IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
VII: The Burning
of the Heart
Wednesday, April 21, 2709
I can hear the gunfire ahead of me. I hitch up my skirts to run despite the pain—faster than flying at first, with the foliage so thick, yet I have the flit strapped on just in case, and my rifle bumps on my back, and I have knives sheathed in my boots—I will give them a fight if that's what they want, I will do anything!
Now bullets whiz through the trees. I take to the canopy, gliding from bough to bough, though it slows me down. Now the shooting has stopped, and my heart plummets, but I keep on going, fearing what I'll see. I have to know anyway.
More and more light shows through the trunks ahead. Finally it resolves to the open clearing of the road. High in my tree I look down. Empty chains lie in the middle of it, and some pools and splatters of blood. I can't see anyone across on the other side...no wait, a hand flung out from the tall grass of the forest's edge shows me where a body fell. And below me...
Below me I see my children. Hekut stands leaned against a tree, trembling; I think I can actually hear his teeth chattering all the way up here, in the quiet of the forest with the birds too scared to sing. Lufti sits on the ground with oh my God Kiril's head in his lap as she lies sprawled upon the ground!
Even as I glide down I think, “No blood. Why do I see no blood?” But entry-wounds can look quite small. Her body might hide a whole mess of blood underneath her, drunk up by the thirsty earth.
Lufti smiles up at me as I land, saying, “It's just moon poisoning. She’ll get over it. It will become for her the nectar of the gods and her head will not explode.”
“She's alive?” I cry before I can stop myself. “Oh thank God thank God thank God!” I scoop them both into my arms. Then Hekut runs up and tackles us and I make room for him too, and he sobs and sobs against me while Lufti continues to smile and Kiril makes no more change than a doll, flopping in my arms, her eyes opening in an automatic sort of way.
“Oh Deirdre, Deirdre, Deirdre, Deirdre!” I can't get anything more out of Hekut than that. “Deirdre, Deirdre, Deirdre!”
Lufti looks at me and says, “We shot us, but he'll work through it.” Then he takes Hekut by the hand and says, “Let's get away from the road a ways. It's not safe here.” And, just as though he was the sane one, Lufti leads Hekut into the woods while I carry Kiril behind him, pressing my cheek to hers to feel that her heart still beats, her breath still stirs the loose hair frayed out from my braid. Lufti makes Hekut lie down, then piles leaf-mould over all but his face. “Stay warm, duckie,” he says, sitting on the ground. He does the same to Kiril when I lay her down.
“They're in shock,” I say. “Is that it? But not wounded?”
“All wounds close, Deirdre,” Lufti says. “Here or in the grave. The little roots will knit us all together and the corn will rise in spring. I remember spring—don't you?” He reaches over to my injured foot and pats it with a sad smile; I try not to wince. “Your blood has soaked into the Charadocian soil—you are one with the land, now, Deirdre, and there is nothing you can do about it.”
“What happened to Kiril?” I ask him, hoping that I can decipher his answer.
“Just moon poisoning. She'll get over it.” He sits down beside her, fingering her braid. “And then it won't hurt her anymore, it will feel good, and right. I gave her this.” He pulls her hand to the surface, then pries from her fingers a rosy crystal.
“Magentine! Lufti, do you have any idea what that is?”
“Yes,” he says, nodding, his face grown solemn, now. “A drop of blood from the moon's most secret heart, fallen to earth with the stars and angels.” He looks about carefully, before he whispers, “It has powers, Deirdre.” Then he smiles slyly. “But you know that. All witches drink the blood of the moon when they learn to fly.” And he stares at the square jewel in the breast of my flit.
Hekut stirs, still pale, his wide eyes on me. “Oh Deirdre, I have never ever, ever been in a battle like that. I never even imagined one like that!”
I kneel down beside him. “Can you tell me about it?”
He closes his eyes tightly and says, “I don't know.”
“Try.” And I take his hand.
Hekut looks towards Lufti. “He...but you know. He has crazy-power. Just like Father Man.”
“Yes. He is becoming an oracle. And if I can get him proper training and treatment, he won't be crazy anymore.”
Hekut looks back to me, his eyes still enormous, but his jaw firms up as he tries to master himself. His voice cracks when he tries to ask casually, “Then the Tilián know all about this sort of thing?”
I smile. “Nobody knows all about oracles. But enough. Maybe.”
