IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume V: Sharing Insanity
Tuesday, December 1, 2708, continued
Having found Lufti where Kiril’s message said I would, I only carry the child a little ways before he insists that I let him down to crawl under a bush. “I couldn’t bury it before,” he says. “What you bury at a crossroads won’t stay put.” I hear him scratch out a little hole down there, and I hear the crackle of xylophane. “They taught me to dance, you know. I can dance better than Kanarik herself, better than the Lady of the Mast,” says the boy who can’t even walk.
A shiver runs down my spine at the smile he gives me when he crawls back out. He must have passed through withdrawal by now, to smile as often as he does; this isn’t something that the body can purge out anymore. Greenfire only lit the fuse to whatever already waited in his head, ready to explode.
I pick up my burden again and he nestles against my shoulder with a sigh of contentment; I wince at the weight against my bandages, but it really doesn’t amount to much. “After the war,” he confides, “Kiril and I will live where the stars don’t shine and the ghosts don’t dance, in a little house of chocolate-plastered coconut, with hollyhocks and oxen and no horses anywhere. And she will smell like baby-milk in a cozy tent but maybe we shouldn’t accept the gifts of the Good People, should we?”
(“…And she will smell like baby-milk in a cozy tent, but maybe we shouldn’t accept the gifts of the Good People, should we?” Jake? Jake! I hear the words clear out in the hall, shouting in that higher-than-usual voice that he falls into sometimes when he’s totally lost it. “A robe. It turned into a robe, easily divided and as easily brought together, and all the sacrificial goats bleated their approval, even as they cowered.”
I run into the library, and glimpse him through the many gaps in the bookcases, yet Jake runs right behind me, so who’s that up ahead?
“George,” Jake murmurs as though in answer to my thoughts. “The boy’s lost his mind.” We run past the bookshelves and find him standing on a table, batting away something invisible above him, and his eyes look dark, so dark.
Aaron runs up, grabs my arm and cries, “Tell me what to do! I can’t get through to him, tell me what to do!”
“Stars, stars everywhere,” says the boy on the table. “Do you think the ghosts have sent them? But I only did what he wanted.” He looks Jake in the eye and asks, “Tell me, is he my enemy or my friend?” Not waiting for an answer, he leaps from table to table, snatching at the air.
“Come down right now!” Aaron pleads. “The teachers will hear you!”
“Mothers—it’s all about the mothers, but we mustn’t say the word.” George presses a finger to his lips and smiles slyly. “Shhhhhh!” he hisses. “He thought himself such a good boy, but she learned that she didn’t want pleased after all, so she danced up, up, into the sky, courting the stars to answer the fire that burned inside her. We must all learn to dance with the dead!” And with that he leaps to the windowsill but Jake lunges for him before he can jump out.
George struggles, but Aaron and I run up and help Jake, pinning him between us. I can see the boy’s dilated eyes, and smell the herb-laced kusmet on his breath. Suddenly he goes limp against Jake’s breast. “Save me,” he whispers. “I just can’t do it anymore!”
I step back and let Jake embrace him, confining the restless limbs. He kisses the top of George’s head and murmurs, “Of course. You shouldn’t have to do it anymore.” Aaron starts, staring up at Jake. “We’re here to help you escape.” And with that he picks up the lanky boy like a babe, carrying him out of the library.
“Where are you taking him?” Aaron demands.
“The infirmary,” Jake says.
“But they might expel him!”
Jake heads up the steps, shoving past him. “He’ll die if he doesn’t get medical attention now.”
“It’s okay,” I tell Aaron, taking his arm this time. “Don’s doing a detention, there, and the Nurse usually takes a nap this time of day.” Don sawed halfway through one leg of a teacher’s chair, resulting in classroom hilarity and one angry teacher with a sprained wrist—which Don of course bound personally under a barrage of castigation. “He’ll cover for us.”
“Does he know how to...you know, with something like this?”
I give him a wink. “You’d be amazed at some of the things we’ve concocted on Lumne Island.”
Don greets us at the door, takes one look at George and asks me, “Overdose?”
“I think so,” I reply, as Jake hands the boy over to Aaron to put to bed in one of the private rooms.
