IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Sharing Insanity
Monday, August 17, 2708, continued.
We run, we run, shared feet pounding the unyielding stone, shared sweat running down into many eyes, all seeing the same landscape, but blurred from too many viewpoints all at once…or maybe I’m just too tired to focus my one set of eyes. So tired that I feel the pain in my body as everybody’s pain. So tired that…oh dear God give us some relief!
(Let the other schoolboys slide down the bannisters on their rumps and think themselves daring–I shall take the curving hurtle on my feet! Simultaneously minding my balance and arcanely monitoring all the eyes upon me, I crouch down low, arms outstretched, rear jutting out behind me, as the waxed soles of my slippers live up to their name, whipping down the stairway’s arch as a wind of my own making pushes back my dark forelock’s curl over mad, dark eyes. For I have the art to see myself through all our eyes today: wiry and supple and fine, and it exults me! My teeth look huge in my grin, and today my receding chin does not look weak at all. The magic crystal in the pocket of my breast feels warm, feels like it throbs to match my racing pulse, and that exults me, too.
I reach the end and sail off into air. Heads look up, and some lads whistle. Several older boys run to catch me before I can meet my just desserts on the cold stone floor. I thank them formally when they set me to my feet, with just the right hint of a bow, as my teachers have taught me for more mundane circumstances.)
I feel like I can’t keep my mind in my own head, like exhaustion wears away the walls of my skull. Or maybe I just don’t want to be me anymore.
(How I love being me! I turn my back and walk out of Main Hall towards the corridor with my next class in it, as though nothing the least bit untoward has happened, ignoring (with delighted aplomb) the clapping that bursts out behind me. And if my waxed feet skid a little now and then, a friend always walks close by to catch me before I fall, or even disturb my dignity by much. I never lack for friends, these days. Oh yes, everybody knows the name of George Winsall! And some know an even better name, those initiate to the truth.)
Zanne would tell me to face the truth, whatever it might be (not that she’s so great at that, herself.) I face the truth that I reel dizzily from rock to rock, pushing myself on…no, that’s Kiril, not me, her asthma crushing her chest. I scoop her up in my arms, throw her against my shoulder, and keep on running. And now the miles grind even heavier upon me.
(Oh, I have seen it all, in the mirror of their eyes! I feel dizzy, gulping up all their perceptions at once like too much wine, but they blame my reel on the waxed slippers. Most of them know nothing of the arcane arts.
Some used to mock me, compare me to a rat in my appearance. Well, if so, a handsome rat, with big eyes like a gulp of dark caffeine: liquid eyes but hot, could combust on a whim. And my sculpted cheekbones suggest something more than human in the mix, not less, these fine, almost gaunt features that always look hungry, the buck-teeth that come across as predatory rather than dull of wit, but this suits my friends just fine, now, for isn’t hunting a gentlemanly art? And of course nobody else can quite duplicate this jaunty bob to my walk...well, normally, when I don’t have such slippery footwear to contend with. Or so many viewpoints.)
When I stumble, Kiril whispers, “I can run now” in my ear.
“You sure, dear?”
“Yes. I caught my breath.” So I put her down again, all too gladly, trying not to hear her wheeze. No, that’s me wheezing.
“Halt,” I gasp. And I sit on a stone, watching over my young as they topple wherever they might land, right there on what little sand lies between them and rock. I prop myself up against the boulder behind me, but my eyes close against my will…no! Open them! Yet…how’d they end up closed again? Open! And yet…
(I sit down at my desk in mathematics class, wordlessly pull out my protractor, ruler and pen, and draw the requisite angles on the paper that I find awaiting me, according to the instructions that the teacher chalks before us, as docilely as if they have domesticated me. Star pupil. No response to the winks or grinning side-glances around me. A king need not remark upon it when others notice his majesty. And if the teacher knows anything about my shenanigans on the staircase before, the old man makes no sign of it, either.)
Open! No, no, just…no…
(And the best thing is, the story will spread all through the school, just in time for the arrival of this year’s sophomores. Had I done it right in front of the newcomers, I’d have looked like the rankest of show-offs. But this way the rumors will point me out, and I’ll pretend not to notice, but I'll feel them looking, oh yes, without the indignity of looking back...except a key glance here and there, eyes meeting eyes to make a person feel almost initiated to something, to make them want to find out more...
Man, I love this school!)
