IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume V: Sharing Insanity


Chapter 41
The Orphan School


Sunday, November 29, 2708, continued

We’re late.  Oh lord, just look at the angle of the sun!  And I can’t even hear the most distant edge of the rumble of the tanks.  We have fallen so far behind!

I’m sure the soldiers will have settled in nicely before we can reach them tomorrow; no chance of catching them in the first chaos of their merging.  Tanjin should never have allowed me to sleep a day and a night away like that!  Ai, but every ache in my body wants to thank him and ask for more.

(Why has our chaplain convened a service so late in the day?  I like punctuality in my staff and my faculty. Look at how the boys fidget and joke among themselves, made antsy by having had the morning all at odds.  It doesn’t do to leave young people with unstructured time.  Who knows how much mischief the boys have managed to get into?)

(I must say we make a pretty target.  Who knows what mischief the rebels will get into before these roosters have finished crowing about their “show of force”?)

 (Sleeping in is all very well for the rest of the week, when Pastor Jean has no scheduled classes to attend, only the odd counseling of wayward or unhappy boys, but on Sunday I expect him to pull himself together and set a good example.   Ah, but he looks dreadful, though, and his hands shake where he grips the pulpit.  He stumbles on the readings, his eyes red and bleary, trying to bring the prayer-book into focus.  Oh dear.  I fear that his...difficulties...might finally begin to dissolve his ability to perform his office.

I should send him away for treatment.  But that would mean bringing in an outsider in his place, someone who doesn’t understand our school.  I can’t afford to do that at a time like this.)

            I shouldn’t have sent so many back to Zofia.  I can’t afford to coddle minor injuries with an escalation like this.  I certainly don’t coddle myself.

            Don’t think like that, Deirdre.  A small stealth-team can do more damage, in situations like this, than a full-force but still outnumbered open confrontation.  Don’t get angry at the kids for doing as you ordered them to do yourself.

I take a deep breath and scan the skies.  The wind picks up, sweeping away our clear skies and blowing in the sort of raggedy, mottled clouds that scout for rain to come—look at how they spread overhead, white and blue.  The storm should hit in a day or two.

          (Something brews in the dark-haired agent, Jaquar.  I can feel it like a dark, cold cloud, filling up the chapel.  But he glares with fire when I glance his way.  Something has happened…a congruity?  No, the temptation of a congruity…no!  What am I thinking?

Put such vapors aside, man!  You have a school to run.)

(We reach the school late in the day.   St. Bosco's, Reno says it's called, or was called, or whatever.

The cafeteria means I don’t have to set up field-mess, so I wander the grounds, like countless children before me.  Classrooms—oh God forgive me for envying the dead!  God help me remember how dearly they paid for learning how to read.  But am I always going to camp in classrooms, never to study in one?

Men throng the halls--I have never seen so many soldiers in my life!  Big ones, small ones, brown or pale or black or Asiatic ones, or mixtures like Deirdre and Rashid.  They quarter in every single room, and more camp out upon the playing field.  They put things up and tear things down, they dig and pile rocks, they haul great loads from place to place, they herd oxen, they service jeeps and...tanks.  I stop dead in my tracks, my blood run cold.)

          (And suddenly it comes back to me, making me drop the hymnal.  All the students, all the teachers, stare at me as I stoop to pick it up.  No, I only imagine that they do.

I did not imagine how Father glared at me in just the same way as Jake, after the…incident.  I remember and oh dear God I wish I didn’t.  God, God, or whatever power can do this for me, take these memories away from me!

I hold the hymnal in trembling hands, but I can’t sing, I just move my mouth to make it look as though I do, with all the other voices drowning out whatever whisper chokes within my throat.  I think that Father suspected something, but I never knew for sure.  We never talked about it.  How could we?)

(But these tanks don’t move; no fire shoots from their long, thin snouts.  Still, I start to shiver and hope that no one notices.  Too many unhappy memories.  I wish I had somebody to talk to!  But Deirdre and the rest must be miles away right now, and Lufti’s out of his mind, and I can’t even half-talk to Reno anymore.)

We never talk about Kiril anymore.  How can we, suspecting what I must?  The grief that she might have betrayed us weighs on me, at least as much as these miles do, even on Steddy’s back, gently jolting me with step after step, my spine aching from the sheer weight of holding me up.

She escaped to visit us, once, bringing food.  And then she went back.  She went back.  And they have cherished and pampered her ever since. I have watched the soldiers making much of her, grimaces turning to grins of relief whenever she shows up.  Her very presence comforts them when we need to wear them down.

And the road wears me down, too.  “Whoa,” I say softly to Steddy, and the placid beast stands still.  I take off into the woods.  Let my children believe that I answer the call of nature.  In a sense I do, for my nature needs succor from the parasites in my blood.

I glance around to make sure that nobody sees me.  I listen carefully, acute to every rustle.  Only then do I sample the bitter leaf that grows so generously in the Midlands.  No need to worry Tanjin or the rest about my unfitness to keep up.

