IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
VII: The Burning
Monday, April 26, 2709
I can't put my boot on in the morning. I hope the tall grass hides this. I hope nobody notices my swollen foot. Bullets shooting through the trunks distract them, anyway—who has time to pull on boots? Or grab a cane, for that matter.
I can't fly, either, not though my flit galls me underneath my clothes. The trees don't last in this shrubby stretch, so nothing would hide my take-off; I'd become a human skeet. I just have to push through the thorns with the rest of my band, ripping our clothes to shreds in our haste to escape. I begin to fall behind.
I feel bodies slide under my arms, grabbing me around the waist, propelling me on. Lufti and Kiril know; they help me run anyway. I grit my teeth to keep from screaming every time my infected foot hits stone or twig or just the earth itself. The pain sets my whole leg on fire and shoots clear up my spine, but my dear ones keep me going. We make it back to forest, but the bullets still zing around us and the copses around here don't last long.
I can’t let them down.
I swing around in their grip. I take off and fly back the way we came, my rags fluttering wildly around me, and I start firing. The recoil jolts me backwards in the air each time like the bullets hit me but it's them I hit, I feel it, shock on the gape-mouthed faces as they fall, wholly unprepared for this development.
And from that height I see that they don't wear uniforms. Common peasants, avenging the desecration of their church. Dead, now, and we don't have time to bury them, because I hear some troop transport grinding in the distance, no doubt following the ones who know best how to track us in this their own land. Maybe jeeps, maybe tanks, maybe even MAT. We can't wait to find out.
So I zoom down a likely trail, yanking out a handful of my own hair as I go, catching a strand here on this twig, one there on that leaf, another over there. Black and silver, long enough to identify as mine. And then I double back, and leave no trail at all.
I rejoin my own and hasten them to a ravine that I spied while in the air, now that the ones who know the terrain have fallen. I huddle them underneath a bare scoop of bank, tree-roots curtaining the sky from us, a brook's chatter concealing the sound of our breaths but soon succumbing itself to the roar of machinery too heavy to come close. And why should they, when they have a plain trail leading to much surer ground? I press my back to the cold, wet clay, holding back the shivers that have nothing to do with the mild chill, I shudder against all of the warm young bodies pressed close in hiding beside me. And I pray, I pray with all my heart, Oh Lord let the curse of the dead fall entirely on me. Braulio had no choice, let the dead curse me who led him on this path.
(George huddles in a blanket in the prow, and passes by breakfast and lunch without eating, though I finally persuade him to take a cup of cocoa. I can see that his hair—all of our hair—has grown out some from the Academy Cut, because the wind tosses it around wildly. His eyes look bloodshot, staring off into nothing.
I know better than to talk to him. When I finish my share(and his) of the chores and when the sail’s set on the next course that Jake and Wallace choose, I just hunker down beside him and wait.
Finally he speaks, barely above a whisper. “All of that virtue, all of that prayer, and he burned in hell all the same.”
“What makes you say that?”
“I saw the flames, myself. We all did.”
“I set those flames. You know that, George.” I chuckle gently. “And while I’m far from perfect, I’m far from being a devil, either.”
His gaze locks on me. “But what if it’s a sign? What if everything’s a sign?”
I pat his drawn-up knee. “You’re going to learn how to tell what is and is not a sign. One way to tell is that you don’t set them up yourself. And we all agreed to cremate the monk—nothing mysterious about that.”
“But...but what if we don’t have free will?”
“Then worrying about it won’t make any difference, one way or another. But I think we do, George. I think God would get very bored if He didn’t put a little bit of surprise in the universe, even for Himself.”)
Deep in thicker woods, now, finally, out of breath but still on our feet, as the sunset’s last glow fades from what we can glimpse of sky, we risk a fire once again. Kiril insists. She brews rosehip tea and makes me drink it all, hunkered down beside me. Under her watchful eye, I examine my own foot by firelight. “It's not bad, really, just a little infected.”
“More than a little,” Kiril says, the red light glinting in her eyes. “And you’re feverish,”
I shrug, sterilizing a knife in the flames. “I've had infected feet before. We all have. I bet you’ve got pseudomonas in every scratch on you right now.”
“Not like that. You need to see a doctor.”
“What we label it doesn't matter. It is what it is. And Kiril, I am the doctor.” My hand shakes, holding the knife. In a higher voice I ask, “Did Barrahab happen to put anything alcoholic in our supplies?”
“Nope. You know that.”
I cuss softly. I hold back from asking if any of them have any leaf on them.
