IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
IV: Braided Paths
Wednesday, October 21, 2708
A spring storm beats the barn up roundly, but except for a few leaks in distant corners, the straw stays dry and snug. Good, because I don’t know if I could crawl out of the way of a drip right now. Nor could I ask for help, finding myself quite alone; my kids help the local farmers with chores in payment for our stay.
(In autumn weather like this, when wind and rain beat the old school walls like some tidal wave that would break on through, I remember the storms on Ishkal Island.)
(In weather like this, pushing against a gale to go to our detention, I/we/I remember the storms within that tossed us when we went through the Mindchange, though the sky and sea stayed calm.)
(Rain feels colder, somehow, when you go on a secret mission far away from your comrades. Colder and hungrier and gray. But bright things surely wait, in the end, for heroes who valiantly prevail, treasure-troves and sparkly things...but all such things seem dim and far and out of reach. Right now I shiver on the road, all alone. And right now feels like always.)
(My, how the shutters rattle in the storm! It makes the thunder seem all the louder. But at least Maury and Shon have patched up the leaks. And these daily meetings do help with morale, after chores. People feel less helpless when we discuss solutions for the larger problems of Vanikke. I take a deep breath and ask the folks who take their seats after a cocoa-break, “Where were we?”)
I take a deep breath, glad to not need help right now. The moist air enriches the barnyard scents of beast and earth, fodder and straw and manure, blossoms from the orchard, and wet barn-wood.
My concussion does not like the sense of smell. Fortunately, I have no trouble retreating into sleep, the rain on the rooftop lulling me back down into escape, huddled in my horse-blanket…
(We used to huddle together in Ishkal, back when I was a boy, shivering by the fire that the draft made to dance, wild and desperate. Sometimes the flames went blue and almost extinguished, sometimes they flared up again, crackling and sputtering from the moisture getting in the wood. Sometimes the wind would force the smoke right back down the chimney and choke us, and I would feel so scared.)
(Jacques throws more wood on the fire and says, “I was just calling you a jenny-ass for trying to get to the bottom of why anybody would sow our merchandise with psychoactive poisons. Sometimes people just do bad things.”
Toni adds, “And I was just about to pray you don’t get killed for even thinking of it.” She looks around at us darkly. “They do read minds, you know.”
Ozwald murmurs, “Whoever ‘they’ are.”)
( We would pray for Father, wherever he might sail, that he would come through safely and return to us. But I often wondered what would happen if he didn’t.)
(Sometimes I/we/I thought we would never return to Til again. And Jesse, of course, Jesse never did.)
(Wishing myself safely back at Til as a brand new leak! starts dripping on my shoulder, I smile brightly and say, “Well that’s the whole point isn’t it? Whoever ‘they’ are.” I step to one side as Ozwald scoots his sleeping-bag out of the water’s way and Beyla goes to fetch a bucket. “We need to find out, if we’re to do anything about this mess.”
Magda asks, “Who says we can do anything about it? I just want to survive.” The old woman looks up at me plaintively as Guaril wraps his blanket around her shivering shoulders. “Is that such a little thing? Seeing how many people we can just make sure survive?”)
(We would wrap everything around us, all of the blankets, the shawls, all of the fluttering scarves that we otherwise used for playing pirate STOP THAT THOUGHT!)
(But of course we blamed the local pirates for STOP THAT THOUGHT!)
Ohhh but my head hurts! Suddenly mounting, more and more...maybe a change in the weather or...who cares? It HURTS! Oh dear God it hurts!
(I fall to my knees with a cry, gripping the thunderburst in my head.
“Zanne?” “Zanne, are you all right?” “Somebody tell me what’s happening!”
I can’t think. I can’t think. I can’t think.
“Zanne, baby, do you need some more of that medicine?”
The feel of rainwater seeping into my pantsleg where I kneel stirs me out of it. Shakily I move away from the puddle and Anselmo helps me over to the chair that he just vacated. As Minerva mops up, I force myself to pull together, saying, “No, this isn’t a seizure or anything. Somebody just sent out a telepathic blast of some sort.” I take deep, breaths to stabilize myself, trying not to shake too much in front of the others.
Toni pales. “Are you...?”
I smile at her, and accept a cup of tea. “Yes. I am. But polite about it. I don’t pry.”)
(I hold onto a fencepost, panting, as the rain falls down. What just happened to me?)
