IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
VII: The Burning
Tuesday, April 25, 2709
The first thing I see when I open my eyes is Kiril, pacing around the camp, glaring at the shadows under trees, shivering and smoking one of Barrahab's cigars. When she sees me stir, she turns and says, “Hekut, forbid her to put any weight at all on her foot.”
Hekut's disheveled head emerges from under a blanket. “Whazzat?”
She sighs. “Never mind.” She comes over and helps me stand one-footed. “You can hover a little bit without your flit on, right?”
“A few inches, but I can't go at marching speed that way.”
“Never mind that. Just hover over to the bushes and do your business, and come back—but don't you dare set your foot to the ground.”
I laugh—I can't help it. “You think I couldn't figure that out?” Then I look around the camp. “Where's Lufti?”
“Hared off for reasons of his own.” Her frown mixes anger with worry with resignation. “He said he'd be back soon.”
I swear softly to myself, then say, “Yeah, like that worked out all right when you went off for tasper-buds.”
She turns dark eyes to me. “It did work out all right, in the long run. We got some great big bloody, stinkin' victories out of it. And Lufti knows better than I do how to avoid trouble.”
“That's what I thought when I sent him...when I...God!” I can say no more, just head out from there as fast as I can waft, my face and heart burning with the memory.
By the time I return from my little errand Lufti does indeed return. While Kiril helps me lay back down he spreads his prayer-cloth on a flat rock, and then piles on top of it fresh, juicy handfuls of greenfire leaf! I salivate; I can't help it. “Oh blessed boy!” I say.
But then he folds the cloth over and starts pounding it all with another rock. He says, not looking up from his work, “Your toe can fly without you for awhile, Deirdre.”
Oh. Of course. He's making a poultice. The alkaloid, topically applied, will numb the pain. And I promised not to chew the leaf, never again, I swore it to Cyran. As he removes my bandages and straps St. Peter onto my foot, I wince and say, “You're trying to drive me crazy, aren't you?” I can smell the bittersweetness!
He grins at me and says in Tilianach, “Misery loves company.” Now where’n’erth did he pick that up? Then he suddenly goes blank-faced, stands, and says, “I've got to go again.”
“Oh really!” Kiril snaps. “And when am I supposed to sleep?” Wordlessly he hands her another leaf from his pocket and vanishes into the woods before anybody can take a breath Kiril turns to me, crying, “Deirdre, stop him!”
“I can't. You grounded me, remember?”
“Hekut grounded you,” she mumbles around the leaf. And I lie back and watch her, feeling greener than the leaf with envy. It doesn't do her shivering any good. “I keep picking up all your thoughts, while I scan for the soldiers,” she says in a more plaintive voice. “Like right now. You're wondering how the hell you wound up saddled with a crazy soldier that nobody can make do or not do anything. And then you remember how, over and over again, and hate yourself. At the same time you love him too much to want him anywhere else. You feel all mixed up. And even while you're thinking all that, you also keep picturing yourself knocking me down and grabbing the leaf right out of my jaws, but then you keep reminding yourself that you love me, too, too much to do it.”
“That's a fair assessment,” I say, blushing, but it would do me no good to lie to her anyway.
“I hate being able to know these things! I'd give you the leaf right now if I didn't think I'd do you harm, and I'd curl up and just sleep and sleep but what I really want...” she hesitates and then blurts, “I want to get good and drunk!”
I sigh. “You and me both, kid.” The numbing of my foot feels so delicious that it makes me almost feel a bit drunk right now, just from the relief. “Tell you what—next time we find a safe moment and the wherewithal, let's do it.”
“Safe moment. Ha ha.”
I smile back at her.
The sun climbs high overhead, and Kiril starts to blink as the leaf begins to wear off, before Lufti comes back, with tear-streaks on his face and Chaska in tow. Her brothers race to embrace her and she sobs in their arms. Then, as Hekut explains my situation, she hurries over to kneel down beside me, horrified, clasping my hand.
“Oh Deirdre—don't you die, too!”
I laugh as reassuringly as I can. “Die? From a little scrape on my toe? Not hardly! I'm doing better already.”
“So was Nishka!” she wails.
“Not so loud!” I hiss. “There's soldiers not far off. What happened to Nishka?”
“She, she seemed to get better. The swelling went down, she looked good, no trace of infection, she even started to limp around a little—and then suddenly the swelling zoomed back up again, and her leg turned all blackish and her face went pale—all this within an hour! And before the hour had passed she died!”
“Ohhh no!” I moan. “The bullet must have nicked the artery after all, but swelling held it shut—till she started to recover.” Chaska lays her head down upon my breast and weeps upon me, while Braulio strokes her hair and Kuchi, nestled up against me, kisses her hand. “The same thing won't happen to me, Chaska—there's no artery in a toe.”
“Lufti!” Kiril cries. I look up and see the boy trying to pull off Kiril's clothes while she struggles to subdue him. “Stop it right now!”
“We must promiscu!” he cries desperately. “Nishka and Chaska couldn't give each other babies so we've gotta do it or the mayflies die for nothing and the sparks will never catch the world on fire—we must burn!” She socks him in the jaw, failing all else, and he slumps unconscious at her feet. Then, quite coldly, she pulls another leaf from his pocket and chews on it. She drags him over to me and rolls him onto my mat with me as Chaska moves aside.
Kiril shakes her head. “I hope to God he forgets all about this by the time he wakes up again—for both our sakes.”
Wednesday, April 26, 2709
Lufti apparently can’t forget. He wakes us all, sometime in the middle of the night, howling in his boy-soprano voice, a long oooooooo that haunts the night with heartbreak. I clap my hand over his mouth and nose, tight. He bucks for a moment before I release him; then he has to gasp in air before he can continue. I hiss in his ear, “Don't start again or I really will suffocate you!” Even as I say it, though, I know that I couldn't. No war could make me brutal enough to do that to this poor, mad boy.
