IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
V: Sharing Insanity
Friday, November 6, 2708, continued
(“You’ll like the company,” Zahir says, “Better than me.” He makes the first attempt I’ve heard from him to laugh. “Sometimes I’m such a sullen fellow, Lufti, I can hardly stand myself.”
I feel stiff and sore from a full day’s lessons in horseback-riding—the guy has no mercy. He let me nap after dinner awhile, then pushed me back to my feet; he said that the walk to the tavern would do me good, help stretch the muscles out. A beer would do me even better; that’s the only thought that keeps me plodding along at his side right now instead of murdering him.
No, I don’t mean that. He’s cool, Zahir, just a little strange at times, but war has made us all a little strange, each in our own ways. Sometimes I wonder what a normal boy my age would look like.
“You didn’t leave your wallet behind, I hope,” he remarks.
“Nope,” I say, then mournfully, “I wish I’d left behind my behind.”
He smacks the offended part and laughs again. “You’ll heal. Consider it martyrdom for the cause.”
“Sure, but I’m spending the night standing at the bar, okay?”
“No problem—with the singer they’ve got tonight, it’s probably standing room only, anyway.”
As we approach the tavern, the first strains of music sounds hauntingly familiar. It can’t be. No, of course not—those songs travel all over the Charadoc these days; anybody might sing them. Besides, the voice sounds too deep. Good voice, though—he puts in slight but powerful surges of emotion here and there with a skill that I didn’t think any but one could match.
Then we enter the light and warmth and it is! It is! It takes more than a beard to change that face. Damien sees me and he just lights up, though he doesn’t miss a beat. I feel a grin ambush me; I grab the lintel and just gape for joy.
Zahir looks at me, Damien, me again, and nods, smiling to himself. Then he drags me to the bar and orders up our beers. Heaven knows I’ve earned mine, and every screaming muscle says I need it, but I hardly taste the brew, losing myself into the music and struggling not to cry from the sheer joy of seeing a familiar face when I least expect. When I finish the mug I find a second at my elbow.
“I didn’t order this,” I say.
The bartender leans over and says softly, under the crowd’s din, “Compliments of a friend of yours, if you’ll take it in a back room that I can show you.” I nod and follow him, reluctant to leave the music behind, though I can still hear some through the walls of the place that he leads me to. Furs cushion a bench built from the wall’s adobe and a candle flickers on a barrel serving a table’s place. The barkeep puts out bread, cheese and cold-cuts for me, with some nuts, pickles, and dried fruit.
“Thanks, but I already had dinner,” I say over the growling of my stomach.
“The way your wrists and ankles stick out, kid, you’ve hit a growth-spurt—don’t turn down free food.” He’s right; I feel hungry enough to eat three men’s rations. “If you need a refill, help yourself to the tap over there,” he says, nodding towards another barrel. “With the take I expect to make tonight, I can afford to be generous. And I’ve got indoor plumbing behind that curtain, so you’ve got no call to go out alone tonight.” That’s a sobering enough thought to make me leery of the tap. “I’ll tell Zahir you’re spending the night; he’ll send you a horse in the morning.”
He leaves me there, amid the boxes and barrels and stored odds and ends. He’s obviously got so many plans zipping around me that it makes my head spin without the second beer, so I set it down and look about me, at the boxes and barrels, bottles and jars, stuffed and lumpy burlap bags, hanging sausages and hams and strings of dried fruit and vegetables, damaged furniture, seasonal decorations and faded old posters. How did he get advance warning of me, anyway? The Marsts—it has to be. Do I trust them enough to think that they know who to trust? Do I have a choice?
Deirdre always says to scan any place you find yourself in, to check out whatever might serve you for a weapon or a place to hide, what might prove a liability or a bargaining chip. Like that table-leg over there, awaiting reattachment. I consider also keeping an eye out for loot, but that doesn’t feel right; I shouldn’t rob a guy who gives me free food and beer.
I find a full-length mirror leaning against some crates. A mirror shard can make an okay dagger, if you have something tough to hold it in, like that goatskin bar-rag over there. But I’m tired of war-thinking. I’d rather study the dusty reflection in the dim candlelight.
That’s me? Taller, of course; I should expect that. My hair has grown, too, since last I looked, brushing my shoulders like a girl’s; I’ll need to cut it, first chance I get. (Then again, Kief used to wear his hair long, and nobody ever called him girlish. In fact, lots of rebels do; it’s not like we can just waltz into a barber shop any time we please.) I’ve got a girl’s waist, too, though no curves to go with it—seems I haven’t changed my size so much as stretched up what I had. And my face isn’t quite so round anymore—even at my hungriest I always had a roundish face, before. That’s one change, at least, that doesn’t look the least bit girlish. My face has angles now, almost rugged, even.
“I’m not a little boy anymore,” I say, because there’s a kind of magic in saying it out loud.
“That’s for sure!” Damien says behind me and laughs. We run into each other’s arms and hug, and pound each other’s backs, then push each other away to take a good look, grinning, and hug each other again. “You’re a great, big, strapping boy, and next time I see you I expect a beard.” His own has grown in thick and dark, not wispy like most mountainfolk. He winks and asks, “Any beard down below yet?”
