IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume V: Sharing Insanity


Chapter 20
The Cynics and the Naifs


Sunday, November 8, 2708

(I can’t believe I fell asleep at all, the way Damien snored, but I wake up to twilight glowing through the twigs above me and it looks sooo beautiful—kind of jewel-like.  I just lie here, pretending that I’m still asleep with my eyes open, snug in my sleeping-bag with the morning cool on my face.  If I hadn’t joined the rebels I wouldn’t know what dawn looks like overhead, spreading through the trees.  Then I turn over and realize that last night I fell asleep just inches from a cashew-vine in the dark.

After doing the necessary morning stuff in the bushes (keeping a strict eye out for cashew vine!) I track Damien by the smoke in the air.  He lights me a cigarette from his own, and we breakfast on the bread and sausage that the barkeep gave us, neither saying a word.  Sometimes a bard’s got to spend time in silence, or he’ll run out of words when the moment calls for them; we all know that.  And sometimes you don’t need words, anyway.  After all this time on the road alone, just sitting by an old friend does something, like he gives off a kind of warmth that only souls can feel.  At last he stubs his cigarette out and smiles at me.

“Here’s where we part company, kid,” he tells me.  “I’ll carry your messages to Cyran, but I’ve got one for you that I picked up on the way to the tavern.  Do you know why I rode you so hard yesterday?”

“Getting shot at comes to mind.”

“Besides that.  I got word that Cyran has urgent need.  I’ve been wracking my brains on how to deal with it till I ran into you.”

“Yeah?”  I feel important, scared, overwhelmed and thrilled.

“Yeah.  Deirdre has to make General Aliso’s latest troop movements her first priority and get the info back to us ASAP.  Find her as soon as possible.”

“We’re already doing that.”

“Right.  Thanks for passing on what you know—I won’t go back to Cyran empty-handed, now.  Uh, keep it up, okay?”

“Okay,” I say, half amused and half annoyed.

Then a glow of inspiration hits him.  “Or better—join Kiril’s troop yourself, if you can.  Say you’re her brother.  We need someone there who can read.”  He grins.  “I’m sure Cyran would’ve said the same thing if he’d heard your report.”)

(Don joins us on the way to morning service, his cloak-collar turned up, to give us his report from the infirmary.  A few early snowflakes swirl on the air, though by noon it’ll all melt and turn everything swampy.  Everybody looks a bit eerie walking through the white eddies and turbulence.

While others shout with laughter over a notorious bully slipping on a patch of ice (no doubt with a little psychokinetic nudge of his shoe) Don whispers to us, “George won’t be joining us at church today.  Strict bedrest.”

“And Wallace?” I ask, “No, never mind.”  We see him ourselves, leading the teachers in to Sunday service, looking pale and nervous, but on his feet.  When he catches my eye he blushes and looks away.)

* * *

The gaunt woman’s return from Mass wakes me up—or rather, her dog rushing up to lick me joyfully does.  “You could’ve woken me earlier,” I complain.

“You looked like you needed the sleep—it’s a day of rest, after all.”  She eyes me critically as I sit up in bed and yawn.  “Besides, I’m not inviting any tart to church who runs around in men’s clothing.”

“You took the dog,” I counter.  “And I’ve got a skirt in my pack.”  I pull it out and on.

She just snorts like she hardly expects someone like me to know how to dress for church without being told.  When I glance longingly towards the kitchen, where an aroma of bacon still wafts upon the air, she says, “Forget it—you slept through breakfast, too.”  Nothing more for it, then, but to just move on.

I ride through a countryside that doesn’t look like what you’d think of as a war-torn land.  Small towns trade common goods to farmers for cartloads of wintered-over vegetables, while the green glow on the fields promises harvests yet to come.  Young shepherds flirt in the spring perfume, old craftspeople cackle over jokes they call from forge to shop to potter’s wheel, orchards show the first pips of fruit where the blossoms blow away, and chickens own the streets.  You could call it idyllic, just passing through; you would, if you were rich.

Now and then you get a reminder: a glance from a scarred-up face, a child hobbling by on crutches with a missing leg, a blown-out shell of a house that people will not look at or discuss.  People don’t often starve in this part of the country, but neither do they thrive.  And all of the of the stores paint pictures of their wares, because nobody can read.

