IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Change is Life, Change is Death
Wednesday, June 10, 2708, continued
"I've killed for you," I whisper to Aron's grave. "I didn't feel bad at all. In fact, I think I liked it."
I hush when I hear voices nearby. The lady of the roadside tavern speaks to the soldiers who increasingly sneak away to her establishment on any day of the week.
"You boys never pay me enough, anymore," she whines in a voice that begs for slapping. "How'm I supposed to make a living if you keep on making me lower the price?"
"Stop your lip, woman, and be glad we don't take it all for free!"
"But it's the finest chaummin in all the Charadoc, and I ought to charge you double what you're offering me." Oh, she’s good, all right.
"That does it--I'm sick of listening to you. Men, take the barrels—every last one of them. I'll teach you to pinch pennies with the Charadocian army. Jeez, when I think of what we brave for ingrates like you! And when we're done with those, you'd better have a fresh batch brewed, if you feel like living."
Oh, she will, have no fear of that. I already smell the stills working overtime. And we have as many taps in place as every Chaummin tree can bear, with the season’s chill just right for what we want. How carefully we guard the sugary fluid from the hungry children as we cook it down to glue. Best friend a rebel ever has is liquor in the enemy ranks--we'll make sure that they run out of anything else before that.
As the taverness continues to argue, making them more determined than ever to rob her dry, I move towards one of the many brooks that lace the forest around here. I slip on gloves and listen for the particular croak of the poison-toad--that bright scarlet and yellow creature that can kill you from a dart dipped into the essence of its skin, or make you want to die if you but brush that skin with yours. I must catch some before they estivate, hidden deeply in the drying autumn mud. Most of them I will bring back up to camp, but I want to slip at least one into a sleeping soldier's boot.
* * *
(“I’m scared, Changewright.” He looks up at me with enormous eyes. I almost see the colors shift across his face, a faint pearlescence. I couldn’t press the juice out without absorbing some of it through the skin. He shimmers—I can feel him shimmering!
“Don’t be afraid, my Corey, my special one.” I lift the chalice that fills the room with its sweet parsnip scent. “You were born for just this hour.” Gently I cup the back of his head with one hand (the hair so soft, so soft!) and with the other I bring the vessel to his lips. “Trust me and drink deep—it is good!”)
* * *
(“It may seem good,” Jake says out of the clear blue, “but it’s not what it seems.” Don and I look up from flipping through books. “He’s changing all the rules!” Suddenly Jake throws a book flapping across the room. “What good does it do to study anything,” he cries, standing up, “when he’s changing all the rules?”
“Jake,” I say sternly, standing up myself, “We’ve talked about this before. You can control these visionary outbursts.”
He freezes, and suddenly looks very young—the same look he used to have as a child, staring at nothing, suddenly afraid that he’s crossed a line, that bad things will happen. Don also sits quite still, his eyes going back and forth between Jake and me.
Jake asks, hesitantly, “Did I do something, uh, violent, again?”
“You threw a book.” I go and fetch it for him. “Funerary Customs and Inheritance Laws of the Kinnitch/Borta/Toulin/Vanikke Region and Related Islands.” I smile, trying not to ratchet up the drama. “I hope we never have to use that information!” Still smiling as I hand it to him, I say, “You can tell us whatever you need to, Jake, without throwing things around.”
He looks on me with sudden focus, but I still see panic in his face, barely held in check. “I, I learned that from my father, I think. He used to throw things.” Slowly he gets a grip on himself. “I mustn’t follow his example.” He takes back the book and puts it carefully on the stack, as if he fears that it could break.
I pat him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry,” I say. “You’re not your father. Now, what did you want to tell us?”
He takes a deep breath, trying to capture it. “He…but there may be more than one. All tangled together, you know? But somebody…it’s not just the school rules, not just custom.” He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and says in Toulinian, “We have to watch for a chap called Changewright. All currents lead back to him.”)
I blink, shaking my head, momentarily dizzy. The rainforest blurs before me and my pulse whooshes in my ears. I catch myself against a tree before anybody notices, clinging to its roughness anchored to the here and now. Haven’t I felt odd ever since last night?
Of course you have, Deirdre. Low blood sugar. Everybody in the whole danged camp feels odd. Go back to sleep You’ve got night work anyway. In fact we all should get some rest; didn’t Kief give orders to that effect, that we should all go nocturnal? I blink a moment, and then remember where my hammock lies.
