IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume V: Sharing Insanity


Chapter 21
Rough Night


Monday, November 9, 2708

(I finally get Sarge back to sleep, but now I can’t sleep myself, arms wrapped around my tummy-ache, staring at a spider dainty-footing it across a canvas wall.  Fudge-taste lingers in my mouth and one of my teeth hurts.  I could happily spend the rest of my life without chocolate, I think.)

(Sometime past midnight my horse leaps a fence and stumbles into a farm.  About time; I shake all over, and ache like I could die.  How I wish I could be back already with Kiril and Deirdre and all!)

Did I hear a groan?  I wake in the middle of the night, on Zofia’s couch.  In another time and place I might have called it lumpy and musty, the padding thin, the upholstery prickly with tips of hairs poking through.  But right now it just feels heavenly.

No, silence spreads a blanket of peace across the countryside.  The crickets don’t groan, but chirp in a pleasantly hypnotic rhythm.  Everyone sleeps except for Zofia, sitting in the dark by Kurmal’s bed.  I let myself sink into slumber again, myself.

            (Nurse thinks I sleep, because I’ve closed my eyes.  Yet I can see through other eyes, strange, exciting ones. I don’t even need the herb-laced kusmet anymore.  I can escape the pain of my raw skin into another form entirely!

            Colors fade to cool gray tones, bluish, greenish, purplish...and something else, a color found only in visions.  The view flattens and blurs around me, yet I can see so far, and in all directions!  And my eyes can catch every least flicker of light so bright, so sparkling bright!)

            (Midnight at the shopping-park and nary a light a-glow.  I put my hand on the magentine sewn into my belt and scan for security guards.  I sense one far away, fantasizing about three women of impossible proportions, each of a different race, and all of them begging for him to join in their cavorting.  I suppress a smirk at Vanikke’s idea of forbidden fruit.

“This way,” I tell the others, turning at the confectionary to head in the opposite direction.  Even outside the place smells so heavenly, full of cocoa-dusted goodness...and doubtless teeming with poisons.  Sigh.  Pass it by.)

No wait...that is definitely Kurmal groaning.  I ought to get up.  I can’t.  Zofia will take care of it.  I turn over on my pillow and dream of candy.

(I’d trade all the chocolate in the world to walk with my friends again, to hear their laughter, feel bony hugs from people who aren’t all weird about how they love me.  Especially Lufti.  I keep thinking about him, his cocky strut, his pockets full of pretty rocks, his big and earnest eyes, the way his hand used to feel in mine.)

(My horse goes directly under a window and neighs loudly, in a way so distinct that I’d almost swear he hints at words.  A light strikes up, and soon an old woman hurries out the door in her night-clothes, lantern in hand.

“Who’re you?” she demands, holding up the light in my face.

“A friend of Yan and Yaimis, God rest their souls.”  She starts at that, then quickly covers it up.) 

            (The postures of the faceless manikins seem arrogant to me, posing their disapproval, since the plaster heads can’t glare.  We wouldn’t dare come here by daylight, seen as we are now, our clothing dulled by scrubbing in the muddy river, with bits of straw and leaf clinging to our wrinkled rags, no matter how we try to brush them off.  I think wistfully of the fabulous wardrobe that I’d acquired in my early days here in Vanikke.)

(I topple from the saddle and tell the story of how the twins died at the Bridge of Curses, as we brush down the steaming horse and settle him into a stall.  I could sleep for weeks and weeks, but the woman won’t let me in the house.  “I don’t know any business of yours,” she says, going into her door and locking it behind her.  I sigh.

At least it looks like she’ll let me rest in her barn.  I take a blanket from my saddlebag and curl up next to the barn-cat who soon nestles against me after a yawning stretch.  The striped gray fur reminds me of an old pet of mine.)

(I remember how Lufti and I would whisper to each other after we were supposed to go to sleep, how we learned everything about each other’s lives.  If you landed me at his parent’s home today, I could walk right over to the place where he buried his cat when she died, right next to the vegetable garden, under a stripey gray rock so big he could barely lift it, with a vein of green quartz run through it.  “Rocky” had been the cat’s name, on account of her fur looking like that stone, and her eyes the same as that green quartz.)

            I open my eye a slit.  I see through the bedroom door how Zofia sits by Kurmal’s side, still in the undyed dress that she wore for the ceremony earlier, the tablecloth-veil draped over the back of her chair.  She insisted that I not take a shift, that she keep watch till dawn.  Their wedding-night.

