and hold her close, like her life depends on it.  I can feel the warmth of Jake's approval, and a kind of wrench, that for an instant hurts me nearly as much as him.  But I can stand it for both of us...all three of us.  It quickly passes, and I feel just fine, though I know he doesn't.

I find my voice—hoarse, but my own.  Quietly I murmur.  “It's Deirdre, isn't it?  You've entrusted her to me somehow.”  I don't know what I'm saying and I don't care.

Jake barely nods, then pulls me down to him and holds me so, so tightly that I can hardly breathe and don’t even want to, not as much as I want to hug him forever.  “Spend the night,” he says.)

I slip on the steep slope, skidding down on my knee till I can grab a root.  Something happened.  Something happened!  It hurt...no, it doesn't hurt at all.  I feel snug, safe...and bereft, all at once.  So bereft I could wail the sun out of the sky, if I let myself.  And I don’t know why.

My knee does hurt, though.  I hold up the march long enough to clean out the grit, splash on some alcohol, stinging and cold, and then smile apologetically as we resume.  Romans used to dock the pay of any soldier who neglected his feet or legs.  Tools of the martial trade.

(“It’ll be okay,” I murmur to Jake, brushing my tears off his face.  “It’s...she’s...still there.  Still filling in the gaps.  You just can’t feel her anymore.”  And I have no idea why I say it, but it seems to help.  He sighs; I can feel his muscles relax.

I nestle into his shoulder.  Maybe I’m dreaming.  Things don’t have to make sense in a dream.  Maybe, in our sleep, we all become oracles.)

We climb now, far beyond the canyon which so long has sheltered us, straight up the mountainside beyond.  Our feet keep slipping backwards out of our sandals, till one by one we kick them off and stuff them in our packs.  I hold out longer than most, but at last I yield; pale scars still mottle the skin from all the barely healed infections from the last time I went barefoot in this land.  Too late anyway; I see new scratches on the tops of my feet and my ankles already begin to swell with jungle rot.  I shrug; no centurions march out here to rebuke us, and nothing we could do about it if they did.  But at least now, without the sandals, we can grip the treacherous ground with our toes, even with our straining arches.  We climb.

I believe that we must travel the final range before the coastal towns; I recall that some of the peaks, in fact, plunge straight down into sea, with only a narrow lace of beaches scalloped into their flanks here and there.  But when we struggle on beyond a perfectly serviceable pass, I begin to wonder about our destination.

"Tumblebugs," Lucinda says in response to my quizzical glance.  "We're going to a place called Tumblebugs.  The gardeners say that they have information for us."

"Oh, I always wanted to go there!" Lufti exclaims.  "They put it right in the very crater!"

Crater.  Uh huh.  Once again I have allowed myself to forget why they call this land "The Mountains of Fire."  Tumblebugs, eh?  Doesn't sound particularly volcanic, at least.

We really start to feel the cold, now, of the higher elevation, knife-sharp in the keening wind, cutting through our clothes, a torment to our unshod feet, a shriek of pain in our sinuses.  Serapes flap around us as we clutch the cloth together.  I can watch Kief's bare legs prickle in the wind, and he keeps his arms tucked in like a woman in a petal-dress.  Has he got nothing else to wear?

Damien suddenly drops to the ground.  I tense--another ambush?  Or mountain-sickness?  But soon I hear a soft snore as Lucinda chuckles grimly.  She walks over and lightly kicks him, but he just moans and pulls his arms over his head.

"Leave him alone!" Kanarik snaps.  "He just needs sleep."

"And why should he need more sleep than the rest of us?" she asks.  "As if I didn't know."

In a lower voice Kanarik asks, "What do you mean?"

"I mean I'm not an idiot.  I know he snuck out last night when he thought me dreamin’, and he didn't sneak back in till I went to fill the water-basin first thing in the morning."

Kanarik begins to cry.  "It's not what you think," she protests.  "He didn't do anything bad."

"Staying up all night after pulling a twenty-four, when we need him to march with us, counts as bad enough.  Now if you want to lessen his punishment any, you'd better tell me what he's gotten himself into."

But Kanarik keeps looking back and forth between Lucinda and Damien, unsure of what to say.  Finally Damien himself rouses enough to speak.  "It's all right, Kana.  I went out to sing our adventures to the gardeners, and get some stories of theirs in return."  Then he closes his eyes again.

Kief steps forward, kneels, and gently eases Damien’s pack off his back.  He hands the pack to me, and hoists the boy up against his chest.  "I'll carry him, Lucinda.  Bard's gotta do a bard's work, or we're all lost in the end."

            I love Kief for this.  I love those strong, bare arms, exposed now to the mountain air, carrying a brave young boy over his shoulder as reverently as a cross.  I take Damien's pack in my own arms and I bear it with pride.



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