IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume VI: The Rift


Chapter 18

The Joys of Flight


 

Saturday, December 26, 2708

(“I think it seemed the only...at the time to him...yield or die.”

“Oh, of course he’d...more levels than one in our...Jake thinks in...”

“...what you read in his robe...”

“So he never really...”

“...listen...”

“Oh, on the surface quite sincerely.  He’d have to.  In case Winsall woke up to the telepathy side of his...”

I think I’m waking up.)

(I think Kimba’s waking up.)

 (“Don, that’s just what I’m trying to tell you.  He did and he didn’t intend to die.  Both.”

“Certainly.  To fool Winsall Changewright he’d have to cultivate...”

No.  No.  That’s true, but only in part.  Listen to me one more time.  He didn’t and he did intend to die.  He himself.”

“But he slit his wrist with his right hand, so the intention must’ve come from without.”

“Exactly.  And nevertheless.  Do you understand what I’m trying to tell you?”

“I wish you’d be more precise.”

“Where an oracle’s concerned?”

            I don’t want to hear this.  I return to sleep.  Sweet...deadly...sleep...)

            (No, she’s slipping back into sleep again.)

            I mustn’t let myself return to sleep.  Sleep betrayed me last night.

I feel something in my hand...rock, squarish, with grooves cut in it.  I hold onto it, something solid, something of this world.  But when I squeeze it too tightly everything starts to get hazy again.

            I open my eyes to the silhouettes of heath wands dancing between the sun and the tarp stretched over me.  How, exactly did sleep betray me?

            I look at what I hold.  The magentine focus that Lufti had pried from my flit.  He must’ve returned it.  He knows what I must do.

            I sit up with a groan, as much as the tarp will allow, aching all over.  I feel like something in me died last night.  Something in me decided...I’m not sure what.  I feel ripped wide open, or slashed, or I don’t know what, and something or somebody passed through me, and never mind the wreckage made of me, it just had to happen, it just...rubbish.  Bad dreams and bad memories, messing with my rest, that’s all it is.

            Yet sleep did betray me.  I remember Tanjin and Kiril trying to wake me, and I couldn’t wake, like I’d crashed or something, without any leaf to blame for it.  And something in me died.

            Nobody else shares my blankets in here, in shelter ample for a rebel on the run.  The others must have risen long ago.  Disgraceful of me.  I wriggle into my clothes, pocketing the focus.  Then I emerge, bent like an old woman, take care of my morning business and then join the others, hoping for a smoke and a bit of coffee, if I’m lucky.

            (“How long do you think she’ll sleep?” Raif asks anxiously.

            “As long as she needs to,” I answer, caressing the gingery curls of the girlchild.  She makes a faint sound, eyes still shut, and turns over.  “Kimba went through an awful lot for one so young.”)

(“How long do you think he’ll sleep?” Randy asks.  I feel Don’s hand upon my sound wrist, and then, annoyingly, he thumbs back my eyelid, letting in a nasty stream of light.  I groan and flinch, and he lets me close my eye again.

            “Judging by his pupils, he’s still flying, Randy.  It might take awhile for him to sleep off whatever Winsall did to him.  And he lost an awful lot of blood.  He’s going to be weak for quite some time, even after he does wake up.  And probably not entirely in this world even then.”

            I don’t care.  I really, really, really don’t care.

            “And yet, I think he’s already awake, at least a bit.”  I smile despite myself.  “Aren’t you, Jake?”

            I manage a deep rumble of protest in my chest, but even I don’t take it seriously.  The sound of Randy laughing with relief revives me like tobacco.  I open one eye.  “Who can sleep with you two clowns around?”  And I start laughing with Randy, I don’t know why, I just do, discovering that my lungs can still fill with joy and chuckle out hilarity.  And I’m alive.  I am so alive!

            “Yep,” Randy says, grinning down at me.  “He’s flying, all right.  Next he’ll be raving about Egalitarianism and trying to dance.”  He winks at me.  “Enjoy it while you can.”)

I must fly.  We need reconnaissance. I don’t care who sees me.  Let my powers seem arcane to the new recruits, if it gives them heart, and if the enemy catches sight of me I hope it makes them mess their britches.  If we can’t have God on our side, then let’s have witchcraft.

Damien has scouted the road ahead, and declared all clear, but we have to know what follows up behind.  That’s where the trouble came before, after all.  And I can see places where his motorcycle can’t reach.  He will mind the troops while I take to the skies.

Kiril moves slowly towards the cooking gear. I see her wince as she reaches for a bag of porridge.  “Hold it right there!” I bark before she can attempt to lift it up.  “Don’t strain your stitches any more than you have already.  We’ve got new recruits who’ve been cooking since before you were born.”  At my nod several others take over the breakfast preparations as I pull Kiril aside.  “Besides, you’re due for a wound check.”

“Out of turn?” she asks, but she smiles faintly.

