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IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume VIII: The Final Conflagration


Chapter 9

Medical Necessities


 

 

Sunday, May 4, 2709, continued


       Lufti and I gallop down the road, its ruts and potholes nothing compared to the obstacle-course of the jungle left behind. The forest whips past us, green and brown in every shade and tint, as I try to keep my seat with one sound arm and one good hand, neither on the same side. Occasionally the pain wrenches me anyway, as I forget and try to hold onto Lufti or the saddle rocking underneath us. The empty air rushing at us makes me feel horribly visible; I expect to see the Charadocian Army marching straight towards us every time we veer around a bend. Whenever we pass a farm or roadside stand I feel the stares.
       Yet every so often he slows to let our steed have a breather, with more instinct than someone who grew up in the saddle. I suspect that Lufti tunes into Pearl, herself, in some way more profound than telepathy. And once he suddenly steered us off the road and we waited, sweating in the shadows, listening to the tramp of precisely what I feared, as if I conjured up the soldiers by the mere act of imagining them. I should have trusted the instincts of this boy who has done all this before. But no, I don't feel calm, I don't trust anything or anybody, I just want off of this horse, out of this country, out of this life! As soon as we start galloping again the fear comes back to me, this time doubled by the near certainty that I really can draw soldiers to me by thinking about them and I can't think of anything else!
       All the time I feel Lufti tremble, like an extension of my own jangled nerves, despite the way that he swigs from the bottle periodically. His eyes stay wide with fear of his own and his teeth grit in a scowl, but when he starts to bring a leaf to his mouth I bite his shoulder and he drops it.
       "Ow! Whatcha do that for?"
       "You don't need a heart attack for whatever you're up to."
       "You have no idea how often my heart attacks me," he grumbles, but he also dumps all of the greenfire from his pocket, fluttering away from his hand, twinkling bronze and celadon in a trail behind us. I cringe at the waste, forcing myself to remember that it's good for neither of us, grudgingly grateful that right now I'm incapable of snatching at it.
       "And as for the chaummin," I say a bit too harshly, "try to keep it down to a low buzz, because if you pass out in the saddle I won't know where to go." And with an aching reach I take the flask from him for a swig, myself. He yanks it from me with a snarl.
       "Hey--that hurt!" My wrenched shoulder didn't need that.
       "All that brain-power and you want to sabotage it! I can drink because I'm witless, but I'm going to need you to keep on thinking, Deirdre." He reins Pearl in, stands in the stirrups sniffing, then starts the ride again. "They're not clams, you know, they're big, black limpets, but you wouldn't want them to have died in vain, would you? And especially not him, the Moonlight Child with eyes of magentine." And suddenly I feel very sober, and very, very scared of this drunken wunderkind who shares my saddle.
       Jesse. Jesse Vrede, my beautiful albino boy, youngest of our Friendclan. I loved him, as I love all our sibs, but I think I loved him more than all the rest. We met each other before any of the others. I helped teach him to read. And when he died, I never even had a chance to say goodbye--the chaos of the Black Clam toxin had taken me by then.
       "You know things that you're not supposed to," I grumble. "One day it's going to get you in trouble."
       "I am trouble," he replies, and we ride on.
       (I've seen Jake troubled before, but this time's different. I've never before watched him trudging on with his arms curled up against his chest like that, like they were both injured somehow, his gaze so inward that sometimes he stumbles, not seeing the curbs and debris on the ground before him, bumping into lamp-posts and barking his shins on sidewalk benches if I don't take his elbow and steer him in time. Nor does he have any regard for this cool yet bright spring day, the sun sparkling on the melting icicles, the bruised flowers already lifting up new leaves and blossoms, the birds singing out for territory, lust and company. And when I steady him he doesn't look at me, either.)
       Now Lufti slows the mare, steering her off the road, back into forest. He nearly falls off the first time Pearl has to veer out of the way of a branch, but I steady him, and after that he holds his seat like he's grown into it, picking carefully through vines and forest litter, finding paths where no sane person would look for them, even though he has completely ignored my advice and wobbles noticeably in the saddle, his eyes now half-closed and blinking stupidly. We pass through a glade, filled with light and wildflowers and fluttering leaves...and then back into shadows, cool and muffled in moss.
       ("I get it," I tell Jake, dropping back to walk with him in a bit of privacy, speaking Tilianach. "You're bigger, you're stronger, you're more powerful even without finding fun new ways to use your Gift. It's always been that way, Weed. And I'm not afraid of you. I can never be afraid of you. I know you wouldn't hurt me. Love casts out any need for fear."
       "Yet I
have hurt you," he says softly, and I feel relief that he can talk to me about it. "You and others." His voice drops so low that only I can hear. "I keep thinking of Jesse. The Black Clam change came on me right before he died, right when he was convulsing in my arms. I couldn't help him, Randy. I hurt him and I couldn't help him, and I never got to say goodbye. He wouldn't have wanted me to anyway. He died hating me, Randy.")
       Suddenly Lufti rears up in the saddle shouting, "It's not you, you moron! Am I surrounded by idiots throughout space and time and all the worlds? You were tricked, man--admit it! Ohhhh, we've all been tricked!" And then he passes out against my breast, and my reflexes catch him just in time, forcing a cry of pain from me. I manage somehow to dismount, carrying him awkwardly, but on top of the jolt to hand and shoulder, landing shoots unexpected stings up through my feet. Dandy--the scratches have all gotten infected again!
       ("It's not you, you moron!" George suddenly shouts at Jake, whirling around with his fists clenched. "You were tricked by the same wretch who tricked me." Then his eyes go vague and he giggles. "Why do I suddenly feel so...whoa!" He reels and Wallace catches him. "Contact high!"
       Still holding the boy, Wallace says, "Hush--I hear something.")

