IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume V: Sharing Insanity


Chapter 1
No Land for the Innocent


Wednesday,  October 28, 2708, continued

            (Changewright they call me, change, change, they leave it up to me to make the changes.  Somebody has to.  Somebody damned already.  It’s not a phase I’m going through in school—I knew before I’d entered the academy.

            “It takes but a snag in a mothhole to rip open the fabric of the world.”

            Who said that!

            Hallucination.  The bitter herbs in the sweet kusmet can deceive.  Ground myself.  Feel the earth beneath my feet, the fallen leaves and uncut grass between my bare toes.  Breathe in the free air—outside the school walls!  Feel the planet revolve around me, the center, the still point, liberated from the stifling uniform, naked save for blood.

            Grounded again.  I am the Changewright.  And hallucinations here are visions.  I flitter in and out like the wings of a moth, night’s butterfly, ripped open from the cocoon of time to spread my wings.  They snagged a hole and out I came.  They can’t unwing me now, nor shove me back into the silk.  I will never creep, a worm, again.

            One of the men groans, but he will die very soon.  It takes more than a little boy, this time, to do what I must do.  Three full-grown hunters and a badger—they never knew what hit them.  A little stealth, ingredients added to the flask that they passed around, and they fell helpless to my will.

            Mindblast.  I have heard it called that.  Dark arts of the Tilián, nobody ever teaches them here, but I have my own teacher, across time and space, because I needed so greatly, and somebody always answers a need.

            “Are you sure that this is what you want?”

            I nod to the silky voice inside my head.

            Hard to find a birch tree stout enough for all three, and yet I did.  Chance becomes destiny for those who dare to seize it.  I found the tree, close enough at hand to drag them each to it, and tie them to it, perform the rites and make the sacrifice, under the twinkling golden leaves.

            “Even now we can break the ritual.  We can use the blood for something else.”

            “No.  It...it must be done.  I can feel it.”

            “Ah, Holy Impulse.  Well, who am I to argue?  As you will, then.”

            I must have missed the jugular on one.  He bleeds more slowly than the rest, and still he groans, his lips gone pale, his eyes sunk deep.  I can feel his soul wandering in vision, confused with the unfamiliar, straight into my embrace.  It won’t take long, now.  I pull him in…a graduate of the same school, like the other two, too much of our fraternity to put up much resistance.  As I hear the death-rattle I feel the third wave of power rush into me!

            Vast, vast, the world spins ‘round me, tingling with electricity, pulsing with the heartbeat of the universe, painfully bright and beautiful and on fire with all of time and space unraveling before me!

            Not quite enough.  I need just a dab more life.  Hence the badger, snared earlier for this purpose.  Somehow my teacher knew that I would need this final push.

            So I thrust my homemade spear into the animal.  He coughs up the worms that he’d been chewing, and dies that very instant—and his little soul hits me like the spark on a fuse of dynamite!

            There—I did it!  I!  DID!  IT!

            The power tears through me like fire in a cannon!  Yet its trajectory does not go straight, but soaring and dipping and swirling in dimensions that I cannot comprehend.  Even so, I know that soon, soon, it will veer to its target, to stop that which needs stopped.  Burn it away, burn it all away!

            And afterwards I wake, shivering in the rank grass, drenched from the seeping ground in this almost marshy stretch.  But graduates of Toulin Academy laugh at cold.  I scrub myself clean of blood in the dew, and then I dress, and bury my dead, still shaking.  I always feel weak after a working like this.

            For a moment I panic, seeing one dead face staring up at me, before I can shovel dirt fast enough onto him.  Then fingers stick out of the dirt and I have to pile on the mud till they, too, disappear.  Doubts assail me.

            “Don’t doubt,” my teacher whispers in my ear.  “Defy all faiths, but never, ever doubt.”

            I can’t stop shaking.  “I changed what had to change,” I repeat to myself.  “I know I did the right thing.  The Headmaster will thank me.  Deep down he always does.”)

            (And suddenly I know exactly what to do.)

* * *

            (It wasn’t Hulda.  It had been another poor, unfortunate girl; I’m afraid I can’t even remember her name, just her face, a little triangular, Asiatic face, from the South Coast, probably, where the old Korean colony settled so long ago.  Or maybe she was an immigrant, anxious to please, fearful of her welcome.  Yes, that was probably it, remembering the nervous smiles that she gave me.  At first.