At a local tavern I pick up a sandwich, a beer, and information about a rebel hiding out beyond the town a ways.  I follow a line of ruts in the mud that cuts through the weeds and passes for a road.  New-wakened insects buzz around me; I hadn’t even noticed the advantage of winter in freezing all the bugs away, when I shivered in the thick of it—typical mortal ingrate; we only like what we’ve lost.

I come to a farm at the end, where a young woman wrestles a plow through the stony dirt, behind her pair of oxen, braid-escaping hair draggled into her mud-streaked face, as a towheaded, tan-faced toddler pats out mud pies nearby. Her dark skin shows her as part Mountainfolk, but like me, she has the ranginess of something else in the mix.  Another widow?  Probably.  She freezes when she sees me and the child runs indoors.

“Neither and both,” I say just as she opens her mouth.  Her long jaw could have been homely, if not for the sweetness in the pale blue eyes.  “Know anyone who...” and I make the gesture for “scatter and regroup.”

She nods, slowly, her eyes still wide.  “In there,” she says.  Oh how easily the Purple Mantles could gather us up, knowing what they do now!  How many have they already pulled in this way?

I go into yet another bedroom—another of us wounded?  How?  I see a head of black hair poking up out from under a quilt, but that could go with practically anybody.  Then he turns over and...

“Who the hell are you?”  For a second I don’t even know which of us said it,

then realize that we both did, simultaneously.  I recover first, saying, “You must be one of Nayal’s crew.”

He tries to sit up, gasps, slides back down into the sheets.  “How do you...”

I hold out my hand.  “Deirdre Keller,” I say, reckless of names.  What the heck, I never had a chance to go undercover, anyway, from the moment Cyran took me.  His fingers barely brush my palm by way of handshake before his arm falls back to the bed.  He whispers a reply but I can’t make it out.

“Deirdre Keller?” the woman gasps.  “Cyran’s Tilián witch?”  Witch?  I haven’t heard that one before.  “Is it true that you can fly?  Commune with Mountain Maidens?  Explode heads in flames with the Evil Eye?”

“Whoa!  Wait!”  Damien, I’m gonna strangle you the minute I find you if you started these tales!  “I’m just one more soldier like...”

“Tell me you can bring back those on the brink of death!”  She grabs my arm pain-hard.  “Tell me at least that much.”

Gently but firmly I pry her fingers off me and rub my arm.  “I’m a medic, honey.  I do my best, but I’m not even a doctor.”

“But I heard...”

“Entirely too much.  Let me take a look at the patient.”  It’s bad.  The wound stinks the minute I draw the blanket back.  I can feel his fever even before I unwrap the bandages to reveal the infected chest wound.  I hear no breath at all on the left side; the lung must have collapsed.  Rashid might know the medicines to save him, but moving him would kill him.  So might leaving him be.

While I have my ear down to his chest he tugs faintly on my hair till he coaxes my head to his lips.  “Marry me...” he murmurs.

“Beg pardon?”

“Marry me to Zofia,” he says, then falls unconscious.

I turn to the woman.  “Are you Zofia?”  She nods.  “And he is...?”

“Kurmal,” she says softly, and stares with love on the fever-flushed face.

“He says he wants to marry you.”

“I know,” she says, and smiles.

“How long have you two known each other?”

She blushes, glancing downwards.  “Two weeks.  But...”

“Oh, this is absurd!”  Then I hate myself for blurting it when her tears trickle down.  “Never mind,” I murmur, “Everything in this country is absurd—maybe in the whole damn world.  Who am I to judge?  Here, boil these.” I hand her scalpel, tweezers, and probe.  I check out her shed and find the barrel of undiluted peroxide that farmers up here use in various strengths for fuel, bleach, antiseptic, foliar spray, and gargle.  As I thin a measure down with water the little girl peers around the door at me and darts quickly away the minute she catches my attention.

When I have everything ready and I’ve scrubbed up the best I can, Zofia approaches me in Kurmal’s room.  “Marry us?” she asks.

“I’m not a priest,” I say.

