IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume V: Sharing Insanity
Sunday, December 13, 2708
(“It’s a day of rest, dammit—so rest! What are you even doing out of bed?”
I wonder that, myself, the way I feel. “Fixing lunch, Daddy Sarge.”
“Doc said you can’t have anything but...”
“I know that.” God, do I know that! “It’s for the troop.” I feel queasy staring into the bubbling gravy and all the bits of meat and vegetable roiling around in the mess. The last thing I want to smell is food!
“Awww, honey, you shouldn’t have! Here, let me help you back to bed.” I really, really want to lie down. But first I pour the stew into the tureen whose insides I rubbed thoroughly the day before yesterday with cheese omelette, with unwashed hands after picking at the pimples on my face. I remember Cook’s warnings very well.
I lay my hand on Sarge’s arm when he puts it around me. “Don’t let my work go to waste, Daddy Sarge. It’s a good stew.”
“I’m sure it is. You haven’t cooked a bad meal yet.” And we go back to the tent.
I was so scared yesterday that somebody’d come across that tureen left out in the sun and put it away for me. But nobody noticed all day; they spent their time in double patrols, remembering the last time we had to stay too long in one place.
“Here, Sweetie, you lie quiet, now. I’ll make sure that everybody gets a bowl of your wonderful stew.”
“Thank you, Daddy Sarge.”)
* * *
(It’s not the most wonderful of stews, this mix of squirrel-meat, mushrooms, and tough autumn herbs that Courtney and Apollo went out and got for us, but it has no poison in it. I slip into Belen’s room as the morning sun slants in as dusty rays, and spoon it into her mouth, bit by bit. Her eyes stare up moistly into mine. When we finish the bowl she grips my wrist with a clawlike hand, and whispers, “Thank you!”)
* * *
(Hulda totters out, carrying the tureen, but she doesn’t mutter anymore. Her hair hangs lank in the vacant eyes. She can barely shuffle. She puts the bowl upon the table, steaming off its smell of chicken and turnips. She blinks at it, trembling, not knowing what to do next. A tall young girl in the mollcap and uniform of a scullion comes out and fetches her, taking her by the arm. Same as always, except…
High cheekbones. Thin hips. One black curl escapes the moll-cap on the brow. Buck-toothed. The breasts look fake, rags stuffed into a bra. And George always did have a weak chin.
I signal the others to slip out with me. Randy grabs a roll on the way out into the bone-cold campus under an overcast sky.)
* * *
I had no idea that Kief could fly! We dance together like ravens in the air, soaring and dipping and swooping down over the forest, veering through dangerous curves, laughing like children as we tumble through the skies, intoxicated on the speed of flight.
“Bet you didn’t realize we had so much in common,” he says, taking my hand as we execute a barrel-roll together. We follow a white arrow on the ground below us to where Kiril hides. But when I see her my jaw drops; she has always been a scrawny thing, but now she’s become positively skeletal!
I grab her by the shoulders and cry, “What have you done to yourself?”
“You’re the one in command,” Kief says behind me as he lights upon the ground. “You should know.” I turn to him and watch the blood flower from his chest, see the trickle from his laughing mouth. “I expected this from you, Deir...”
I wake up with a gasp, sitting up so fast it makes the shelter spin.
“She’s awake,” Tanjin calls out to the others from where he kneels beside me. To me he says, “We’ll be ready when you are.”
“Like your orders said when you came in. We were to let you sleep, and try no raids without you, but be ready to roll—all of us—on Sunday when you woke.”
Vaguely I remember now. Everything aches, and life tastes like ashes, and looks like ashes, too, but I still have a job to do. “Did Kiril keep her end of the bargain?” I ask. “Has the troop stayed in one place?”
“I sent out scouts. Yes, it has.” Then he frowns and looks away.
“What happened Tanjin? Something went wrong with the scouts?”
“No, not the scouts. Some of us went back towards the main road, foraging for food. Not all of them made it back.”
Hekut pops his little head in through the blankets draped upon the bushes to form my tent. “I made it back, though. I got eggs. Eggs for everybody!”
“Not stolen, I hope!” He says nothing. “Tanjin, you didn’t send rebels out to steal, did you?”
“Everybody around here raids coops—it’s proverbial. ‘Nobody likes the taste of their own eggs’, they say.”
The thought of omelette makes me feel sick. “I’m not sure I’m up to eating,” I say.
“Come on, Deirdre! You have to have something—you haven’t eaten for so long it scares me!”
“Maybe a little dry toast.”
“We’re out of bread, remember?”
Not even on Sunday?
(I finish my roll while we hasten down the empty halls. But some teachers linger so we have to duck into a room to hide.
“He has planned it for today,” a deep voice says. “All the bloody sacrifices.” But Don speaks; Jake just nods.
I stare at him. “How do you know?”
Grimly Don looks at us. “I got sucked into Alroy’s cult, remember? I can still feel it when his thoughts go everywhere at once.”
“…A-Alroy?” I stutter, my voice squeaky even to me. “But of course,” I babble. “If his relic can come back, then…of course!”
Jake mutters, “Everyone forgets the ghosts.”)
I feel the ghosts, the air so thickened with them that I have to push hard with every move, like walking through sludge, till I ache from my neck to my cramping toes. Everyone this troop has ever killed, and everyone who ever died beside us, coming to witness. I almost hear them muttering, on the edge of hearing, but of course the dead don’t breathe, and cannot speak except for heart to heart.