       I clear a bed of ferns of twigs and rocks with my toes, then roll Lufti onto it, making sure that he lies on his side. He thanks me by snoring. I stand there, watching over him, as the pain in my shoulder and hand subsides.
       (We all hear it, then: somebody moaning.)
       I limp over to Pearl and lead her to a small but noisy creek tumbling over a jutting boulder. As she drinks her fill, I look in the damp recess under the waterfall, and see, clinging to its forty-five degree underside, bright red club-moss, blackish-green at the base. I glance away, then take a second look--no, that's not club moss, that's a mushroom growing out of moss. I remember that one! I recall the picture in a book I studied on the voyage from Istislan: it has powerful antiseptic and antibiotic properties--and there's so much of it!
       A leaf falls onto my face and then slides from there onto my sling. A leaf tapered at the base yet rounded at the tip. I turn to see what tree it fell from, and stare up at a tall, red-barked tree with short branches--a carpaya tree! And it absolutely oozes tawny-red sap from every crack in its weathered old trunk. Even falling-down drunk our little oracle led me to exactly the right place.
       Now all I have to do is wait till he wakes up to gather what I can't.
       ("Wake up!" I feel jiggled all around, then realize how cold I am, then open my eyes to see that Jake shakes me with nothing behind him but sky. Pretty sky, blue and white, oh, and there's a bird!
       "Wake up, please Randy! You need food." I suppose I do, come to think of it. I'm lying on the frozen ground and can't recall how I got here. "Here, this'll help until we can get a meal going." He pops something round into my mouth, something chocolatey. A reflexive chomp opens up the chalky center to that strange mix of sweetness and umami that's malted milk. Oh yeah--we bought some back in Toulin. Magentine-free.
       "I take it I passed out?" I sit up slowly, watching Don fuss over a fire. Aaaand I smell tobacco. George smokes and Jake hastily stubs out a butt. I now recall that we never did get rid of that second carton of cigarettes.
       "Don't judge me," Jake says. "We needed fire. I...I had to drain you even further to get it, but you had already fainted. I could only do it with a visceral motivation."
       "Jake, are you a toddler, that I have to keep an eye on you every minute? I rub my eyes and reach for a whole handful of malted milk balls.
       "No," he says. With a tinge of desperation in averted eyes and a voice so soft that it seems miles away, he adds, "I am an addict.")