All too soon I feel a vibration in the stone beneath and behind me, before I even hear the grind of our enemy’s approach. I force open my lids, shivering; night has robbed us of light and warmth once more. I rouse the others and we move on. Unfriendly eyes seem to glimmer in every haunt and hollow of the rock, but it's only mica glinting in the moonlight.
They say that on Old Earth, the nation of China decided that they didn’t need sparrows, that the birds stole too much grain to justify their existence. So they, in the wickedness of those days, commanded everyone in the nation to make noise whenever a sparrow tried to light anywhere for a rest, till all the birds fell dead from the sky, dropping from sheer exhaustion. I feel like one of those sparrows right now.
(Ah, here’s a fine place to light! Not all countries have inns, though you’d think it rather basic. Port Iris, however, sports several, and I have it on good authority that The Compass Rose is the one most frequented by students from the islands, on their way to the academy: low-budget but clean and comfortable, its dark wood as watertight as any ship, its wide doors generous enough for groups of friends to arrive all at a time. Inside, in the dimness, the lobby swarms with boys and young men in uncomfortable brown uniforms, and reeks of the last surreptitious cigarettes before they become forbidden.
“They’ll send your transportation in the morning,” the innkeeper informs us with a glance up from his clipboard, before we say a word, before we’ve even asked for rooms. Then he goes back to checking names off of a list against the register—all those whose parents (or Til Institute under a couple pseudonyms, in our case) have paid in advance by post, per custom, We, too, sign our names on the register, each in turn. Strange, I know that I write down something else, in a flourish as if I’ve always signed my name this way, the pen quite natural in my hand as it smoothly makes its loops and curls, but it feels to me, it even looks to me, as though I write down Randall Jonah Kramer.)
It suddenly troubles me that I never did get a chance to take on an alias. The entire countryside now knows the name of Deirdre Keller, the Witch of the Tilián. (And yes, I’ve heard them call me that. Jonathan would not approve.) The sense of unsafety about this oppresses me as we lope through the curves and angles of the Canyonlands. But then I look at my charges all around me, and my heart takes fire at the thought of protecting them. I can forget my body, forget my country, forget my faith and even sometimes forget my name. But Lovequest? Never!
But then I remember Shermio, and my heart crumples on my shame.
We zigzag through several new splits in the path. This seems to puzzle our pursuit, for their noise grows more distant, and then fades away completely. Our forced march halts, but not to rest.
We should have done this at the last halt, but no one had the strength. Even now, no one can dig such stony, frozen ground, so we pile cairns for the three who died, two whose wounds reopened in the jumble of retreat, and one shot on the run, by their bullet or ours I cannot say. I cut their names into the soft sandstone, and pray that I forget them, soon after being told. The evening’s insects buzz around the bloodstained wool of the skittish beasts who bore them, but we haven’t water enough to spare for washing out the stink
Malcolm carries twice the stones that others bear; it astounds me that he used to haul the same weight around just by moving. He comes closer and closer to normal-size every day. He seems to have aged years in months, the once-stretched skin sagging into increasingly deep wrinkles, yet with more life and youth in his eyes. But suddenly he stops, pale and sweating, dropping all his load.
“You okay?” I ask.
“Just the hernia. Excuse me...” He lies down and gingerly pushes at himself. “I think I...there. I’ve almost got it in.”
“You’re off duty till we finish the job,” I say, and mop my brow. He doesn’t argue.
I shove the last stone in place, and then straighten. “We’re settling in for the night,” I tell them, hoping that our ghosts watch over us, hoping that the army, too, needs rest and has run out of local reinforcements. I give Malcolm first watch, since his injury gave him a bit of rest, then I’ll take the next. With no tree in sight to hold up our hammocks, we spread our blankets on the cold stone, too exhausted to care. But I lie there, achingly awake, my muscles still twitching, fearing that moment when Malcolm tells me that I have to get back up again.
Oh Lord, oh Lord, Lord, Lord, give us the strength, give us what we need to hold the pace and get the rest of the wounded safely back to Koboros. I raise my eyes to the clear and quivering heavens overhead, but soon blink, daunted by the emptiness. God doesn’t hear the prayers of war-criminals.
Ghosts? Do you hover lower down, within our reach? Can you intercede for your old comrades in arms? At least show me a sign of hope…Please?
Then I lower my eyes to see a straggling bush rooted in a boulder’s crack, not doing too well, itself, its thin leaves curling in the drought and cold, but richer for that in concentrated volatile oils, oh burning greenfire bush that I recognize too well.
Not what I had in mind...but thanks.