“You’re handy,” I growl, but I smile back.  I take her behind a screen of rock for the inspection.  The stitches look better than I expected.  Sure, she tore them a bit last night, and that’ll make the scar somewhat worse, but it won’t show with her clothes on.  I daub on salve and rebandage her.  “Yep, clean as a convent larder.  Think you can keep it that way on your own?”

“I took care of Lufti and helped out Doc.  I know the drill.”

“Good girl.”  I button her dress back up.  “Let me know if you see any redness, puffiness, or...”

“I know.”

I get up to inspect the rest of the wounded, but she grabs my arm.

“Deirdre?”

“Yeah?”

“Promise me...promise me you’ll eat breakfast before you go.  I know you have to go, you know, up there, but...breakfast.”

“I promise.”  I lean over and kiss her brow.  “And I will come back.”

(“They’ll come back,” Kimba murmurs and sits up, dizzy and disheveled.

“Who, dear?” I ask, as Pauline takes her pulse and finds it normal.

 “All the lost souls.  They...they had to divide us so we wouldn’t compare notes, figure out what they did to us, so they could borrowed our souls while we slept.  But now the souls come back.”

Cybil asks Pauline, “Do you think she can handle breakfast yet?  I mean a growing girl like her...”

Pauline says, “Ask Zanne.  She’s the pharmacologist.”

I smile, saying, “I think some clear liquids will go down okay for now, and something more solid  in an hour.”

“Good, because Apollo scored some bacon and eggs in the last kitchen raid.”  Oooo but that sounds nice!

Tears run down Kimba’s face.  “It’s still hard, though.  Oh the souls.  Oh the poor, lost souls!”)

(“He wept for me,” Jake says over the bacon and eggs that I brought to his bed for him.  ‘I had to bring it right to the edge, to make it real for him, so that all the deaths would become real.  But he’s worth it, Randy—he really is.”

I smile.  “Careful, Weed.  You’re starting to make sense.”

He smiles back, but sadly; coming down’s rough on him, and will get rougher still.  “It’ll make Zora’s work easier.”

“Zora?” I ask, surprised that he didn’t say her name without the least growl.

“Of course—who better to understand him and Wallace than an ex-mass-murderer and brain-rapist oracle of formerly twisted Gift?”  He must be coming down indeed; he said all that with a mouth full of bacon and I still could make out every word.  “I can’t think of a better sponsor for their rehabilitation and mentor for oracular training combined.”

“You’ve got a point,” I say as I steal a bit of his hash-browns.

“He’s going to be okay, Randy.”  At my look he grins lopsidedly and says, “And so will I.”)

(“Lisa?”  The familiar telepathic touch feels soft, almost silky, across the miles, but that’s so like Zanne.  “You okay?”

I don’t actually hear words in my head.  I translate for myself.  I whisper, “I will be,” but what she gets, I’m sure, is the softness of the blanket around me, the replenished water in my cells, the much-needed nutrients diffusing from the food in my tummy, anmd spreading through me with the nourishment, the relief of hope after the long drought of despair.

“What happened?” comes the thought.

I’m still trying to figure that out, myself.  “They knew,” I say at last.  Images flood out from me of all the violent repression of psi gifts throughout this country.  “They felt scared.”  Images flood back of the chaos of Vanikke to the north, torn apart like bean pods to reap the power of the souls within.  “They didn’t want what happened there to happen here.”)

I check out Lufti’s feet.  We might have to carry him for a day or two, but the abrasions don’t go very deep.  “It hasn’t closed, yet,” he says, wincing only slightly at the sting when I apply antiseptic.  “The whole world has the postpartum blues.  I’m not the only crazy one, you know.”

“Believe me, I know,” I reply as I bandage him up.

He smiles up at me patronizingly.  “I’m sure you think you do.”

All of the wounded, in fact, look comparatively okay.  I finish off breakfast under Kiril’s watchful eye.  She makes me eat an extra serving, and I don’t argue.  She even gives me milk!  Apparently some of the farmers brought their goats along, and we should take advantage of this, she tells me, before they fall too far behind.

And now I can’t put it off any longer.  I don’t have to say a word; Tanjin brings me my pack.  After I restore the stone to its rightful place in the center, tightening the wires, Kiril and Lufti bind my homemade bent-twig flit to me like the squires of old would do, though it will not armor me. 

I raise my arms above my head, and every eye in camp stares at me, and all other work trails off.  No one says a word.  As I push my arms back down I take off into sky.

Oh how I’ve missed this!  Oh how I miss this reminder of a world beyond the Charadoc, of flying lessons, of playing in the winds over Til Institute, tumbling down the heart-red cliffs of home, down, down, till I brushed the foam upon the cresting wave, then up, up, up, exhilarated and young!  Oh, I remember youth, just a year ago!

I couldn’t put it off another minute.  That black nostalgia, as bittersweet and sticky as molasses, that percolation from memories, I couldn’t hold it back.  The deep, dark yearning.  And the knowledge that, with a flick of a pen, Sanzio D’Arco could make all my dreams come true.

