IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
II: Tests of Fire and Blood
Monday, June 1, 2708, continued
Rebels pay their way. Up on swaying poles that barely hold our slender weight, we repair the thatch on the roadside stand with long leaves and bundles of grasses that Malcolm ties and hands up to us, after our hostess taught him the art. The couple, meanwhile, prepares thin strips of meat to hang in a metal barrel out back, turned into a smokehouse. While her parents work, the little girl pats out mud pies in the leaf-dappled sun, as earnestly as if she means to sell them to help keep the family afloat.
"A few of the soldiers come here on Saturday and Monday nights," our hostess whispers below us, barely audible above our rustling. "AWOL, but their captain rarely makes it back on Mondays from his weekend trips down to the lowlands. Sundays they leave to God."
"Lately they've been badgering us for whores," the man says grimly. I can hear his salt-shaker pause for a moment. "The last time they said my wife'll do, if I don't provide better."
"You think they're serious?" she asks him.
Vigorous salting. "I don't know what to think. I don't dare guess."
"They used to not be so bad," she says, shaking her head. "They're just kids. They like my home-made chaummin better than what you can find anywhere else. But that Purple Mantle..."
"Sanzio D'Arco--of all those sons of sows the worst." Something about that name makes me nearly drop a straw-bundle. I almost feel as if I’ve dreamed it, as if that name has no right to intrude upon the daylit world.
The woman says, "After he questioned Aron, he just kept hanging around, poking into people's business. And his mere presence puts ideas into young men's heads, what they can get away with just from having him around. I think even the Master of the Plantation fears them a little, now." She comes out with her husband, carrying thin, bloody strips of meat, sparkling with salt, and glances all about her with wide, trapped eyes. In a little voice she says, "It's not enough, now, that I make the best chaummin in the mountains." And they creak open the smokehouse and hang up the raw goat flesh together.
* * *
(“We couldn’t show you on the Sabbath, sir, you understand,” says the superstitious lout, standing in the stall's straw, out here where we raise small livestock to keep the boys fed without having to leave the Academy. “Didn’t dare touch it or nothing. Had to clean around it and try to calm the goats. They didn’t take well to the smell, the goats didn’t. We’ve had our hands full, I can tell you.”
But I hardly register his presence, except as an irritation, remembering how I stormed out of the evasive meeting in frustration the day before. I knew! I didn't want to, I tried not to, but on some deep, inchoate level, I knew.
“Sorry we panicked and called you yesterday, but then...you know. Wasted your time. A shame it is, to waste a headmaster's time, but well...”
“It's done, man.” My murmur surprises me; I can't imagine speaking again. Yet after the initial faintness passes, and I find myself still standing on my feet, still staring at the...thing...laid out in the bloody straw like a troll’s idea of art, and hearing, beyond the ringing of my ears, the buzzing flies, the worried bleating of the animals and the murmurs of the men, I find voice enough to say, “Who did this terrible thing?”
“Satanists, I’d wager,” says the chief stablehand, just as gray in the face as I suppose I must look, myself, and just as determined not to show the excess of his alarm. “That goat-head, you know. They need goat’s heads for something-or-other...” The man swallows back nausea, his nonchalance wearing thin.
I feel more blood flow to my brain, and with it more sanity. “Someone imitating whatever they think seems most satanic, more likely.” I cannot disguise my disgust—and why should I? I walk around the ugliness, stepping gingerly, wrinkling my nose at the barnyard smells, and this sanguine layer added on. “Or trying to reinvent it all from scratch.”
“All the same, the goat’s head, the chicken feet, the guts—rat, I believe--all that, it’s definitely work of the devil that someone set out to do here.” And the magentine crystals, placed in compass directions within the horrid mandala. I recognize them for what they are, even if he does not. Where do the boys find these things? “But that’s not the worst of it.” The man turns his terrified eyes to me, though the rest of him tries to stay calm to the point of stiffness. “At least the goat died quickly.”
In horror I pivot towards the chicken-yard, but of course from this distance I cannot see a thing worth mentioning. “It’s happening at last,” I whisper to myself. “It’s finally breaking out into the physical.”)