            (I stand on tiptoes, holding onto the top of a brick; until then I hadn’t realized that I ran on all fours.  My whiskers encounter glass, but I look beyond it to a manikin many stories high...wearing a long, unsplit garment, radiant in the unnamed color...a dress.  I remember now; it’s called a dress.  A wedding dress.

            Have I come to witness a wedding?)

            (Kimba admires the fancy dresses in a shop that we pass and asks, with a weird smile, “Have we come to rob a store?”

            I pat her shoulder, then pull my hand away when she tries to bite it, but her brother reins her in.  “We’ve come to get what we need, and then I will leave money at the register,” I say.

            “What we need for what?”  Good question.

            “To stay alive, little one, on our way to stop the sick puppies fouling up the nation.”

            Cybil laughs.  “You say that so confidently!”

            I smile.  “I’ve done it before, darling.”  She surprises me by reaching over and giving my hand a quick squeeze.  I glance at her and see her eyes watering, but I sense her wish for privacy and look away again.)

            I sense Zofia’s need for privacy and close my eyes.  Or maybe I just close them because I can’t keep them open.

(I have barely sprawled three minutes on the straw before I hear the door slam open again.  The woman comes out with a sausage and apple sandwich, a skin of water, and a pouch of greenfire leaf.  She hands them to me before I can even sit up.

“Here.  I don’t know any Yan or Yaimis,” she says, cold-eyed, “nor any business of theirs, but if you’ve got urgent need of speed, as you say, you’d best be going now—the sooner the better.” Then she saddles up a horse of many colors. “ And I didn’t hear you right as to what that business might be—I’m getting deaf, you know—but don’t try to explain it again.  Take the paint,” she says with a nod to the horse she just saddled.  “He’s been trained by a someone or two who knew more than I do.”)

            I find my mouth watering, thinking of how nice it would be to have a sandwich right now, the ban on dinner notwithstanding.  Maybe a sausage and apple sandwich.  Or even better some greenf...no.  I don’t need that.  Sleep is what I need.

            (I sense goodies.  I...smell.  I can smell fantastically well!  A swirling landscape of odors, going on for miles, in a spectrum all its own.  Never mind the wedding-dress; I didn’t come to witness that.  Head towards the goodies!

            And this feels right.  I came precisely to run in this direction, to witness...

            ...to witness somebody entangled in my tale?)

(The whole tent smells like chocolate, even here in my little nook, blanketed off from Sarge’s space, and it makes me feel sick to smell it.  How can anyone prosper the way I do, loved and pampered and given more than I want of everything in the world, and still feel so lonely miserable?)

(Oh come on, Layne!  You have no excuse to feel lonely and miserable!  Haven’t you attained a rank that men kill for, literally, yet almost always fail to attain?  Haven’t you an entire army around you, who’d follow your every command at a glance, a word, a snap of the fingers?  You get away with smoking and drinking with the boys and wearing pants and doing all manner of things that once seemed out of reach.  You can kill—you’re supposed to.  If you wanted to lick the blood off a knife nobody would dare call you unladylike.)

             I slide into one of those dreams that tangle up many viewpoints so chaotically that even as I do become lucid in it, I know that I won’t remember any of this in the morning, I won’t have words.  And so, wordless, it will slip away.  So I just relax and go along for the ride.

(But they don’t love me, the men who follow my orders.  They watch every day to see the least hint of a pending fall.
            So what?  How does that differ from my school days?  The popular kids aren’t
really popular—the other kids just fear to cross us.  They all smile to our faces and wait for a misstep.  Well, I didn’t give them any then, and I won’t give any now.  I can handle the men.  I always have.)

            (More pretty mannikins, posturing aggressively.  They remind me of some of my peers back among the True Tilián—envious of my beauty, my status as the Shaman’s daughter, and dare I say my impudence which I do not regret one bit, so they’d try to flaunt themselves and intimidate me, especially the older girls, but I’d just smile in a way that infuriated them.

            Oh, how they would gloat now, to see me in this disheveled state!  No, don’t think like that, Zanne.  I am on a mission in a posh, exotic land, and they are not.  They’d envy me even my proximity to the rich colored gowns on the other side of that glass.  I just hope these boutiques give way soon to something practical.

Ah, now, that’s better!  This pet emporium looks promising.  We’ve noticed that pet food doesn’t come from any company that slips in magentine compounds.

            “Sick puppies,” Kimba chants under her breath.  “Sick, sick puppies.”

            I pull my hairpin out and start to work on the lock.)

            (The tantalizing odors waft out from under this mile-high door.  But I can’t go any closer.  Feet, lots of giant feet as big as me, fidget between it and myself—one step could crush my spine!  I cower in the shadows.  They can’t see me here.  They don’t have eyes that magnify the light.

