IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume V: Sharing Insanity


Chapter 29
Threads and Bandages


Friday, November 20, 2708

(Jake sleepwalked through all our classes.  I actually had to help steady him up and down the stairs and keep him moving.  I had to keep an eye on him all day long, worrying, keeping an eye on bullies among teachers and students alike who might leap on the stumbling prey

So by now I couldn’t feel more of a wreck if you’d shoved me off the roof.  I could sleep for a solid week, I think, and oh how I really, really, really looked forward to bedtime!

But nooo, I couldn’t possibly be so lucky.  Because now Joel, Jordy and Aaron insist on enjoying with us the illicit fruit of the still that Don and Aaron managed to set up all over again, this time stealing the equipment and setting up in a cellar.  (Our dear, scholarly Don has never lost his touch as a thief.)  I don’t think that that’s what Jake needs right now, but we’ve got to keep our cover.  So here we are, downstairs once more, and I couldn’t have managed a worse time for it.

Not in the ritual cellar room, though, thank the Good Lord.  Nobody goes there unless The Changewright unlocks it for them.  A different room, then, will host our bacchanale tonight, bubbling and burbling with distillation, fuming up with an overripe aroma,  full of stacks of dusty old books no longer in use.  I scan a few titles in the dim glow of the burner and the candles, nervously waiting for Aaron to mix our drinks.  The gilded letters glint from the shadows, winking at us about their illicit knowledge: “Romeo and Juliet.”  “The Celebrated Mistresses of Haiku”.  “The Illiad.”  It figures.

And don’t these boys believe in sleep?  The clock had passed midnight before we even got here.  Oh well, maybe I could nod off in a corner after a few rounds and let them think that I just passed out.  Maybe I will, too, the way I feel.  But...Jake.

Aaron stirs in the caramel syrup and stolen citrade slush; he has old experience with making pruno palatable.  He tears up some sorry, frostbitten sprigs of mint and hands us his creation.  I take my first swallow and barely keep from gagging.  Smooth as steel wool.

I pass the cup on to Jake, and he looks okay, just quiet, but that’s not unusual for him.  Joel and Jordy tell nasty jokes about the various boy-meets-boy affairs carrying on around the school, snickering when the cup comes around my way again and I say “Bottoms up,” with a wink.  It tastes better this time.

So after a few more passes I tell a joke of my own.  Belatedly, I realize that Lumnites aren’t supposed to know what goes on in the Naugren Guard, right under the captain’s nose (stupid moonshine!) but they laugh appreciatively anyway, figuring that I have an imagination right up their alley (or down their gutter, whatever) and I let myself relax.

Somebody told me about that.  Someone very dear to me who had a rookie mission in Naugren.  Someone who looks almost like a boy, but oh lord is she ever not.

Yep.  Still holding the thread.  In a way it ties me to all of my friendclan sisters.)

Still tied.  Still bound by a thread that alcohol should’ve frayed till it broke with just a whisper, forgotten, drifting away...still...oh let me go!  Please let me go!  Let me die in the next battle.  Let me perish in the cold.  Don’t love me, don’t remember me, don’t lavish on me what I don’t deserve!

Remember me...

Oh why that reflex to demand remembrance!  Why must I still ache for love?

Let me sink back, at least, into oblivion, let me dream of being someone else...anyone but me!  And let the pain dissolve.

(“Dreamy, now,” Jake says, and I look at him, suddenly aware that I should not forget to watch over him, no matter how drunk I get.  “The pain far, far away.  Another horse runs in slow motion beneath me…”)

(Dreamy now, the pain far, far away.  Another horse runs in slow motion beneath me, rolling up and down and up and down like those ocean waves that Kiril used to tell me about, all sparkling in the sun, like the rain on the leaves a-shimmer now that the sun’s come up, and the glorious blush of dawn chases the scary stars away.  Not all stars; fallen ones glint on every leaf, but that’s all right; they won’t judge their fellows in damnation.  And all the while my birds sing all around me, heralding the God of Freedom riding to the rescue of the damned, so that Hell looks beautiful today, as I wash the bitterness of the leaf out of my mouth with another purifying swig of sweetness.)

(“…so that Hell looks beautiful today…”

“Don’t anybody touch him!” I bark, reeling to my feet.  I don’t care how it blows our cover.  “He can’t help it.  A, a kind of spell comes over him sometimes.  It does no harm, but…just don’t touch him till he comes out of it on his own.”  I’ve done enough damage.

