IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume III: Responsibility


Chapter 3

A Reunion of Almost All


Wednesday, June 3, continued

The surgery takes a long time, but I get us through it.  We have only lidocane and nitrous for anaesthetic, but Kanarik’s weak screams hardly penetrate the dense forest walls.  Damien grips her in place like he wrestles to hold her here in this world, as I pack all the strength I have into a blow with a machete as sharp as I can hone it, against a scalded stump.   Even so it takes three blows.  Chulan and Fatima quickly cover the blood in dust as I finish up the bandaging, giving Kanarik the last of the oxygen.

After the surgery I have to bathe Damien like an invalid, himself, wash the blood off his skin and out of his hair in a cold mountain pool, as the frogs chirp down the night.  He just lets me move his limbs this way and that, shivering indifferently, eyes wide open and seeing nothing.  Then I towel him off and wrap him up good and warm.  Only then does he move of his own accord; he climbs into my lap and holds me tight, snuggled up just like a little boy.  I saw, when I bathed him, the evidence of manhood just beginning to flourish in his body, but this night, after such a day, turns back the clock for him, lets him press his cheek against my shoulder, shuddering in my arms, still staring blindly into the shadows.

* * *

          (Max and I eat supper at the far end of the employee’s lounge, out of hearing range of the others, but in plain sight so that nobody gets any wrong ideas about him and me.  I told the others that I planned to give him a pep-talk, help him buck up the next time bullets fly in Tumblebugs—if that ever happens again, cross fingers that it won’t.  Instead, quietly, I ask him, “What was that thing, that pink rock?  And what did you mean about knowing how to use it?”

          “Magentine,” he says.  “It focuses psychic energy.”

          I nod slowly.  “I think I’ve heard of that.  Other countries use it for all kinds of things.”

          “It’s all over the place in the Charadoc.  People don’t even know.”  He pauses to gulp down more potatoes; I’ve never seen him so hungry.  “Different people can do different things with it.  I can move objects—but it costs me.  Till today I’ve only used it for little things, like fixing broken wires, worn-down keyboards, stuff like that.”

          “But today you used it for something else.  What did you do, Max, deflect bullets?”

          “I tried, but I couldn’t—bullets move too fast.  No, I kept that rebel car running.”  More gobbling, this time bean-cakes.  “I saw a bullet hit the engine.  I bent metal back into place, jagged teeth of steel closing like a flower at night, but I couldn’t weld it together or anything.”  Now he gulps down triple-sweetened tea.  “Hardest thing I ever did in my life.  I only hope it holds long enough to get those kids to safety.”)

* * *

Warm night, but I build a fire anyway and keep Kanarik close to it.  She blinks sunken eyes in a face so pale you'd think her more among the dead than the living, but she watches the flames dance and hangs on just this side of life, as though lingering to see the performance to its end.

Gradually the light draws our fellow rebels like all the little winged things that buzz into its seduction.  I pray to God with all my heart that the army has too much on its hands with the day's scandal to find our fire, too.

They say nothing, at first, as they trickle in by twos and threes, just take their seats and watch the fire, too.  Aichi, however, beelines to Damien the minute she arrives.  She snuggles up to him and murmurs sweetly sympathetic little "Ooooh" sounds as he pets her absentmindedly.  Is she a telepath, perhaps, the gift surviving the starvation of her brain?  Or merely sensitive?  Who would ever know?  A little bit of life creeps back into Damien's face as he puts an arm around her, and I recall that in the Lovequest vow we pledge to love "With understanding, /Or if necessary, without."  Intelligence can’t serve every need; Aichi heals him more right now than I know how.

Gradually we begin to talk to one another, all in low whispers--accounts of our separate adventures, or plans for the coming day.  Ambrette assures me that Lucinda's doing much, much better, now.  I listen to our general's meandering words and worry all the more.  Lucinda knits her brow and pokes at the fire as if that could stir up some spark in her battered skull.  And I know of nothing I can do for her except to brew her willowbark tea to ease the headache's pain, so she can get some rest tonight.