Oh yeah–isn’t that the real drug that he offered me!

Soon the forests look to me like so much moss, the road a zigzagging band of brown, the many creeks like veins of silver.  I feel summer on my back, but the wind nips me with the harsh kisses of winter lying in wait, biding his time in his mountain retreat.  My hair floats about me like a madwoman’s tangles under a spell, strands of it still beaded like glinting drops of blood.  I really should braid it up again, but I want it to look wild and frightening today.

And it doesn’t take me long to find troop movements on the road behind us.  And more off the road.  And more beyond that.  And guerilla cells stealing through the wild places, their movements shouting “stealth” to one who knows their ways.  And more government troops, and more rebel cells, and more, and more–good Lord, the landscape crawls with combatants!  All headed in the same direction.

I travel farther than I intended, spiraling in all directions, past several passes through the lesser mountains into the greater ranges.  Everywhere I look I find the same.  I don’t know if the Charadoc has ever seen such a mobilization in all its violent generations.

Is this what we’ve always wanted?  Will we decide the issue once and for all?  Or do we all hope for too much?

And what would final resolution mean?  Overthrow of the Meritocracy and equal votes for all?  Beating the Egalitarians down to a final, irrecoverable submission?  Or a brand new Armageddon, that would crush both sides so hard that the few survivors won’t ask which side some other survivor fought on, they’d just team up with anybody left, to try and rebuild a life out of the wreckage?

Or maybe nothing much will come of it.  Maybe people will die and die and die, to no clear end, just one more battle lost and won, neither side willing to call it the last.  The most likely scenario of all, and the most terrifying.

I feel my head begin to swim with too many hopes, too many fears, too many conflicting objectives and emotions, and too little blood-sugar.  What do I want?

(“What do you want, sir?” I ask the erstwhile Headmaster, as he hands over his resignation, in a mail-cylinder, for the serving-man to take into town.

“Anything new,” he says.  “Anything but here.”

“Then come with us, back to our own folk.  We have to take Winsall anyway, once he’s able to travel.  Oracles need training, sir, or they go mad.”

“Or stay mad,” he sighs.  “I know that, now.”)

 I head back to my own folks.  Gradually, soaring up there above it all, passing over still more combatants of both sides (oblivious to my presence) a sort of giddy freedom not that far from despair overtakes me.  Whatever shall happen, will happen.  Live or die, we shall all play our parts, the momentum by now too great to change the outcome anymore.  We all made our choices and now they take on their own life; all we can do is kick back and enjoy the ride.

And no matter what the outcome, the heirs of what we create in the months to come shall sing about us for generations, perhaps long after everyone forgets our proper names or what we really did.  I wonder, quite objectively, whether I will play a hero or a villain in those songs, and I find myself past caring which–only intrigued by what a gorgeous tale it all will make.

(“I suppose I shall have to handle magentine and all that,” Wallace sighs.  “Beastly stuff.”  He shudders, and the nurse puts a blanket over his shoulders.

“Not for quite awhile, sir.  And at first only under close supervision.”

“And what of poor Winsall?  He can’t even talk, now.”  He gazes sadly over at the bed where the boy lies, rigid, his eyes open and staring at the ceiling.  “We have to feed him like a baby.”

Unexpectedly Jake sits up, cautiously, cradling his wounded wrist.  “Merrill was much the same, but he snapped out of it.  It’s hard on oracles to kill, even more than most.”

I stare at him.  “Jake, did you just say...Merrill?

He smiles loopily and holds a finger to his lips.  “Shhhhh!” he hisses, his eyes glinting.  “Nobody can hide like an oracle—even he mustn’t know.”  And then he sinks back, exhausted, onto his pillow again.  Nope, he’s not coming down as fast as I had hoped, after all.)

Nearing my own troop, I fly directly over their pursuers, slowed to the pace of the ox-wagons hauling their supplies; even our goatherds climb faster than that. We travel hungrier, but lighter, and now I know that citizens along the way will give to us freely rather than surrender all later anyway to an army requisition, once we bring them enough of a heads-up to hide a little for themselves.  I hope that somebody stays behind to harvest, though, else we’ll all face a hungry winter in the year to come, friend and foe alike.

Look at those soldiers down there.  Look at their bent shoulders, the bearing not quite so military behind their officer’s back, note the nervous glances to the sides.  What, no glances up above?  Perhaps I should remedy that.  The more they look everywhere, the less they see anywhere.

I kick up my heels and dive, dive, dive, so swiftly that my passage makes its own sound, aiming straight for their leader.  I swoop off with his cap before they have time to shout, let alone swing up their guns.  Then the shouts do come behind me, and the gunfire popping and whizzing, but now I veer all over the place, I become baroque in my rolls and ripples on the air; nervous fingers have a hard enough time aiming at a stationary target.  I make it past range before the baldy in charge can order them to save their ammunition.

            Suddenly I laugh when I see what all I have in hand.  I snatched his toupee along with his cap!  I think I’ll make a gift of it to Hekut.





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