Dolores J. Nurss

Volume VIII: The Final Conflagration

Chapter 27

Dancer for the Dead



Tuesday, May 13, 2709, continued

       Lufti and I sit on one of the benches by the brickway in Til Institute. He has grown up to be quite a handsome man, blonde curls framing his tan and chiseled face; no wonder his wife adores him, though Kiril says it's because he's so good with the kids. And the physical part of his oracular training has left him more muscular than ever.
       "So, I finally learned how to read the stars," he says with a half-embarrassed smile. "I've got to admit that I found it a bit disappointing. But there's so much more beyond them!"
       "I daresay."
       He gestures expansively ahead of him. "It's all about the journey, really. You've got to get beyond what you thought were the farthest limits of your world. It all finally makes sense out there."
       "I'm sure it will. But it's going to get dark, soon, and I'm tired. I've got to get back to Tanjin."
       I start to get up but he grips me hard, so hard that he hurts my hand. "No. You will do no such thing, not today. Tanjin will have to wait a long time till the darkness falls and you get back with him, Deirdre." And suddenly we're not in Til anymore.
       The rock starts to close all around us, but he doesn't let go his grip. "Tell Braulio that he did what he had to do, but he must shed no more blood till you reach Koboros, or I can't protect him." And with that he
shrinks and crumples down to an underage corpse next to me and Kiril as I open my eyes to the dimming light within the crevasse.
       Damn, but that looks high up!
       "Are you with us again, Deirdre?" Kiril asks, then her face turns red and she says, "With me. Are you with me, Deirdre?" She lays her good hand on my brow. "I think you're feverish again."
       Softly I say, "That's the hardest part, isn't it? Not the remembering, the forgetting. You keep forgetting that he's dead. You'll think of something you want to share, or something to include him in, and then oh yeah, he's not there anymore."
       I kiss her forehead and then bend to Lufti, feel around back, and just as I thought, the bullet didn't go all the way; it must have lodged in his spine or maybe a back rib. "He would want you to have this. You need a sling." With the weight of the corpse holding the back of the poncho tight, I take the front hem in my teeth (praying that I don't have to taste his blood, some horrible memory of a dream or something nags at me) and hack with my knife in my good hand to cut off the bloodsoaked front, leaving some neckline above the wound. I gently lift what remains over his head, then tug the rest out from behind him. I pause to gently spread the cut-off part over the son of my heart, and then help Kiril to put the poncho over her head, with the back now on her front. Between her good hand and mine, we tie it into a sling for her broken arm.
       "It smells like him," she says.
       "I know."
       Again I check out the distance between us and the road. It doesn't daunt me as much as when I first looked up. We could have climbed out without any problem, in fact, with so many good hand-holds, if we'd each had two hands. "At least my shoulder didn't dislocate this time," I say, trying to encourage myself. "Fancy that."
       Kiril says, "I wish we could call for help. But there's no knowing who won up there."
       "Do you still have that magentine that Cyran gave you?"
       Her eyes and mouth make three round circles, then she nods.
       "Then you can know who won. And you can call for help."
       ("Nobody ever wins," Jake mutters bitterly, gripping his pack-straps as we trudge up the mountain road. "You don't fight wars to win, you fight wars to survive. Both sides always see it that way, regardless of the facts."
       I look about at the peaceful mountain glade, where the butterflies and bees don't get in each other's way, taking nothing from the flowers that the flowers don't want shared, and the sleepy buzzing doesn't sound a thing like battle. Okay, then. Jake's not really here. Don glances my way, and I nod back that I'm on it, I'm paying attention.
       Jake stops completely. I would hate to be whoever he's directing that glare at. "He didn't have to die, Randy! And he didn't have to become an oracle. And there's no helping him now."
       Wallace puts a hand on his shoulder, and throws an arm around George. "None of us should have had to become oracles," the old man says. "Yet here we are, and we must make the best of it." He raises his chin and the bristled jowls wobble. I see the Headmaster in him again, beyond the weariness and grime of sleeping rough, with no more walls around him, just miles of forest and meadows and the cold, free air.
