IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume V: Sharing Insanity


Chapter 28
Playing the Role


Wednesday, November 18, 2708

Tanjin wanted to break in the new recruits, and I wanted to let him, to get him out of sight so that I could just stop worrying about him every time the bullets fly...stop falling into what suspiciously begins to look like love.   But he still needs my attempts at physical therapy to get the most use out of his hampered arm.  Therapy—as if I know what I’m doing!

So instead, after first contact, I bring Turin along to the meeting in the barn, to become their officer.  Quiet lad, Turin: he listens and thinks and then acts with deliberation and resolve.  He has good mechanical aptitude, has a handy future if he lives to see it—and that sums up everything I know about the boy.  Oh, and I know that he’s veteran enough to lead a cell of baby rebels.  (I can do it I can do it I can do it I repeat to the rhythm of the hooves.)

The barnwood looks tired, all of the soft-grain worn out of it along with the color.  It creaks in the wind and the lantern-light flutters, barely up to the task of holding the darkness at bay.  Not much fends off the chill, either.  Draft notwithstanding, a faint miasma of oxen still hangs in the air, though the army had recently emptied it of bovine life and the owner spread clean straw for us.  The occasional gusts of freshness feel too cold to enjoy.

(A chill wind tries to battle me as I charge right through it, rushing headlong into another night, riding a nightmare nag.  Ghosts of all the horses ever slain in battle in our war run right behind us, so that I sweat with fear even in this blast, but I keep on, dragged forward by my duty.  Nobody ever said that the life of a rebel would be fun.  But nobody ever told me it would hurt so much!

Yet I can do it.  The last stable-hand refilled the greenfire pouch and gave me another flask, so nothing to worry about there.

I hold back on those, though.  I don’t know why, it makes no sense, but something hates that bitterness and sweetness—my entire body revolts at the thought. 

I can do it I can do it I can do it I can oh hell, this is madness to go on without help!  Madness to continue, too, but which insanity blazes up as most gloriously?

I know the answer.  I know what can light the sky up higher than the stars.  I reach into the pouch.)

Foremost among our recruits stand Melli and her children, a son and daughter old enough to shoot a gun without the backfire knocking them down; I’m not supposed to ask if they’re old enough to make sane moral choices.   When I see them, waiting eagerly in the room, I feel like I could faint if I gave myself the slightest permission.

Instead I clasp Melli’s hand and praise the children, as though I hadn’t personally ruined their lives.  What if their father’s ghost shows them where to find his bones someday, behind the waterfall?  Well what if?  They already think they know who killed him!  (I flicker in and out, in and out, in and out, half a ghost myself, but I stay in the saddle remembering all the souls who depend on the God of Freedom to come through for them.)

So, in glowing terms, I pitch the requisite spiels for an occasion such as this, all the high egalitarian ideals and the recriminations against our oppressors—one of the best acting-jobs that I have ever done—forcing myself not to rush to the longed-for hour when the liquor flows and the guilt all numbs away.  (And then I chew the leaves of the Tree of Life.  I put the pouch back, galloping, galloping, draw out the flask, pull the cork off with my teeth, and wash down the bitterness of Life in sweet, choking ambrosia.  I become divine again!)

Finally I can drink deep the sweet reward for my hypocrisy, liking the hellish way that it scalds the throat, as if it can burn up sins like fuel.  (Putting the bottle away, I suddenly remember Deirdre saying something about keeping a level head—and I don’t care.  Who is she to order me around anyway?  I’ve got to get through this any way I can.  Because the time, the time, the time, it beats like a speeding horse’s hooves—I can hear it race behind me, I can feel the heat of Time’s breath!)

Soon all distinctions fade, when liquor hits a stomach as empty as mine, as the room begins to blur and I laugh with the son of the man I murdered, while he boasts of the great vengeance that he shall wreak in his father’s name.  So why do I suddenly feel wired instead of sleepy, like I can’t sit still?  (Has Deirdre ever ridden a horse for days and nights on end?  Well, has she?  I’ve heard a lot of her tales, and they all talk about walking or sailing or even flying; she never said a word about horses.)

Flutes shrill and tambourines jangle.  I call for the bailebelde and we all get up and stamp and sing, a travesty of art, everything’s a travesty anyway, so why not enjoy whatever we can?  But soon the pounding feet begin to sound like hooves thundering on some desperate mission; it disturbs me—I want to get away.  (Sometimes when I dismount it’s like I’ve almost forgotten how to walk.  And then the ghosts crowd close around me, the human ghosts, the ones that I can see like shades against the night, so I have to leap back into the saddle to try and outrun them.  Drag myself up, whatever, but my heart leaps!)  So I let Turin take over center stage and force myself to smile on the sidelines with a little liquid help.  But my eyes keep straying to the windows and the blackness of the night outside.  (My eyes burn so much that I wonder if they glow in the dark, or if the darkness means I’m going blind, or maybe I’ve got stars for eyes, now, and all else dims.)  The dead could walk in such a night.

I didn’t simply murder that man; tonight I have stolen his children.  (But I mustn’t let it slow me from my duty; I’m not a little boy anymore.)  Blood stains my hands—I literally see some of that God-damned blood in the corner of a fingernail, where I didn’t quite scrub them enough, when I raise a bottle to Melli’s lips and she, laughing with the abandon of one with nothing left to lose, raises a bottle to mine.  (I wonder, out of the blue, if I’ll ever get a chance to bathe and change my clothes; I stink even to me.  Do gods stink?)  When you feel this unclean, the only thing to do is drink enough to get filthy, nasty sick, because that’s what people like me deserve.  (I fear that if I ever stop long enough to really, truly feel my body that I will be very, very sick.  Do gods get sick?)  But I keep up my cursed image, no fear of that! (What is my duty?) With bravado I toss the bottle into the fireplace—ah, the bright, sharp, tinkling smash!—and swagger out with a laugh and a wave to Turin before retching out of earshot.

