IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume V: Sharing Insanity


Chapter 34
Stopgap Measures


Tuesday, November 24, 2708

(Jake looks gaunt already.  It takes a lot of calories to maintain a man his size, especially in cold weather, and he has only now begun to eat, and that in small portions: clear broth, a few crackers, and some rosehip tea.  But our bit of early snow has mostly thawed already, and we seem to have a warmer spell ahead of us.

We finally got some quality sleep last night, going straight from the cafeteria to our dorms instead of the student lounge.  We don’t need to study anything that they have in a Toulin textbook.  So we woke in the darkness before dawn, quietly bundled up, and slipped out into the frosty night, our noses smarting with the cold, our breath in clouds before us.  Now we walk in step together, crunching across the frozen grass.

“We have to do it outside,” Jake says.  He carries the stinking, blood-stained rug rolled up under his arm, while all the school still slumbers.  The Changewright will miss it, but we’re past worrying about that.

“Okay, we’re out,” says Don, gazing up at a sky with pools of stars between the clouds.

“I mean outside the school.  Past the walls.  I know a servant’s gate.”  I squelch the irrational dread that I feel.  Looking at how Don pales, I know that he does the same.

And just like that, a little nervous squeal from the hinge, and we’re out, and suddenly I feel so free, so horribly free that I sink down to my knees in the frosted fallen leaves, and I sob my heart out.  Don slumps against the wall, tears running down his face, sighing, “Lisa!  Ohhhh Lisa!  How could I forget you?”  And Jake leans on his cane, hand pressed to his breast, feeling loops of the thread that I hold for him settling back into place.)

Maybe it’s just the mother-warmth of the quilts, the softness of the pillow, the gentle breathing of the girls beside me, but suddenly I feel reassured that everything’s going to be all right.

(“Come on,” Jake finally murmurs.  “Dry your eyes before they freeze.”  And he leads us on, out into the fragrant woods.  I long so achingly hard to see those leaves still fluttering above, these fallen ones about our feet between the last few drifts of snow, in the golden glory of daylight, but even at night they send up a sweetness, the scent of a graceful surrender to the balance of all things.  And I feel the goodness out here, so much goodness walled off and demonized.

Jake takes us downslope, up again over a little hill, and into a frozen, marshy space.  “We must do it here, upon their graves.”  I shiver harder than before “We must set free the spirits of the sacrificed.”  And he unfurls the rug, flapping like a flag in the wind before he turns it and spreads it out across the ground.  Outside I can see how big it is: a great square covering all of the odd lumps here and there that Jake has identified as the burial-places of everyone slain to tear open the rift.  “Randy, did you bring the compass that I asked for?”

“Of course,” I say.  “Due north is thataway.”  I point, and he aligns a carpet-corner to match.

“Don, you shall take the north, for you were born far north of where you grew up.  For the same reason I shall take the East, for though I came into being in a Western Continent, it lies east of Til.”  Really?  So he’s finally ready to reveal that much, is he?  But I’ve suspected for awhile.  “Randy, you were born in Til, but conceived west of it, so that’s your direction.”  Too much information, Jake!

“And the south?” I ask.

“It should have been Lisa’s.  But since she is not here, that shall have to go to Deirdre, due south of us.”

Don says, “You talk like Deirdre is here.”

“Yes,” I say, before Jake, even.  “Yes, Don, she is here.”)

“Yes,” I murmur.  “I am here.”  Then I wonder, feverishly, what’n’erth I’m talking about.  I lapse back into dreams of riding a magic carpet across the skies, majestically over the hills and mountains of the clouds.

But the carpet smells of death.  I look down and see the bloodstains on it—so many stains.  And I feel the ghosts that buoy me along, chained to its fabric.

“I must burn the Charadocian flag, every chance I get,” I say.  And I sense that the ghosts agree.

I feel the vertigo of the carpet spiraling down, down to the ground.  “Soon you must take your position,” Jake whispers in my ear.  But he’s not a ghost yet, is he?  Is he?

(We take our positions.  Jake lights up a cigarette, takes a deep pull, and blows it to the West.  “We start with the West,” he says, “the direction of the setting sun, the death direction, autumnal here, for the sake of those whose sun set too soon.  All our relations, we respect you, and invite you to help us undo the harm done.”  He nods and hands the cigarette to Don.

