IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
Volume VII: The Burning
Wednesday, April 14, 2709
(I wake in a nest of hay, wondering why I’m smiling. Then I remember. Hey, I’ll try anything twice. Then the reason why what happened happened comes back to me and the smile fades from my face.
Parts of me feel warm because Cybil has fallen asleep in my arms, and parts of me feel cold because hay doesn’t make all that great a blanket. My feet also feel warm, but uncomfortable, because I never did take off my boots.
But I only realize that the train has stopped, and been stopped for awhile, when I hear other boots tramping along outside it. After all, sleeping in a place that clacks and rattles has never been the norm for me; why should I notice its absence?
“Cybil, wake up!” I whisper. She does, and just as suddenly recoils from
me. She makes a thrashing noise doing it
and the boots run up.
Another behind him laughs, “At least you can’t
say they were diddling outside their own kind!” and the other guffaws while
Cybil turns bright red.
“Not the box!” I shout.
He just grins the more and says, “Do you want to make me get rough, buttercup? I don’t have to touch you with this,” and he pulls out a homemade club from inside his coat.
This time, with Tshura’s help, I scale down the mindblast to merely knock them unconscious. I’m getting better at this thing that Til never trained me in, though it still hurts my head.
Cybil stares at me, aghast. “It’s okay; they’re just asleep.” I wink and say, “Let’s steal their clothes, since they wanted to steal ours.” She still stares at me in horror. I bend over one of the men and see the blood coming out of his ears, eyes and nose. Not as good at this as I thought. I hope Cybil didn’t see. Trying not to sound as shaky as I feel, I say, “I tell you what. Let’s not steal anything from them. We’re better than that.”
We get dressed, and then I help Cybil off the train, and she still stares at me like I just sprouted horns. “My my,” I say. “This train has brought us back around to within a few miles of our starting point! Excellent!” I try to push the bodies bleeding in the hay out of my conscious thought, but not with much success. “In fact, I think I can even see the top of the tree next to Luzita’s house.”
I hear Cybil quietly say, “I’m not going with you, Zanne.”
I turn back to her. “Really, darling? What’s...”
“Don’t call me darling!”
“What’s going on, Cybil?”
“You...you tempted me into sin. You’re not a Christian—you don’t
understand! My preacher warned me that
bad things could happen if I hung out with you!”
“We fornicated!” Cybil wails.
I feel anger, but I freeze it down. “So you’re going to go back to your Germans and pretend to be a Friggist, is that it? And Cybil, you were the one who started stripping me while I was too stunned to make any kind of decision.”
Her jaw drops. Then the tears start. “I didn’t mean...I just...It just happened!”
I reach out a hand to her. “All right. It just happened. We can get past it. But first let’s get out of this train yard before anybody else comes poking around.”
But that only lasts for a few blocks. The moment we lose sight of the train she stops again and says, “I’m still not going with you, Zanne. I...it’s confusing. Every time I look at you, now, it’s just so...real. Too real. I don’t want it to be real!”
Coldly I say, “I told you that I worship Truth, Cybil.” Except when it comes to trying to forget men bleeding from their ears. “I can’t accept that.”
“So you do have some religious convictions.”
Cybil nods, and her face softens. “So you didn’t realize what happened,” she misinterprets. “Then I forgive you.” She glances away, till the stretching silence sounds too much like headache, then says, “Listen, Zanne, I have access to Dalmar’s notes. Even if I don’t understand them, I’ll find people who can.”
“Why didn’t you say so before?” I cry.
She hesitates, then says in a quiet voice, “I wanted an excuse to keep you around.” So. Her reaction wasn’t as random as I thought. “You, you go help the rest of Vanikke. I’ll take care of Nuvelle Parie, and the Germans—at least our Germans—will help me do it.”
“Nuvelle Parie is a disaster. You’ll have to get survivors to leave the city behind.”
“I know. But it’s spring, and I’m a farmer’s daughter. I know how to set people up on farms.”
I shake my head. “Another thing you never told me.” I sigh. “I suppose that there’s a lot more to you than I ever found out and that you can do this. Alright, then. Can we at least shake hands?”
She nods, tearily, shakes my hand, twitches as if she almost hugged me but then stopped herself, and heads off in the opposite direction.)
We’ve made it into territory not yet picked-over by other refugees.
“Autumn’s the best time for gathering,” Kiril says, berry-juice staining her face around her smile. In addition to the rubyberries, the raised-up front of her skirt shows mushrooms, nuts, some kind of bulb vegetable and a variety of greens.
I hear a thrashing in the bushes and turn to see Marduk and Damien return with a row of skewered squirrels. The trick of nailing squirrels without wasting bullets is to chase them over to where the other hunter hides, ready to spear them, or catch the critter between the two. Chaska grimaces at the cute, dead animals, but Braulio looks grim and to Kuchi everything seems normal. Lufti whoops for joy.
