IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume V: Sharing Insanity


Chapter 9
Haunted


Wednesday, November 4, 2708

(My leg has recovered enough to let me run through the rain, limping, after George Winsall, skidding on the slick pavement and nearly wrenching my knee all over again, shouting, “Hey!  Hey!  We need to talk!”  People stare briefly, but enough teenage drama ripples through this school that they quickly lose interest when I catch up with him and don’t punch him out.

            “Not now!” George hisses, hugging his schoolbooks as if he thinks me capable of stealing them.

            I pull him to me, and in his ear whisper, “Who died?”

            His eyes widen.  “Definitely not now!” he gasps.  To a staring first-year he fakes a smile and a wink, saying, “Bad luck.” And then gives me another quick, appalled look, before hastening into our next class.)

Once night falls we will have to do something to make sure that the soldiers feel unlucky.  But I don’t personally want to risk it, tonight—not after my last offense.  (I hardly dare to breathe, today.  I know it was my fault, what happened.  I ate at the feast of my enemy’s departed, and they...departed.  Now everybody knows that something went wrong—I just wonder how long it’ll take them to figure out it’s me?)  Everyone agrees with me on this.   (I lie as quietly as I can in the bed, gathering my strength.  Mrs. Marst still thinks I’m some kind of thing from the grave, and watches me for signs of evil.) So tonight I will send out Rozhen and his best friend, Zeb; they seem to make a good team.  Rozhen has the fire and the inspiration, while Zeb keeps him from doing anything too stupid.  They remind me of Merrill and Don—and oh Lord do I miss those two!  But right now, chances of the Field being what they are, I don’t even know if my friendclan brothers are alive.

(Even in broad daylight I feel the ghosts crowd close around me.  I hear them moan their displeasure with my presence in every turn of the cart’s wheels.  I feel the wind as cold as night blown over the grave, and the sunshine feels wraith-thin, nothing in it to warm a body.)

(Maybe Mrs. Marst has good cause to complain.  Maybe something did happen on All Soul’s Night, something I don’t remember, and I’ve got no business among the living anymore.  Maybe it goes back even further, to sleeping in that dead couple’s home.  Maybe I bring some evil with me into her house.  Or maybe I’m just tired.)

We continue to flank the enemy, as unseen as ghosts, ourselves, quieter than the birds who sing above like all the trees were filled with rebel spies.  I could have enjoyed this, a hike in the still-fresh green of spring, in some of the most beautiful land in the world; at every turn a new sight captures me, from a twirling flowered vine to a breathtaking vista that opens up beyond a cliff.  But these delights barely brush my soul.  I feel the dead breathe down my neck, and their breath feels cold.

(Sarge wants to know if I’m feeling any better.  I used throwing up as an excuse not to eat all day yesterday, but I feel so famished that I say yes, I am much, much better now, thanks.  Sarge scolds me gently, telling me that little girls shouldn’t drink beer, especially near bad smells.  I promise to never do that again.  He still hasn’t figured out that the ghosts poisoned me, that they hate me with an intense, green passion for what I really am.  Maybe my own ghosts will muddy his mind and he’ll never get it.  Oh pray!)

(Pray…if I could pray! The air feels full of ghosts today.  Randy can take all the contradictions astride (especially since he has never killed) and pray for both of us.  But maybe I can, too, just a little, that whatever has happened hasn’t poisoned George too deeply, because…well, because I like the boy.  He tries so hard at…something.  Something not all bad.

But...killing.  I should not have that in common with one so young.  And for such dark reasons!

No sound fills the room but rain against the windows,  the scratching of pencils, and the teacher shuffling papers while we work.  I learned this stuff ages ago.  I can afford to glance across the room, when George thinks that nobody sees, and witness how, in the privacy of the classroom’s concentration, he lets his face go tired.  Someone so young should not look that worn.)

(Tired...oh yes, so very tired.  Sometimes I remember, though I try not to, that I am only a little boy.  What is it, all these people expecting war stuff from me, teaching me to kill and read and spy and fight and hide and just keep going, going, on road after road and no road ever has an end, they all tangle together and stretch on and on forever, looping back on themselves and leading you in circles till you feel old and dead when you’re just barely beginning to guess at what it might mean someday to be a grown-up man.)

I’m just going to have to live with the fear.  But tonight I will find work as far away from the enemy camp as I may.

(I’m just going to have to live with the fear.  Same as the soldiers do.)

(I’m just going to have to live with the fear, for George as well as for Randy and Don and me.  For now.)

(I’m just going to have to live with the fear and the tiredness and the dead.  I’ve got their dance in me, now, and nothing will ever change that for as long as I live.)

(I’m just going to have to live with the superstitious fears and condemnation of the troops.  But oh I get so weary of men repeatedly punishing me for acting in their own best interest!)