There.  Better.  Deep breath.  No need to feel guilty about medicine for chronic fatigue.  It’s sort of like the drugs prescribed for narcolepsy...except that she never resorted to...she?  Who or what am I thinking about?  I lean against a tree, dizzy, trying to get a firm grip on the renewed energy.

Ah, but I do sense you out there, o shadow of my shadow, jotting down my every move, judging me or pitying or me or feeling revulsion at the things I give you to record.  Whoever you are, wherever whenever whatever IF ever, say that I tried.  Write that down.  I have pushed and pushed and pushed as hard as I can against the lead-heavy currents of grinding, eroding exhaustion, but people need me no less no matter how sick I get.  Do you, whatever you are, have any idea what that’s like?  Just, please, record that I’ve tried.  Document it!  But I still need the leaf to move forward.

         ( I have tried to be a gentleman ever since.  A gentle man.  A kind and suitable headmaster.  That one time, long ago—but no, call it a learning curve, a mistake soon over, call it anything you want.  I learned to avoid temptation.  I learned to become the opposite of a pirate.  I could have sailed all the world’s oceans, if I wanted to seek evil.  Instead I imprison myself here, and treat the boys as kindly as I can.

What does Jaquar suspect?  His sort have uncanny powers.  The very purpose of him, the justification for his instability, the thing that’s supposed to make him vital to this, this “mission” that my poor school has become, is how he can perceive beyond the rest of us.

Jaquar, please!  I was just a boy!)

(He’s just a boy.  George Winsall doesn’t know what he plays at.  He can’t.  Greater forces use him.  And he’s too young to make such awful choices.

It is up to us, the adults, to choose better, no matter how much the young desire worse.  They really don’t know what worse means.)

Master of myself again, I shove off from the tree to rejoin my horse.  The revolution needs all the adults it can get.

Acuity rushes back even as I climb back into the saddle, ripping through the clouds of fatigue, opening up vistas for all the senses and then some—vast, bright and cold, as cold-bright as green fire.  Steddy’s motion tells me volumes about the earth he treads, each tremor of a leaf glimmers in my understanding, and the wind blows past and future through my hair.  And all misgivings burn away.

            (There.  There.  The memory fades back again.  I sing the comforting hymns of forgiveness and salvation, letting go, anchored once more in the here and now.  Only the present moment matters in the long run, and in that present moment I have children who need my calm and leadership.)

            Hekut looks pinched, scowling at the road ahead like he’d throttle it, but I see how he limps.  He’s just a boy.  They’re all just boys and girls, and I have pushed them too hard.

            “Halt,” I say, “and set up camp.”  I’ll want them fresh for tomorrow.  “I’ll take watch.”  I dismount and tend to Steddy, taking special care to set his saddlebags down verrry carefully.  Smart of Tanjin to pick up the molotovs.  Another property of hydrogen peroxide is that, undiluted, it makes quite a good explosive.  We’d have needed them even if the enemy didn’t have tanks.  I should have thought of it myself.

            (Tanks.  Really.  Row upon row of giant phallic symbols to make the other generals feel like men.  Overgrown boys with spiffy toys—they think that with enough brute force they won’t need strategy, but I’ve seen too many of these man-cans turn into death traps from the rebels’ homemade bombs.

            I have offered them strategy, and they have despised me for it.  Conniving, they’ve called it behind my back, sneaky and cowardly and deceitful.  (Ah, but this little sneak has gotten very good at finding out what others don’t mean for me to hear.)  If they’d actually read the Art of War they’d know that war is always about deceit.

            Or maybe strategy only looks that way if it comes from me.)

            I watch Tanjin struggle to help with setting up our shelters.  His arm withers more every day; it’s work to keep it bent to a rifleman’s angle, no more, no less.  I see the frustration in his young face, the body-memory of what he used to do with ease pushing again and again against the new normal.  I see the others look on him with pity...and a little frustration of their own.

Knowledge trumps disability.  I want to train him in every aspect of leadership, so that nobody will ever have cause to call him a liability.

“Tanjin,” I say, “Come over here.”

((The chapel bell rings and everyone lays aside their work.  A sea of olive-clad bodies sweeps me up as we all march off to Mass

“Kiril?  Where’d you run off to?  Kiril!”

“Here, Daddy-Sarge!”

“Don’t you go running off like that, girl.”  He grips my hand hard and drags me to the church.  “Some of these men are dangerous.”)

“Look at the side of the road,” I tell Tanjin.  “what do you notice, here at the edge?”

“Boot prints,” he says.

“But not as evenly stamped as in the main road.  What does that tell you?”

He thinks a moment.  I school myself to patience; he’s just getting started.  “That not everybody marches in step?”

“Bingo.  And what does that tell you?”

More thought.  Then he smiles like a sudden dawn.  “They haven’t had time to train all their recruits properly!”