“But that was so…beautiful,” George says, walking towards us.  When did George enter the room?  Don stares up at me in befuddlement.  I feel my face grow hot.  Even so, as George approaches Jake, I growl “Don’t you dare touch him.”  And now everybody stares at me in shock.  “It could hurt him right now.”

Just then, in a trance, Jake pulls out his magentine.  Jordy and Joel actually gasp, and Aaron sets down his jar with a clunk.  George says, “Gentlemen, we are dealing with strange matters here.  I think we had better do as Randy says.”  And he smiles and nods to me.  I can see the others quivering, their eyes wide and full of candlelight.

Plaintively Jake says, “Maybe the birds make too much noise…”)

(I jerk the horse to a sudden halt.  Maybe the birds make too much noise.  Maybe they shouldn’t tell the world about my coming.

Never mind; I can handle all comers.  I spur the horse on again, and we catch the rhythm of the waves once more.  I am a person of some power, after all—let the birds sing their hearts out!  I can feel my hair rise and fall, rise and fall, on the back of my neck, and power flings from it just like it did when I danced with the dead and they comforted me with wine.  Yes, that’s it again, the dreamy feeling coming back, the certainty of blessing, even here in Hell, because I bring freedom and the entire countryside glows with beauty all around me because I ride through it.  But best of all,  most especially blessed, I cannot feel the pain.  I can’t feel the pain at all.)

(“…the pain at all.”  Then Jake sits up abruptly, his eyes present once more.  “But that would be leprosy!”  And he reaches for the knife that nobody knew he had hidden in his pocket.

“NO JAKE!”  I block him then, to keep him from slashing his own breast.  I get a nasty cut across my shoulder.

“I thought you said not to touch him,” George observes.

I clutch my burning shoulder hissing, “Don’t be an ass, George!  Everything has its exceptions.”

Don wastes no time wadding up his handkerchief and applying compression to stop the bleeding as Jake suddenly shouts, “Randy?  Randy are you okay?  Did I just…oh God!”  He flings the knife aside and throws his arms around me, getting in Don’s way and moaning, “I’m sooo sorry, Randy!  The boundaries all fall apart—it’s so dangerous right now!”  He rocks me in his arms even as Don tries to take care of me, getting blood all over all three of us.  “And I still can’t feel—I’m too numb, too numb, something’s wrong.”

“You,” I rasp, “Are just too drunk.  Don, do you think I need stitches?”

“Uh huh.”

“Then get me to the infirmary, and I’ll take my detention like a man.”

But Aaron shakes his head.  “Ohhhh no.  Bloodshed means expulsion, not detention.  You can’t do that.”

I sigh.  “Then get some thread and boil it, so that Don can do the honors.”  And I know that however much my cut hurts now, it’s going to ache three times as bad when I sober up.  It’s going to be a long night.  Or day, whatever time it is outside by now.

“NO!”  Jake shouts, and scoops me up.

  He carries me up the stairs, hitting both walls along the way, while the others follow, Joel slipping on a bloody step and Aaron catching him.  “You will get proper care!” 

“But Don’s a doctor, you idiot!” I thrash against his grip, spattering blood everywhere, but to no avail.

Frantically Don calls up, “Only by Lumne standards!” as the others stare at him.  Oh Lord, he’s right—I nearly cost us the whole mission, right there!

But I’ve got more to think about with my poor, tipsy brain.  I feel the heat in Jake’s embrace.  He’s taken fever.  That last shock did something and his soul’s on fire burning clear to the flesh—oh dear God!

George squeezes past and blocks us.  “Don?” he calls over our shoulders.  “Did you ever stitch wounds in Lumne?”

“All the time,” Don answers.  “Fishermen get nasty cuts sometimes.”

In his most soothing, Changewright voice, George says, “Go back down, Jake.”  Oh lord, I do see a faint glow of dawn in the windows above him!  “Let his brother take care of Randy.  You could blow everything wide open right now.”

“His brother’s drunk!” Jake spits.

“So are you,” George says reasonably.  “So are we all.  All the more reason not to involve the authorities.  But it’s not like Don needs to do embroidery.”

I feel Jake sag against a wall.  “Okay,” he concedes, and turns around.  “Okay.”