* * *

The week after All Soul’s Night makes the best time to recruit, when people have their minds on who they’ve lost, and maybe those spirits linger around just a bit, wanting some answer as to why they died so young.  My feet scuff through all the frost-felled buds, stirring up a funereal perfume, as I take the road through an orchard where the sunlight fails towards night and everything looks as blue as another world.

The dead don’t go very far, so soon after their all-night feasting on the praise of those who remember them.  I feel the chill friendship of my own in every shiver of the breeze.  Oh yes, please, guard me from those other spirits, the ones that I abused last night!

What martial music do I hear, faint...yet growing louder?  No, not the fanfare of the departed after all, but the music and the many voices of the roadside tavern comes to me even before I catch the light that glimmers through the trees.  Someone fiercely strums a harp like he’d call the angels down to war—and haven’t I heard Damien strike that tune before?

I step into the smoky, beery atmosphere, the same as in a thousand towns, that smell so homey to me now.  The harper’s not Damien, but some local youth.  As I turn from hanging my cloak on its peg, then, I see the soldier—do not freeze!  Act casual.  Sure, a little wary, like any peasant would in the presence of a uniform, but he has no reason to recognize me, though I recognize him well enough, through many a foliage-framed stare from the dark: one of Kiril’s.  In fact, I believe he’s the same Mountainfolk soldier, with his curly black hair and wide green eyes, who talks to himself and starts at little noises.  I’ve watched him driving Kiril’s cart of late.

He checks me out, peering over his mug with something close to paranoia, then relaxes because I am not anyone he fears to see.  He tenses up all over again as a couple enter after me, and settles again after hasty gulps from his mug, and then pays up for a refill.  It doesn’t escape me that no other soldiers accompany him, nor the fact that soldiers rarely ever get a Wednesday off.

Notice: it’s the door he watches, not the musician singing a song so blatantly subversive that I’m surprised the walls don’t blister.  Interesting...

Knowing nothing yet for certain, I murmur my order to the giant of a barkeep as softly as I can in the tavern’s din: fresh cider, but it looks the same as hard, and smells similar enough.  I can’t risk losing my head with the military present, however demoralized, but I can have “more of the same” all night long with no questions asked.

The soldier diverts his attention from the door to give me a flush-faced stare.  I giggle nervously like any peasant girl would do.  “Don’t I know you?” he blurts.

I start a bit, but any woman would.  “Beg pardon?”

“You.  I know you.  Tall gal, silver-streaked hair down past your butt.”  Silver-streaked?  “I’ve seen you somewhere.”  Uh oh.

“Maybe in a dream,” I say, and smile shyly.  He takes the seat next to me.  “Do you believe in dreams, mister?”   I try to look at least tentatively interested in him, for all my nervousness.  Maybe I am, too, a little bit.

“That harpist does,” he says, waving drunkenly towards the musician.  “Dreams that can’t ever, ever come true.”  He is, after all, rather handsome.  He turns to me and leans over confidentially, his breath full of beer.  “We gotta do the bes’ we can with the world we’ve got, sister.”

I take the hand he offers and say, “Maybe...and maybe not.  You can weave a lot of different designs with the same few colors of wool.”

“But once it’s woven...oh God, once you weave it, how can you change it again without tearin’ the whole fabric apart?”

I sip my drink coyly, then stare off as though the idea only just now comes to me: “Sometimes it falls apart anyway, just wears out.  Then you need to weave something new.”  I turn to him and say, “It doesn’t have to look just like the old.”

He gazes at me, his eyes so sad and dark for all their greenness, then very gently he pulls me towards him, and fills my mouth with a kiss so tender that I fall into his heady breath, I find my arms around him...then push away, shocked at him and myself, my heart beating wildly, my face I’m sure as red as his.

The bartender genially pins him to the bar with an arm the size of a cannon.  “Be a gentleman,” the bartender coos, “or I’ll send your bar tab to your sergeant.”  Brave man, the barkeep—and scarred, I see, like one who has paid his dues on a battlefield in his youth.

“I thought she liked it!” the soldier protests.  “Didn’t you like it?”

I don’t have to fake how flustered I feel.  “M-maybe,” I say at last, and the bartender releases him.  “But I don’t want any more.”  Correction: I don’t want to want any more.  “It, uh, all happened so suddenly—I’m not that fast a girl.”

“Sorry—can I buy you a drink?”

I just shake my head, wide-eyed.

In a friendly way the barkeep leans over and says, “Just between you and me, son, if you have one more drink you won’t find it too easy to sneak back to your camp without getting caught—that is, if you do want to go back.”

“Yes, yes, of course I do,” he says, standing up and making a stiff effort to straighten out his uniform.  “What do you take me for?”

“Have a good night, then, sir.  Best you spend it in your own tent rather than on my floor—that’s all I’m saying.”

