IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
II: Tests of Fire and Blood
How to Die
Thursday, May 28, 2708, continued
Down by the pool we find not only Chulan (still in a soot-streaked negligee) but also Damien, Kanarik--and Imad. Imad, burnt worse even than Teofilo, blistered and raw in red and black; he clings, shuddering, to a rock in the middle of the pool, his legs afloat behind him, while the water swirls away bits of char and a shocking tinge of blood. The others plead with him to come out but he won't come out, and he clutches a knife against the rock to make damn sure he won't. But I've labored long enough among the wounded and dying to read the glazing of his eyes and know he hasn't long.
"Please!" Damien points my way. "See? Deirdre's arrived, just as I promised she would. She saved Teo, she can save you, too." No. Not anything this bad. No way.
"Save?" he gasps. "Save me?" He spits in the purifying pool. "Only the power in this water can save me." The rasp of his voice sounds raw. He rests his head against the stone; his eyelids flutter and for a second the waters almost tug him loose; then he gets a grip again. He moans, "Where's Father Man when you need him?"
"Fatima," I ask, "Do these waters have healing properties?" Please--I'll grasp at miracles, psychosomatic health, anything!
"Only spiritual healing," she says, and shakes her head. “Folks say it’s natural holy-water.”
"Only!" Imad spits again. I see blood in the sputum as the waters carry it away. "What the hell do you think I need, more than life itself?" And he coughs long and hard, and nearly loses his grip again. "Baptism...fire and water and blood...so much hate...to wash away." He fades even as I watch.
"Fatima, hurry--run back to the car and get the cooking-oil."
"No!" Imad revives to glare at me. "No healing-tricks--it's time to die....ready...almost..." and his energy spends so that the knife falls clattering from his grip to splash into the pool. Damien lunges for him but I hold him back.
"I don't intend to treat you, Imad, but anoint you." Fatima runs up breathless with the bottle of stapleseed oil. "In a pinch you don't need a priest and you don't need special chrism--you do what you can." I nod to the girl beside me. "Sister Fatima, do the honors, please." And she wades out there, her boy-clothes billowing in the water. She offers the cross strung by her luck-doll for him to kiss, scoops up water to sprinkle on him in the sign of the cross, and murmurs prayers that I can’t hear, but I know enough to respond with the others, “As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, worlds without end. Amen.”
Imad grabs her shirt with one raw hand and whispers fiercely into her ear. I hear her, faintly but distinctly say, “Your sins are forgiven, and all your duties done. Go in peace, brother.” Then, murmuring prayers as quickly as she can, for he’s fading fast, she thumbs the sign of the cross in oil on his brow, his lips and hands, no time for more than that, and then she kisses him sweetly on the blistered cheek.
He sighs, lets go, and soon floats face down, swirling 'round and 'round as I stand there barefoot in the mud. Fatima closes her eyes and whispers all the old prayers that nothing could make her forget. After a decent interval I say, "Okay. Let's fish him out." Already Chulan has gathered whatever sticks and scraps we can use to scratch out something like a grave, while Kanarik and Damien spread out the cloak that they carried him in this far, to receive him as his shroud.
* * *
(The other generals do not deserve to know the reasoning behind my strategy. Men cling to the myth that reason trumps emotion in all things, creating elaborate explanations for deeds driven by the heart. Sometimes they even succeed in disciplining the heart completely out of the picture. Sometimes.
They will never understand that rebels have nothing left but heart, and certainly no discipline. Their strategies make no sense because they do not navigate by sense. A woman, however, can figure out exactly what they’ll do.
Take this pass I’ve ordered guarded, patiently, patiently, waiting like the spider waits on a lamp for moths. If I tried to explain the reason why rebels will go there, they would recoil and swear that I’d lost my mind. Even the emotional explanation would make no sense to a man, no matter how he tried to examine with his heart. They honestly believe that they would, themselves, evade emotional torment as intently as any soldier dodges bullets. But the spider knows, webbing the lamp, understanding that, come the night, the moths will flock to it, seeking immolation.
Besides, the macho beasts want easy victories so they can beat their chests. They would expose these secrets too soon, and let the really big, important victories flee. We must wait for the night to fall, for the dazzlement of the switched-on bulb, and for the benighted moth, drawn against his will, hungry for the moon.)
* * *
By firelight they recount to us the lost and the escaped. Madame died with a pearl-handled pistol in her hand, trying to the last to defend the human beings that she owned, and loved, and used. They saw one of the twins escape with Kiril and Lufti; we tell them about the other one speeding away with Kief and Aichi.
Ambrette saved Lucinda's life, they tell me, shooting a gun for the first time in her life--never mind ceremony, she has passed her test of fire and blood, throwing that big, unconscious woman over her shoulder and carrying her across the coals. Lucinda stood a chance; she already seemed to revive from her blows the last time Chulan saw her, mumbling something that nobody could hear in all the gunfire and shouting, though the blood drenched down from her brow into a scarlet mask.