Hekut gestures first at Lufti and then at Kiril. “He...he gave her that stone. He told her to hook us together. Somehow...I don't how...” he stops and swallows. “Kiril did that. I found, I f-f-found my brain linked to hers in some way, and hers to Lufti, and his crazy-power, it could find the soldiers in the shadows under the trees. And...and...oh Deirdre, we linked to the soldiers, too! “ His chest heaves for a moment, remembering. “Ev...every last one of them, no matter how they tried to hide. We knew exactly where to shoot—we became one with them. It was easy! And hard, oh Deirdre so hard, all the thoughts...I got just a little backwash from it. But Kiril got it all.”
I nod, patting him on the shoulder, and then brush leaves gently out of Kiril's face. “I understand, now. She's a telepath, poor thing. I've suspected it for awhile, now. But...no training! It must have overwhelmed her, tuning into so many minds at once on her very first conscious try—and in a battle! She shouldn't learn like that.” And I bend down and kiss her on the forehead. “It's all right, dearheart. You'll find your way back to us, soon.” I hope. I really don't know.
Lufti says, “I'll never do that again. Not everybody can bear it the way that you do, Deirdre.”
“Me?” I laugh. “But I'm no telepath. Not really.”
Again, that sly smile! “Witches have their seeeeecrets,” he croons to me, then turns away, smirking.
We have to go tend to the bodies of the enemy soldiers. Hekut insists, weeping and shaking, afraid of their ghosts like I've never seen him before, on the battlefield or off; not even in the ash wasteland have I seen him this upset.
As we cross the road, I look at the chains that lie in the dirt between forests. The locks burst from the inside out. I feel both pleased and unpleased. Glad for the slaves, of course, but Lufti has no hope of full sanity until he can suborn each of these separate gifts into his oraclism.
(Our three oracles look troubled, but none will say anything to me; they just follow Don’s instructions on setting the sails or maintaining the boat as he tries to get us back on track, maneuvering towards the setting sun. The sails huff and snap, now filling, now falling slack, as Don tries to get the angle right before the wind shifts for the evening away from land.
Randy, Randy, Randy, stop fussing like a mother hen! All but one of them are older than you.
Suddenly Wallace curses, in the midst of scaling a fish for our dinner. He has cut himself; it’s been a long time since he’s done this sort of work and the memories of that time don’t make it any easier.
I clean off the iridescent, scale-spangled slime from his hand while Don goes for the med-kit. Wallace winces at the salt water’s cold sting, but that’s not what brings tears to his eyes. He looks away, embarrassed, but then back at me again. I know enough about oracles in training to recognize that he’s only partly here.
“He’s not at rest,” Wallace finally gasps, as Don arrives with the bandages and antiseptic. “That man we buried. He’s not at rest.”
I sigh. “That’s not our fault. We did the best for him we could.” Don pronounces the cut shallow and does all the proper things, while I take over scaling the fish.
“He will never be at rest.”)
We bury the soldiers in the soft forest loam, while Kiril lies propped up against a tree, as limp as if we'd made her out of rags, staring off into nothing. Lufti finds every one of the bodies. We find no peasants; apparently they took their wounded with them and suffered no permanent casualties (Pity we scared them so--they'd have made good recruits.) We drive branches into the ground at the head of each grave, and hang their dog-tags there. As I hook the last one on on its twig, Kiril turns her head to me and her eyes focus upon mine. She whimpers and reaches out her arms to me, so I rush over to her and take her into my lap, right there, sitting on the ground beside the graves, underneath the jungle canopy. She responds enough to slowly wrap her arms around me and nestle against my shoulder. Her hair still smells like Barrahab’s sweet shampoo, as if nothing horrific had happened underneath it since we bathed together in that rocky pool.
For a long time we stay like that. She says nothing, and I don't try to make her speak, I just rock her, big as she is. And I think about all of the lore that I don't know, like how to train telepaths, or how to heal one who has sustained psychic injury. I couldn't even fake my way through the way I've learned to do with broken bones and bullet-wounds.
Yet I can love, with that wisdom deep inside the womb. I can hold her close and radiate something of my soul into hers, nourishing, gently sealing up the rips and rags, helping it all grow back together. Oh, if she needed me to rend these lactation-barren breasts, I would nurse her on my blood!
(I feel a jolt, just as Jake stumbles and has to grab onto the gunwale to keep his feet. “How many connections can we bear?” he gasps, as the waves sigh and surge under us in a rhythm completely different from what had jolted us.
I pull his big ol’ arm over my shoulders and help him to our quarters. “Love can bear anything,” I murmur. “Now take a nap and process whatever just happened. The rest of us can sail the boat without you for awhile”.)