            Yet I, on the other hand...I gaze up and up and up...and I see HER!  Enormous face halo’d in a cloud of luminous curls.  The one beloved of Jake, though not in the carnal way, and not the one intertwined...no not quite intertwined, anymore: that other has mostly frayed away.)

            I try to wake up again.  What if  Zofia needs...but no.  Can’t.  I feel so, I just feel so...frayed?

            ( I barely get the lock picked when I hear feet stealing up behind us; my scan crashes into thick telepathic shielding—no mere security guard, here.  “In quickly!” I hiss.  We hurry through displays of doggie chews and kitty toys, in towers of wire baskets that Kimba in passing, humming to herself.  “Siiiiick puppies,” she coos.)

            (The Great Door opens!  I scamper in before the giants notice.)

            (I hear the pitter-patter of little claws.  “Oh no!” Minerva hisses.  “That rat followed us in.”

            “Not to worry,”  I say, reaching into the feed aisle.  I rip open a bag of hamster-food and sprinkle it behind us.  “Maybe that’ll distract him.”)

            (GOODIES!)

            (“Let’s head for the fish and reptile section first,” Delmar says, tugging us away from the edibles.  “I need more activated charcoal.  I have some ideas.”

            “And we can’t stay put long enough anywhere to make it,” I agree.

He turns to look at me as I steer us towards the banks of water-shimmering glass, bright with fish that glow like neon in their ever-lit aquariums.  “You know how to make activated charcoal?”

            I smile brightly back.  “Doesn’t everybody?”)

            (Goodiesgoodiesgoodiesgoodiesgobblemumfgulp!)

            (“Ew!” Tshura points at a huge tank swimming with meter-long aquatic sauroids.  “Who in their right mind would want to own a morgo?  I can smell them from here.”

            Cybil says, ”Some of the wealthier people have taken to digging moats and stocking them with morgos.”

            “Nasty things.  I hear they’d eat their own mothers.”

            I tell them, “Morgos hatch from eggs buried in manure and abandoned.  They never meet their mothers.”

            “Charming,” Tshura drawls.

            I just toss a bag of charcoal to Delmar.  “Happy?  Now let’s go back to the feed.)

            (Umumumumumf?  I hear steps returning.  I didn’t come here to gorge my dreambody.  I back away from the seeds.  I came here to spy on...herrrrrrrrr.)

            (We return to that aisle packed with bags of kibble and nibbles for carnivores and vegetarians alike. I catch a shadow slinking away, but no time for that, now.

            (The Shadowman says to.  The Shadowman knows her of old.)

            (Shon directs us to the healthiest brands; he’d practically had his own menagerie before he hit the road, but had to give his pets away to friends before word got out that he’d secretly converted to Shinto, despite his race.  We stuff as much as we can grab into our backpacks.

            Again the footsteps.  “Hurry, my dears; we have company.”

            Maury, Jacques, Apollo, Guaril, Toni and Pauline unsheathe their knives.  Courtney grabs a supersized can of dogfood in her good hand.  Jameel takes a deep breath and then looks calmer than ever, but I know that he has poised himself for some martial arts moves, if that’s what it takes to get out of here.  I do likewise.  We form a guard around the less combat-ready and head for the nearest exit.

            Kimba giggles.  “You didn’t leave any money at the cash register.”

            I stuff a random wad of bills between two bags of kitty litter.  “Plans change, darling, according to circumstances.”

            Skirnir cries, “He’s right in front of us!”

            The twitchy man looks gaunt, fanatical.  The trembling hand that raises the gun won’t need much accuracy in such short range.  “Down!” I cry before I notice what my throat has done, as I plow into Cybil and knock her off her feet.  A gun barks and a bullet rips through a bag of wood-shavings that she stood before seconds ago.)

            (Oooh, excitement!  I skitter to the gap between the bags to get a closer look, darting my head from side to side to gain perspective; these borrowed eyes see everything so flat!)

            (More bullets fly, smashing through boxes and jars all around us, but the man’s arm keeps spasming when he tries to aim.  “Run!  Run!” I cry—we could still get hit by chance!  We head back through the cold-blooded section.  An aquarium explodes in glass and water close enough to cut Courtney and Apollo with the flying shards!  But that doesn’t stop Courtney from shot-putting Merry Mutts Pork Flavor Chunky into the man’s shooting arm.  We race out into the toy section before he can pick up his gun.)