“Bingo again.  Such men are dangerous—but to both sides.”

(Soldiers lean their weapons outside the chapel door.  It would be so easy to pick them off inside a church, if we had no fear of God, if we did the same as they do.  The last light of the day floods in through stained glass saints and angels, painting that sea of olive to a wealth of other colors.  Michael the Archangel frowns menacingly over his sword, St.  Stephen raises the stone that slew him like he’d throw it back.  Do ghosts follow us into Church?

Lufti looks almost like a ghost, over there with Reno, off to one side with the other wounded, but Sarge holds me tight and won’t let me join them.  So I sit beside Sarge like a proper little girl, folding my hands and kneeling when I should, standing to sing the songs that both sides know.  Onward Christian Soldiers, Marching as to War.  Before I know it the priest prays over bread and wine and men start rising from their pews to take their places in line.  But I catch Reno staring at me from across the church--I can’t get up off my knees, not with him watching me like that.

“Kiril?  You coming?”

I shake my head.  I can’t speak words.  How can I confess when I’ve been bad, very very bad, but I don’t know which things I’ve done are wrong?

He bends down to my ear and hisses, “You join me right now, young lady!  Do you want the men to think I did something unnatural?”  So I let him haul me to my feet and push me up in front of him, and I fold my hands before me, feeling like I’m gonna faint any step now, as we shuffle closer and closer till suddenly the priest feeds me the Body of Christ, he puts it right in my mouth just like Sarge would, I never thought I’d hate it for people to make me eat but I do, I do, I do!  I hurry past the cup of Jesus’ blood, but lots of people don’t take that, not just me, but if I did partake I’d have gulped it down like common wine so I don’t dare even try.

On the long walk back I can see Reno glaring; I bite my lip to keep from crying.  He’s got so much hate in his eyes that he desecrates the chapel just by standing there.  But not at me; he’s got his eyes fixed higher up than me--I’ve seen enough men with hate in their eyes raise arms to shoot that I’m good at gauging where they aim.  It’s Sarge that he glares at.)

I can feel Zeb and Rozhen glare holes in the back of my head as I set up my roost in the trees to keep watch, while the night falls by gradual degrees around us like a mood.  The daylight birds chirp themselves to sleep as the bats come out to eat the increasingly noisy insects.  I slap a mosquito halfheartedly.  How come all the worst bugs of Earth had to be the most persistent stowaways?  I would have liked to’ve seen a butterfly.

“Won’t you come down and eat something, Deirdre?” Tanjin coaxes.

“I’m not hungry.”

“Could you try anyway?”

I look down on him.  “Tell Hekut to saddle up Steddy first thing in the morning and ride him back to Zofia.  I’m feeling better.”

“But Deirdre...”

“Don’t argue with your commanding officer.  We can’t keep a horse with us on the roads that will face us soon.  We’ll have to go back to traveling light.  And by the way, you’re coming with me tomorrow on a scouting expedition.”
            He stares at me for a moment.

“Are you up to it?” I say with a little edge in my voice.

“Of course,” he says, and goes to convey my orders.  I sigh.  At last he will leave me in the wordlessness and darkness, with my dead.

          (Cut them dead.  That’s what my charm school teacher used to say to do to someone who has breeched the rules unforgivably.  I walk past the other generals, pure ice, the moon could not be colder.  They’re all one-stars, like me, no salute required, certainly none given.

          “Layne,” one calls out.  A quick glare and I’m on my way.

          “General Aliso!”  I pivot and give a precise salute, since they expect one, despite our supposed equality, and then move on.

          I hear steps run behind me.  Good.  Let the fool lose dignity.  I shall not.  I do not turn my head at the man keeping pace with me.  I feel the soldiers stare.  Good.

          “Layne.  I didn’t mean to abandon you like that.  The message came too late.”

          I deign to speak, clearly as ice, without turning my head to him.  “You were there when I presented my plan.  You agreed to it.  I remember.”

          “Way back then?  Well yes, but I didn’t think you still intended to…”

          “Did I send you any message saying that I had changed my mind?”

          “No, but it seemed so farfetched that…”

          “It would have worked!”  I stop before I know that I’ve stopped, and I glare at him.  “If everyone who had pretended to agree actually sent their troops where they agreed to send them, it would have worked.”  And now every soldier on the base within hearing range has stopped to stare.  Fine!  “Good men died because you and the other officers failed to back me up.”  Why shouldn’t the soldiers know that it wasn’t my fault?  And so I leave him standing there, searching for a reply, as I head off for my quarters.

          It has a bath, my quarters.  God.  I can’t remember when I last had an actual bath.  I still have a bit of honeysuckle soap stashed in my gear.  And after that, a soothing herbal tea, and early bed.  I might even skip supper, just to be quit of this day.

         No.  The men need to see me.  They mustn’t believe me taken to my bed, defeated and weeping into my pillow.  The bath and tea will have to wait.)



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