Dolores J. Nurss

Volume VIII: The Final Conflagration

Chapter 6

Light and Darkness



Saturday, May 3, 2709, continued

       Kuchi rides in front of Damien, as my old friend teaches him the ways of the bard. "Look up there," he says to Kuchi, pointing. "Have you ever seen the sky so blue in the Lowlands?" He laughs with appreciation, almost his old self, but I have seen the premature lines on that impish face when he came to greet me awkwardly at our last stop, saying that he hadn't recognized me, trying to hug me around my injuries. I smelled the chaummin on him, too, before the sun had climbed to noon.
       "Uh uh," says Kuchi. "I never saw any sky over the Lowlands before. I'm from the Midlands."
       "I'm a Mountain boy, myself," Damien says proudly. "But we all follow the whims of the war these days."
       Kuchi nods, with eyes too haunted for so small a child. I remember how I used to think Lufti too young for this business; heck, I even thought Damien too young, but Kuchi makes elders of us all.
       "Do you see how the rays of sunlight dapple the forest floor with coins of light? There once lived a miser, who ventured down from the mountains on a hunt in the jungle. But he had stolen much gold and precious jewels from the Mountain Maidens…"
       "Good God!" Lufti exclaims where he walks, packless, beside our horses. He starts to pull a pouch out of his pocket but Kiril leaps from the saddle so fast that she almost seems like one of my Friendclan, to stop him from scattering the gemstones.
       "Don't leap to conclusions, love--listen till the end of the story." And thereafter she walks beside him, holding one hand firmly.
       Damien takes note, nods and says, "Um, yes, this wicked man worked slaves to death in his mines, so that's why the Mountain Maidens called it stealing. They like being paid in songs and dances and the sharing of stories, things of joy--they don't like human sacrifice."
       Lufti slips the pouch back and listens, dubiously.
       Damien continues, "Anyway, this Maiden cast a glamour on the rich man's gold-greedy eyes. So that when he went into the woods, and the sun came out from the clouds, he thought that all of these spots of golden light were coins. He grasped at them, but the wind blew and the leaves danced, rustling like distant snickering, and so the coins kept moving. He went deeper and deeper into the woods, trying to gather them all. He actually thought that he'd picked some up; he clutched air to his chest and thought himself richer and richer the farther he went. When night fell he realized that he'd lost his way, but then the moon came out and cast forth coins of silver, mistier but all the more beguiling for that, so that he kept on running after them, utterly fascinated, going without food or sleep, till by the time the moon waned and the clouds covered the sun, he himself had become as insubstantial as a ray upon the air. He's still out there somewhere, chasing after what has no more substance than himself, and he never worked another miner to death again."
       Wide-eyed, Kuchi asks, "What happened to his children?"
       "Oh, he had no children, and no wife. He was too selfish to love anyone. He just loved money."
       "But Grandpa loved us, and he went after more and more money, he said, to take care of us since our parents died."
       "Did your Grandpa work anybody to death?"
       Kuchi gives it some serious thought, and then says, "No."
       "Well then, your Grandpa is okay in Heaven. Only people who hurt other people for money ever get in trouble for going after it."
       Braulio grates, "He's roasting in Hell, then. There's lots of ways to hurt someone for money."
       Chaska cries, "No, don't say that! It was only a nightmare…" and then she suddenly realizes what she just said aloud.
       Braulio turns to her intently. "You saw him in Hell, in a dream?"
       "Purgatory," she says, trying to remember. "It must have been Purgatory. Because I had a chance to forgive him, and I took it."
       "He's still there, then, because I haven't forgiven him yet."
       (What did you want from me, creature neither brother nor sister--forgiveness? For what? For driving my son mad with your horrible war? For choosing our wretched father's path? For crowding me in the womb with your monstrosity? Do you think that I could forgive you for any of it? No more than you could forgive me, I suppose, for sticking to the path denied to you.
       Or did you come to comfort me? Did you think that you of all people could? Or was it just some primordial urge to come together with kin when someone in the family died, and any comforter at all would do so long as it shared your accursed blood? Did you imagine that I felt the same?
       Troopers clean up the blood that you left behind, my sib. The cottage stinks of cleanser, even with the curtains pushed wide open. I can hear the screams outside as someone flogs the stupid guards who let you in. As for that vestigial bit of tissue that I sheared off, I fed it earlier to a stray cat, who had more use for it than you. That's the only creature it could ever feed, anyway.
       The blanket suffocates me in this heat, the sweat stings my eyes, but I'm not about to reveal my back to mere footsoldiers. The men talk about how I bested you in battle and drove you off, even injured as I am. It always helps if the soldiers admire one, and that has long eluded me in my line of work. So thank you for that.
       You should have killed me, Cyran. And I should have killed you, and not just made you suffer. We both deserve it, don't we? But my hand veered from my intent, and yours never lifted the gun.
       Because I still love you! May God strike me dead but I still love you, and I saw in your eye with all of my skill at reading the darkest hearts that by some perversion worse than your birth, worse than our conception, you still love me, too, as your unclaimable sibling, and for that you're going to Hell right alongside me!)