There. It subsides again, down to a normal throb. I take a deep breath and force my tensed-up muscles to relax.
(I pick up my walking-stick from where I dropped it, and go back to walking. Whatever it was doesn’t matter now. Deirdre needs me to keep on going. Kiril would admire me.)
(I force myself away from the window, take a deep breath, and turn around to deal with the here and now, the day-to-day fuss of managing a boarding-school. The brass on these door-plates need polished, for one thing. I’ll have to talk to the Chief of Staff about it.)
(I/we take a shuddering breath. Don looks wild-eyed. “Something happened,” he says.
I agree. “We’re overlapping sometimes. Are we telepaths, now?”
“No,” Jake groans. “Not quite.”
When he says no more, I insist, “What then, Jake? What is it quite?”
“The rip just got bigger. It’s pulling down boundaries between us. It’s starting to not need outside help to tear. Or maybe not deliberate help.”
Not knowing why, I tell him, “I’ve still got her thread, Jake.” And I marvel at the feel of the word, “her”, in my mouth.
I feel his hand, strong and big and gentle on my shoulder. “Thank you. I can help you hold it a bit, now, too.”
And Don just stares at us, trying to understand. Or maybe trying not to.)
The rain has stopped. I have no idea how long I have lain here, throbbing in and out of consciousness. Sun now streams in through the door and through a few seams in the walls. I hear the birds sing in gratitude for the warming light, and the soft cluck of chickens searching for worms that the storm flushed out. I feel cradled somehow, protected.
(The overstuffed chair cradles me, and Cybil’s tea tastes sweet. All seem warm...soft...
I raise a hand. “Guys, what’s that sound? Outside, over at the window?”
Toni stands up. “That is not a banging shutter!”)
And I hear something else outside. I try to sit up, but dizziness drags me back down. I know by now the particular jingle of a Charadocian soldier’s gear—not a good time to find yourself incapacitated, Deirdre! I drag myself across the straw to the nearest gun, then cradle it to me, the sweat thick and cold upon me. I stare intently at the barn door, which persists in splitting in two no matter how I try to focus. Can I even aim? Let ‘em get close enough to find out!
“Seems you’ve got yourself some new farmhands,” I hear a gruff voice say.
“Yup. Need ‘em, to recoup our losses. More hands means a bigger yield.”
“Uh...yeah.” Good—the soldier knows nothing about farming.
“Size o’ the crop’s directly proportional to the amount of cultivation,” the farmer says blandly, knowing full well that the seed’s not even planted yet. “So—what can I do for you?”
“Came back for my wallet.” The voice sounds tense as he says, “It seems I must have left it behind.”
Nonchalantly the farmer says, “No problem. I expected you’d come back for it...here you go.”
“And what was it doing in your pocket?”
“Staying safe for you,” the farmer says casually. “Farmhands come and go, you know, working their way across the country, always looking for a better deal. Most are okay, but I can’t swear to the honesty of all of ‘em. I wouldn’t go leaving wallets lying around, if I was you.”
(Dalmar throws open the window and drags in a skinny, rain-drenched teenager as black as himself. “Looks like we caught ourselves a thief,” he says, and Toni breathes a sigh of relief, crossing herself.
Maury laughs. “What was he thinking to rob a house like this? When is it ever empty?”
Dalmar throws the youth against a wall. “Yeah—what were you thinking?”
“I just I just I just I got hungry!”
Dalmar may look like an ivory tower type, but he works out. He pushes the kid’s shoulders easily to make him sit on the floor, where the man towers over him. “So life’s hard everywhere, and you just thought you’d help yourself, is that it? Not help anybody else out, just yourself? Boy, where do I even start with you?”)
I hear the rustle of counting bills, till at last the soldier says, “Looks like it’s all here....”
“There you go, son. Take care, next time. It ain’t a perfect world.”
“You can bet your farm on that,” the soldier says, and I hear the boots tramp away again. And I tumble back into sleep as helplessly as if the relief settles onto me like a lead-stuffed quilt.
(“Nobody helps me, so I help nobody. It ain’t a perfect world.” But he mumbles it into his chest, humbled, not looking up.
“You got that right It’s not a perfect world. But if you want to help make it better...” he says giving the thief a hand up, “We just might find you some food in the kitchen. What’s your name, kid?”
“Apollo,” he says, wide-eyed, and Dalmar escorts him to the refrigerator.)