I can’t help but grin, myself. We shall eat well tonight!
(I resolve to take the rest of the day off. I make my goodbyes to Kara, and Daphne and her family, and anyone else I connected with in that sad little camp, talk to them about All Kinds Farm and how they might find a good home there if they’re willing to work hard. I toss the giggling children about till I run out of breath and plead off, and then sit in the doorway of my car. studying the grayish weeds that grow right to the edge of this burnt space.
I want one last night to rest up before going out into the wider world again, one last night sleeping in this sooty old wreck, and frankly, one last night to get drunk, or rather its closest equivalent, now that I no longer have the cider that I’d been saving up just in case I’d have a day like this. The little weed on the edge of the burn will make a bitter tea, but I know that I soon won’t care. At least it won’t worsen my headache in the morning.
Luzita knows exactly what I’m gathering up, wise in local herblore, and she shakes her head when she sees me boil the water to steep it in, it as she pushes up my wheelbarrow for tomorrow’s journey, but her eyes look sympathetic when she says, “Rough day, huh?” It hasn’t escaped her keen old eyes that Cybil didn’t come back with me.
“Rather,” I say, and pour the scalding water into the wad of herbs in my old tin cup, eager for the moment when it steeps enough to drink.
“Want to talk about it?” I give her a look. “I guess not.
That’s all right. Just be careful
of that stuff. It can mess up babies.”
The water has turned a brownish green. I check the temperature—soon it won’t burn my tongue, but I’m almost past caring even about that.
“Just don’t get in the habit. You might want to have a child someday.”
Ready now? I raise the cup to my lips...
“Heyyyy Zanne! How’s it going?”
I drop the cup clattering and splashing to the ground at the sight of the youth sailing in on a skateboard, his long blonde hair only slightly held down by the string of his eyepatch. “OZWALD?” I cry. “What are YOU doing here?”
He pops off his skateboard in a way that shoots it up into the air, and he catches it. “Germantown’s not far from here. Cybil said she’d been with you, and no longer wants to travel with you, I guess for fear of your witchy powers or something...”
“You have witchy powers?” Luzita gasps, then shrugs, saying, “Well, who doesn’t these days?”
“...so I thought I’d join you instead. You gotta have somebody to keep you level, Zanne, the way you, well, you know, sometimes. And hey, there’s Tshura!” He bends down and pets the box like he would a dog. “Hey, Tshura, how’s it going?”
Tomorrow might not be so bad, after all. I put on more water to brew a better kind of tea.)
I follow the music of a brook, a little ways away from camp, to fetch water for my folks. On the way back the pot sloshes about a bit, sometimes splashing my thigh. When I hear a rustling of something large in the bushes, I set the pot down, listening very carefully. Human being? Hungry dog without a master? Wild hog?
The rustles turn out to have their own rhythm. Soon I hear the panting increase, and the little whimpers, male and female, and I blush. Very carefully I pick up my pot again, and tread as quietly as I possibly can away from there, unable to avoid hearing the crescendo before I reach camp.
Soon after I settle the water onto the coals to boil, Damien and Chaska return, their faces still flushed and a dampness of sweat still in their locks, but their clothing all in order, trying to look as nonchalant as they can, trying not to catch each other’s eyes. I do not approve.
When I get the chance, as most bed down, I motion our bard to walk apart with me. Out of hearing of the others, I hiss, “What do you think you’re playing at? That girl is way too traumatized to have any idea what she’s consenting to!”
He throws up his hands and backs away a step. “Hey, hey, it was her idea, not mine!”
“So what?” I push him against a tree. “As the older one, the experienced freakin’ more responsible one, you’re supposed to know when to say no! She shouldn’t lose her virginity under such...”
“But it’s not like I’m the first–Nishka beat me to it!”
I stare at him, struck dumb, before I can finally say, “Nishka?”
“What did you expect? She said she gave up boys for Lent.”
I step back and let him move away from the tree. “And, uh...did Chaska...”
“I think it kind of came about as a mutual decision. And yes, Chaska liked it. But she says she wants to explore her options, so she asked me to show her the other side. What was I to do?”
I find it hard to think. I know what my church teaches–what our church teaches–I know the obvious answer to his questions. But war has mutated everything in the Charadoc, and anyway, who am I, the bloodstained monster Deirdre Keller, to enforce rules on anything so mild next to my own crimes?
So instead of the official answers I just say, “Keep an eye out for her. Let her down gently. Don’t break her heart. She’s new to all this, and might yet regret mistaking loss of innocence with dumping her naivete.”
At that he laughs. “Her? You act as though she cares about me personally. We’re nothing more than symbols to each other, Deirdre, and a brief moment’s delight in a hard, hard world.” And so he returns to camp, and I stand here still in the forest, mourning for a world where people took things personally.