Dolores J. Nurss

Volume VIII: The Final Conflagration

Chapter 4

Going Back



Saturday, May 3, 2709, continued

       (I trust Lufti; he's mad like Father Man--St. Dymphna always protects me through lunatics. I lead him to the shelter that Alysha and I built so long ago, following the sound of the creek till we reach the point where a tree grows between a tall and a short boulder. Then I turn to lead the boy where very few know that anyone has ever gone, a path so old that the jungle has mostly reclaimed it, where only a practiced eye could find anywhere to put their feet at all. A thin, meandering line of blue above marks it more than anything, a closing wound in the woods. I can hardly make out, now, the stumps of branches that we broke or sawed out of the way, green-furred muzzles of vague dragon-shapes, dripping moss and memories. A blue and apricot bird perches on one, singing suddenly loudly, and then flies off. I give him a nod and a smile--we're in his territory, now.
       Lufti soon takes the lead; I shouldn't be surprised, though he has never been here before. He moves through the brush with hardly a rustle; I feel like a cow next to him, crashing through branches and vines and spiderwebs, with leaves getting stuck in my hair.
       Here it is, built into a hill, covered in sod and overgrown, looking like the hill's big toe, not anything made by hands. Lufti turns and smiles as he holds back a mat of vines like a curtain, revealing the opening that I didn't have to tell him would be there. I stoop to enter and he follows, into that dim little den, its clay dug out, reinforced by rusted pipes and old barbed-wire, rebar and whatever else we could scavenge and then plaster over, the whole then hardened by a fire inside that burned for days and melted bottles that we threw in while we waited. I remember calling it a candle lit to St. Dymphna, scared to death that if I didn't, if I failed to call on her protection, somebody would see it, smell it, find and kill us. But of course I worried for nothing--nobody cares about fires this deep into the woods. We needed no more to furnish it than a couple of logs, double curtains on the doorway to hide any light that might leak out, and enough cleared space for sleeping.
       I leave the curtains undrawn; we're going to need at least the dim, vine-filtered light. And I feel that rare thing, peace, more precious in the Charadoc than any cold, hard treasure. How often I've found refuge here! I breathe deep the close and earthy air. Is it just my imagination, or does it still smells a bit charred, after all these years?
       I sit down on one of the logs to let Lufti cut my hair--a low-rank military cut, shortening my locks till they cup my head like a bowl, barely enough to protect my ears, a curve just brushing my collar. He works quickly in the dimness, humming eerily to himself, not needing to see much with his eyes. If the cut's a bit uneven here and there, that's okay; the army usually saves its barbers for the officers and leave the rank and file to their own devices.
       We have no mirror for me to take care of my own face, so Lufti pours water from his canteen onto a rag, then carefully but thoroughly wipes every trace of liner from my eyes. His own gleam rimmed in black, so he knows the way of it, mad though he may be. Ah hell, maybe we're both mad. How could I not be, to some extent, after all I've been through?
       Knowing that Lufti won't care about my differences, I pull off the Paradisian tunic and britches with only the slightest hesitation, shake the hair off of them, and take out the soldier's uniform, washed of its blood, the bullet-holes discreetly darned by Alysha's talent. She knows where I must infiltrate, though I couldn't tell her why.
       Lufti stops me from putting it on, though. Troubled, he takes up the folded clothing and hums over it, but when he starts to dance I stop him. "I don’t have time for this," I say. "Say your prayers for the dead more quickly."
       He looks at me darkly. "You don't want to quicken him. He's very irate. He doesn't want you wearing his clothes to trick his own people." But then he brightens, saying, "Yet we all have friends among the Dead. You will survive."
       "If he understood what I'm about to do, he wouldn't stop me," I say, taking the clothing from him and dressing.
       "How can he understand, when we don't understand ourselves?" And with that he ducks out of the shelter, without any order of mine, so soundlessly that if I hadn't been staring right at him, I'd have believed that he vanished. Once I have the uniform on and straightened up to regs (my fingers still remembering all the details) I make my more graceless exit, to stand beneath the sun once more and hear the birds around for miles. For that brief yet precious minute I feel young again, earnest and idealistic, full of the energy to take on the might of the entire Charadocian government! Then my eyes trace up the trunk of a tree that had been a sapling when we built this hiding-place, and I feel the years between then and now.
       I am still young, I remind myself, though I feel like a decade passed between every birthday since. I turn back to the ghost of a path and move on, swaying around live boughs and stepping over dead ones. I finger the patch on my shoulder, the purple cross that Alysha embroidered, on Lufti's advice. It makes sense; medics can go anywhere in a camp, if they look intent on getting there, and nobody will question it. I haven't used that disguise before, though. What if somebody actually calls on me to fix an injury? Yet Lufti insisted, and his derangement shows him visions that aren't safe to question, if he's anything like Man.)

