IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
Saturday, October 24, 2708
“How are you?” Bijal asks me.
“Better.” I can see straight, my headache’s faded down to sane levels, and I don’t feel so dizzy anymore.
“Think you can take a look at the wounded?”
“Maybe. With help.” I crawl right behind him through the tunnels in the underbrush, already nearly dry from yesterday’s storm. He has set up a miniature village of little nests beneath the shrubs that outsiders would have a devil of a time discovering. Good design; I’ll have to remember the concept. “You’d better keep on leading the way, though,” I tell him. This maze, working around the cashew-vine, would task someone with an uncracked skull.
I come to my first patient, a girl who took a bullet to the right clavicle—luckily for her. Smells like clean blood, no infection as yet. Very good—these cold mountain climes have at least that much over the jungles down below, that infection takes longer to breed. But can we keep her warm enough? I compare her pulse to the temperature of her skin for lack of a thermometer. Yep, she’ll do okay. My old skills come back to me in the using, and I can think sequentially through every healing step. Not yet optimum for commanding battles on the fly, but a definite improvement and a sign of hope. I do the job that I can, and Bijal does his.
* * *
(They don’t have mast this high up in the mountains. They have a regular, year-long cycle in which fruit swells and grows in its own season, and that isn’t now. I got this hankering in my mouth for fruit, real fruit, but I know I won’t find any in the wild. I stare from a mountain pass at a farm a little ways down the slope; I can barely make it out in the dark. I’ll bet they have fruit there, wintered-over apples, tough-skinned squash, maybe jams and jellies. Probably jams and jellies. My mouth waters with longing.
No, Lufti, you know the rules! Rebels don’t steal. At least they don’t steal from plain folk like that. Cyran doesn’t hold much with begging, either, unless you do it the right way, call it fundraising for the cause. Can’t call it fundraising if I just knock on the door and ask for an apple.
But something looks wrong. Night just barely fell; you can still see a little color in the sky between the mountains, and not all the stars are out. So why does that cabin have no light on at all, and no smoke from the chimney on an evening as nippy as this?
Maybe they’ve all gone away. Maybe it wouldn’t mean no harm if I just went down and helped myself to a little shelter, even if they have no apples.)
* * *
Jonathan carries me back from Initiation. I feel safe and warm in his arms, my head still spinning from the mind-shocking telepathic contact with The Alien, a headache setting sparks off somewhere just inside the skull above my eyes, but that’s nothing compared to all that I’ve learned...
...except how come I smell forest and not beach? Why does Jonathan lay me down on a bed of leaves? I distinctly remember a blanket on the sand...Oh. It’s a memory—I see. And Bijal tucks me in, not Jonathan. I open my eyes to his scarred-up face in the gloom.
“You fell asleep right on top of a patient,” he says with a lopsided grin. “No harm done, but I think we’ll call it a day, Deirdre.”
“Mm hmmm...” I say, wanting to return to the beach with Jonathan as I sink back into sleep...
(The door swings open with a loud groan at the slightest touch of my hand—I can see splinters of wood where the latch used to be. It looks even darker in there than out here. Hair prickling, I grope around for the candle that everybody keeps next to matches in a niche by the door...here. A snap of the match, and I get a glow glowing, with a little patience. Stinky tallow—farmers always use the old, rancid fat that they can’t cook with for their candles and soap, but Rashid got me used to beeswax.
In its light I see bookshelves beside me, with battered old volumes on them, so worn that I can’t make out the lettering gilded on the backs. The words or names seem to shimmer and shift in the flickering light, like they could mean many things.
Wearily I smile. I like books. But not tonight; I’d fall asleep on the pages.
The candle-glow doesn’t go very far, not even to my feet; I trip on something in the dark. So I search for a fireplace to light. I almost drop the candle at skittering, rustling noises, then I see the glow of rat’s eyes in the gloom. I shudder and move on. I stumble on something else, but make it to the old, burnt stones...any firewood? Nope, just mouse-nests in the long-dead ashes, and lots of spiderwebs. Nobody human has lived here for a long, long time.
No, wait, here’s a pile that I missed in the shadows. I use a branch to clear the space out, as frightened, angry critters scamper away chittering. I use some of the nesting-stuff for tinder and get a bit of a fire going. There. That’s better. That’s warm and light and friendly. So I turn around and...