She stands up. “And it wouldn't do you any good, anyway, if you intend to operate on yourself.”
I try to picture myself contorting enough to do the job, regardless of the pain. “No, you're right,” I say. “Somebody else will have to do the doctoring.” I look to the others. “Lefty, Marduk, hold my leg and foot perfectly immobile—no matter how I might jerk. Braulio, keep the fire hot—I'll need to stay warm. Baruch, you stand watch while the rest of us are distracted. Hekut, when I tell you I'm ready, take the knife and poke just the tip through the bottom of the infection.”
“Which way's the bottom? From which direction?”
“What's the bottom right now as I'm holding it out—the way that would drain the most pus.”
I don't have to ask Lufti. He brings me a twig to bite without needing told. But before I take it in my mouth, I tell Hekut, “Wash your hands first. Then poke in the knife—just enough to pierce the skin. Then squeeze out as much pus as you can, no matter what I do. Then wash your hands again, and dab on the ointment that Barrahab...”
“How will I know which jar has the ointment?”
Braulio says, “Here. I'll find it. I can read.” Of course. How could I forget that? He rummages in the pack with the medical kit in it. “Here it is. It's not in a jar, it's in a tube.”
“Okay. After you drain the pus and wash your hands again, dab on some of that stuff. And then bandage me up.”
“I'll bandage you up,” Kiril says, a little snappishly. “I used to watch you in the infirmary, and later helped out Doc. I know how to do it.” Oh Kiril, I wanted to spare you any part of this! I nod to her anyway.
“What do I do?” Kuchi asks.
“Sing,” I say, for lack of anything else to pop into my head. “But softly—so softly that the birds in the trees won’t even hear you.
“Does that make me the Bard, now?”
“Sure, Kuchi. Keep my mind off how much this is going to hurt. That’ll be one of your duties.”
So he wriggles down close beside me, with his mouth near my ear, and in a whisper of his high, sweet voice, the boy starts to sing nursery rhymes. Lufti puts the twig in my mouth, and then he and Kiril hold me down while Marduk and Lefty position themselves to manage my foot, and I shake so hard that it's a wonder my bones don't rattle.
“I’m a little coney hopping down the trail,
“Wiggling my nose and jiggling my tail...”
The Tilián teach trances for minimizing pain. Fireheart friendclan has since discovered that these trances don't do much good at all after the mind-change to which we subjected ourselves. I bite down hard on the twig and hiss around it, “Now!”
And the fire lances up all the way up from my toe to my throat, where I strangle back a scream, fighting it like this thing attacking me! Kiril and Lufti throw their full weight on my chest to hold down my bucking while Marduk and Lefty wrestle my leg back to immobility.
“Hippyhop and tippy toe to nibble leaf and twig.
I’m a little coney who wants to grow up big...
And Hekut squeezes till my brain explodes but I mustn’t scream oh no not scream! For the sound would draw bullets to them I see explosions of red but no that just comes from clenching my eyes so tightly.
“So eat up all your vegetables as Grandpa says to do,
So you’ll grow as swift as coneys, and strong and handsome, too!”
And then cool ointment quiets the throbbing, just a little bit. Kiril and Lufti let up on me, allowing me to pant for air, still chewing on my twig, but no longer inclined to jolt clear to the sky. Kuchi pauses a moment, then, for lack of anything else to come to mind, starts singing a hymn.
“Hail Mary, full of grapes, the Lord is witty.
Blessed our plow among women
And blessed the fruit in your room...
Now I feel Kiril's businesslike touch, binding my foot for me, as Lufti spreads a blanket over me. I sigh in the welcome warmth, as I try to tune out the throb in my foot and tune in to the earnest young voice mangling tradition.
“Holy Mary, Mother of God,
Kiril whispers something in Hekut's ear. He comes over and in a harsh young voice he says to me, “You're grounded for one day.”
“You made me medic. You gave me the knife and told me where to stick it, so that makes me the medic while you're laid low. And I'm saying that you're grounded for one day.”
I turn to the girl beside him. “Kirrrril,” I growl. I know she put him up to this!
“We'll watch over you,” she says. “Lufti knows when danger's coming, by day, and when he sleeps I can sit up all night, with that red stone, and listen for enemy minds looking for us.”
“Stop babying me!” She couldn't look more fierce. “I've got to learn to handle it sooner or later. You are going to lie flat for one day, just long enough to let the wound close up a bit. Then we can go on. You ought to stay down for a week, probably, but I'm not stupid enough to think that's safe. But we can afford one day, to give the skin a chance to start on healing clean.”