IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Life Between Battles
Saturday, June 27, 2708
“It’s infected,” Malcolm says, peering into my mouth. “The gum’s oozing pus. How long has it been loose?”
“I don’t know,” I answer.
“How long has it hurt?”
I shrug. “Can’t say. The greenfire hid it from me at first, and then I had too much on my hands to care.”
“Till now,” he sighs. “It’s the aftermath of scurvy, Deirdre. The tooth loosened, allowing an infection under the roots. The good news is that it should pull easily.”
“And the bad news?”
“I’m out of analgesic. Come over here, where the light’s better.” He leads me over to where Marduk sits leaning back against the slant of a boulder. “Sit on Marduk’s lap.”
“He’s here as my assistant. You know the routine.”
Oh. Oh! “You’re going to pull it now?”
“No time to worry about it, right?” I see his gear waiting on a nearby rock. I watch him scrub his hands.
“You had all this prepared ahead of time?”
“Kiril saw you eating carefully, and wincing when that didn’t work. She talked to me before she talked to you about seeing me.” He smiles. “It can’t be scarier than battle, can it?”
“I...I don’t know.” But I sit, awkwardly, on Marduk’s lap. He locks one iron arm around my chest and claps a meaty hand onto my brow, while he vice-grips my lower body in his knees. He pulls me backwards to lean against his chest, and he doesn’t smell like any sort of medical environment, but he’s not the ones who’ll have his hands in my mouth.
“Kiril, spread a blanket over them.”
I try to laugh. “Now, isn’t that getting a little bit too intimate?”
“Shut up and open your mouth.” And he reaches for what looks like pliers. And I open my mouth.
OMIGAWWWWWWWD! I scream as Marduk grips me fit to squeeze the air right out of me but I still find enough to holler anyway, tasting the salt blood in my mouth as Malcolm finally wrenches the offending tooth from my gum, and just like that it’s done. I shudder all over, my jaw throbs, but at least I won’t have to worry about the toothache anymore. Malcolm washes out the socket, packs it with sterilized rag, and tells me how to take care of my mouth while it heals. I have all day today off, he says. I should rest propped up, and tomorrow I should take the march at an easy pace.
Marduk disentangles from my limbs while Malcolm gives me a hand up and Kiril throws the blanket over my shoulders and my legs shake under me. “Now, was that so bad?”
“Yes! But thank you.”
“Just doing my job,” he says. “For a change.” He turns to Cyran (probably drawn over by the sound of screaming) to tell hir, “I don’t understand why I can’t run the hospital; I slow down any march I’m on. And I’m an adult. Why put all this on a little boy, however gifted?”
Earnestly Cyran says, “If I could spare you at all, Malcolm, I would. But it’s precisely because you’re an adult that I want you on the front lines. I need Rashid’s gifts, but as far from direct action as I can put him.”
Malcolm frowns. “You’ve had messages from him?”
“More like about him.”
But before e can say any more (if e even intended to) Marduk smacks Malcom on the shoulder, saying, “And hey, man, you just keep on getting stronger and skinnier all the time. Already you do better than a lot of the new recruits, that’s for sure!”
I look at the youth: friendly, happy, a little fresh blood spattered on his poncho. Malcolm grins back at him, pleased to give Marduk a legitimate outlet for all the tangled emotions inside him. Our dentist obviously feels that he did something good in that. Maybe he did, too. Maybe this could open up a way to redeem the lad. But all I can think of is how my body bucked in pain against his, with his arms and legs around me, and how very, very much I wish that I could bathe.
Sunday, June 28, 2708
My Alonzo Valley tortillas make good bread for an agápé celebration. Day of rest, but I spend our brief break in the march on my feet, hard at the Lord’s work, showing Alysha and a couple others how to mix the dough, how to squeeze it into little balls, how to roll them out and then to tease them thinner with their fingers, how to cook each one on the griddle and whisk it up again with a quick pinch that needs no spatula.
The others like tortillas. They cook quickly under camp conditions, and they spread the flour out. I take it that these folk intend to pass on the recipe long after I have left this land. Who knew that I’d work a permanent change on Charadocian culture by the simplest food in Alonzo Valley?
Damien has made a gawdawful attempt at wine, no doubt from a couple of dulcinas spoiled on the journey, but awe-filling God has tried on worse for size. Just a cup or two, an experiment. At least the flavor makes it easier to accept that everyone gets barely a drop with their torn-off bit of bread.
It doesn’t matter. We have no living priests among us, yet dead priests fill the thin mountain air that whips our clothes around us, whistling over rock. We taste more than the bread upon our tongue, we feel more than the wine.
(So that’s it, then, a makeshift, pretend Mass, and then the lot of us march off as makeshift, pretend soldiers. I never like marching with a band, if I can help it, but Cyran wants hir favorite messenger and spy handy, just in case.
I don’t like keeping the same pace as a bunch of others. The rhythm feels awkward, even as my feet fall into step with theirs, whether I want them to or not. It always sounds too loud, all these people walking at once.
When I walk alone, nobody can hear me, and when I blend in with others who don’t march, nobody notices me, not if I keep my eyes downcast. That’s safer; that feels good. People always notice my eyes, though; I don’t know how to make them not burn so much. They’ve seen too much to cool.
The worst thing, though, about marching, is the danger that sooner or later, if I keep in step with the troops, they will ask me to kill. I don’t carry any weapons. I never have. I serve the revolution my way. Not even Cyran knows that I have never passed the test of blood.)