IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume V: Sharing Insanity


Chapter 10
Placating Ghosts


Thursday, November 5, 2708

(The late frost bites us as Reno and I slip out in the dark, I think around midnight, to the kitchen tent, right next to the munitions tent.

“I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your helping me out, here, Kiril.”

“No, that’s right—you can’t,” I grumble.  “You owe me.”  Stupid lunk, to drunkenly lose his pistol on the way back from his little unauthorized leave.  “If Sarge catches us he’ll never let you drive the cart again.  He might even shoot me.”

“No!  Sarge would never do that.”  He looks shocked that I would even suggest such a thing, but I just stare at him.  We slip into the tent before the guard can see that there’s two of us.  As soon as Reno hides himself amid the boxes and barrels, I light a tallow candle from the supply that the dairy “donated” and set myself to cracking nuts.        “Make your move now,” I whisper.  “Sarge’ll wake up any minute.”

“Why?”

“Nightmares.  Like clockwork.  I can cover for you, but make as little noise as possible.”  Right, Kiril.  Like he’s sober enough for discretion—why do I risk everything for a fool like him?  “And Reno?”

“Yeah?”

“Shove some ammo and stuff under the bushes by the tent—we want to make it look like rebels helped themselves, but they wouldn’t risk it for just one gun.”

“For a child,” he says, “You are almost chillingly smart.”

“That’s how I survive.”  I catch the sound of a distant gasp that others might miss if they didn’t know to listen for it.  “Now get moving!  He’s awake.”

“Kiril?” I hear Sarge call.  “Kiril, where are you?”

“In the kitchen,” I call out.  I crack nuts as loudly as possible to mask the sound of Reno stumbling into the other tent.  I hear Sarge’s tramp and I act perfectly natural as he pokes his head in.

“What are you doing, little girl?”

I smile up at him  “I wanted to surprise the men with special biscuits for their breakfast.”  Maybe sweetened with some cookies crumbled into the batter?  “They’ve been through so much, I just wanted to do something nice for them.”

He grins and looks almost ready to cry.  “Kiril, you are such a treasure!  I don’t know what we’d do without you.”

I reach for more nuts and “accidently” knock a whole stack of cans into pans and raise a helacious clatter right when he’d otherwise hear some commotion in the bushes behind the tents.  Just when Sarge and I have them almost all stacked back up, I “trip” and bring them crashing down again—loud enough to cover Reno’s escape.

“I’m so sorry!” I tell Sarge.  “I’ve been so clumsy lately—I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”  I don’t let myself grin at the shame flushing his face.)

(I turn in my bed, and something crackles under my pillow.  I grope for the paper underneath.  It shouldn’t surprise me, that George slipped in as I slipped out, and left a note for me, but it does.  Have I become that predictable, sneaking out for a smoke?  Ohhhh Lord—that can only mean one thing.

But I have other things to worry about than nicotine addiction.  I reach over to tap Randy’s shoulder in the next bed.  Without lifting his head, he notices the paper in my hand, and nods sleepily, groping for the focus that he never lets far out of his reach.  Then he sends the tiniest spark of light, barely noticeable even to me as I look for it, to hover over the page.  It only illuminates one word at a time.  I have to move the paper while Randy holds it steady.

“Meet me at next nightfall.  Married Teacher’s Quarters.  No one ever goes there.”)

* * *

Eyes open briefly; dark still rules, nothing to see, just feel, and feeling just tells me that my arm burns.  Maybe my side as well.  Eyes won’t stay open.  Fine with me.  I slip back into a dream where I dance at a moonlit feast with all my friends, wild, wild twirls and leaps and flinging back my head while my hair arcs through the air.  Lucinda loves every minute of it.  While grinning Yan and Yaimis clap the beat, Fatima laughs, delighted; I’ve never seen her so happy.  I can’t remember feeling so happy, myself.  Miko, too; I don’t believe I ever saw him grin before.

Sharane comes by with a pitcher of her very best, but the others urge her to have a seat, relax, the show’s for her as much as anybody, as I whip through spirals around and around the forest-circled table that glows with candle after candle in fantastic sculptures of dripping wax, its wood strewn with flowers and heaped with food.  Sharane fills up a cup that Imad presses to Mischa’s lips and she laughs between sips, glowing with health in the candlelight.

Aron hesitates in the shadows, but I dance out to him, I sweep him up in my arms and we waltz swooping around and around in each other’s embrace; I never knew that the boy could dance so well!  I deposit him at the table, then lift up a fine loaf of bread and a cup of water, still dancing, and swing back out again to the nether darkness.  Here, Madame; I understand why you feel ashamed to share a table with the rest of us, but you did save Teo and I won’t see you go without.  As I skip back into the light Gaziley glares with his ocelot eyes, but Lucinda pours him a draft and he lightens up.  Oh and there’s Kief, dear handsome Kief; he starts to rise to say something, but Lucinda pulls him down to her in a passionate kiss; ever the man to delight in the moment, he forgets all about everything else. 