“More than that,” Jake rumbles, as soon as the door closes behind Aaron. “Oracular crisis. He doesn’t have the training and it’s driving him mad. He’s been trying to medicate himself while looking for mystical answers to explain what’s happening to him.” Jake looks around at the perfectly squared stone blocks all around us. “And since this school has demonized all mysticism, he looked for it in demonic places.”
“Are you sure? Him too? Not just…” and Jake claps a hand over my mouth right before Aaron opens the door again.
“Don’t assume that he won’t remember anything we say,” he hisses in my ear.
Don quickly goes about compounding an antidote before the regular nurse gets back. “George’ll be exhausted when he comes down,” he says. “He’ll need to sleep for days.”
Aaron nods. “We’ll say he has the flu.”)
I feel the fever rise in me again, but I do what I must to compensate. And so we leave the barn behind, to rendezvous with the rest of my band at the next agreed-upon point, all of the woods rippling in heatwaves in my sight, a mirage. Some of those missing before now rejoin us, looking bedraggled and haunted, but still able to march. And some have gone ahead to set up camp before us near our landmark: A great broken stump of a dead tree, with a gaping hole up high, forever silently screaming over a swampy spring.
Uphill from there, under the canopy of forest and undergrowth, in yet another lacework of makeshift shelters and tunnels in the brush, I get my first good look at the damage done. Lufti’s sores look bad enough now, but the ruddy zone of fresh-healed flesh tells me just how horribly my errand tore up the messenger I sent.
“She burned the words of the stars onto pure white coconut sleeves and Sarge stashed the booty in his chest. I only caught a glimpse of the words before they blinded me; I only pretend to see. But I can catch the gleam of rubies and diamonds anywhere.” Lufti chuckles with a knowing glance over his shoulder at me as I clean his sores. “The starlight’s pure gold, Deirdre—you’d better loot it or you won’t live happily ever after. The Good People didn’t loot and her skirt went clear up over her head; I had a hard time finding all her fingerbones, but one of them wore his ring. Cyran will want to know.” I pour more disinfectant from the kettle onto a soft pad of rag, breathing in its aromatic steam, and then shuddering at a cold drop hitting my shoulder. The cursed rain gets through even in this sorry drizzle—what will it be like when it really starts to pour again?
Lufti twists and grabs my shirt. “Pay attention! Cyran will want to know!” He ignores how the sores on one buttock grinds into the ground to do this.
I unclench his fingers from the cloth. “You’re really trying to tell me something, aren’t you?”
“Yes!” His eyes burn as he tries to sit up.
“Okay, I’m listening.” I say, pushing him back down and re-cleaning the wounds. “What are you trying to say?”
“Words! Words! Words!” He pounds the ground in frustration, then bursts into giggles. “It’s that simple, really.”
I sigh; it’s never simple. My back hurts, and rubbing it won’t help so long as I have to work crouching under these boughs. Then something occurs to me. “Your words, Lufti? Or someone else’s?”
“Else’s. Elsie’s? No no no, el, ah, Al, you know! Yes. Sarge keeps them close within his chest. Words of the dangerous stars. It’s all on her shoulders.”
“Her shoulders—stars on her shoulders?”
“Yes yes yes! The General’s shoulders! I taught her the name before her very own. A mountain peak to start it, and a snake-hissing in there, and it ends with a round mouth moaning, ohhhhhhh.”
“Yes! You got it. You’re very smart, Deirdre. You must read stars.”
“General Aliso gave words to Sarge?”
“The officer in Kiril’s troop?”
“Yes, that’s the one—the Lord of Abundance and the Chocolate King.”
“And General Aliso gave him words to memorize—to keep safe within his breast?”
“No, no! You’re not listening! In his chest! Along with the coconut and chocolates! Written on sheets as white as blazing starlight sleeves!”
“Documents? You mean documents! Oh, thank heavens! We can steal those.” I won’t have to interrogate the man who fed and cared for Kiril.
“Yes, steal the blazing words and free Kiril from the Chocolate King!”
He doesn’t smile anymore when he says in a quieter voice, “Yes. Rescue.” He sounds almost lucid when he says, “She cries all the time, Deirdre. And her tummy hurts all the time but he won’t stop feeding her. Where do you think all the jewels came from?”Oh my God.