And there, crouching in the bushes, holding onto a branch for dear life, I feel so miserable, so alone, so despicable that maybe even God can’t stand me.  My friendclan has scattered across the globe on cleaner missions than mine, but even if I could talk to them, could they ever, ever understand what I’ve done in the name of Lovequest, what I have become?  (Maybe it’ll all get better once I find Kiril.  Maybe she can make it all right.)  But then, suddenly out of the blue, I remember Kiril and Lufti.  Tanjin.  Rashid.  Malcolm.  Alysha.  Even Cyran, in hir way.  People do exist who love me, who understand; my head clears a little of self-loathing and self-pity, so that I can climb back to my feet.  (Maybe she’s my duty.)

Clouds break and some stars blur overhead.  (Stars overhead wheel into patterns that I cannot read.  Some do have the art, they say.  Some know things that the rest of us don’t, and they read it all up there in the midnight sky.)  If only I could see straight I could read something in the stars.  (I stare up at them, illuminating Heaven way up there, sparkling out of reach, wondering what they’re saying about me, what truths might kill me for lack of knowing them.)  No, I couldn’t.  That’s just superstition.  I know it’s superstition; this whole bloody mission is one big fright-fest of superstition and the Day of the Dead lasts all year round. 

(Those very stars shone down on me when I danced with the Dead and drank their wine—they know things about me, I’m sure of it!)  My legs feel stiff —has it been so long since last I danced?  No, it couldn’t be—and all my marching should keep me fit for it, even if I hadn’t danced for years.  (They know and record it all, in mysterious words of light.)  I stagger against a tree, sink down to rest upon the cold, damp moss, nestled among the roots.  My heart pounds like a racing horse and nothing makes sense, not my mission, not Lovequest, not this crazy war, not the status quo we’d have without the war, it just all does not make sense.  (Oh, if only it were enough to read the things that people write!)

I push up again and head back to camp.  Who says we need sense, anyway?  Sometimes it just gets in the way.

 

Thursday, November 20, 2708

(Oooo my head!  What a p...no, no party.  I just dreamed that, silly.  Some sort of drink-fest where the more I laughed the more miserable I felt, and when I looked in the mirror I looked so ruinously old.  With age-spots glowing in flecks of light.  Or not old, exactly—aged.  Not the same thing.  Poisoned.

I sit up, yawn, and run my fingers through my hair before anyone can see it disheveled.  My fingers tangle.  I dislodge them and notice how my hand shakes.

Stop that.  But it doesn’t stop.  And it’s not just the cold, the light snow upon the tarps around us—that kind of shivering starts in my shoulders, not my hands.  I must be picking up on Elmer’s neural disorder.  Ah, the joys of telepathy!

I am Zanne, Zanne, Zanne!  Now it dwindles, then stops, then so does my headache.  I look with pity over at Elmer, still tossing in his sleep.  He must take headaches for normal by now.

I dress, wash and do the usual, grateful that my hair curls all by itself and looks “done” even without the means to style it much.  I bless Cybil, too, for putting two pans on the coals before the rest awaken, so that while one of us pours hot water into a basin of snow in which to scrub up, another pan heats up for the next person.  A tenderfoot like her, and she still carries cooking-gear!

After breakfast I tell Elmer to lead the way, with Jameel and Maury to keep an eye on him, through a landscape that looks sugar-dusted before the last brown leaves have fallen. I drop back with Dalmar and Pauline.

“In case I haven’t mentioned it, I have certification in field pharmacology.”  Time to live up to the role I trained for.  “What do we know about this neurotoxin?”

“Well,” says Pauline, “it seems to cause paranoia, irritability, delusions, and ultimately murderous rage.  But any number of poisons could do the same.”

Dalmar says, “Arsenic could, in the right combination with other things.  And I know from my own studies that Montoya-processed foods do contain arsenic.”

“Explain,” I urge.

“By combining rice-flour with fish-oil, sweetened by sugars from cruciferous vegetables...”

“Hold on,” I interrupt.  “You mean to tell me they made cookies out of rice, fish, and broccoli?  I make a face; I can’t help it.”

“Frost sweetens cruciferous vegetables.  Montoya labs discovered a way to increase this effect and concentrate it, to make local produce into a cheaper sugar-source than an import.”

“And thereby concentrating whatever arsenic they pick up from the soil, as well.  But fish oil?”

“They also learned how to filter out the fishy flavor.  It was supposed to increase the health factor.  In fact, the entire recipe looked on paper like a miracle of health food in cookie form.  That is, until I realized that each of the ingredients held traces of arsenic, and I saw how that added up.”

I nod.  “And magentine also combines readily with arsenic, and often does, especially in the red variety.  Most people don’t know that.”

Pauline nods.  “It could bond with the food, then, without mitigating the toxicity.”  My mind reels with other implications of what the combination could do.

Dalmer sighs.  “Activated charcoal doesn’t actually do much good against arsenic.  We need a lab.”

I put on more of a smile than I feel.  “Oh, don’t dismiss the possibilities for a Til-trained field pharmacologist so easily.  I specialize in turning any kitchen that comes to hand into a laboratory.”

Pauline grumbles, “It would help if we had a kitchen.”)



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