“WHAT’S GOING ON HERE!”  We all freeze in a shaft of sudden light.  The Headmaster stands at the top of the stairs, lantern in hand.  The stupid proto-oracle even brought the medic.

Goodbye mission.)

I wake up to painful shafts of sunlight breaking through the leaves.  But my head does not hurt nearly enough, not by a long shot.  Time to drag myself off to see my patients.

I leave before breakfast.  I don’t feel like it anyway.  I watch my feet swinging back and forth on the road, stirring up dirty little clouds of dust, because I don’t deserve to look up and around at the beauty of this land.  I don’t deserve the songs of birds or the good green scent upon the air, either.  Yeah, yeah, I know it’s dangerous to walk this wartorn land obliviously, but maybe I don’t mind, maybe some soldier could end it all for me right now and I’d feel just fine with that.

Yet the kids still need me, the ones whose lives I haven’t ruined yet.  Maybe I’ll feel better tomorrow.  And maybe not.  I might never feel better again.  And I’m just fine with that, too.

(“This one could join his classmates tomorrow, and attend classes on Monday,” the school medic says over me, as he bandages me, “But I want to keep him today and overnight for observation anyway.  I want to keep all of them.  Whatever moonshine they passed between them plainly wasn’t safe.”  He glances pointedly over at Jake, now tossing deliriously in a nearby bed, completely out of it, and then at Headmaster Weatherbent, who looks at me.

            “Is it true?” Weatherbent asks me.  “Did you really block him from a suicide attempt?”

“I’m not sure, sir, if he had suicide in mind, but I do know that he tried to cut himself.  He didn’t attack anybody else.”

“Then the rules for expulsion might not apply.  But first I must ask you a few more questions before I make my final determination.”  Weatherbent turns to the medic.  “I’d like a moment with Randall alone.  Please move all of the ambulatory boys to the next room.”

“Sir…”

“You can observe them as well in there as here.  So far as I can see, there’s nothing wrong with them but alcohol.”  The medic complies and ushers the boys out.  Jake, of course, remains; Don and Joel had to carry him halfway to the infirmary when he collapsed on the way.

I reposition myself to take some pressure off my slashed shoulder and back.  Much as I like the comforts of the infirmary, I really would like to see less of them.

            Now Wallace Weatherbent pulls up a chair beside me, leans close, and whispers, “Does this have anything to do with his…oraclism?”

            “It has everything to do with it,” I answer.  He turns white, and not just from my hoochy breath.  “Believe me, the last thing he needed was to drink last night, but we didn’t dare blow our cover.”

            He sits up straighter.  “Report, agent.  What have you learned so far?”

            I fight to speak as distinctly as I can.  “That these kids are in way over their heads.  That there’s a lot more magentine floating around this campus than you think.  That the tension of trying to completely suppress the feminine—don’t flinch!—among so many hormonal adolescents has triggered worse things in that magentine than you can imagine.”  I stop at the horror in his face.

            But Jake suddenly murmurs, “…and that it all starts with Wallace Weatherbent.”

            Wallace leaps to his feet.  “He…that doesn’t mean anything.  He’s delirious.  He doesn’t know what he’s saying.”  Jake just lies there with his closed lids fluttering.

            “On the contrary,” I grate.  “The way his gift operates, it means the most when he’s delirious and doesn’t know what he’s saying.”

            “no…” the man stumbles back.  “No!”  And he runs out of the room, as Jake lapses back into a stupor.)

* * *

 “How you feelin’ girl?  I ask Betany.

She smiles sleepily up at me.  “Good.”  I wrap her wounds again; they’re healing cleanly, not a trace of infection.  Indeed, the only real concern is the greenish cast of her skin and those dead-white nails; she’s got a pretty good case of anemia, but I’ve seen worse.

I step out of the house and its sharp iodine smells to light myself a smoke.  I hear the door open and the Gaunt Woman clear her throat loudly behind me.

“Yes,” I say without turning, “we can move her tomorrow.”  I glance up towards the sun, confirming what my stomach already tells me, that it’s past time for lunch and I should feed it if I can.  I hear the woman grunt something noncommittal and stalk off to the kitchen while I finish the tobacco; soon I smell potatoes frying up in stapleseed oil.

I put my cigarette out and head off to forage.  She never invites me to lunch.



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