IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
VII: The Burning
Tuesday, April 29, 2709
I feel the hammock tip as Lufti slides out, then I feel it sway as his soft footfalls, barely audible above the soft breathing all around us, navigate between the sleepers in the dark. I hear the door creak open and closes, gently, trying to make as little noise as possible.
It’s not yet dawn. That’s all right. He slept all day and most of this night, so he’ll be fine.
A pungent herbal scent comes in with him when he returns. I hear the quiet rustle as he packs his harvest into his pack. Then he climbs back up to join Kiril and me, redolent with the scent of sage all over him. That’s all right, too. I like sage. I move to let him nestle against me and I fall back asleep.
(Before the dawn I hear sobbing. I’ve heard so many tears in so many variations that God help me, I almost sleep through it, before I wake up in a jolt and realize that it’s my son. I scramble up from my blankets on the floor next to his bed and reach out to him, gently, careful of his wounds and bruises. He lunges into my shoulder and the storm of his tears bursts out on me and soaks my bare skin, as his arms grip my lacerated back and I don’t care, let him hurt me! I deserve it!
“I deserved it, every burn, every lash, every blow! Oh, what a fool I’ve been!”
Words! Oh thank God words! “Shhhh, shhhhh,” I sooth him down, stroking him though touch pains us both, and yet neither of us wants it to stop. “It’s all right now. Everything’s going to be all right from here on out.” So what if I lie? Truth has used me ill of late.
No, I don’t lie. I can’t lie, for haven’t I beaten the capacity out of me, as I have lovingly done for my own son? Something pure, something holy remains in this our mutually penitent embrace, triumphing over all prior stain. Something long missing in my life has come back to me, shivering in my arms. I am the Sane One, and sane means clean, doesn’t it? All unclean spirits I have driven out the hard way, so that whatever I do—whatever my son and I do together—partakes of a spirit filtered through our trials and wholly, radiantly free of taint.
He pulls back to glare into my eyes with his bloodhot own. “Use me!” he cries. “Use me any way you want to end the horrors of these days!”
I nod. “I can do that, son. You are widely trusted among the rebels. You could go back among them and work for me from within. Can you do that for me?”
“Anything! And if I die, Father, it would only end an accursed bloodline that should never have happened.”
I freeze at that, and then I nod. Only truth remains in this room, and Jason has become its foremost disciple. Yes indeed. For he now sees a truth that I should have considered. What cowardice held me back till now?
No matter. I’m on the right track now. Something broke just now, some unbearable fever. I am finally clean. We both can start anew.
So why, dear God why do I still feel devoid of hope?)
* * *
Chulan leads the way, pushing through the broad-leaved branches, wading through the ferns, as softly as if she pulled back curtains at Madame’s with that shyness which beguiles men sometimes more than brazenness. A warm rain drips down through the layers of foliage overhead, drenching us at the gaps. We can hear the thunder raging overhead, but we pay it the same indifference we would to the sound of distant battle; we have no safe place clear of tall trees out here, and so fear of lightning would do us no good. We still feel too depleted for fear, anyway, but not enough to plead off marching.
(On the open sea again. Don asks Jake what heading and then steers us towards it. I feel the wind change on my face and sigh with relief. “The last hermit!” I can’t help but smile. “I know that what we do matters, but I never signed on for the life of an undertaker.”
Don smirks at that. “You never know what profession you’ll wind up in as an agent.” He takes control of the gennacker sail, which had started to billow and snap. “Or haven’t you noticed that yet?”
“Even a schoolboy, with orders to misbehave!” I say with a laugh.
Wallace raises a brow. “You had such orders ahead of time, even before you arrived? You knew you’d have to infiltrate the delinquents?”
I tug the rudder where it needs to go. “Sure—if you want to get to the root of trouble, infiltrate the troublemakers.” Now George takes a turn staring at me.
Jake hasn’t smiled the whole time. “Not always,” he says in that soft, deep voice of his. “Sometimes the worst trouble comes from those who think themselves good.,”)
We step around the detritus of battle, spent shells, lost gear, old blood buzzing with flies. Some of the gear looks good enough to add to our own, after perfunctory prayers for the souls of the dead, theirs or ours.
Lufti smudges everything we pick up with the sage he gathered this morning, and ourselves as well, muttering madly under his breath. I’m the only one here who knows that the word for what he does is “smudging”, for this isn’t a Charadocian custom. Such things don’t surprise me anymore. No fire lasts long in the frequent rain, but the green herbs smolder well enough.