(I blink, and suddenly it’s not night anymore. And Corey...not here. Up ahead. I walk under the afternoon sun, classes cut short for the day’s sad business, surrounded by my fellow students, all marching towards the school cemetery. I almost fall into the sound of the wind rustling in the trees just beyond the walls, miles and miles of trees...
Aaron grabs my elbow and pinches hard. I give him a thank-you nod.
My mind must have slipped backwards in time—well, of course, one must expect such things when playing with the Rift. What happened...last night, many hours ago, but the effects still linger. I’d absorbed too much through the skin, when I’d crushed the root. I should have worn gloves. And I probably shouldn’t have kissed the cold lips, later, when he fell.
“Keep it together, Changewright,” Aaron growls at me, below the hearing of our half-deaf teachers. I nod again, wishing that the gesture didn’t make the world wobble.
“If I should pass out,” I murmur back, “tell them I fainted from grief.”)
(I keep hearing, in the halls, a word, or name, or state: “Changewright”. And the students hush as soon as they realize that I listen, dead silent as I pass, all the young eyes staring at me. It means something.
I catch it, just now, at the funeral, a murmur behind my back, then I turn and all falls still.
A student has died. It happens. Not all can handle the harsh conditions, but we tell their parents that it’s worth the risk, we will make men of their boys. Enough agree to keep us afloat. I wonder if that’s right?
Heart failure, the nurse said. Anything could have caused it. Some get dehydrated or exhausted, trying to keep up with older boys at sports. Some succumb to variations in the weather, used to more insulation than we provide. Some just get homesick and die of a broken heart.
So now we must act swiftly, in the heat of June. It feels indecent, to let the season rush us so, but we can’t control everything, unfortunately. I sweat in my black coat; I never like funerals in hot weather. But really, do I like them better in the cold?
We have, as tradition dictates, tied the body to a wide plank of wood that has no other use. In this case termites riddle it, torn out from a door that needs replaced. We have used rags for the binding. More decadent cultures might spend extravagantly on their dead, but we do not indulge in superstition. We make up for it, though, in our hymns and tributes...except when hot weather hastens us, and when the deceased has not lived long enough for me to know of much to say.
The moment comes when the Headmaster must cut a lock from the dead boy’s head, to send home to the family, before we lower the body into the grave. I tie the black ribbon, and then I do the deed (soft, young hair—not what a corpse should have at all) and down he goes. He looks so small in his grave below, and growing smaller, pallid in the shadows, a sick child that I want to make well. Oh, if only!
Now we drop on the shroud, and arrange it by long rods as custom decrees in its wisdom, so that we don’t have to see the clods of dirt fall upon that pale, sweet face. They say that the ancients used to make elaborate boxes in which to bury their dead, but Toulinians would not put up with so much waste. Cloth woven of mill-ends, knotted, rough, and not meant to last, will suffice.
Still, I envy the Ancients, at least their sense of propriety about such things. For does that not make us civilized? I have heard some students refer to this cemetery as Loser Alley. I punish those who say such things, but I imagine it still goes on behind my back.
Along with muttering about Changewright. Their very secrecy tells me that whoever or whatever Changewright might be, it cannot be anything good.
As the first clods fall one of the older boys faints. George Winsall, isn’t it? Yes, I’ve seen that one sitting or walking with the deceased, mentoring the poor lad, apparently; good that Corey knew some kindness before the end. I call for somebody to fetch water, as I loosen the youth’s collar. It relieves me to see that I teach more than callous brutes, here, after all.
He breaks out in a
sudden wail, and the tears start up. I
jolt back in shock.
Quietly I say, “Take him to the infirmary,” and climb to my feet. I can see him quivering, quite overwhelmed, as several boys help him up.
“Corey was so special!” George sobs. Embarrassing. Unmanly. Yet, under the circumstances, forgivable.)
* * *
A heartrending wail wakes me from my sleep--I sit up so fast the hammock jolts and swings. In the late afternoon’s shadows, under the trees, my vision still blurred, I can just make out Ambrette running over to Lucinda's hammock. The day settles down again to the usual rustles and shivers of leaves. I bury my face in my pillow. Lucinda is not getting any better.