IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
VII: The Burning
Monday, March 22, 2709
(How sweet the first strawberries of the year! So fresh and delicious I almost don’t miss having any sugar for them.
Lula grins, saying, “It’s good to see you’ve got your appetite back, Zanne!” She sits down beside me. “How’s the chest feeling?”
“Sore from all that coughing, but clear.”
She pauses, laying a cool hand on mine. “Do you think you’ll feel well enough to travel soon?”
“My heart sinks. “Yes,” I say, because, after everything, I still worship Truth.)
How sweet the summer lands, just on the verge of fall! How green the world, this far below the peaks, how thick and warm the scent of harvest in the air! We have bought the first green apples of the year from a roadside stand, and now we bite into their juicy tartness as we walk, grateful for something fresher than what we carry in our packs.
(“Just so you know,” Lula says,” the folks around here have voted that you can stay at Outlier Farm, if you want to. We haven’t even plumbed all the skills you have to offer.”
So tempting! I just want to lie in a clean, soft bed till I get bored with rest and want to move again, and then exert myself till the purifying sweat pours off of me, growing food for a life as sweet and rich as berries fresh-plucked from the garden. Just like I used to do, tending the potato-towers and milking goats, back when I was Susie.
“That’s kind of you, Lula. I really mean it. But that’s not what I trained my skills for.”
She sighs. “I know.” She gazes out the window, at the flowering fruit tree that now obscures the view of our associate farms. “We could’ve given you a good life, here.”
“Just so you know,” I remark to Kiril as she marches beside me, “I gave up greenfire for Lent.”
“Tobacco, here,” she replies.
Hekut admits, “Chaummin.”
Baruch looks perplexed and says nothing.
Marduk says, “I gave up gambling. I didn’t even bring my dice with me.” I didn’t know he gambled. Kiril, too, cuts him a sharp look.
Nishka says, “Boys,” and sticks her tongue out at Damien.
Lefty says, “Borrowing.”
“What about my tobacco?”
“That’s different. That was rebel sharing.” I raise a brow but smile.
Lufti shrugs, saying, “I have given up on being a god. Not just for Lent, mind you. For always.” He sighs. “Too much work.”
“Good for you,” I say, putting an arm around him.
Damien dons his cockiest manner and says, “Well, I didn’t give up anything.” Then he looks at me darkly, waiting for me to remark upon it. When I don’t he answers anyway, “Why should I? God has already taken away from me what mattered most.”
“Don’t blame God for what our own kind does,” I tell him, “But you know your own business.”
(I gaze out the window, breathing in the orchard perfume and the rough but peaceful barnyard undertone. A chicken enthusiastically announces that she just laid an egg. The wild birds sing to each other in the hopes of pairing off to lay their own eggs. Somewhere a child sings a song in French that goes all the way back to Earth. Here we have no madness, no violence, no hunger, no fear of what might be in food, no long exhausting journeys wondering where we're going to sleep next, no need to plunder corpses, no need to wonder if we can trust the people around us, and no need, ever again, to mindblast anybody.
“How am I ever going to give all this up?” I whisper to the ghost of my reflection in the glass.
I hear Susie’s voice in those words. The face in the window hardens as I say, “Same way you did last time.”)
Tuesday, March 23, 2709
The weather’s gotten really warm, now, at least compared to what we’d gotten used to on the peaks. Dust and insects get into our sweat; I sincerely hope that the next village has an inn, with something in the way of baths better than trying to shiver into snow-melt streams. A beer doesn’t sound bad, either.
Marduk’s in a mood. He grabs suddenly at leafy twigs every so often, and then slowly tears the leaves off as he walks, muttering, before he hurls the bare twigs down. He snarls over small perceived infractions, rudely elbowing past anybody who gets too close. But when Lufti says to him, “That mud dried up a long time ago—don’t stew it all over again,” he takes a swing at the boy and would have connected if I hadn’t moved faster.
I twist his arm back so quickly that the pain quite takes his mind off of any violent response. “Don’t make me break it,” I tell him. “Are you going to be a good boy if I release you?”
He nods, gasping. Then, rubbing his arm, he mutters, “Sorry. It’s just that it’s somebody’s birthday today.”
We start walking again. “Somebody who died?”
“I wish she had.” I don’t want to know any more.
(“Meggie will be joining us here at Outlier Farm.”
“Oh? Has she had her baby yet?”
“Last night. And he looks too much like his father for her to pretend anymore that she’s above a little friendly mixing now and then
“Ha! I knew it!”
I don’t want to know the gossip of the farms. I don’t want to engage. I try not to listen as my generous hosts pack up my car for me with bags and baskets of dried fruit and vegetables, cheese and smoked meats, bread and roots and the last of fall’s cucurbits. Nothing further here must matter to me, for I will likely never find out how it all turns out, and I am trying so hard not to care.
Yet I can’t resist following a delectable scent into the Big House kitchen. I hear a bubbling ahead of me. They’re making candy bars! I watch for a moment, longingly, as they mix their precious, limited supply of honey in with melted butter, fruit and nuts. They will have to ration those out. I won’t be here when they do.)
I hear a rumbling behind us. “Move to the sides,” I order. Mechanical transport whizzes past us, choking us on their dust. My eyes register them, psygraphing them, before it sinks in what I see.