       "Why don't you let me die?" I ask Kiril as she helps me fall off the horse. "Why don't you just let me wander off into the jungle and fade away? What if we're all blinded by Mountain-Maidens, for all the lead that we've stolen for sacrificing each other, all of us chasing after something that's not even real?"
       "Now now, Deidre, that's just the crash talking, and your pain. You'll feel better soon."
       "No I won't, not really. I'm tired, Kiril, so godforsaken tired…"
       "Of course…"
       "But even without the greenfire in me the ghosts won't let me sleep!"
       "Oh hush! I've seen you sleep. You nodded off at the saddle just now."
       "That's not real sleep. My nightmares are full of blood."
       "Well, I'm glad you're full of something," she says as she helps me sit down on a stone. "But that's not enough. Hekut says you get supper tonight, and every night that we can give it to you till Rashid says otherwise."
       "Hekut says whatever you tell him to," I grumble, but I don't resist the pieces of sandwich that she feeds me. Cleverly, she had put cheese, with basil from the plantation garden, in between thick slabs of wholegrain bread and kept them wrapped in foil, set out in the sun at every halt, till the cheese softened and incorporated into the bread. It tastes better than I deserve. How thoughtful of her, not only for my sake, but also for making sure that the rest of the camp isn't tormented by the smell of food cooked for me.
       "Yes," says Lufti, as if he read my thought, and maybe he has. "Someday Kiril will be Queen of the Charadoc, for she is wise and tempered."
       Kiril snorts with affectionate derision and hooks up our hammocks in the dark. We can risk no fire so soon after our escape, but the night is warm and the stars unusually bright.
       (It's easy to follow Cyran's ban on lanterns when the moon is full, but it takes a pro to find hir in times like this, when the new moon sheds no light. I have the stars at least; I don't care what that poor, mad boy says against them--tonight they look beautiful! You don't normally see stars this clearly in the Lowlands, but they sparkle through the canopy like fairies, like the pictures in those old books that Grandma used to open for me when teaching me to read.
       Lanterns make you weak. Your eyes never adjust, but limit you to one small circle of light and leaves the rest a mystery. Soldiers like their ways well-lit, and that's how we sneak up on them. They can't see us with their eyes full of their own light, but for us they spotlight themselves.
       I breathe deep that rich rainforest air that I missed so badly when we did our work in the Mountains and the Midlands. The flowers never fail here, the earth stays moist and fragrant, and the sap drips soft and sticky. Here I've been smoking for years, but nothing can rob me of the sultry savor of the jungle of my birth.
       I hear the creek nearby, right where it's supposed to be. I move parallel to it, on a path that only a rebel could find, not what the Meritocrats would call a path at all, no bare soil underfoot, more like a consistent gap between trees, a lightening of the foliage through which I wade, catching my skirt now and then briefly but not enough to impede me, really. Old stumps of branches that we cut years ago, dark silhouettes made rough by moss, point at me here and there as I pass; I more know about them than see them, though sometimes drops of dew glitter on them. The stars shine brighter on the path than off it; that helps, too.
       Now comes the tall and short boulders nestled together, with one tree growing in the crack between them. That's where I turn left. I hike up my skirt to climb up a hill then down the other side, to our bunker snug against its side, looking now like a part of the hill itself, so overgrown has it become. How long ago did I help Cyran build it? It looks much smaller now to me than then. I didn't used to have to duck to enter. The smell of blood surprises me.
       "A...lysh...a," e groans. Oh Lord, this sounds bad. "A...lysh...wounded. I'm wounded."
       I pull shut the covering on the door, and the second covering over that. Nobody can see now when I'll light the lantern at last--a hand-cranked electric model that won't choke the already-stale air in this hut. I count out the strokes as it whirrs in the dark. I hear Cyran breathing shallowly, rapidly. And now the glow begins, shuddering, then steady.
       I see Cyran, lying in the pants of that uniform that e had me sew up for hir, hir hair shorn short, a great wad of bloodsoaked fabric pressed to hir bare breasts. E pulls back the wad and no, it's not plural, not anymore. Oh. Dear. God.)



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