Don nods back.  He hesitates, then inhales smoke, holds back a cough, and blows it out to the north.  “To the north, in this continent the winter-direction, of education and reason taught by cold, hard objectivity.”  Good—he’s done his homework.  “All our relations, we respect you, and invite you to help us undo the harm done.”

My turn.  Let’s see if I can handle this oracle-warped fragment of an ancient rite, from the oldest part of the book that George and others marred.  I accept the cigarette from Don, inhale, and exhale to the East, feeling like I exhale my equilibrium with the smoke.  “To the East, the direction of the rising sun, of birth and rebirth—the direction honored, on the Old Planet, with the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ.  All our relations, fellow creatures of the same Creator, we respect you and invite you to help us undo the harm done.  In Jesus’ name.”  Who knows what the original might have said, before these troubled children messed with it?

Jake moves to the south.  “Come here, Randy, and send with me.”  I don’t “send”, but he holds out his hand and I take it anyway.  “Don, come behind us, and put your ringed hand on ours to lend us power.”)

The carpet reaches the ground.  I wake.  It’s still dark outside, but I absolutely have to have a smoke.  Zofia has not allowed me any.  I worm under the blankets to ease myself out at the foot of the bed, careful not to disturb the patients sharing it with me.  Then I rummage as quietly as I can in my pack, and tiptoe between the mats full of sleeping, wounded youths and maidens, out to the front porch.  But instead of lighting it, I just hold a cigarette in front of me, and face south.

(We are not telepaths.  But oracles engulf all gifts, and broken oracles can sometimes separate them out and use them.  I understand now.  Jake didn’t quite break, but he tore, and Deirdre filled that rift with the substance of her soul.  Jake can still link to her through that bond between them.  And now, for the duration of this mission, so can I.  Instead of psychic contact, though, I do what I do best, nudged somehow by Jake.  I send a tiny spark her way.)

The cigarette lights without a match of mine.  Of course.  I must still dream.  I inhale deeply, lovingly, and exhale to the south.  In the dream what I say next makes perfect sense.

“To the South, right now the place of battle and struggle, and way too many ghosts who won’t lay down their arms, I offer a breath of hope for peace to come.  All our relations, we respect you and invite you to help us heal the harm.”  Then a deep peace settles over me as I finish the cigarette, snub it out, and go back to continue this new dream in bed.

(Jake leads us to the center.  He positions Don to the north of the middle, and facing him from the south, lifts Don’s arms forward, to meet them with his own, touching fingertips to fingertips.  Now I stand in the middle between them.  “Pray, Randy.”

Huh?  Me?  Holy Spirit guide me!  “Uh...Heavenly Father, I ask, I mean...Oh this seems a really weird place to pray!” 

But Jake nods me on.  I hang my head, staring down at the bloodstained rug, shuddering at all that has happened on it, glad I’m not a barefoot psychometrist.  “D-dear God, you know what sinners we are, every one of us, and what stinking sins have happened here in Toulin.  But you have it in your power to heal all sins, soothe back all temptations, and medicine the wounds that we have caused ourselves, if we but ask.”  My healing wounds itch on my back and shoulder.  “None of us stand out as better or worse—you know us all, and all our hearts.  I…I don’t even know if I want to repent, and I don’t always know what is or is not a sin, but never mind that, I want to want whatever you want, if that is any help.”  More strongly, I find myself saying, “Even if we can only open the door to you a crack, we count on your greater strength to open it the rest of the way!  Well, something has cracked, that’s for sure, and it’s letting in the wrong stuff altogether, so I’m saying right here that we invite You in through a little fissure of our own, so that you can fix it—for the sake of everybody, man and beast and whatever, in all the worlds, and past and future all at once.  Heck, you can understand stuff like that better than I can, anyway.  So Thy will be done!”  I take a deep breath.  “Amen.”  And Jake and Don drop their arms.  I notice that the sky has begun to lighten, and the birds begun to sing.