“Uh...yeah.  Certainly.  What was I thinking?  Good night.”  And with that he marches out as woodenly as he is physically able to, gone with one puff of a fresh, cold draft.

“And you, young lady,” the bartender leans to me, speaking very quietly.  “You look a bit underage for taking off by yourself in a bar.”  With silver-streaked hair?  “So who’s the man or woman that you serve, anyway?”

“Neither and both,” I whisper.

“In that case,” he whispers back, “I won’t mention the pistol that I saw you lift in that lil’ make-out session.”

I grin despite myself.  “Who’s ripest for recruiting around here?”

“Who ain’t?”

* * *

(I wake with a jolt, and then sit up, thoroughly shaken.  I had my arms around a man, a lean, handsome, dark man with green eyes, maybe part mountainfolk, and I was part mountainfolk, too—but female—female!  I felt my breasts press into him as I stole his pistol—oh, the dark Freudian symbolism!

We’re all supposed to sleep quietly in bed, but playing a bad boy has its advantages.  None of the others thinks twice about me pulling on my coat and boots over my pajamas.  They probably think I’m sneaking off for a smoke.  That doesn’t sound like a half bad idea, either.

I hear Randy’s footsteps quietly behind me down the stairs.  That doesn’t surprise me.  On the ground floor he catches up and silently takes my hand.  Nobody would think twice about that, here, either.

I have to get out, into the autumn chill.  I have to let the wind wake me up enough to think about what my Gift can tell me.  Randy takes back his hand to pull on gloves.  He understands without me telling him.
            When we get to the smoking-place, after a few quick drags to calm me down, warm and fragrant tobacco, I look to my love and say, “It’s me, Randy.  I’m the weak link.”

He reaches out to me.  “Why do you say that, Jake?”  I welcome his touch, for I can barely see him in the overcast night.

“It’s my fear…of women.  It fits right in with what’s going wrong here.”

“Oh come on!  Even I don’t believe that old slander.”  Tenderly he says, “You’re not afraid of women—you love Deirdre, and Zanne, and even Lisa, though God knows we gave you cause enough to hate her.”
            “I do, yes, but I also fear.  Randy, I fear being them.  And Deirdre—in some ways I
am Deirdre.  The, the merge thing.  I’ve tried to explain before, but I really don’t understand it, myself.”

“Oh no, not really.  Jake, men like us can come to doubt ourselves, from the  things that people say…”

“I know that!” I snap, and take a long pull on my cigarette.  “It’s not that.  This isn’t even about being gay.  I do fear…Randy, my mother betrayed me.  And somehow that works in with this.”  I think about Madro, how she kept promising and promising that someday we would leave Padro…but we never did.  It dawns on me that she was not just a battered wife—she was a masochist.  She...she chose.  I remember seeing the light in her eyes, the fierce appreciation, when he’d hit her.  I wanted to think of her as just frail, too small and frightened to leave, but…

…but suddenly the thought calms me, and I don’t know why.  Admitting the thing that I never wanted to see.  She was not weak.  Womanhood is not automatically weak.  I don’t have to fear becoming like that.

And Deirdre is not weak.  But her strength might betray her.  And me, in the bargain.

And suddenly I fear again.)

* * *

Back in the dark, carefully, carefully, I steal through orchards and woods and dash over fields where the new-turned soil smells like the fresh-dug grave, my head as clear as the cold night air, so why do I fear a stumble, a mistake, why do I feel faintly foggy behind my clarity, why do I keep thinking, over and over, “I have tasted the wine of the dead!”  Where do I get my weird notions, anyway?  I try to ignore my sense of pending doom as I clamber over a fence.

Dogs bark!  They run at me from afar, gray shapes in the gloom, as fast as fear and as inescapable, barking with throats full of fury and hate.  If I stand my ground, if they see me as a human being in control and not as prey, I might just...

“After ‘em, lads!” someone shouts.  I turn and run, vaulting back over the fence, but they leap the fence, too, hot upon me!  They shred the back of my skirt in their fangs, then the cloth slaps back wet with their slather and they snap it up again, jerking me back, till I kick one in the mouth, but that doesn’t slow them for long.

Shot whizzes past!  I leap up a tree and the dogs do their best to follow, hurtling themselves again and again against the truck as if sheer will could make climbing creatures of them, claws scrabbling at the bark till it bleeds sap, yipping and growling and whining and lusting so badly for my blood that it hurts.  I hear boots stump up right to the base of the tree.

“Stay off of my property, you damn thief, or next time I really will kill you!” And then he calls the dogs to heel and leaves me quivering in my tree.

Only after I take a calming breath do I feel how my right arm burns and wetness trickles down.  I examine it as best I can in the branch-barred moonlight.  Birdshot—it could have been worse.  The ghosts have let me off easily.  They could’ve moved the farmer to load the wrong shot, when they inspired him to take me for a thief.



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