I did as I’d been taught.  She never told.  She quit her job.  Rumors circulated as to why, but nobody ever connected a name to the rumors.  No one even thought to suspect the star pupil.  But then, that year, the old Headmaster made up a rule: keep the boys and the female help apart.

And I felt so relieved!  Someone like me should never, ever, have any contact with…with that gender.  Not ever, not in any way, don’t even think about…it fades.

            My academic duty calls.  They think me so respectable, now, enough to trust their children to me.  But here, yes, if I close certain gates tightly enough, if I think only within certain well-paved, pruned parameters…I can earn a modicum of respect…on my way to Hell.)

            (“A moment, Winsall,” says the teacher behind me.  With a chill I notice the birch leaf on the sleeve of the coat that I hang up, and the blood I missed under my nails.  Does he see it, too?  Does he?

            He hands me my homework, conjugations, marked up in red.  “I never thought to see work like this from you, Winsall.  Your grades have been slipping lately.”

            I see a rainbow halo around him and a laugh escapes me.

            “This isn’t a laughing matter, young man.”
            I gain control of myself.  “No sir.  Sorry sir.”  My mood plunges abruptly all the way to the abyss, as the post-potion headache kicks in.  “Just nerves.  I...just nerves.”

            “You are no longer our star pupil, I hope you realize.”

            “Who...oh.  Don.  Of course.”  And why not?  Let him carry the burden for awhile.)

            My bruised head hurts like a busted melon by the time soldiers replace their wagon and start rolling.  And maybe I deserve that, winning the trust of children and sending them out to war.  But no, I’ve come to terms with that.  We have no choice.  God will have to understand.  Nobody gets a childhood, really; can’t say that I did, exactly, myself.  It’s a sentimental notion.

            Time to make the soldiers regret venturing from the teat.  They sure as Hell don’t get childhood, if real kids can’t have it. 

I survey the troop approaching.  Yep, there’s Kiril in the new wagon, unharmed, some ways back.  I let the relief wash through me at this confirmation.  It wasn’t that strong a charge, just enough to disrupt their lives.

Now, from my sniper’s den, I take a potshot at the foremost man of the vanguard, and the bullet cracks the soundwave, and he falls, blood shining red on the dirt road.  Enough play; time the disruptions get serious.  So we slip away, back into the woods.  Let them fear the vanguard.  Let them all drag behind.

            And I will never know his name.  But Kiril might.

            So what?  By her own account she hasn’t been a child for years, since long before I met her.  Some folks just don’t get any luck—and that is not my fault.

* * *

(So much for my lucky spring day--the land grows colder and drier the higher I climb on the road back to Cyran.  By afternoon, having had nothing to eat all day besides some little bits of ferns, I come to an adobe waystation with llamas and their herders crowding around the well.  Inside the courtyard walls the usual travelers hunch over their bread and beer.  I go in to get my own meal, when...

...army in there!

Act cool, Lufti.  You’re just a street kid looking for his father, after all, nothing to remark on.  Maybe you shouldn’t have money, though--ask for chores to earn your bread.

The innkeeper hands over a tin of boot-grease and a buffing-rag, then nods towards the soldiers.  I show no emotion as I polish boot after boot after boot, the men hardly noticing me, till the whole room reeks of banana oil on leather.  I think of friends killed, wounded, tortured, and starved.  I think about spraining ankles, snicking tendons, breaking toes, all the things you could do to a foot shoved into your hands.  Never have I paid so much for one meal!

When the innkeeper brings out my fee, in the form of a vegetable stew with bread to sop in it, one of the men asks, “What, no beer?”

“Water’s fine,” I say, while the innkeeper grunts, “No beer for the likes of him--it’d take a lot more work than you could wring out of the lil’ flyspeck for a brew as good as mine.”

The soldier tosses a couple of big coins ringing on the counter.  “Draw him up a draft,” the man says, “my tab.  Nobody’s ever buffed my boots with such a fury before--hell, I could almost shave in their reflection!”

I gulp, not knowing what to do, and then grin, thanking him.  Deirdre surely wouldn’t want me to blow my cover by refusing.)