Then it dawns on me: three army jeeps in a row just now passed us by! My mind replays the psygraphic image: the riders seemed too weary and wounded to look up, for their part, to take in the people trudging by the roadside, with weapons slung in plain sight all about our persons and nary a stitch of uniform upon us. In shock I put my hand over the magentine bared openly on my breast. I gape after them, aghast, and then shake my head, chuckling. Then I tell the others and they join me in laughter, shaking their heads, too. We just keep on marching, listening to the motor growls grow fainter with the distance, till nothing more disturbs the rural countryside.
(I turn back to the car and see them tucking the bedding that I brought with me into the back seat, freshly laundered. They’ve filled the footwells with supplies when they ran out of space in the trunk.)
Wednesday, March 24, 2709
An uneasy night. Nightmares suffused it, full of explosions, screaming, terrified lurking in dark places beneath the earth, and Abjoan Pass again, all manner of unremembered grief and upheaval in the setting of Abojan Pass. I can’t recall much detail, though, on waking.
I open my eyes to leaves overhead, green and thick, just beginning to show a touch of warmer colors, hints of amber and coral. I feel the warmth of Kirl and Lufti nestled close, still sleeping. Kiril always snores, what with her asthma and all, and Lufti makes softer sounds, but they never keep me awake anymore, I like it; it soothes me to fall asleep to the breath of loved ones. And I ache to think of it, knowing that when the mission ends so do the bonds.
For agents lead lonely lives. Coming home a couple of times a year—if that--to touch bases with whichever member of your friendclan–if any–happens to be in town at the same time, doesn’t exactly count as family ties. Or maybe not all agents, maybe just me. All the rest of my friendclan have partnered up in one way or another, and rarely do solo missions. Then I laugh at myself, but not happily. I wasn’t supposed to go solo on this one, either; I came in with my foster-father. How’s that for family ties?
Kiril stirs, rubs her eyes, and blinks at me. “You all right, Deirdre?”
“Fine. It’s a lovely autumn morning.” I sit up. “And it’s high time I fix us all some breakfast.”
A look at our supplies astonishes me–how did we make so much disappear so fast? We have gotten too used to regular meals. I will have to taper us down to adjust us back to the short commons ahead. We might contact rich folk, but they won’t feed us every day.
Yet the world seems so abundant! We have reached farm country again, the upper slopes and plateaus of The Midlands, and everywhere folks reap their fields or pick their fruit. We hardly ever pass a farmhouse without the honeyed smell of bubbling preserves in the making wafting our way. I hear some combines puttering and grumbling through the larger, flatter farms; otherwise nothing competes with the birdsong and the wind save for the faint rustle of men and women moving through the crops on foot and gathering by hand on their terraced slopes. Because the constant warfare of Abojan Pass has drawn so many soldiers, government and revolutionary alike, most of the country knows a peace seldom seen here in ages.
Yet I remember the three jeeps that passed us by. Peace never lasts long, nor spreads very far, in the Mountains of Fire.
(“We topped off your tank,” Courtney says as I stand awkwardly by the door of my car, the map clutched in my hand.
“How do I deserve all this?” I ask. “I’d like to think of my embroidery as marvels of the fiber arts, but you and I both know better.”
“You gave us even better formulas than Dalmar did. They’re going to save lives, Zanne”
“Thanks,” I say, smiling brightly, struggling not to weep. “I won’t tell him that when I find him But I rather doubt that I could have given you anything that comes close to what you gave me.”
Apollo says, “You can at least tell him that I miss him. And I’ll never stop commending him to God for what he did for me.”
Shon says, “Tell him I expect him back in time for the First Ever Eclectic Spring Jamboree. It’s going to be historic, Zanne.” Ah yes. The jam session that Outlier House plans to host for every farm in All Kinds Sanctuary, bringing all the different ethnic instruments together into harmony.
I give them each a hug. They fill up my arms with love and aching and tenderness and a tremble of the unknown ahead of me. My eyes threaten to spill oceans, but I keep my smile and panache till I pick up Tshura and put her box on the passenger side, settle in behind the wheel, pull out, and get some distance from All Kinds Sanctuary, then cry so hard I have to pull over for awhile, till I can see the road again.
The car smells like a country market with all the supplies they’ve given me, and that is not a bad thing. Underlying it I catch an acrid whiff of bottles of Antidote.
I won’t need the map for quite a ways, with nothing intersecting this road for miles except for lanes to weedy farms, escaped barnyard animals foraging where crops used to grow. But I feel glad to have it, to give form and purpose to my wandering. Merchants came to All Kinds Sanctuary while I lay sick. I couldn’t meet them myself, but everyone’s a-buzz with the news that a major city has begun rebuilding: Nuvelle Parie.
“Didn’t Jacques come from Nuvelle Parie, Tshura?” I ask my ghost. I glance over at her box on the seat beside me. That’s when I notice the candy bar, carefully wrapped in wax-soaked cloth, next to her on the seat. And I have to pull over and bawl some more, but I also eat the candy.)
We march on in silence for awhile, taking in the countryside serenity, before Baruch says, out of the blue, “I usually give up sweets for Lent. And then Mom would bake a big ol’ rubyberry pie for Easter. But I don’t think we’ll get many sweets on this road. I don’t know what to give up.” Then he smiles wryly and says, “Sometimes I think I gave up hope.”
“If you had given up hope,” I say, “you wouldn’t be marching with us. You’d have gone home with your mother.”
He nods thoughtfully, then says, “Childhood, then. But I gave that up long before Lent began.” He sighs and says, “I suppose my Easter won’t come, now, till Judgment Day.” He looks up at me. “Do you think they’ll serve rubyberry pie in Heaven?”
“They’ll have to.”