Dolores J. Nurss

Volume VIII: The Final Conflagration

Chapter 23

On the Road to Better



Saturday, May 10, 2709, continued

       We have horses again. Or no, mules and donkeys. Hoofed steeds of some sort;. I don't know how Alysha managed it, I just closed my eyes and now, when I open them again people around me load up saddlebags and various large and small beasts whicker softly around me or nuzzle at the juicier weeds. And I blink again, and now here I am with Kiril and Braulio trying to help me up onto a saddle, while Lufti holds the animal's bridle, stroking the long muzzle and whispering strange things to her. A nice creature, sort of the color of butter-toffee that I remember from the Founder's Day Fair in Alonzo Valley, with creamy mane and patches.
       "Good God, Deirdre!" says Braulio. "Your hand!"
       Kiril comes over to my left side to check it. "Oh my gosh, your fingers are a twisted mess! What happened to your cast?"
       "We had to take it off to salve the wound. And then I sort of forgot that it was broken."
       "You didn't!"
       I shrug with my least-sore shoulder. "Everything hurt so much everywhere else that it didn't seem to stand out all that much. I just assumed that it was the wound still throbbing."
       Alysha comes over to see what the delay's all about. She makes a face studying my injuries. I wish they hadn't reminded me to feel the ache. "Deirdre..."she says slowly, "was it this bad when you were taking care of Cyran and me?"
       "Pretty much." Kiril whistles the call for a medic. "I'm right here, Kiril," I say. You're holding my hand. But then Hekut comes up and stares wide-eyed at my fingers. Oh no.
       "What do you want me to do with that?"
       I smile wryly. "She wants you to order me not to use my hand till Rashid can…" and then I stop, suddenly nauseated. Until Rashid can break it again and set it right. "Never mind. I'll tell myself." I hadn't even noticed that he still accompanied us, but it makes sense; Cyran must have ordered it. We can always use another medic. He's got a start on learning some of the basics, but Rashid can teach him more. Kiril and Braulio finish helping me up onto the mule; I'm sure they think that I'm delirious when I chuckle faintly, shaking my head. But I first met him, Hekut would have been the last person I'd pick to become a medic!
       Now Kiril climbs up onto the saddle in front of me. She takes the reins in one hand and rests the other on my knee, to make sure that I stay put. I feel safer just to have her there, and Lufti walking beside us.
       (Edna puts breakfast in front of me. I just stare at it. I think I might be hungry, but I can't seem to do anything about it. She sighs and says to the others, "You see how it is after a shiriki attack." She wraps my fingers around the handle of a spoon. Nice silver. Engraved. I can feel engravings under my fingers. "Especially for somebody who had a bad time of it during the Confusion, like my Dayin, here, God forbid that he should ever meet a shiriki." She guides my hand to dip the spoon into the oatmeal. I find that I can remember how to feed myself. It tastes like honey. "There, see? Once you get her started, she can do the rest. But you have to get her started."
       Where is Zanne...Zanne...Zanne…?)

       And then I blink, and now we ride single-file up a wider path than usual, a common farmer's route with a real road ahead of us eventually, sun-bathed where the forest parts for it. Come to think of it, haven't we had quite a bit of sun around us, even before this? Have we climbed into deciduous territory already? I look up, and sure enough, the last rags of brown leaves cling to the branches, or drift down around us, blowing about our hooves, crunching underfoot. I feel regret that we missed the height of their color.
       "I hear too many steps," I tell Alysha, and everybody freezes. But soon we hear the whistle for "Friend" as Chulan catches up with us. When Braulio helps her up onto his saddle I see how red, watery and swollen her eyes have become.
       "Eyeworms," she explains. Ouch! "I must have picked them up when my boat passed through some hanging moss. I hear that Rashid has a cure."
       "That he does," I say, trying to remember when I last carried the root that could heal her in my gear, before losing it somewhere along the line. It seems that my entire life for the past year or more has been one long scramble, losing bits along the way.
       ("She won't be this way forever," Edna says, guiding my arms into my coat before leading me to the truck. "Bits of her will soon come back, then more and more, maybe all of it if the Shiriki found her kindness indigestible. Like I said, she's a strong one." She pats my shoulder and I almost feel it.
       As Osca helps me into the truck and then follows after, Dayin climbs into the back; he has a hankering for the world the way it was before the Confusion--not the conveniences, though he'd enjoy them and who could blame him? No, he longs for the freedom of movement, of seeing people different from himself and surviving the exchange. He can't bear to let the country's madness ghettoize him, not even if it's the nicest ghetto in the world.
       I'm reading his mind, without effort. I don't seem to have much mind of my own in the way. And I don't mind that.
       Did I just imagine a pun? Humor's a nice bit to get back. Maybe I'll recover faster than I feared.
       Did I fear?)