Jake smiles and says, “We have one more thing to do.  I’m sure none of you will miss this.”  And he pulls out the last bottle of that hideous moonshine brewed in the lab’s back room—about as close to pure alcohol as kids can render.  He pungently douses every bit of the rug that he can with it, as we step off.  “All our relations,” he says as he does so, “witness this purification.  Hold back anything foul that might try to escape, till the flames consume them and make them naught.  But let the souls pinned here go free.  And then, when the fire dies, feel free, yourselves, to go about your business.  Randy, will you do the honors?”

“Gladly,” I say, and ignite the rug.

Blue flames swirl and ripple up and down the fabric.  Wool’s hard to burn, but I keep giving the fire a nudge wherever it threatens to go out.  The light grows and grows, so that every so often I can look up and take in the increasing glory of the last incredible fiery colors left among the trees.  Thank you Jesus.

When nothing remains but ash, we turn back towards the school.  “We shall all be tardy,” Don remarks.

Jake smiles.  “Good.  That’s good for our reputations.”

I say, “I can hardly wait to see what detentions we get this time.”  But Jake soon frowns.  “Are you okay?” I ask him.

“Close enough,” he says.  Then, after a few steps, he adds, “Yet reality is not.”      Suddenly I remember that a child died under mysterious circumstances, buried within the walls.  “Corey,” I breathe.  “We forgot Corey.” 

Jake shakes his head.  “I’m not even sure we could free him.  I’m not sure he wants freed.”  His brows knit, straining to put together what his vision wants to tell him.  “We patched things together a bit, but the stitches already begin to pull apart again.  We haven’t gotten to the root cause.”  Then he turns to Don.  “If anything happens to me, if I can’t do it, try to find out what ol’ Weatherbent is hiding.”)

Mmmmm—morning.  I don’t think I’ll take any classes today; I’m going to tell Archives to cancel all my plans and then I’ll take a hike, maybe around Twin Springs Hill—I like the country up there, where the Sweet Memory River chuckles down a dozen merry waterfalls, and birds fly through the rainbows for the cleansing feel of the spray.  I wonder if Jesse will want to join me?

No, Jesse’s dead—long dead and he can’t join me.  I remember now, how I’d sponged the sweat from his brow while he fought to survive the neural change that would make us all like gods, we thought.  But all it made him was dead.  I remember his raving towards the end, all day and all night long, as he got thinner and thinner, more like a skeleton than a boy, before my own turn came.

Still hazy with sleep, I watch some insect buzzing in the air above me.  My hand darts out and snatches it from the air faster than a snake could strike.  Yep—that much was no dream.  I really do have “superhuman” reflexes—for whatever that’s worth.  I look at what I caught before releasing the bug.  A flying beetle with metallic green wings, marked with eyelike spots in black and gold—didn’t I dream something about watching eyes, too?  I remember seeing this beetle in a book.  Native to the Charadoc, it produces a kind of honey useful for...

Native to the Charadoc.

I sit up in bed.  That’s it—the bed threw me off.  It’s been so long since I last slept a whole night in one that I thought myself back at Til for a moment.  Real sheets, real pillows, mattress soft beneath me, yielding to my every move.  I used to sleep like this at home.

Snap out of it, Deirdre.  You’re an agent.  You have no home.

I look around me at all the young people curled up on whatever bedding Zofia could improvise, bandaged and pale.  Someone whimpers in her sleep; another murmurs “Mama!” while he tosses blindly on a mat.  God.  What happened last night?

The smell of coffee sends an invitation on the air.  I wriggle out of the bed by an under-blanket route between two wounded girls, with a weird feeling that I’ve done this before, then I step gingerly around my fellow patients to find the outhouse and the wash-house, grab a quick smoke, then stumble nearly awake to breakfast.  Is that porridge that I smell cooking?

(Gotta hurry back and tend to breakfast—is that the smell of porridge burning?)

(Sitting for breakfast, I smile to hear the clap of Kimba playing patty-cake with Raif.  I wish I did have a patted-out cake, perhaps of oats, but on another level I’m glad that we now have what we do.

“Cold cabbage makes a poor breakfast, but the last of the almond-butter makes it almost palatable,” Cybil says as she serves us leaves spread with the rich brown stuff, rolled up into little bluegreen wraps. 

When she bends to me I murmur, “You’re doing Kimba a world of good, you know.”

“Really?”  She dimples and blushes.  “I was afraid that the cabbage would harm her, but we had nothing else.”