They think that Gaziley might have escaped with Ambrette--the kid shot wildly with a policeman's gun in each hand, grinning like a lunatic when one of the cops recognized him. "Couldn't aim worth dirt," Chulan recounts, "but he scared the living piss out of anyone who came near, so it didn't matter all that much."
"But we lost all our supplies," Chulan said, "Everything we didn't have on us."
"And the harp," Damien says, trying not to choke. "Father Man's harp went up in flames."
* * *
Gummy stuff sticks to my shoes, and tatters of rubbish--paper, string, old hair--stick to that. Can't see anyplace where I can clean my feet, as I wade through the alleys of Rhallunn. I duck under a pole that props up two drunken shacks against each other. Ahead I see a clothesline, surprised and pleased that someone here still does laundry, but when I stoop to pass beneath the weather-stiffened rags and smell the mildew in them, I realize that someone had started, but then forgot, months ago, maybe even years. Bare spots in the line show where the better stuff had hung, now stolen, probably; not even a beggar would take any of what remains.
I glance back at Jacob; he looks green. I can see the question in his eyes: Did I do this? Did I drive her to this?
"No, Father," I tell him, and he starts. "You had nothing to do with Mom ending up here. If you'd stuck by her, she'd have dragged you down, too."
"Is she a telepath?" he asks. At first I think he means Mom; then I realize that what Tilianach he'd picked up in the hills adhered to the archaic forms of grammar, and that I'd startled him back to that.
"No Father, I'm not," I say as I squeeze between two shoulder-high shacks to keep more or less to the remains of a road that we follow. "Not really." I hop into a pothole and then help him climb up out on the other side. "I have a trace, they say, but I'm a levitator. The physical psychic gifts sap the other kind, or something like that. They never completely explained it to me."
"Ah. She is a flyer."
"Say 'you'--no formal grammar. I'm your daughter."
"Ah. Yes. You is a daughter."
"That's right," I say with a friendly punch to his arm to try and hearten him.
Fireheart sibs passed this way before, fanning out to scout our way for us. While I keep an eye to the safety of our feet like any resident, eyes cast down, Jacob scans above for the telltale markers out of line of sight for most people here. At a juncture he points out a red scrap of what must've been silk flapping from the cracked second-story sill that it had snagged upon. I note three of Lisa's beads, surplus from her collection, very recently knotted into it. Three means turn left, and that we do.
Two-story buildings predominate here now, the space between a squeeze. I see at least one where the second story has collapsed into the first, but plainly we've come to a slightly better part of town, such as it is. Tatters of curtains flutter in some of the windows, fragments of glass still sunk into the sills. Adobe melts in the soggy air, exposed wood rots under a few flecks of paint, but someone had tried here, once. Long ago. Had artists once flourished here, or tried to, as they do now on the outskirts of town?
I knock at the door with five of Lisa's beads strung onto a dirty bit of twine wrapped around the knob. I could've pushed it down with one hand, not even leaning into it. No answer. I knock again, and the door wobbles. Still no answer. On tiptoes I peek in through a chink at the top where some of the rotten wood has broken away; I see a surly man glare back at me, arms tightly crossed with a twitch in what he has left of his muscles. "I'm here to visit Bertha Maeve," I call in. "May I please come in?"
"She's not here," he snaps in a shuddery voice. "She's moved on." Now Lisa had reported to me, from outside glimpses through a window, that the woman looked unable to move beyond raising her hand a bit.
"Come on--be a sport," I say in my best cajolery. "I've got a little of the needful if you let me in." I shake the bottle in hand till it sloshes audibly. Rum laced with laudanum may not be his drug of choice, but I can see that he's gone past being choosy right now. The door opens and a hairy hand reaches out. I push past it even as I deliver the bottle into it. He blocks off Jacob.
"Let my father in and you'll get cash, besides." When Jacob enters I peel off several bills of Alonzo Valley scrip--they use it a lot around here; Til credit hardly matters, what with the power lines so unreliable and so few having consoles that still work.
"She's upstairs," the man tells me, then disappears, cradling the bottle like his child.
I wake abruptly, sitting straight up with sweat all over me. The familiar night-song of the Charadoc sings around me, and the fresh forest smells nothing like Rhallunn. Shakily I lay back down on the bare ground, wishing I had a blanket to pull over my head to keep the nightmares out. Now a slight breeze ruffles the leaves and chills the sweat on me; I don’t normally like to sleep with other people, but tonight I snuggle close to Fatima and Chulan for whatever warmth they can share.
"Bad luck," I mutter to myself, but in Tilianach, so that even in their sleep they won't understand. "It's bad luck to dream what really, literally happened, point for point."
I stare up at a moon-eyed lemur in the branches above me. "We aren't going to give up," I murmur, this time in Charadocian. "Nobody's running away just to give up. Not this time."