       "We'll take what's probably the fastest route to Koboros, " Alysha says, Cyran drowsing against her breast. His fever probably feels good to her, as we climb up to cooler territory. "Khouri sent out Cyran's orders last night to cause a couple Lowland diversions, so I'm going to risk the truck-road down the line."
       "I think we've seen enough of fire," Lufti says beside my left knee. Alysha glances on him with pity, but I know that he responds to my thought and our common experience. "Let the ashes cool for awhile." Indeed, in this wider space I can see more open slopes on the other side of a river, black towers of burnt stumps rising from fluttering brown skirts of last spring's shoots, turned this time by autumn and not by conflagration, amid the seasonal gold of a year's grass grown since the soil charred.
       "You're right," I say softly. Everybody's right these days, except me. Ash does indeed remain down in my soul, when I had thought I'd cleared it out for good.
       Lufti reaches up and pats my hand. "It's okay, Deirdre. We are but Man. Gods tumble from the heavens and cause great gouges in Creation. It's not good for their hands, either. Be neither high nor low--just be." I suppose that's good advice, from one lunatic to another.
       It doesn't take long before we reach the red rock and clay road that winds up cliffs, that no one takes who doesn't have to. At this stretch it spreads wide enough for our animals, but not by much. Soon we climb in and out of eerie layers of clouds, everything going misty and dim, and then sharp again, and then vague once more.
       Lufti says, "It's the fume of smoking. low-caste gods. They roll us for their dice and watch over us, keen to see however we'll land next."
       I hear the cries of land-gulls and see the double-curve of their outstretched wings above us and below, dark or bright depending on the angle of the sun, dissolving into fog, then soaring or diving out again. I feel a pang of missing flight, that heavenly vertigo. I feel heavy on my mule.
       "You have no idea what heavy feels like," Kiril tells me as if I had spoken aloud.
       "You have no idea what flight feels like," I murmur back.
       "Oh yes I do. When you took off after Miko's birth, I nicked a crystal from the Master Suite that Lufti told me to grab, before he ran off after you." She takes a breath. "I couldn't go where you went, but I could feel you going there. I could feel all of it."
       Cyran rouses at that. "You had a magentine crystal already and you didn't tell me?"
       I can feel Kiril shudder. "I put it back. I didn't want it. I don't like plunging into other people's minds."
       "From now on you will 'plunge' whenever I or any other officer above you orders you to. None of us choose how we're born, but we make the best of what we get." I put my arms around Kiril the best I can, for whatever good my comforting could do.
       (I don't know why I suddenly break down crying, right there in the truck between Anselmo and Ozwald. First my eyes feel like they're swelling up with all my melting-down emotions. I keep wiping my eyes, and then I have to wipe my nose, and I start trembling all over, and the next thing I know I'm bawling my silly head off, trying to hide my face in my arms against the dashboard, so hard that I give myself hiccups, but I can't stop, it just keeps going till I can hardly breathe for crying.
       And then I hear Anselmo, his voice so deep and yet so gentle that it reminds me of Jake. "I understand her," he tells Ozwald. "Just a little bit." Oh my Jake, my friendclan brother, where are you in this wide, wild world? "Even in the safety of my own people, I got a taste of the Confusion, what it meant for folks like her and me and Dayin, feeling all these other minds crowding in. But she got it full force, out in the worst of it all. She felt everything, Ozwald. Everybody's emotions, all at once--a great pile of individual griefs that each would break a person all by itself. And still she helped people, everywhere she went!"
       I hear rummaging around about our feet. Now I feel a leather-clad corner pushing at my arm. "Here, Zanne," Ozwald says in his kindliest voice. "Here's Tshura. She understands." And I take the antique radio into my arms and hug it, hug it tight, and the warmth all around me melts away my grief until I find myself smiling, my hair in my face, I'm not sure how. Maybe it's a crazy, lopside smile, behind the straying locks that I won't let go of Tshura to brush away, but it's mine, all mine, it's on the lips of me. I make it happen, this smile. Gradually my wet face dries.)
       ("We can't leave just yet," I tell Don when I see him start to load up his backpack again. "Jake needs rest, and so do the other two."
       Don lays down his socks. "Can you please explain what the hell is going on?"
       I tip my head, shrugging. "Honest answer? I have no idea. Practical answer? Some sort of oracular crisis--large scale. Well, medium-large--it could be worse. But then with two of them being untrained, two of them magentine-saturated, and all three going through some pretty crazy trauma before we even got here, it's bad enough."
       Meanwhile Jake, George and Wallace finish cutting and piecing together four or five children's board games found in a chest in a nearby common-room, with matchboxes and other small structures to make a 3D course. Now they grimly pass several different kinds of dice around and take turns moving their pieces around it. George's piece is a little toy candy-cane, Wallace has a bronze policean blowing a whistle, and Jake moves a tiny wooden owl.
       I say, "I can't tell you more, Don, until they speak...if they ever do speak about it."
       "Why won't they say anything? Not even 'hand me the dice, please'?"
       "Because whatever they're going through goes way beyond words to handle, so much so that words themselves seem useless in general." I head for the door to start up some dinner in the cafeteria, but Don stops me.
       "Um, Randy?"
       "They've all suddenly gone unconscious."
       I whirl back and find them sprawled where they sat. A quick examination, however, shows that they merely sleep. "It's okay, Don," I say as I gently move Jake's head off of the scissors that it fell on. "Sleep helps mend brains. Now help me tug the big lugs into more comfortable positions.")