Not unless I had enough greenfire in my bloodstream.
Yet he does start up again, just as I start to nestle back under the covers. And I smother him again, this time long enough for him to pass out. Oh God, oh God, when I asked for the curse to fall on me I didn’t mean for Lufti to become the instrument! But what do You care what we mean?
“We've got to move,” I tell the others. “Grab your stuff and let's go.” No one packs up as fast as a guerrilla for whom all lands are enemy territory. “Who knows who might have heard him?”
“But what about your foot?” Kiril whispers.
“Wounded heals faster than dead,” I reply, quoting a rebel proverb.
“Here,” Lefty says, handing me a bough he's found, a fair match for my height. Trust Lefty to always get his hand on whatever's needful. Braulio kicks the ground, remembering the cane he’d started to carve, abandoned miles away. We shoulder our packs and hurry on into the night. Just then I hear “oooooOOOOOOoooooo!” right behind me. I swear and grab Lufti's face one more time, muttering, “I wish I had some opium to shove down his throat!”
Lufti gasps when I release him, and then blurts, “N-n-nononono! I can write for myself! Please not that!”
“You gonna stay quiet?”
“Yes Ma'am!” He salutes me, terrified.
“Good! Then let's get out of here.”
As I lead them, limping, I murmur, “With any luck they'll think they heard a coyote.”
“A what?” Hekut asks.
“A...” Where did that come from? “Never mind. Different language.” Why did my mind go back to the wildlife of my rookie mission's land?
“A ghost,” Lufti whispers, breathlessly. “They'll think they heard a ghost. And they'd be right. Oh why did I ever forget?”
Kiril's wired; she soon pushes up to the fore. I feel her jitters—is she projecting, not knowing? How can I, clueless, teach her not to do that? Why does telepathy have to burst in on people in the worst possible throes of adolescence? When she starts to take the lead I tell her, “I'm not grounded anymore; drop back and let me navigate.” She whips around and glares at me.
“You think I like taking charge all the time? You say you're like a mother to me, but I spend more godforsaken time mothering you than you ever do me!”
I stop cold as she stomps on. I'm her commanding officer; I should punish her for insubordination. But I can't. I can't do anything.
“Oh Deirdre—I'm sorry!” She runs back to me, throwing her arms around me. “I'm sorry, I should never have said that, it was the greenfire talking, not me!”
“No,” I say, “It's true. Every word of it is true. Yes, you shouldn't have said it, not on the march, but that makes it no less true.” I hold her and we both try not to cry, and we both fail miserably. I can't be her officer, no more than she could be my master when I wore a chain. “Let's get moving, kidita,” I murmur in her hair. “It's not safe here.” She nods, wipes her face, and the march resumes. Love sees us through when discipline fails.
Dawn begins to slant through the trees, casting our shadows ahead of us, long-legged grotesques made crooked on every trunk and bush and root. In the spreading light I see the new lines upon Chaska's face, a harder set to her jaw. They may say what they will about the Tests of Blood and Fire, but losing your first loved one to a bullet makes the real rite of passage into rebelhood. Chance made her join us, but now I will never doubt her devotion to our cause.
Then I glance over at Lufti. “Halt!” I cry. His eyes have become sunken in dark hollows, and his lips have begun to purple. I glance around. The trees have grown thick again; armies couldn't follow us, not without machetes or MAT, and I don't hear those anywhere. “We've marched far enough from our last location. Pitch camp, and camouflage it. Not you, Lufti. You lie down right now.”
“No healing lasts forever,” he whispers with scant breath. “Not when we don’t deserve it. We all must feed the corn,” I kneel down beside him and take his pulse. Rapid and thready, close to tachycardiac.
“Braulio,” I ask, “did Barrahab give us any salicylic?”
As the boy rummages through the medical stuff, Lufti looks up at me and whispers, “I can read, too, but it does no good. Words don't teach us the secrets of the moon or the plotting of the stars.” Tears trickle down the sides of his face. “I hurt her, Deirdre! And I cannot hurt her, not without killing myself again and again. We bleed magentine; we are one big groan together, and we fly miles apart, too, farther and farther the stars hurtle away through space, and the planets all go cold, while Demeter scalds them with her tears.”
I kiss his brow. “Persephone came back, love. Winter never lasts forever.” Just how much has the boy read, anyway?
“Here's the salicylic, Deirdre.” Braulio brings us a bottle of white pills. I break one in half, and break that half again.
“Take this, dear,” I say to Lufti, but he rears his head back in fear.
“Is it opium?” he gasps. “Will you write my secret thoughts down as I die one final time?”
“No, no, nothing of the kind. It can help mild pain, and fevers, but a quarter-pill a day can also help your heart.” I stroke his hair. “I'm trying to save you, dear, not kill you!”
“I rode and rode and killed the pain but it all caught up with me in the end. I murdered my mind along with the pain, you see, and can never be sane again. They haunt me still; they always will. Did you know that pain and sanity are the same thing? But no, that can’t be, because I hurt so much, even now!”
“Shut up and take your medicine,” Kiril growls behind us. I look up and see that she has set up a hammock under a tarp. “And then lie down with me. We're both exhausted, you poor fool. I know you didn't mean me any harm. And I know you'll never try a stunt like that again.”
Lufti just stares at her.“Come on.” She squats down and lifts his head up gently with one hand while she takes the quarter tablet with the other. “Here...there you go. And here's some water. And now sit up slowly...that's it. We both need sleep. Everything will turn out better after we sleep.” And she leads him off to their rough rebel bower.