       I have graduated to sitting upright on the ground, my back against a tree, one arm in a sling and the other hand bandaged into a blob of rags. It's an improvement, but I still don't want to move. The air smells sweet, except for that acrid folk-dye that Romulo uses nearby, splashing and muttering. At least I tell myself that it's sweet. My brain merely catalogs, "This esther comes from blossoms, and this from damp wood, this from green leaves and this from rotting soil, but none of it smells like blood so far, so that's something, at least." And my cigarette that Braulio shares with me, holding it to my lips to spare my useless hands, smells like tobacco--that's all I need to know.
       I never thought of it before, but there's something dirty about tobacco's aroma. Somthing shabby, crumbling on the air. It smells like slums, grimy diners and tenements where the landlord couldn't care less about maintenance. It smells like Rhallunn.
       Shake yourself out of that mood. Look around, Deirdre. Somewhere there's always beauty--that's an agent's article of faith. Even if I can't fully see it right now, it must be there.
       Nearby Makhliya nurses her baby. Again. I never realized just how often mothers must nurse babies. I listen to the birds singing to the boy-child his first lessons about reality: reality is full of songs and chatter and the dappling motion of sun-rays and leaf-shadow drifting back and forth, light and dark, light and dark, in rhythm to the breathing wind and the regularly sighing breast. I feel distantly glad that he receives this input, a balance to his earlier instruction that life also contains explosions, loud noise, fear and fire and the splattering of blood. We can't remember our earliest lessons, but they're in there, down below our consciousness, and everything we are builds upon them.
       Lufti trudges up and hands Alysha some pages. That's right--she can read. Then he goes over to Makhliya who looks up and says, "Thank you for saving my son's life.
       He smiles radiantly down on her and asks, "Will you name him Lufti?"
       "Oh no!" She stares at him in shock. "You can't name a child after someone alive!"
       His smile doesn't waver at all. "That's okay, the stars already know that I'm dead."
       "I'm going to name him Miko," she says firmly. "A friend that Romulo and I made back at the college-camp, when Romulo was healing from his wound."
       "I remember Miko," Lufti says, almost sanely if not for those wild, kohl-dark eyes. "He went with us to dance with dragons where the cattle fear to go." And just like that it's gone, and his gaze wanders.
       Thoughtfully Makhliya says, "I heard that he died from a snakebite, not a bullet."
       "That is true," Lufti says, feigning sanity once again. I cringe, waiting for him to reveal my horrible first-aid error that cost Miko his life, but he spares me.
       "Then maybe his ghost will keep my little Miko safe from bullets," Makhliya says gazing fondly down on her son. "We all must die, of course, but I want my Miko to lead a natural life and die a natural death, if God still grants such things." Before Lufti can reply, Alysha finishes reading her orders.
       "Okay, folks, time for the last of us to roll out. Romulo, you ready?" And that's when I see Romulo come up, his hair still damp, a dark brown, slightly reddish color, brewed from local seed-hulls in an iron pot. A stainless steel pot would get you scarlet, but that would draw too much attention.
       "As ready as I'll ever be," he says, and picks up the baby so that his wife can climb to her feet.
       In an uncharacteristically gentle voice, Alysha says, "Your parents' hearts will soften when they see the baby. It always happens." Then she straightens; in a sterner voice she asks, "Do you vow to uphold Egalitarianism your whole life long?"
       "We do," they say wearily but sincerely.
       "Do you vow to give aid and comfort to the Egalitarians whenever you are able?"
       "We do."
       "Do you vow to spread the word of Egalitarianism to any who will listen?"
       "We do."
       "Will you bear arms for the Revolution again, if called upon to do so?"
       A pause. "We do."
       "Do you vow to raise your son according to Egalitarian principles?"
       "We do."
