IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume V: Sharing Insanity


Chapter 49

The Burning


 

Friday, December 4, 2708

Oh, they are well and truly lost!  And we along with them.

See, it’s all well and good to trap the enemy in the bramble-lands, but now we have to flank them through the worst of it.  And it will get trickier as the canyon walls close in on us.  My arms ache from lifting Luft’s stretcher over the same thorns that tear my clothes and skin to rags; I long to strap him to my back, but his raw legs can’t straddle me.

“He sang to me of honey for a dance in moonlit rain,” the boy says conversationally; fortunately we’re far enough out now that his hoarseness will not carry.  “You shouldn’t hold hands when you dance with the dead, but she only lost the one and the melon ripens sweetly like a sad song swelling in the throat.  Stars flashed off the hooves when I rode across the sky; no bandit could keep up with me.  For I have learned to steal their strength and hide in trees.  His parents weren’t so fortunate; I saw two graves.”  I shake my head to hear him, and find that my neck aches, too.

(“He sang to me of honey for a dance in moonlit rain,” I feel my lips murmur, as I hold my arms out for George to measure me.  “Yet our scratches burn and the sun grows hot and the berries all are green.”  I frown at the faint rainbows churning in the finish of the antique sewing-machine; the smell of old death seems to spread through it smokily, corrupting it.  I lower my arms and ask him, “Did you drug the coffee or was it the tobacco?”

“I don’t remember, now.  It was a long time ago.  Does it matter?”

“I suppose not.”  And suddenly I can’t seem to help but lurch against his shoulder.

“Here; you’re not used to it.  Sit down.”  And he helps me to an armchair, grunting against my weight.  Thank God he didn’t make me sit on the bed!

“I ‘spose it’s better me than you right now if you...oh wait.  You had the same thing.”

“I don’t remember what I put in either the tobacco or the coffee.”  He laughs.

I shake my finger at both of him.  “You shouldn’t have anything like that!  George, you just escaped the infirmary!”

He shrugs.  “I forgot.”  Then, seriously, he leans close to me and says, “Jake, it’s only vision if you interpret it.  We’ve got to figure out what...whatever your words mean.”

I feel a headache coming on; I wave away his hands.  “You idiot,” I mumble.  “Oracles don’t need drugs to have visions.”  And now my stomach feels increasingly uneasy.

“Maybe in other lands, at other times.  But work that involves all worlds and all times needs something extra.”

And the hair on my neck stands on end.)

We make good time, all things considered, since we take straight routes and the army has to wind to squeeze their oxen through.  Not that we take the lead by any means; it’s all we can do to keep up, starting out as soon as they sleep and continuing on well into daylight.  And I must maintain my spirits at any cost to keep them going on, to inspire my crew though their scratches burn and the sun grows hot and the berries all are green.

(“Honey...” I muse, trying to find my balance-point within whatever George did to me.  “I get a sense of young love...moonlight, that’s for the feminine.  Invited to a dance with the feminine, in the fecundating rain...”

“But instead we burn...”

“Yes.  We burn.  Men are sunshine on leaves when we work with the feminine, but hot and arid all by ourselves.  Scratchy.  Like this uniform.  Uncomfortable in our skins.”

“And without us the feminine grows cold and sterile, and the berries cannot ripen.”

I shake my head, trying to clear it enough to think rationally.  “But the masculine—it’s not the kind of masculinity that hates the feminine.”

“The rape and pillaging kind, the way of conquering armies and...and pirates.  No, you’re right.”

I think of monasteries, of all-male armies and outposts, the rigid rules, the fear of turning savage without the strictest discipline.  “It’s the kind of masculinity that fears itself.”)

Sometimes, in dizzy moments, when my blood slows down and the miles and hours ache in me, I fear myself.  What am I doing?  What do I become?  I know what stimulants can do to people over time; I’ve read all about it, mandatory reading in the classes of my youth.

But then I grew up. Then I went out into the world and found out just how different the actual experience of life can be beyond Til Institute and the safe, regulating walls of academia.  So much of what I learned seems naive now, useless against the savage edge of reality.

And those textbooks about the price of drug use don’t reckon in my altered neurology.  Who knows how different the effect might be?  So far it hasn’t turned me into a monster yet.  It hasn’t, has it?  No, of course not.  I still love.  I still...I don’t know what, but I’m not a monster, I can’t be if all these kids look up to me and depend on me and don’t have any hope without me flogging myself on and on for them.

Except for being damned.

Now there’s a prime example of a stupid, drugged-out thought!  Which proves that I’m not adversely affected, since I can accept it and reject it and anyway I know that all such doubts will melt with my long overdue next leaf.  And...here we are.  I don’t even have to let go of the stretcher to lean over and nibble the plant, stretching high to try and grow beyond the brambles.

Tanjin spies me!  But he keeps his face as neutral as a servant and just holds up a waterskin.

            “Yes please,” I say, and open my mouth to let him squirt in a stream.  Yeah, he’s right.  I needed that.  And no misbegotten boy who drove his mother to suicide has any business judging me, anyway.

            (“Drink water,” I tell George.  “You’ve punished your body enough; you need to flush it out...”  But then I’m the one who winds up running to the john, and it’s George who brings me water.  “Must’ve been in the coffee,” I gasp after gulping down the cold stuff, tasting slightly sulfurish from years untapped in the cistern.  “Drink some of that yourself,” I admonish him.  “You need to...”

            “I know, I know!”

“I hope you also know that I’m not going to let you out of my sight till I’m sure you’re free of danger.”  I sound almost like Randy when I say it, and giggle despite my wooziness.