“It concentrates arsenic in the soil, but when grown in arsenic-free ground it can also leach it out of the body.”)

Thin porridge, but Zofia has stirred in the last of her nut-butter to make it taste like more.  Around a crowd of mostly improvised tables sit the survivors of  my newly blended crew.   Raggedy lot.  I sit back and sip coffee while they tell me of yesterday’s debacle, and I explain how to wear down a stone caltrop to look like nobody chipped it into shape.  After inquiries I distribute guns to the best shots among them, saving none for myself.  I then sit to educate the rest on the ugly art of improvising weaponry.  They’re troopers—they’ll pull it together.  But we have to get more equipment, soon—if a business as big as I think is brewing should come down on us.

(Lufti’s a real trooper.  Sick as he is, crazy and all, he pulled himself together enough to drill me on the reading of one name—Aliso.  I stir the popping, bubbling mess before me; only the bottom scorched a little; it’ll be all right, with nuts thrown in to balance off that burnt taste—do we have almonds?   Burnt almond’s a treat in itself.)

I’ll have to risk whistling to Kiril for supplies, since Nayal at least succeeded in delaying her troop.  The soldiers still travel alone; I don’t think any Purple Mantles have moved near enough yet to overhear us in short range.

No...don’t take the chance, not this close.   Maybe I should steal in for a personal visit, if I can swing it—that’ll be hard, though, with Kiril in the sergeant’s tent.  I’ll have to slide in as silent as a snake.

(Aliso.  A-L-something-something-O.  “S” was in there somewhere—that’s the one that looks and sounds like a snake.  Sssssss.  Lufti’ll go over it all again later, next chance we get.  In the meanwhile, I’d better get this chow out for that bunch of hungry men.)

No, I’d better not risk that.  I wish she could read—I could slip a note into her cooking-pots and slither out again with no one else the wiser.  Tomorrow they’ll hit the road again and so should we.  I sigh; I’m going to miss the refuge of Zofia’s farm.  But I need more than supplies—I need intelligence.

(Lufti wants me to steal any papers with that name on it, so he can read them, and then, if possible, get the word out to Deirdre.  He says that Cyran wants to hear anything we learn about Aliso.)

I know that General Aliso’s on the move, but where?  By what route?  On what schedule?  With what strength?  I need to know!

Zofia has plans of her own, leading out her plowhorse.  “You can ride Steddy, Deirdre, while the others march, but don’t do anything more than that till the aching stops.  Otherwise you’ll have a relapse nastier than before.  Just pace the enemy for now, okay?

“Who am I to argue?  You’re the boss.”

She glances back through the kitchen door, at all the wounded who can’t rise to table, while their comrades carry in bowls of porridge to spoon into those who at least can eat.  “Can you try not to send anyone else into battle either, at least for a day or two?  I’ve got all the patients I can handle.”

“I’ll see what I can do.  But that goes beyond your authority, Zofia.”  I sigh and say, “Tell me what you know of this bug I picked up—what can I expect?”

“We call it Draggin’ Fever...”

“Dragon Fever?”

“It drags you down, makes life wearisome.”  Oh yeah.  Now I remember.  “You can expect plenty of good days, mind you, but some days every move’ll feel like wading through mud up to your neck.  Don’t worry—people get used to feeling tired all the time.  You learn to push on.  Some days, though, when the fever spikes, you’ll do best to stay in bed.”

Fun.  “Any cure, Zofia?”  Every so often herbalists come up with stuff not in the books—I can hope.

“Heard of one.  Not for our kind, though.  Expensive.”  I feel relief—Til Institute can afford any treatment available for their agents, eventually, when I hook back up with them again.  Then I feel guilty for my good fortune—had I really, truly merged with this people, Zofia would’ve just announced my life sentence.

She picks up a weathered herbal, unaware that she holds it upside down.  “Katya brought this over.  I can study the pictures, and she’ll tell me what they mean, just like her mother did for her.  They say that her grandmother could read.”  She lays the book down with reverence, caressing the water-warped ridges of the cover.  “Katya has no children of her own, and she’s past the age of bearing, so she might as well teach me.”

(You know the shame of it?  I’m going to memorize how to read this enemy lady’s name, and I can’t even read my own.)



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