Bones. Human bones. I’d tripped over a big ol’ leg-bone on the way over here...make that two leg-bones.
I fall to my knees, hands clasped together, crying and begging for mercy! I didn’t mean to desecrate anybody’s grave, honest! I pray for the dead. I pray for my own dead to protect me, tears streaming down my face. I beg Jesus to forgive the sins of everybody who died here, so they’ll have reason to thank me and not curse me, oh please!
But the fire at my back feels warm and kind, and I feel so, so tired. I’ve seen dead people before, just usually fresher than this. I start to pay attention to how the bones lie. Animals have dragged some of them apart here and there, but I can make out enough to figure out some things. That skeleton in the shirt and pants over there...the poker lies amid a jumble of the finger-bits. He must’ve tried to fight. Yes, now I see the bullet-holes in the shirt, and the dark brown stains. And over here, the one I tripped on...yes. I see the inside-out skirt pulled up over the skull and the bones of arms. I see the fractures in the pelvis. She’s the reason why he fought. Army must’ve done this. I just know it.
Aloud I say, “I understand. You have been wronged—very badly wronged. I will give you both a Christian burial, first thing in the morning. I will pray for your peace. And if you let me spend the night with no harm come to me, and let me have what I need, I will help avenge you.”
And, I hardly believe it myself, but I feel so horribly tired that I sink down by the fireplace right there on the floor, hardly even taking the time to roll out my blanket, and I sleep like the dead, right in their midst. Probably the stupidest thing I have ever done in my life. But oh, the fire feels so warm!)
* * *
I remember feeling so tired, after my encounter with the Alien, my initiation into the Tilián, as Jonathan carried me from the tidepools, his blousing getting soggy from all the saltwater on me. Officially I was seven years old, but I could have actually been older or younger—they initiate us when we reach a nominal age of reason, whenever that might be. I felt so disoriented from my encounter with the Alien’s mind, but slowly my mentor’s arms around me brought me back; they felt strong, palpably reassuring. He laid me down on a blanket in the sand. He gave me icy cold citrade, then let me rest in the sand for awhile, and it felt so nice, sculpting to fit me with a little wiggling, and then I fell asleep while he set up an umbrella over me.
I woke hours later, still shaky on my feet. So he carried me on his back, all the way up the weatherbeaten wooden stairs embedded in the sea-cliff. I could feel him huffing for air through my chest against his back, I could hear him with my cheek upon his shoulder, I could smell his sweat in all that slick cheir silk. But I never heard one sigh of complaint, and when he put me down on the cool grass topside, he smiled on me.
Then he walked hand in hand with me to my commoran. My housemother came running to the door, demanding of Jonathan what took so long. She rushed me to my dorm where I found the brand new outfit that she’d bought me, waiting on the bed, and she told me to shower before I even touched it, but hurry, I couldn’t very well be late for my own cannon ceremony. I remember that I could hear her scolding Jonathan even through the rushing water. Yet again, when I came out all tingly-clean and refreshed, wearing my new clothes (a mottled orchid/lavender cheir-silk tunic, loose cream pants with something sparkly in the weave, a sash of smoky burgundy with a knotted fringe, and gold lamé slippers that stretched to accommodate my odd feet) he beamed like the happiest man in the world.
I’ve loved those colors ever since, or similar sorts. Zanne sometimes reminds me that they’re all wrong for me, more suitable to a blonde. But I don’t care. They’re what I wore when Jonathan drove me in his GEM to the cannon on the cliff, that beautiful, green-patina’d old thing from the other planet, its workings stopped up by corrosion as the new planet transformed it from a thing of war to a symbol of peace—the icon on which I laid my hands, to make my very first Lovequest vow.
And here I am, for Lovequest’s sake—waging war.
Oh Jonathan, oh, oh, my dearest mentor! Where have you gone, I wonder? What has become of you? How could I turn my back on you so readily, just for a difference in politics? Couldn’t I have taken you in, cured you, weaned you away from the chaummin and the lies, the guilt and the stain and the madness of whatever you thought you'd had to do to serve Lovequest your way? Has my way been any cleaner? But I reached out—why didn’t you take my hand?Tears wash down my face in the dark, like that salty ocean-water from his soggy clothing, on the day that he pulled me back from the brink of strangeness. But I can’t feel his arms around me anymore; I may never feel his arms again.