       "Go in peace, then—you're mustered out." They nod, sigh, and then Makhliya tears up, turning to Romulo, putting one arm around him and another around our brand new Miko.
       "It's been a wild ride, my love. But I'm glad that it's been with you." He tries to husk out some reply, then just gives up and kisses her. When their lips part again she says, "It's going to be all right. I'm a medic, now, and the village can always use that. I can read now. They won't care who my mother is anymore--I'm a mother myself." Then she laughs, saying, "Of a proud Egalitarian son, born on the right side of a wedding. They can't fault me for that."
       "No, they can't," he agrees. And off they go to the pair of horses and the wagon set apart for them , to head back to the village where they started, with a little nest-egg for them to build a life of their own, thanks to Chaska passing 'round the hat. Lufti tossed in a sapphire and a ruby, saying, "It's a boy! It's a girl, too, but not like our leader. Buy lots of eyeliner." They got a decent haul--with hard work and any luck they won't have to work for the plantation. And haven't I seen those two fine bays somewhere before?
       "Deirdre, you're with Damien," Alysha says.
       "Damien? Is he here? I thought Cyran busted his rank."
       "He's good enough to escort wounded to Koboros. He knows every way in, and his singing helps people in pain get through. Can you ride a horse?"
       "I'm not the one who just gave birth. Yes, I can ride."
       "Good, because I don't fancy strapping you onto a horse's back. Get your gear together."
       "Will Kiril, Lufti and Baruch go with me?"
       "You're really high maintenance, Deirdre, do you know that? Yes, Cyran already gave the orders. You'll get your whole crew, with some additions; they'll guard you on the way."
       "Then let's do it."
       (The fresh haircut helps me blend right in--I look newly recruited, a medic's aide in training. The timing works out perfectly--I hear the noon whistle and join the others for whatever potato-sludge they're ladling out today. It doesn't smell half-bad, actually, with beef in the mix and local herbs. I pick up my bowl and tray when my turn comes at the station for it, and then a spoon of stainless steel, then get my steaming plop of brownish goo, then a roll and a cup of cooled tea to go with it. No iced tea for the enlisted, not that I care.
       I find a table alone, but soon a redhead joins me, his skin that brown-sugar beige between Mountainfolk and White. He probably noticed my blue eyes and feels a sense of kinship.
       "You're new here, huh?"
       I shrug and nod. "Just been assigned. A little bit leery, but we don't choose where we go, do we?"
       "Aw, what's wrong with the good ol' 49th?"
       "Nothing, except," and I glance around to make sure no officers listen. "I hear you've got that Sanzio D'Arco traveling with you. Does he...does he ever hurt the soldiers?"
       "Him? Naw. He knows we're all patriots here, or we wouldn't be in the 49th. Besides, man, he's out for the count!" He laughs, and I laugh with him, though my heart tightens painfully. "Some rebel scum he was questioning grabbed his gun when he wasn't looking and shot him--shows it can happen to the best of us. Those devils are quick!"
       "That they are." I work on my food for a moment, tearing off a hunk of roll to dip into the glop, chewing thoughtfully, before I say the next part, thanking Lufti for his weird foresight. "But that's worse luck for me. He'll be in the medical tent, right?"
       "Nope, you're off the hook. He's laid up in the Head Butler's old quarters, and only the chief medical officer ever gets to see him. I thought they were just hiding from us that he'd died, but no, he had to go tearing out in a delirium of fever, shouting something about a son in the rebel ranks. Who'd've thought it?"
       "If it's even true. I've heard a delirious soldier claim to have a son in the devil's ranks."
       "Same difference," the man says with a shrug, reaching for butter for his own roll. "But that was an ugly business with the Head Butler. I had to clean the place out after, and man! You wouldn't want to...never mind. Here. You can have my roll--you look like you could use it. I just lost my appetite.")



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