“Oh, I’m counting on it.)

Ohhh yeah.  Sweet bitterness!  I can keep going indefinitely this way—can the enemy?  And isn’t that what lovequest is all about?  Service without rest?  Without reckoning the cost, just doing whatever you have to to keep on doing to...to whatever needs done.  The kids need me.  Nothing else matters.

But then my ghosts crowd close around me, shadows flickering between seen and unseen, suffocating my spirit, stopping the very scream in my throat before I can utter it, tangling my movement more than the thorns, till I...

“Don’t drop me, Deirdre,” Lufti says from the stretcher.  “I see them, too.  I’ll fend off the ghosts.”

And I pull myself together, and I keep on, mile after scratchy, maddening mile.  Doesn’t that prove that I’m still in control, here?

(Visions pummel me then, flash after flash: a young bard braving beestings to win a treat for his love; a neighborhood of telepathically linked lunatics dancing down the rain; a crowd of ghosts, led by a teen who died with her baby undelivered, converging on a boy, forcing him to dance between bullets...I grip the dusty arms of the chair.  “Too much, George,” I gasp.  “Still too much, on an empty stomach.”

“Congruity,” he says.  “She doesn’t eat.”  Whoever he talks about, I know that he means more than one “she”.)

Discovery!  We can make better time crawling underneath the brambles, here where they grow leggy, trying to rise above each other.  Animals have a whole warren of tunnels that children and lean adults can worm through.  We still have to sometimes hack them wider but at least we have openings to widen.  It’s cooler down here, though still prickly as hell in a bad mood.  But why shouldn’t it be?  What doesn’t feel prickly anymore?

Tanjin squeezes up beside me to try and give me bread, but I pass it on up to Lufti, who crawls ahead of me, since the stretcher won’t fit, but he doesn’t need the ability to walk down here.

“I know what it’s like to feel no need for food,” says Lufti.  “But don’t try to be a goddess, Deirdre; it’s too much work.”

“Just keep crawling and let me worry about me.”

 

Saturday, December 5, 2708

Now!  Recklessly I shrill her signal—let any Purple Mantle among the soldiers shiver with fear in the moonless night for all the good it’ll do him.  I watch from a tree as my soldier runs zigzagging right into camp and hurls an arc of sparks clear to the tent they’d pitched on the highest ground.  Two more molotovs follow in seconds, even as the uncaged pigeons flee, some of them on fire.  The explosions nearly drown out the gunfire, but I watch the blood fountain from the vantage of my perch.  It doesn’t stop her yet; she splashes out a fan of flammable liquid that kindles in midair, laughing as two soldiers grab her.  Then she wriggles free while one man sinks cursing to the ground in his own blood-pool and the other tries to staunch the wound.

Now, by her bloody knife, she rips up a rag of burning canvas for her hellish flag and staggers from tent to tent, exceeding her instructions, before more soldiers run out, all gunning for her at once.  She shouldn’t still run with so many wounds, but she keeps on like the Bard’s Uncle Simon till finally, her skirt now on fire, she throws her ragged body onto the camp standard and screams with laughter as the flames leap up her chosen stake to devour the Charadocian flag.

I climb back down the tree, cautious to keep to the firelight’s shadow.  She had kissed my hand, weeping with gratitude for my “mercy”.  Only two nights past her brothers dragged her to me, stripped bare her arms to show me all the tracks on them, and demanded her execution as they threw her to the ground.  As Tulipita sprawled there, her splayed arms barely propping her face up from the dirt, they spat out so many cusswords that I could hardly understand the contents of their rant: that they had traced back the betrayal of Nayal’s band to her, that she’d sold them all out for drugs.

She should never have come back, they said, not after mustering out, ditching her boyfriend right before he died in battle.  She should never have come back to seek redemption.  I remember how the tears poured down her mask of a face, like some part of her felt them and some part did not, but she didn’t deny a thing.  That’s when I stayed up all night thinking hatred through my magentine.

I don’t care how damned I may be, I don’t do executions.  (Kief was an accident, I swear!)  She leaped at the chance at a final mission to redeem herself, even knowing the cost.  I made her brothers give me her works and the last of her morphine, and I rationed it to her generously, considering that it only had to last a few days.  In reparation, she said, she went without food, the better to spare the rest of us; she said that hunger didn’t bother her anymore.  I sigh and glance back at the burning camp.  I’m sure she didn’t feel a thing.

I wish I didn’t.  The last leaf wears off fast, so that the past few days weigh on me like the sky collapsed onto my shoulders.  I have got to get some rest, at least tonight.

Carefully I make my roundabout way back to our latest base, till the frantic cries of soldiers and the beating of the flames gives way to insects and the soft night sounds.  A good night’s work, destroying their communications like that, right when they feel most lost and alone.  Execution—what a waste!

(“What’s wrong, Jake?”  I ask myself that, as well.  No more drugs; I sweated them out last night.  Today I just feel empty.  “...and yet full of an ocean,”  When did I start talking out loud?  “An ocean of tears.”  I draw George into my arms, desperately holding on.  “The world needs so many tears, and yet I cannot weep!”

George returns my embrace, murmuring, “Maybe you’re right.  Maybe oracles don’t need drugs.:  He starts to kiss me, but I push him away. 

“I’m not the one for you,” I say, “and you are not for me.”

He stares at me like I wounded him, but then he nods, and goes back to sewing patches of leather to each other.  And I sit there feeling dizzy from hunger in this foodless house, yet terrified to leave him alone.)

I am not a monster.  I do only what I must.  I am not a monster.



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