            (But wait, they’re getting away!  They double back through the place of fishy-smells, and I follow fast, but I keep losing sight of them, so I leap up some boxes, then up higher than that to the edge of something, but it’s wet and slippery and I fall in with a squeak.)

            (I hear a splash behind us, but keep on running, pushing Cybil in front of me.  More shots, and then the click of an empty gun, but I don’t stick around to find out if he’s got more.)

            (I dogpaddle just fine, though, so no worries...except that walls of glass go straight up everywhere I look and I can’t climb out!  Oh wait, I see an island right in the middle.  I swim towards it, but not till something dark and monstrous swims towards me...)

            (I hear the splashing increase, frantic squeaking and a morgo’s growl.)              (SCREEEEEEEEEEAM!)

            (“This way, loves,” I urge, hustling my charges out the door while the twitchy man stops, distracted by an explosion of red...)

            (I open my eyes, thrashing madly in my blankets, in the infirmary.  My body seems intact around me, but I still hurt all over.  I stare up suddenly into the eyes of the nurse, who sponges my brow with one hand while he jots down notes with the other.    I feel the sting of his gentle touch, and remember the blood sweat that brought me here in the first place.  I can’t seem to escape pain sleeping or waking.

“You are not going to class in the morning,” he murmurs over me.  “You might not go to class all week.  In fact,” he says, “we might need to send you home for an extended vacation.  Would you like that, George?”

            “Please God no!” I cry, gripping his hand till we both wince.  “I’ll be good, I’ll study harder than ever!  Just don’t send me home!”

            “Poor lad,” he says, extricating his fingers.  “You don’t know you’re own best interest.”

            “I’ll catch up again.  I’ll do better than catch up.”  I gasp for breath, shaking, trying to grasp that I really haven’t just felt my body ripped apart.

            “Well, that’s just the problem, isn’t it?”  He lays his clipboard aside.  “You have too high-strung a nature for this school.  You ask too much of yourself.”  The nurse rearranges my blankets and pillows for me, but he doesn’t make me comfortable.

            “Please, please, don’t send me home.  You don’t know my parents.”

            He straightens up.  “I used to.”  His face looks troubled, almost recalling something.  “I saw your Dad...start to drink a lot.”  He frowns at the distance, and then looks back at me.  “Did he lose control?”

            I take hope from the pity in his face.  “You could say that.”

            “And...someone else.  I advised someone else...something.  It was all so long ago.”

            Can he?  I take his hand.  “You advised my mother not to drink with him while pregnant.”  He looks horror-stricken, the lines on his brow and jaw stark in the lamplight.  “She listened.  She waited till my birth to become a drunk.”

            “That...we needn’t dwell on the past, George.”  And the lines smooth out again.  I almost had him.  “ Try to get some rest, lad.  We won’t decide anything till morning, but I can at least advise your teachers not to expect so much of you.  Potential encompasses more than intelligence.”  He turns away.  “Maybe we’d better keep you here after all.”  He leaves, snuffing the light as he goes.

            I lie there shaking in the dark.)

            Don’t ask me how, but I can feel Zofia smile down on me, saying, “It does my heart good to see at least one dear soul not having a rough night of it.”  And then I hear her pour water into a kettle, and the crackle of the fire that she sets it on, and I know she makes a hot poultice for her husband’s pain.

(I slip out of the tent, going as fast as I can to the latrines to throw up.

“Kiril, is that you in there?”  Oh damn!  It just had to be Reno on guard duty.  “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine!” I moan.  Oh why do you have to notice so much, Reno?)

(I hurt, but I’m fine.  The leaf sees to that.  I can ride, I can endure, and even with just starlight I can see and see and see!)

(“You don’t sound fine.  Do you want me to wake up Doc?”

“No, no, no!”  Shame fills me.  “Please no!  I just...I, I just need privacy Reno.”  Can’t anybody understand that?  I want nobody to see me, fat and sick in the stinking dark...nobody except maybe Lufti.  He would never judge me.)

(A shadow slips into the tent. I reach for my gun—who would dare invade the privacy of an officer?

Oh, it’s just Ruby, the laundress, taking her name from the rocks around her neck, which she believes to really be rubies.  I sit up but don’t rebuke her.

“I was working late,” she says.  “I saw the light through the canvas.  You’re having a rough night, aren’t you?”

I can relax with this little peasant.  “Maybe,” I concede.

“Would you like some more sleepy tea?  It won’t take long to brew up.”
            I sigh.  “No, not this late.  It might leave me groggy in the morning.”

“Ah, but I know more herblore than that!  I can find a little something better than coffee, that would see you wide awake again in no time.”  And she smiles at me—the first person to actually smile at me in months.)



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