(I give Jason the gun. He shoots me glancingly against my rib so that I fall to the ground, cursing theatrically. Through my own clamor I soon hear him shoot the guards—for surely they, too, would gladly give their lives for the salvation of The Charadoc. I hear him hurl himself up onto the donkey that I had hitched conveniently close before the sun had risen this morning. The servants in this mansion where we stay will report all to the network as they have seen it, that he escaped indeed. They will think him true.)
Lufti waves more smoldering sage over the graves as well, when we come to them, hung with dogtags. No ice-wagons here, then, or else it was rebels who buried the dead, which means that they put the enemy to rout. Either answer bodes well for us. I have to try and feel that.
(I lie in the blood, watching the red stain spread on my fresh, white shirt. The shock slowly turns to an exquisite pain, right where I used to tuck him under my arm, so close to my heart. I feel at peace with this, mildly surprised that he didn’t kill me when he could’ve, and then I reflect that he still needs someone to deliver his messages to. I suppose the war itself has means enough to end our line soon enough.
Weakened by blood loss, hearing the far-off running of men to my location, I relax into the beauty of our plan. Jason will place what I gave him among the supplies waiting for the rebels over at that other plantation, among other things. There is more than one way to lay a landmine in my enemy’s path.)
Now Lufti wafts his pungent smoke over other graves that we come across next, a little ways away, marked with personal items. We don’t touch those. We do send up our prayers, more heartfelt than before.
“Cyran’s forces aren’t far,” Chulan tells us. “But we have other business before rejoining him.” It seems that our leader sent Chulan and her brother to us with this in mind, to bring us to the next rich household ready to change sides.
I notice the glint of rubyberries in the bushes. I order the band to stop and browse. Nobody needs told twice.
(With my mouth full of spring sweetness, I hand Ozwald some more erlies while I scan the rocks and stumps for more. I’m so glad that Merrill insisted on drilling me on every text we could grab on Vanikke, even though at the time I told him that I’d have a cushy metropolitan life and wouldn’t need to scrounge at wild herblore. The deeper into the woods we go, the more of these “berries” we find, gleaming garnets sprung from the thickest moss. Which leaves us safely hidden from the road when all the commotion breaks out.
Tires scream, gunshots bark, and something crashes through protesting foliage just up ahead. I give Ozwald a boost up into a tree to check it out. Anxiously I watch the dear boy climb as I hear more shots and try not to flinch at waves of grief, fury, panic, pride and horror washing my way. So far it all seems too preoccupied to consider anything in our direction.
“It’s Anselmo!” Ozwald yells at the top of his lungs, so of course bullets pop his way. He drops at once and I run to disentangle the poor fool—he stood less risk of dying from the bullets! Fortunately thick undergrowth broke his fall and not his bones, though he’s got some nasty lacerations, and he’ll have a whole rainbow of bruises to go with them tomorrow. He does his best to help, the hollow in his face showing that he lost his eyepatch. I shrug; thrilling life of an agent—I’ve seen worse.
No more sounds come from the road. And no sound from Ozwald, who learned a hard lesson today, though I’m sure he’d love to moan right about now.
I wonder what’s happening out there? Is Anselmo even still alive? Mustn’t do anything hasty, even though the Gates of Knowledge have made me fabulously good at haste. Concentrate on freeing the boy first, or you could lose them both.
Good advice, Tshura. Thanks.)
It doesn’t surprise me that the rubyberries only register as sweet because my body needs the carbs. The others spring back sooner than I do and actually smile at the taste, feeding each other rebel-style.
I thought the Black Clam change was supposed to make me the more adaptable one. It comes to me that maybe now I can only feel happy when wired. I hope that that’s not true, but resign myself to a life where it probably is. Bloody thrilling life of an agent.
( But wait...I hear a heavy tramping come our way. I stop trying to extricate the boy and instead burrow in with him. Quietly I find his eyepatch dangling from a twig and hand it back to him, making no sound.)
What’s that I hear? I whistle the call for “Hush” and everyone melts into the brush as smoothly and silently as if we’d all been whelped there. Soft steps barely crackle through the mat of fallen leaves, but I can tell that something bipedal makes them, a whole lot larger than any bird on the continent.
(“Ozwald?” a booming voice calls out. “Was that you, Mijo?” And we both explode out of the bushes to launch ourselves into Anselmo’s muscular arms, laughing and crying and hugging some more and then some more after that.)
I hear the sweet call of the farelkenari and suddenly Chulan laughs. “It’s all right, everybody. That’s a signal of my own.”