Nothing can go wrong, here.  I could dance forever!  But why does Fatima sit so oddly?  As I swing past her I see how a sheet of metal almost slices her in two—I stumble in my shock.  The candles flicker because I stopped dancing; they threaten to go out.  Just then I sense someone coming up behind me.  I turn to the boy who offers me a flagon of wine, the boy without a head...

A hand shoves my mouth to keep the scream inside.  “Hush!” Bijal hisses.  “Easy, girl.  Tell us what happened to you.”

“Happened?”  I feel a burning pain.

“Tanjin called me when he came to wake you and saw your blanket soaked in blood.”

“It is?”  I look down to the wet, dark wool that clings to my right side.  Whatever possessed me to just fall into sleep with my wounds untended?  “Oh yeah.  That.  It’s just birdshot.”  They did this—that’s what happened.  They muddled my mind, to leave me at risk for sepsis.  Lucinda and Aron protect me!  “I ran into a farmer who thought I was a thief.”

Bijal grins in a slightly annoyed way as he helps me to sit up and see the damage by the light of day.  “And just how drunk were you?”

“Not at all!  I had nothing but fresh cider all night long.”

“Fresh, huh?”  He starts to chuckle and then stops, suddenly grim.  “Ghosts?” he asks.

If I say yes, no one will trust my judgment as commanding officer until I placate the spirits of the enemy.  Already kids crawl through the bushes and the tarps to gather around us, wide-eyed and silent.  “I, I think so.”  Kief, you can have your revenge on me the day that I lead while unfit.  Until then, if you love your rebels as much as I think you do, guard me from your errors!

Bijal pulls the blanket off me with a sticky sound, and hands it over to our most muscular trooper.  “Can you backtrack and find where the cart went over the cliff, Dosh?”

“It shouldn’t be too hard.  Carts break things on their way down.”

“Good.  I want you to take this there.  When you find the spot, wrap stones in the blanket and gather the ends, then swing it as hard as you can and let go, so that it sails down over the cliff, too, where the bodies went.  Betany, blow tobacco on him before he leaves.  Come back as fast as you can, Dosh.”

Bijal turns back to me, twisting my arm to get the best light as he sponges it off with some boiled water that Tanjin brought.  “Your blood ought to do the trick—that’s usually the price that the dead demand.”  Yes, I agree, though it leaves us short a blanket.  “Now tell me what I need to know about digging these things out of your hide before I knock you out with happy-tea.”

“I can’t let you knock...”

“I’m in charge until Dosh gets the ghosts off your back.  Now help me take care of you.”  Tanjin’s already right there with the cup; he’d started brewing it as soon as he’d fetched Bijal.  Not bad, kind of sweet, though it has a bitter aftertaste.

“First you’ll have to wash everything off, and then flush it all out with the antiseptic in the blue jar...”

(“You’re looking better all the time, son.”  Benomi Marst pours me a big glass of buttermilk to go with my breakfast beans.  “Here—best thing for a growing boy’s bones.”

“Thanks.”  Another time I might have found the little mushy flecks in the drink hard to swallow, too much like milk gone bad, but right now everything they give me tastes good.)

(Has the milk that I mixed from dry soured overnight?  Good.  Buttermilk’s better for biscuits, but we take what we can get.)

“...an’ then, once you’re sure you’ve picked out every one o’ the little beasts, boil the wounds out good with peroxide...uh, we don’t have peroxide.  Tha’s right.”  Already the bittersweet tea makes my tongue feel numb, as it tingles in my fingers and toes.

“Boil?” Bijal sounds horrified.  “You sure?”

“No, no!  Technic’l term.  Not what it soun’s like.  Never mind.  Jus’ make sure you scrub out all the dirt, then bathe everything in ant’septic or salt or soda or somethin’ again, then...um, then...”

(I measure out the baking soda and salt...)

“Yes?”

“Uh, wrap ‘er up.”

“Bandage, you mean.”

“Yeah.”

(“You know,” Benomi says, “the Missus has finally begun to take a shine to you.”

“I’m grateful, sir,” I say between mouthfuls.)

I sink my head back onto my bag of clothes and I feel like I slip down onto a deep feather bed.  Not bad...

(...then I reach for some cookies to pick through.

“Hi, Kiril!”  Uh oh.  Sarge squats down beside me.  “I just had to watch you fix this special recipe of yours.”)