I glance over at Lufti, in earnest conversation with a vine. I can’t hear what he says. If he had to ask Kiril to knit everyone together, he must have already begun to suborn telepathy into his oraclism. That’s a good sign, at least. That message from Betany must have been its last gasp.
And then suddenly I gasp, myself, realizing what I know. Of course it was telepathy! He must have picked up Nishka’s memories of the girl, put together clues that she herself had missed, and realized who Betany really was. Except, of course, interpreted into the ghost-faith that haunts every corner of the Charadoc. And with that I realize, in addition, just how far I’ve immersed into the culture, that I believed every word of it.
Lufti looks over at me irritably. “Belief takes many forms. You think you know all about it, but you have no idea.” And then he turns away to tentatively dance in sinuous ways as if the vine instructs him. Oh well. I suppose he can’t suborn all of his telepathy at once.
I notice at last how the shadows of the trees change position and lengthen. I kiss Kiril's brow, and then lift her to her feet. She looks around herself, now, her face vaguely troubled but a little more aware. I find that I can lead her by the hand. Together the four of us head off towards the old abandoned farm. I have not forgotten where it lies.
Now I really feel the burn in my foot. I have exhausted all of my defenses against it, and each limp sends it like a flare up through my body. But then the throb seems to match the ache in my heart, so I can accept it. I don’t even mind.
“Like us,” Hekut says, his face ash-white, and for a moment Kiril turns to him, with a flicker of awareness in her wide, bloodshot eyes. He shakes his head. “They think exactly like us!”
(Red sky at night, a sailor’s delight. The sunset warms us as we eat our chowder out on deck, our collars turned up against the shifting wind but not wanting to miss the view.
George’s smile has a weird, despairing quality to it. “It looks like Heaven’s bleeding—there is no escape from Hell anywhere, is there?”
I finish chewing and say, “Yeah, there is. That blood cancels all else out.”
Wallace says, “That didn’t do that last man any good.”
“You’re not like him,” I say.
“Yes I am.”
“In all but the most crucial difference. You want to be better. He just wanted to not get caught.”)
I didn't have much of a chance to look around the abandoned farm, last time I came this way. The ruins of a building show why we camped outdoors on our earlier stay: some stones still stand upon others, but nothing remains of door or window, roof or floor, save for some charred old stubs. Frogs and insects breed in the basement sump; I can hear the croak of one and the whine of the other as twilight begins to close around us. Nope, no comfort there.
Kiril gasps, looking around her suddenly, but Lufti puts his arm around her, murmuring, “Fear no ghosts nor sharp-edged stars. For you have drunk the blood of the moon and entered into powers of your own.”
Hekut runs when he sees Damien rise to greet us at the encampment. He hugs the startled youth as soon as they collide, then grabs his jacket in both fists as though he means to threaten him. “Songs! You must put it all into songs, everything, or I shall go as mad as them!” He points a shaking hand towards Kiril as Lufti and I lead her forward. “Take the burden off me, bard—I can’t bear it by myself!”
“Go,” I tell Damien as I sit Kiril down by the fire. “Find a private place and let him tell you everything. I'll take command back. Do what you do best.” As those two depart, Lufti sits, wrapped tenderly around Kiril, strangely and yet not so, like he has no more bones than a vine. Her stare softens as she leans her head against him and watches the tlomi-dance of the flames.
I check on Nishka's leg, then clean and rebandage it. The whole band's sidetracked until we can settle her somewhere to heal. Chaska hovers around, twisting her hands together, so I show her the basics and put her in charge of the big girl's future care. She bites her lip and nods, fierceness in her eyes.
At last I tend my own foot properly. Okay, so the bullet took a bit more of the toe than I let myself realize before. Clean it out...apply real ointment thanks to Barrahab's provisions...bandage it up. The boot pinches, now. I know I shouldn't, but I can't take another step until I tear the boot a little more, to give myself some room. But the pain hardly matters, really, all things considered.
To my surprise Lefty's done the cooking. “Stray chicken,” he says. “Feral potatoes, and bits and pieces of what grows wild. It's about time we got some fresh stuff into everybody.” I feel too wiped out to question his sources, or to mention that I hadn’t authorized a dinner. I take my own bowl apart from the others, the dark fully fallen now, and sufficient to give me the privacy that I desire. Then, when I know myself far enough away that no one can hear me if I stifle myself a bit, I sit down on the damp grass, lay my bowl aside, and bury my face in my arms upon my knees to cry and cry and cry.