Yet the plans go on, words weaving in and out of the smoke of wood and tobacco.  The forest seems to listen intently all around us, but nothing two-legged and able to carry a gun can hear except ourselves.

"Fatima," I say, "Your idea sounds good to me.  How far away..."

"What idea?" Lucinda interrupts testily.

"About taking Kanarik to an old couple who..."

"How come nobody cleared the idea with me, first?"

"Lucinda, you were right here when we talked about it."

"You must've mumbled--anything you don't want me to hear?"

"No, Lucinda!"

"Well, then Chulan can tell me again--out loud.  What's this great plan of yours, Chulan?"

"It's my plan," Fatima says, "Not Chulan's."

"Whatever.  Out with it."

"Well, there's this elderly couple who have supported our convent and its work all of their lives, who..."

"Cut to the chase, girl."

"I think they'll take Kanarik in while she recuperates."

"How do you know we can trust these people?"

"I tried to tell you!  For years they..."

"Don't sass me, girl!  I'm nobody's fool!"

I stand up and declare, "Enough!"  They all stare at me in surprise.  "Lucinda, I hate like hell to say this, but..." and I stop, can't say it at all.  I watch how the firelight inflames her grimace, shines on her scar and flickers on the sudden tracks of tears.

"But you don't think I'm competent to lead anymore--is that it, Medic?"  So she says it for me--the bravest of all of us, even now.

"Just for now," I say.  "For maybe a few weeks, if that.  Your concussion..."

"You think I haven't noticed?  God, Medic--what took you so long to let me off the hook?"  She has called me "Medic" all night long, I realize--trying to call my attention to my duty?  I watch the tears flood out now, unrestrained, her body heaving with them.  She bares her teeth like she'd like to kill each and every sob that wracks her.

"Not for long," I say.  "You'll recover quickly, I'm sure of it."  Then it dawns on me that she also calls me "Medic" because she can't recall my name.  "Kief can handle it from here," I say as gently as I can.

"Not Kief!"  Gaziley spits, his kohl'd eyes glittering like a jungle-cat's.  "I refuse to fight under Kief."

"Then you can fight under me," I tell him, "And I'll fight under Kief for you.  But Gaziley, he has more experience than any of us."

Kief says, "I can accept Deirdre as my second in command.  Whenever the band breaks down to crews, she can have Gaziley--and, of course, Kiril, Lufti, and Damien."

Damien asks, "Can we also have Aichi?"

He smiles and takes her hand, which she swings playfully in his.  "Our little sharpshooter?  You drive a hard bargain, Bard.  But at least you leave me Yan and Yaimis to give us horsepower at need, plus nimble little Chulan and Fatima, our most promising Ambrette...and most especially Lucinda--a doughty soldier if ever we had one, scrambled wits or no."  He claps her on the shoulder and she tries a brief smile.

"I'll be good again in no time," she tells him.  "You just wait."

"And then you'll be my general again."

"Well, then!" she says heartily.  "With that taken care of, let's plan for the next day.  Anybody got any ideas on what we can do with Kanarik?"

* * *

Kiril and Lufti insist on spending the night in my hammock, pressed up against me.  "I knew Malcolm hadn't betrayed us," Lufti murmurs sleepily into my ribs.  "He would never, ever, ever..." and then he sinks deeply into sleep.  Kiril already snores with just that touch of wheeze that always worries me about her, but after everything she's survived I daresay asthma cannot hold her back.

Carefully I extricate myself and leave them swaying in the hammock nestled in each other's arms.  I never could sleep well in the same bed as someone else, even when the nights get cold; I always worry about moving my limbs and waking the others up.

I walk down to the pool, a shining mirror to the moonlight, just listen to the rushing water where it spills down in a smallish waterfall.  I let the sound carry all the tensions away just like it carried away the blood.  Somewhere a night-bird makes a sleepy song, and of course all the little beetles click and buzz in a genial way--the forests of the Charadoc always teem with life; they take shifts to make sure that you never feel alone.

At peace at last, I go to Kiril's pack and unfurl her hammock for myself, then string it up as quietly as I can.



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