“Then invoke the Mountain Maidens.  They can witness to the wedding.”

I stare at her.  For a moment I can find no words.  “Let’s just see what we can do to patch him up first,” I say at last.  “Then we can talk.”  Jesus forgive us both.

I don’t know how long the makeshift surgery drags on; maybe not so long—not that much that I can do.  I can’t remember ever draining so much pus out of a single wound before, but if I can just stabilize him enough to move him to Koboros...who am I kidding?  Even if he got so far Rashid would only dig another grave.

* * *

(“Faster!  Faster!” I gasp to my mount as we already fly so fast I can hardly keep my rump in the saddle; I bend so low to help his speed that his mane lashes my face.  Will I die with the smell of horse in my nose?

Bandits gallop behind us, shouting taunts and shooting bullets; the canyon rings with the sound of hooves and ricochets.  I don’t even know where the beast carries me anymore, I just trust his hair-raising leaps and scrabbling over stone and gully, his well-trained dodging and darting that makes the worst target, sparks flying out from his hooves on the stones as the light begins to fail.  Sometimes I just close my eyes tight, then I open them again and raise my head just in time to duck a bough when we thunder through a thicket and out again.  Oh God, oh God, forgive me for ever even thinking of looting along the way, and save me from these thieves!

I feel wetness hit my hand; foam flies from the horse’s mouth, he strives so hard, so fast.  I feel his chest heaving between my knees.  Oh brave one, brave one, save us both!  And he’s doing it—he’s doing it!  The bandits fall farther and farther behind; we race out of bullet’s range and then out of sight.  Yan and Yaimis did not train those other  mounts.  I swear I will never say another word against horses for the rest of my life!  Slow now, staggering a bit, he ambles to a creek and drinks.  Remembering Zahir’s instructions, I ease off his gear and towel him down, though my legs scream for rest.  Anyone who saves my life deserves at least so much.

Then I hear approaching hooves again.  I saddle him up as fast as I know how, and we take off, away from the sunset, hurtling straight into the night.)

* * *

After a brief rest, emerging into twilight, we hold the wedding of Zofia and Kurmal.  Zofia has dressed herself in undyed stuff, and wrapped her head and shoulders in a tablecloth of homemade lace that has seen many generations of her family.  The toddler wears a spring wreath in her hair and solemnly carries a fistful of flowers, standing as straight and tall as the little thing can manage.  Kurmal tosses fitfully on the cot that we carried outside, for how can anyone invoke the Mountain Maidens indoors?  Dirt clings to the bride’s hands and marks her knees on her skirt, where she’d knelt to bury a horseshoe as a gift of metal back to the soil, but now she stands as proudly as her daughter.

I pile wood on the bonfire that we’ve lit, because the Mountain Maidens are, after all, volcanic beings, and because I want to keep Kurmal as warm as I can.  As night folds over us the sparks spiral upwards to meet the stars and I think of that Chinese New Year fire so long ago, burning up money for luck; we could use a little of either or both right here.  The color of the flames blushes on the bride and dyes her muslin a brilliant coral red; it flickers over the dying man as if to loan him a feverish burst of life, and it glitters in the eyes of the watching child.

I raise my hands and say words that I know I won’t remember afterwards because I hardly pay attention now.  I just let them flow out through me; something about matrimony being as deeply rooted, lofty-crowned, and indestructible as the mountains, something invoking the power of those mountains, I don’t know what all.  Insects chirp and buzz amens to what I say, and the night has a quiet, holy feel.

I know that I have no right to tell them, “I now pronounce you husband and wife,” as I place hand in trembling hand, but it doesn’t really matter, nothing matters but the love; even if it’s mostly pity and delirium, it’s better than nothing in this sad and hungry world.  They exchange rings of wire and the child claps her hands and cheers, scattering flowers to the ground.

After we carry Kurmal back in, Zofia laughs and blushes with big, wet eyes.  She offers me cider, and drinks some herself, then goes in to hold Kurmal’s hand as he dozes, gazing on him adoringly.  The little girl puts herself to bed.  I sit for a long time outside, sipping my cider and smoking the day’s last cigarette, poking the dying coals, watching the sparks spiral upwards to heaven.



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