IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume VI: The Rift


Chapter 4

Care for the Sick

 


Sunday, December 20, 2708, continued

(Have I acted so terribly, compared to you?  You broke her heart, Cyran.)

(“Have I acted so terribly?” Belen whispers, I’m not sure whether to me or someone else, as she tosses fitfully in her bed while I try to change the sheets; it’s obvious, by touch and scent, that though they have given her cursory scrubs, nobody has changed this rich woman’s sheets in a long time.

“No, no,” I soothe the prisoner in her own home.  “You only wanted to make good cookies.”)

“We’re home, Deirdre.  You can set me down, now.”  I rouse from sleeping on my feet at Lufti’s whisper in my ear.  I ease his slide from my back, blinking, trying to focus on the activity around me while tugging at the suffocating scarf around my neck.

(She tugs her blanket back up onto her, the sweat sparkling on her over the hectic luminescence freckled under her skin, even as the snow falls outside.)

Nishka takes a look at me, then calls for Tanjin.  “I think her fever’s on her again–see the flush in her cheeks?  See her shivering?”  I just stand there and let them regard me, mist blowing through my mind.

(Then suddenly I feel Belen’s pressure in my mind.  She’s trying to tell me something that she can’t put into words.  I sit down beside her bed, holding her damp hand.)

Tanjin raises his good hand to my cheek–a lovely, cooling touch.  “I can’t tell,” he says.  “Maybe she’s just overdressed.”  Yet I suddenly feel so chill that I wrap the scarf onto me again.  “Deirdre, how do you feel?”

I blink at him.  Not at all, I want to say.  The rain has numbed me to the soul.  Images crowd the fog within my head, of bodies contorted in unending slumber and I feel some kinship with them.  My legs quiver under me so much that they threaten not to hold me up much longer.

(She contorts before me, panting with the effort.  And kicks off the blankets again, radiating heat and light.)

“It’s the fever,” he says, and leads me by the arm to a shelter someone made while I stood there.  I find that I have to lean on him, his flannel cuff gone soggy with the rain.

(“Are you in pain?”  I ask.  “I can…”

“I’m dying!”  She snaps.  “Don’t interrupt me!”  And she goes back to trying to push something into my brain.  Yet she interrupts herself to say, “You’re my heir, Zanne.  You’re in charge now.”)

Nishka asks Tanjin, “Are you in charge now, till she comes back to us?”

“Me?  No.  In charge of her, yes, but not the band.  I can’t do both.”

“Who, then?”

Lufti pipes up, “Kiril’s in charge!”

Dosh starts to laugh, but Nishka says, “No, that makes sense.  Kiril’s been a rebel at least as long as Deirdre, and we all know how cunning she is, how well she can think on her feet.  She’s proven herself a dozen times.”

Kiril stares, eyes and mouth round in her round face, so comical that I wish I had the energy to laugh.  But I can barely help Tanjin lay me down, my fingers fumbling after the edges of the stultifying scarf, frustrated until he finishes the job for me.

At last the chubby girl finds her voice.  “Only till Deirdre comes back to herself, hopefully by morning.”  Then she goes about ordering the positioning of the cookfire according to the wind, and makes sure that the burro gets proper shelter, too.

And then...I’m not there.  I heave with giving birth, birth to something sealed off within me, pushing out through my forehead without orifice to release it—I scream with pain!

(Belen screams, arching in her bed, the insistent memory ramming against the blockage, tearing through her brain until at last it rips out and hurtles into me!)

“Deirdre!  Deirdre!  Are you with us, Deirdre?”  I gasp as the headache lapses to a normal fever throb, but I still shudder, the bushes rattle with my shuddering.  I nod to him, and then say “Yes.  Yes, I’m sorry.  It just…for a minute there, it hurt soooo bad.”

Tanjin says, “It’s okay, nobody heard.  We’re too far…” but I slip away before I can hear the rest.

(And then it’s okay.  The pain subsides.  I hold, cradled in my mind, the way into the dome within the tower.  A delicious sense of peace settles onto me. It’s all going to be okay.

Till I open my eye and see the dead woman twisted on the bed.  Yet a smile curves the cracked old lips.  She died well.  She burst her heart tearing through to give her final gift to me.  And her last words.  I’m in charge, now.  More than ever.

I stand up.  I want to arrange her limbs and pull the sheets over her, but none must know that I’ve been here, save for my own.

No, that’s silly.  If they haven’t noticed all we’ve done for Belen so far, they won’t notice this.  Nobody even cared when she screamed.  So I give her some posture of dignity, and then quietly I leave, wishing that the Gates of Knowledge taught prayers for the dead.)