(I have obeyed the Outlaw God, everything that he has spoken to my heart. I have brought the loathsome creature out into the light. Poor thing, she didn’t ask to become loathsome. Once upon a time she had beauty enough to lure schoolboys to fill her belly up with babies. I turn to her, just the two of us out here, a few winter birds still chirping in the barren boughs above, and I stroke a gray strand from the vague eyes, feeling the suede of Hulda’s wrinkle-folded face.
“Poor darling,” I say. “Your mouth’s not much good for you anymore, is it?” Mournfully she shakes her head. “Would you like me to open a new mouth for you?” Trustingly she gazes into my eyes, and nods. And her lips part just a bit, and I see a flash of who she used to be, the young beauty lost in the old hag, and I realize that I have never before stood this close to a woman since adolescence filled out and wreathed my manhood with curls of darkness.
She steps closer, still gazing up at me, gently puts a hand behind my head, pushing my face down towards her, and tenderly the old lips press to mine, and then the exploratory tongue which somehow tickles all the way down to where I ache and swell with desire.
Do I have time? I ask my master. Would it be all right?
Better than all right, he answers me. Perfect. Bring back all the rutting messiness of wild feminine nature into this prison of geometries!
I lead her by the hand to a sheltered space, a barn near the ruins and out of the cold, softened with heaps of straw. And there we drop the uniforms of maids and there, though no novice to masculine passion, I offer up my virginity to the female touch.)
(Jake, Don and I hurry down the stairs, to the place of sacrifice.)
(Suddenly, out of the clear blue, our Headmaster gasps, then sinks his head into his hands and sobs, sobs uncontrollably while the teachers stare to either side, not just us boys gaping in frank shock.
“Go!” he gasps. “Go! Lunch has ended!” And the teachers beat a hasty retreat first of all.
Aaron nods to me. “You know what to do, Joel?”
I nod back. The drugged rat already curls in my pocket, the warm, quick breaths a rhythm pattering on my hip all through the meal. I hasten to the place assigned to me.)
(The stairs sound loud with our three pair of running feet, but we don’t care, it’s gone past all secrecy. Don jams his magentine-bearing hand against the lock and it quickly clicks open and we rush in…
…to a cold and empty room, not even smelling of old sacrifices anymore.
“Idiot!” Jake cries. “I am a perfect idiot! I listened to logic instead of intuition—when have I ever been any good at logic?” Then his face changes, abruptly, to fear, as he says, “He’s saving this room for later.”
So we run back up the stairs, me holding onto the stitch in my side, wishing I hadn’t eaten first.)
I wish I’d eaten something; my body screams for food! I try to take off, but I stumble back down to earth, hitting a rock with my knee. And I just curl up there on the ground, cursing and crying, wrapped around the stupid thing.
“Hold up!” Tanjin shouts, running after me with a tin camp-dish in hand and a couple apples in his pockets. “You have to eat—Zofia’s orders!”
We both know that Zofia’s home lies miles and days behind us, but we also both know what he means. The stolen eggs feel slimy in the throat and have no taste that I can sense, but I gobble them down anyway, my body taking over. I chomp through the apples so fast that I find myself spitting out seeds, chewing up the cores. I force myself to thank Tanjin, and he grins at me.
And then I take to the air. I plan to make a quick reconnaissance to make sure that Kiril kept her word. The eggs and apples barely suffice, but I can flog myself on.
(Naked we kiss again, more fiercely this time, her practiced old hands all over me, knowing things I never dreamed about this brand new art. I fall into the straw on top of her, and she reaches down to guide me in…
“Halt!” cries the voice in my head. “Not here!”
So, as bare as her, I lead her out of the barn, for a fire burns inside us both and we might as well run across coals as snow. I take her right to the center of the piled ash and char where the Married Teacher’s Quarters used to stand. I push her down, and she laughs, spreading her hungry legs. I shiver into her embrace, her warmth, her rich female smell. And I find power surging into me from all the quarters of the school, so that I can do this, right on the spot where my parents conceived me, the charcoal blackening us, the ash powdering us over that in gray.
She cries out like a virgin, yet still holds me tight, wanting all that I had to give. I pull out, scared, and see that the dry old tissue bleeds a little. I suddenly don’t want to hurt her, confused by a surge of love. Yet her hands and her smile coax me back, needing no words. And that makes it perfect, that brings it full circle somehow. My new god says that I complete her, and now comes time to finish the job.
And so. at the climactic moment, when her voice, restored yet inarticulate, shrieks in ecstasy and my own bliss overwhelms my brain my training and my self, another guides my hand to grab a fire-cracked shard of glass and gift her with her new, red lips across her throat.
And I feel my soul explode!)
(Jake and Don stumble on the steps, clutching their heads, so that it takes all I’ve got to keep the two big lunks from tumbling down the stairs. But they recover quickly, though Jake stops running and Don soon doubles back.
“It’s too late,” Jake says. “He’s got his power back, in a way I didn’t imagine.” He slams his palm against the wall. “The unexpected path! Of course!” Then he sinks down to sit on a step, elbows on his knees, fists jammed against his face, swearing under his breath.)
I tumble out of the sky! But then the food in my stomach finally sends me just the jolt of bloodsugar I need, and I push on.