“Ouch!”  I jolt back awake.  “What the hell are you...oh.  Oh yeah.”

Bijal holds up a tiny metal bead.  “One down, twenty-three to go.  You need more tea.”

“I don’ need more...”

“Here.”

(Sarge sees my hand frozen over the cookies.  “Don’t mind me, sweetie.  Help yourself.  All you want.”  Now I have to eat the stupid thing.)

(“You remind us of our boy.  Light haired, like my grandfather.”  Ben gives me a yearning, tired stare.  I just keep eating while I can.  “I think that’s what threw Marta off, at first, like maybe you were him come back—it does no good when the Dead take their day so seriously that they try to come back for good.”

“No sir, I guess it don’t.  But I’m not him.”)

I still feel the pain, vaguely, as Bijal digs shot out of my arm, but in a disconnected kind of way.  “Twenty, uh, twenty-some shot?”  Maybe he took my arm over to a table for better light or something, that’s why it feels so far away.  “How’d all that fit?”

“You got some in your side, too.  What are you doing still awake?  You keep twitching every time I dig, and I want you limp.  I feel the warm cup held to my lips again.

“I jus’ wanna stay...” but then I sip instead of talk.

(“Still...you gonna stay around awhile?”

“Can’t,” I say, fidgeting.  I feel like I cheat the Marsts for all their hospitality.  “I got messages to carry.”

He sighs, and suddenly I realize it’s a sigh of relief.  “That’s good, boy—you’re not trying to tempt us to let you into our household.  That’s real good.”  His wife puts out biscuits hot from the oven, and smiles shyly.  Both of them!  Both of them had their doubts about me—and yet risked it anyway, all because of some words that I knew.

I’ve got to tell them.)

I try to speak.  I have to tell Bijal something about the codes being compromised.  He has to know.  But he must’ve taken away my whole body, everything shot to pieces, because I sure can’t reach my lips.

(“Sour milk?  Sarge scowls.  “Buttermilk would be better; a pity we don’t have it.”

“You’re right,” I say, then rise.  “Excuse me, Sarge, but nature calls.”)

I hear the calls of nature, all the happy, singing birds spinning pleasantly around me.  But wait...doesn’t that one call say “Stashed Loot”, with other whistles giving directions to a bush?  No affair of mine...let someone else worry about it—they all know the codes...something about the codes...

(“Uh, Mr. and Mrs. Marst, I have something to tell you.” They stiffen where they stand.  “You know that ‘Who do you serve?’ question?”

“Yeah?  It’s a good one,” Benomi says.  “Sounds so innocent to ears that don’t know.”

“Well, it’s not safe anymore—that’s one of my messages.  The Purple Mantles know all about it, though not the whole army.”

Marta says “But you used it.”

“I was half dead and not thinking clear.  I’m not saying don’t believe it ever, just be careful, make other tests as come to mind.  We had a good man tortured for taking it on faith.”  They nod slowly.

“It’s a dangerous world out there,” says Benomi Marst as he gazes out the window.)

He keeps shaking my shoulder, but he must have forgotten to reattach it, because I couldn’t care less.  “Come on, Deirdre, stay with me, girl.  I need you to check the bandages—did I wrap them all right?”

“Surrre,” I murmur with my eyes closed.  “Fine.”

(Sarge still squats by my pots and pans when I return.  “I dunno, Kiril,” he says.  “Don’t you need some kind of shortening in the batter?”

“Nope.  The dark tinge in the flour comes from ground stapleseed—it’s got its own oil in it.”

“Stapleseed?  From the oxen-feed?  You’re kidding!”

I grin up at Sarge.  “My secret ingredient.  Makes the flavor robust.”

“Ain’t you somethin’!”  He ruffles my hair and hugs me, and I feel good.  “What’ll you think up next?”  Seems the more I try to fight these feelings, the more I lose the battle.  I keep eating right out of his hand, filling up on affection that I got no business having, and if I don’t learn to control myself, it’s gonna make my soul fat and sluggish.)

(“Lufti, there’s someone I’m going to want you to meet.  Come on out here and let me hook up the cart—we’ve a ways to go, and I might as well pick up some things when we get there.”)

“Tanjin, come over here,” Bijal calls.  “You’ve seen her work.  Do these bandages look okay to you?”

I hear the dear boy kneel down beside me and say, “Mostly, yeah.  That looks a bit too tight, there; you want a firm seal, but you don’t want to cut off the circulation.”  I feel adjustments made somewhere far away.  Sweet, sweet Tanjin.  But don’t think like that, Deirdre, not even now, not even feeling too good to worry about...all of the whatever I’m supposed to worry about.  Don’t fall in love.  How will I ever...

(How will I ever do what I have to do, if I keep on loving Sarge?)



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