I stand before Cyran...no, someone who looks like Cyran.

(You broke her heart, Cyran, following his path.  How could you even think to become a rebel after what he did?)

Too buxom, definitely female, this woman, not Cyran at all, though with the same intense blue gaze in an olive face.

(She weeps for you, Cici.  Do you think she ever weeps for me?)

Or is it the gaze of Merrill?  Built more like Zanne, yet brown like me, and with my odd feet...a compendium of all of us?  Delirium.  My phantom of delirium.

(Down the well-worn road I go, to yet another poor soul under your delusion.  Look at all the footprints–could Zofia be more obvious?  How many women will you bring to weep, Cyran?  And how many men to curse?  And how many must I hurt to excise the cancer you’ve become, O monster neither man nor woman, who cannot truly feel for either?)

Yet, knowing her for a delusion, my heart goes out to her anyway, the pain in her gaze upon me, her pleading for me not to be there, even as I plead for her to be there.

(I hesitate at the door, then put on my role.  My rifle-butt smashes the old wood around the lock easily enough.  I slam the door open, loud for the effect, and I stand there, her nightmare right in her doorway, my purple mantle rippling in the draft that I let in.  “Zofia Tocarin, you are under arrest for giving aid and comfort to the enemy.”)

And even knowing that it hurts her, knowing that somehow I have done this before in many a forgotten dream, and will again in many more, I say, “Remember me.  Remember me.”

(“Zofia Jubail, now,” she says with a smile, holding up a finger wound with a crude wire ring.  “Kurmal died this morning, but I shall always be Zofia Jubail.  Remember me.”   Her eyes glitter crazily over a triumphant smile. Then, before I can stop her, she takes a scalpel from her apron pocket and slashes her own throat.  I stand there and watch the blood rush out, stepping back from its spread across the floor–I couldn’t possibly save her life from a direct hit to the carotid artery; I would only stain my shirt trying.)

And then I wake, hurrying to dash down notes on my dream while I get ready for school, knowing that someday, someday I’ll have to write it all down into books, all of the dreams and nightmares of Deirdre Evelynne Keller, no matter how horrible, no matter what people think of me for imagining such things, because I promised, night after night I’ve promise to remember her, since before I could even write my own name.

(So I leave that place.  Nothing to interrogate, there.  The wreckage in the beds no doubt have become too inured to pain to respond readily to torture.  Maybe I fail in my duty, yet I remember Aron and I shudder)

Maybe once I get all the stories written down, the nightmares then will cease.

(Instead, I set fire to the flimsy door.  Then, for good measure. I go out to the shed in back, stand some distance away, load the tracer into the chamber, and then shoot the tank of hydrogen peroxide.  The fireball reaches the makeshift hospital, yet it doesn’t quite reach me.  I walk away, screams and the fire’s roar behind me, my shadow long before me, silhouetted in orange light against the overbeaten road.

Oh, Cyran, what evil you have unleashed upon this land!)

And then I wake, scrambling people all around me where I lie, gunfire searing through the tarps and blankets.  Tanjin grabs me and rolls me over him, just out of death’s reach.

“Get her up on the burro!” Kiril cries.  “She’s worth all of us ten times over once she comes to her wits again!”  Hands shove me up onto an animal’s bare back, then someone swats the beast and away it runs, while I hold on by instinct to the fur, no time for saddle or bridle, fire lighting up the forest and casting tiger-stripes of tawny light and shadow on the world before me.  I choke on smoke and tears.  I can hear the gunfire go both ways as others cover my retreat, but I can’t turn my mount around, I have no reins to pull and my tugging tells it nothing that it wants to heed.

Foolish, foolish escapist dream, to fancy myself an innocent schoolgirl and all my life a nightmare to wake up from!

The motion and the fever make me want to retch, but I hold it back, fighting to clear my head.  Kiril shouldn’t have...but no, nothing so sentimental as love motivated the girl.  She’s got a sharp, cold wit, that one.  Government soldiers fear the Tilián witch.  I might well be the best propaganda that Cyran ever stole.

            The night wears on, but I cannot tell whether it grows colder or hotter; sometimes it seems like both.  The donkey slows, then stops, head hanging low.  I shudder endlessly without any blanket, they have burned up all the blankets.  And I feel alone, no one around me but the trees, and maybe it’s better that way; my presence won’t kill trees.  No, come to think of it, that fire must have caught on more than just our camp.  Damn me.




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