       Jake nods. "Until it kills us," he says and starts walking again.
       "Or NOT!" I cry, startled back into motion to run after them. "Nobody's dying on my watch!"
       He turns and gives me
that look, saying, "No, you're right. I will never die on your watch, Randy." And his gaze softens. So on we go, No more conversation passes between us save the sound of our feet upon the weather-roughened road)
       Above us I hear footsteps crunching, pushing gravel against rock.
       "They're down there!" I hear Braulio call out. "Deirdre and Kiril and Lufti are...oh no. No...not Lufti!" I hear a thump. When I look up I see heads peering down and none of them are Braulio. Damien starts to swing a leg over the edge.
       Alysha says, "Not you, Damien. I need somebody steady on their feet."
       "I've scrambled up and down ravines since I could walk, 'Lysha, Drunk or sober. I'm your best bet right now."
       "Let him go," Cyran says. "He knows the terrain."
       I call up, "Rope him up. We'll need rope to climb out of here, anyway. Kiril and I are each down to one functional arm apiece."
       Kiril adds, "And send water down with him. We're sooo thirsty!"
       So Damien swings his leg back up and submits to the rope. Braulio now stands over our crack in the mountain, his face white behind the freckles. I see gravel drop from his knees; apparently he had fallen to them, but now pulls together to help lower Damien down to us. Damien scrambles down the rocks just fine, though the smell of chaummin reaches us before he does.
       "You get the water, first," Kiril says. "You're the feverish one."
       "No, you--you're the pregnant one." And then we both stare at each other in shock.
       Damien reaches us and he has two waterskins, which we both latch onto desperately, one-handedly awkward, gulping down the cold, restorative draughts and not looking at each other. When we come up for air, Damien ties Kiril to his back first and I sit there besides Lufti, watching them go up. Lufti's eyes stay open the entire time, and his smile never wavers as his beloved rises above him.
       She's a telepath, I remind myself, who has never learned how to shield her thoughts. Her emotions must dart all over the place. She gave me that information without even realizing it. Lufti's ghost had nothing to do with it.
       Damien comes back for me. Plainly he hadn't heard what Kiril and I had said to each other, for no one would have taken the news to heart more than him, but here he just looks sad and distant as usual, a mist of chaummin between him and the aching world. Tied onto him, with my arms wrapped around his too-thin waist, the sound hand gripping the broken one, I ride his back up from the shadows, to the level where the slanting morning sun makes the mica sparkle in the stone, as if the stars that left the night sky's fading had come down to pay their respects. And I realize that this, this very moment, had flung backwards in time, through some unimaginable rift, into a vision to trouble our poor, mad oracle.
       Topside, while those with relatively sound bodies gather what stones and gravel they can to push into the ravine for Lufti's burial, I take out my knife--but I can't even scratch one letter into the hard, cruel granite!
       "Here, Deirdre," says Braulio. "It'll take two hands." And with that he starts pounding furiously on one rock with another, till he can chip away an "L", scowling through his tears. And when that's all that he can manage, he drops the rocks, panting for air, swearing breathlessly.
       "It's enough, lad," says Cyran. "Many rebels don't get that much."
       Kiril sighs. "Lufti the Literate", she says softly. "Literate, lunatic, lover...he would have strung out all kinds of L words and we'd have thought he was just babbling!" And suddenly the tears flood out that she had pent up till now, and we hug the best we can with our injuries, and endure the cold on our wet, windswept cheeks.
       I grate at Damien, "You'd better write a song for him, a song that tells people where we've buried him, and all the ways that he served even after the war destroyed his mind. You'd better still have it in you to sing a really, really good song for him!" He nods, saying softly, "I already have a title. Dancer for the Dead."
       I ask Kiril, "Is that okay, honey?" I feel her nod against me, and then she whispers yes into my shirt. "She consents," I say to our bard. And so, while Chulan gropes for half-remembered prayers and Kiril now sobs openly, holding onto me like she'd fall into the grave, Damien hums sadly to himself, composing.



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