* * *

I cover Tanjin, where the blanket fell off his bad arm, before settling down to my own nest in the bushes.  Sleep by day, attack by night—that’s the best way to go, now that we’ve given them a couple vanguard hits.  Nobody objects to sleeping again so soon after rising—everybody skitters on a sharp edge, these days, between violence and a deep gulf of exhaustion, soul as much as flesh.  I pity the guards.

As the old leaves crackle under me, and I tug the harsh wool up to my chin, I wonder if I will ever get used to a bed again.  Then I draw a thick strand of hair over my eyes to block out as much sun as I can, and fall into the gulf.

* * *

(As usual, rawboned old Hulda chatters on and on, meaninglessly, while she stuffs loaves into the oven. Worthless sons, she says again, stole all of her inheritance and left her to toil in the steaming hot kitchen, right back where she started.  And he wasn’t even their father!  What right did the little bastards think they had to cheat an old woman out of a peaceful retirement?

And the more she complains the more the rest of us feel the stickiness and stuffiness of that kitchen, the aches that drag on, and no real hope of ever saving up, by ourselves, enough money to someday let arthritic bones have a rest.  Even the youngest among us feels old around her.

We the other cooks try, nevertheless, to think instead of paychecks and holidays, how many minutes till the next break arrives, what we’ll wear on Sunday once we doff the floured shirts and sauce-stained aprons.  Once in awhile we even contemplate the hungry young men for whom we bake the loaves.  No, we really have no reason to give Hulda much attention.

Until she nearly falls into her own oven.

Two of us grab her back.  Something in her movement seems halfway between a faint and a lunge.  She turns around to us, her half-blind eyes wide, gesturing at the oven, opening her mouth...

...without a word.  Without one word, hardly even a hiss of breath trying to force through in some audible way.  Her mouth and throat work, fear in her face.  The hiss takes a kind of undulating shape, a sort of voiceless “Aaaaooooaaaa”, but comes no closer than that to speech.  Then it works up to a moan as the woman struggles in rising hysteria: “Aaaahaaaaghhh.  Aah, ahaaa, aamaamaaangha!  A!  Aughaha–ahhh!”  It comes out deep and throttled, still so quiet that we have to lean over her to hear her, though the cords in her neck stand out as though she shouts.  “Ahagharaaa!  Gaa!  Vahahaha!”  Her eyes bulge, weeping, as foam flecks the corners of her mouth.  She claws at us, trying to make us understand, groaning and hissing but denied all words, never again words, none to waste or spend, none to share, none to plead with.  She gasps and gulps after words.  At last she shudders into my arms and drops into a second faint.)

(I grab my breasts!  No, not breasts, nothing there but flat wool.  Changewright.  George Gordon Winsall, Changewright.  I am not and never have been a scullery m...m...whatever that was.

I shiver in the cold classroom, while the teacher stares at me.  The Rift has grown wider.  For a moment I almost fell in.  I grip the desk so as not to reel with the vertigo of it.  I take a deep breath.  So powerful a working must inevitably have some effect beside the intended one.  I brushed too close to those near the target, that is all.

“Winsall, are you all right?” The teacher sounds more annoyed than concerned.

“Yessir.  Just fleabites, sir.  In, uh, delicate places.”  Some of the others snicker; I try to smile, to share in the jest, so that they laugh with me rather than at me.

The teacher blushes.  “Learn to control yourself, then, young man.  Subordinate the body to your studies.”  And he turns back to the board.)

* * *

By night three of us slip down upon the camp, in three different directions, weaving in and out of shadows, behind trunk and rock and bush.  This time we knock the guards unconscious with rocks and paint red streaks across their throats with their own blood, but not by any fatal wound.  The other two depart, after Hekut tosses me his latest trophy, having graduated from scalping to head-hunting.  After shaving the monkey’s face the thing does look remarkably human in the dark, and will look more so when distance confuses size.  I shove the note into its jaws before hoisting the smelly thing up on the camp flag’s pole, then slip away just as one of the guards begins to moan his way back towards consciousness, groping for his scalp.  A pang of sympathy moves me--brother, I know how that feels!  But then I hurry all the faster back to shelter.

(Ghee?  Tah?  Gi-ta.  Gita?  A word, a word of power.  It means something. 

I break out in a sweat, nauseated, tossing in my blankets in the dark, the bed creaking under me.  Just a sound to me now, just two random syllables.  Yet I used to know.  I used to...something went wrong

I did well, though, didn’t I?

Didn’t I?)



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