“No!” I say and feel my face go hot. “Well, maybe a little.”
We take a seat on the furs (he does; I sort of half-kneel, very gingerly, curling up my legs and leaning on the side of one hip) and he says, “I’ve only got this short break to talk, so tell me what you know while the night is young.” While he can still memorize it all, he means. Quickly I fill him in on the codes being compromised, Kiril’s situation, and General Aliso being on the move.
He already knows something about Aliso; in fact he came here tonight to get more word on her. I give him her latest known position. “Rest here tonight,” he tells me, “and take advantage of whatever the barkeep has to offer—let him pack your saddlebags full tomorrow, too, and don’t worry about paying; I’ve taken care of that. You might have a hard road, come day.” Uh...saddlebags?
I nod, but then ask, “What about you? Tell me news that has nothing to do with war.”
He grins and blurts, “I’m going to be a father! There’s no doubt anymore. I don’t know how she managed it, with all that she’s been through, but Kanarik’s ripening up like the sweetest little melon you ever laid eyes on, and it’s mine all mine.”
We laugh and toast the coming child. Then I remember the Marsts and their provisions for the future. “How you gonna to feed the kid, Damien? Last I heard Abojan Pass was under siege.”
“Oh, we took care of that,” he says, but a little more solemnly. “We’ve secured the smuggling routes.” He shoves up his sleeve and shows me a new scar on his arm. “That’s how I came by this.” He laughs. “Bards have the luck, you know, to get grazed this close without real damage. Anyway, Mrs. Abojan’s found a market for her embroidery through South Stovak and beyond. She’s selling everything, even stuff she made fifty years ago and swore she’d never part with. No use holding onto heirlooms, she says, when she has no heirs; the altar-cloths and vestments she made for the chapel will suffice for her posterity.” His smile briefly leaves him; does the old woman still believe that any would dare finish the chapel now? He tells me, “She’ll hold back only the sheets that she adorned for her and Hara’s shrouds—at her age, she says, that’s her only need.”
I nod over my mug. “She’s a good woman, Deni Abojan.”
“A mother to us all,” Damien agrees. As he gets us both refills, he tells me, “Besides, I slip out all the time, spreading the good word far and wide and collecting information while I’m at it. I didn’t like it at first, leaving Kanarik so long, but I can pick up nice things for her on the way—her and the future child.” He hands me mine and draws deep upon his own, grinning again with froth in his beard. “Man—future child. I like the sound of that.”
“And after the war?” I ask, after a draught of my own.
“Why, after the war, I’ve got a career in music!” He brandishes his thambriy proudly. “You’ve seen the crowds I draw. Once I get the price off my head I can have recording contracts and everything!” Then he shrugs. “Even if I don’t make it big, I can find steady work in clubs and stuff. I can do what I like best for the rest of my life, Lufti, and feed my daughter doing it.”
“Well, Kanarik’s hoping for a son, but I want a daughter just as pretty as her. If everything works out, I’ll get her singing and dancing lessons, maybe acting or juggling, maybe acrobatics, just see what she takes to. Then we can hit the road as a family. All this rebel-work has given me a taste for travel, and Kana feels the same way.”
The barkeep leans in and shouts, “You’re on, Bard—the crowd’s getting antsy!”
“In a minute,” Damien calls back. “Anyway, Kanarik’s gotten so good at fancy needlework, even with one hand, that she can make all the costumes we desire. We’ve got a future, whatever happens.”
“It all sounds wonderful, Damien.” Maybe I shouldn’t be having this last beer; why else would I blurt out, “But what if she turns out like Aichi?” before I even realize what I’ve said.
“I’ve thought of that,” he says, very quietly, and now his smile looks sad but strong. “Kana lost a lot of blood with her arm, and during the siege she didn’t eat the way a mother needs. But Lufti, I’d love that baby any way God makes her. You gotta know that. Even if all she can do is sweep the stage between acts, I’ll feel proud of her, so long as she does her best job; I’ll always find a place for her in my life. Maybe she won’t even walk or talk—I’ve seen ‘em like that. Maybe she’ll only gurgle her pleasure at my singing from the wings. But sometimes the simple tunes can sound as sweet as symphonies. I love her already, Lufti, and she’s just a swelling melon right now, not doing much of anything.”
“Then let’s drink to the future,” I say, and we click our mugs together.
“BAAAAARRRRD!” calls the barkeep.
“On my way!” He finishes his beer, winks at me, and says, “Is there no end to service?” before going out the door.)
Is there no end to service? Something in my head shouts “Wake up! Wake up!” over and over till at last I have to force my eyes open, staring at the twigs and dirt and last year’s leaves decaying. Then I groan and push myself from the ground to my knees. Then...wait a minute. Why did I lie down here, alone, without camping gear, on twigs and stones, in the middle of the forest?
Betany! I have to find her! I leap to my feet, reel against a tree, push myself away, and force myself back to searching. Is that blood over there? Yes. Yes it is. Hers? I think so. That way, then.
Why’n’earth did I fall asleep in the middle of something so urgent?