       Already we've gone so high that the collective mists below us overlap to completely hide the land from which we rose. I like the narrowness of this passage, too feverish perhaps to fear. It means that anybody attacking us would only have a narrow space, before or behind, which could even the odds between us. I don't think that General Aliso would be so foolish as to try anything on ground that would favor...no, she's dead. I killed her. Some other general, then. Maybe some hardscrabble sort who rose up from the ranks, who knows the local landscape...no, I'm worrying unnecessarily. People don't rise up so easily in the Charadoc. Otherwise, what am I even doing out here?
       But what if they don't need the road to attack us?
       (I know what I'm doing out here. I've seen enough of George's woodcraft to learn what plants we can eat out here, still tender with the spring. I enjoy the peace of a quiet Vanikketan May, taking in the voices of so many different kinds of birds and their graceful darting through the trees around me. I breathe deeply the air thick with blossoming and new, green growth. In some ways this feels more like a vacation than our time in busy Til Institute.
       The best potherbs grow along the edges of the forest, in meadows and in margins, getting both sun and protection, roots running in both directions to the moist and the dry. Root vegetables have shriveled up over the winter, all the little tubers doing their job to keep the plants alive, but mushrooms abound in the deeper shade, and I know which ones are safe. I also find, by the nearby lake, a reed with an edible pith, not bad once you soften and flavor it by boiling it with meat, if I recall correctly.
       And Don provides! I see, when I get back, that he's snared a good-sized reekaff to go with what I've gathered. Setting my basket aside, I set a fire in an outside firepit to disguise the smell of butchery--the last thing we need is to attract any stinkybunnies! By the time he has the creature skinned and gutted, I've got a nice stuffing ready to go.
       The rich aromas of meat over a spit won't attract stinkybunnies--they instinctively shy away from odors that could signal their own potential destruction, smart little brutes. So I leave Don to turn the spit while I check in on our oracles.
       As I enter the room I find them stirring from the spontaneous nap that I last left them in, pushing aside the blankets that I'd spread over them, rising from the pillows that I slipped beneath each head, rubbing eyes and looking around them like bewildered children...an improvement, I'd say, over glaring at whatever toy they focused on like lunatics.
       "I'm hungry," Jake says, and Wallace nods, looking at me like I carried dinner in my pocket.
       "Me, too," says George, staring up expectantly.
       I hold back the tears welling up in my eyes, grateful to hear them speak for the first time in I don't know how long. "Then you're in luck," I say with the biggest smile that I can muster. "Boy have we got something yummy cooking for you!")

       "I'm sorry that I don't have anything yummy for you, or even cooked," says Kiril as she pulls some slices of dried kanya out of her saddlebag and passes some back to me, carefully steering to my right hand.
       "That's okay," I say. "It's better dried than fresh anyway. Sweeter."
       Lufti reaches up for some saying, "Fine with me. Kiril dries up sweetly, too, though I also like her spicy when she's wet."
       "Hush!" Kiril says, but I can somehow feel her smile, a warmth radiating out of her back into my chest. I must still be feverish.
       But better. I do think I'm moving towards a recovery phase again.



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