       I'm thirsty; I haven't been able to raise a skin of water to my lips this whole ride. Bracing myself against the rock, I push my whole head under the waterfall and drink my fill--so cool and refreshing, and hang whatever parasites that the stream may harbor--they can join the colonies already inside me and make themselves at home. My wet hair feels good dripping down my back, fresher than my sweat, as I lead the horse back to Lufti.
       I manage, by nudges of my wrist and elbow, to loosen the skin from the saddle and drop it by Lufti--he will be pretty thirsty, himself, when he wakes. up. With more difficulty, sometimes using my teeth, I fumble off the horse's bridle, though I can't remove the saddle Then I sit with my back to a tree, watching the horse graze, hearing the soft and satisfied munches. I feel a bit more energy in me than I have in awhile; that's something at least. I just hope that nobody attacks us while we're so vulnerable here.
       My mind chews on the thought avidly, looking for anything to replace the leaf. I imagine all manner of dreadful things that soldiers could do to us, fended off by our heroic last stand, till we die valiantly for the Cause...with no good result whatsoever. Nobody would know to sing our exploits to the world. And nobody's going to find us offroad, and if they did, they wouldn't know what they've found, for we ran off without arming ourselves. Gloom folds over me; I tip back my head to nap.
       (We find the moaning man, lying in an alley with bits of broken glass piercing him all over his body. He bleeds everywhere, yet superficially, no worrisome gushes anywhere. He looks disturbingly like George did in that blood-sweating fit.
       Wallace says something to him in Vanikketan; I can hear his accent, a flavor of sound that fits Toulinian but not this language. Then he turns to us and says, "I told him that we can help him, that the blonde man is a doctor, and that I have medical supplies." And with that he starts pulling out packets of gauze, medical tape, bandage strips and antiseptic cream from his pack. The man stops moaning and looks up at us with hope.
       "What?" Wallace says to our stares with an annoyingly smug smile. "Did you think that I brought you to a clinic for
cigarettes? While you young fools were busy waxing incendiary, I scooped up all the medical supplies that I could grab before you burned the place down." Jake's face turns red and he concentrates on helping us pull glass-bits out of the hapless stranger. He says something to the man--no accent that I can discern, but halting, trying to make do with a limited vocabulary. The man answers; I can hear exactly how Vanikketan's supposed to sound.
       Jake translates grimly. "He was walking through here when the glass in the alley reminded him of the diamond necklace that he'd once bought for his wife. He felt a surge of guilt, and his telekinesis made the glass fly up and attack him."
       "That's some nasty guilt," I say.
       Jake asks the man a question, and then translates the answer. "He abandoned his wife, he says. She was Italian. People didn't like someone marrying outside of their own kind, and he's French, so when he thought a mob had come for them, he pushed her out the front door and fled out the back. Now he wonders if he heard a real mob or not, or just some rowdies out on the street after closing-time. He used to feel guilty about marrying outside of his kind, but now he feels guilty about leaving."
       We continue for awhile in silence, plucking glass from skin (Wallace has tweezers for each of us) salving cuts and bandaging them. Then Jake speaks again and the man nods, wide-eyed.
       After we finish patching the man up, leaving him with some ointment and extra bandages for changing dressings, we walk on our way, out of the city and into a disheveled suburb where some house in every other block shows signs of current habitation. A few rare windows start to glow here and there, with lanterns of various kinds, as the sunlight fades. These homes have yards turned into frostbitten gardens, with rain-barrels hooked up to gutters on the eaves. Here and there people call chickens and goats into garages-turned barns for the night, and children follow close. I can smell cooking on the air and wonder how safe the food might be.
       "What was that last bit you said to the guy before we left?" I ask Jake. "Not that it's my business, but, you know me, curious."
       "I told him that his wife still lives. If he can find the courage that he lost before, he can rejoin her southwest of here, living in a mountain-town with her sister. She'll yell at him, but she'll take him back. If he doesn't try, he will continue to attack himself until it kills him." Then Jake smiles faintly and says, "Not that it's your business." He grips his pack-straps and picks up his step. And that's where we're headed now--Southwest."
       Don sighs. "We aren't going to go back to burial duty, are we?"
       Jake's eyes widen for a moment. He takes a deep breath before saying, "God, I hope not!")

       I wake where I fell asleep, still propped against the tree that I rested against hours ago. I hear the buzz and sparkle of the late-shift creatures in the deepest night of the world, under layers upon layers of trees beneath layers and layers of clouds, and if any moon shines up there, it must be a thin one.
       I hear a soft moan, brother to the one that woke me moments ago. Then I hear the gurgle of someone drinking from a waterskin, a sigh, a plopping down and rustling of ferns. He'll need no blanket in this humid night; let him sleep off as much of his hangover as he can before the morning light pierces through the canopy of leaves.
       I don't feel much like stringing up a hammock, myself; let whatever might crawl over me in the dark have a go; I don't much care. I shift enough to find a softer place in the fragrant grass, somewhere free of roots. I don't feel the need to stand guard, for an oracle guided me here, into the blind spot of armies or predators or whatever else might slink out there. For the first time I begin to feel some ghost of peace as I shut my eyes once more.

                  

 




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