Dolores J. Nurss

Volume VIII: The Final Conflagration

Chapter 32




Friday, May 16, 2709, continued

       The peaks draw close again. Having found a waterfall, Hekut strips off his clothes at a run (showing his complete lack of puberty) and joyfully cannonballs into the pool, only to shoot up with a gasp and flounder back to dry land as fast as his shuddering limbs will let him.
       "I could have told you that that was snowmelt," Damien says wryly.
       "Then why didn't you?" Hekut cries while Chulan towels him off and Alysha starts a fire.
       Damien shrugs. "You moved too fast." By way of apology he passes his flask to the little boy who takes one gulp, his cheeks flushing in an instant. Hekut hands it back with a nod.
       "Well," says Cyran, "Since Hekut has reminded us that we all could use a scrub, we might as well heat up some water and do the job properly." E looks a lot better today, though weak on hir feet.
       Alysha takes care of it, and also fixes us a midday meal, using a marvelously lightweight sack of potato-flakes from the rich man's house. It has dried milk and butter-solids and everything in it already. Which doesn't stop her from also adding torn-up jerky, an onion and pepper-flakes, and then she chops in a great wad of wild greens that Kiril has gathered in about two minutes, found flourishing in the waterfall's spray (Kiril's way, I think, of dealing with her frustration that she can't handily cook with one arm--at least she can influence the ingredients.)
       We only get one smallish basin of heated water for all of us to dip our washrags in, but it feels refreshing and good, first warm, then brisk as the water evaporates, then warm again with the next scrub, till we all feel tingling and clean. We unabashedly stand around naked together as we wash up, even Cyran, hir delirious fits of shyness gone. But I see the dark red swelling where hir breast used to be, under the puckered, closed-up skin.
       Kiril and I wash each other, since we're each one-handed at the moment. We splash in our clumsiness and laugh at the absurdity of our predicament. And then her face suddenly turns grave.
       "You're right," she says. "It's the forgetting that hurts. How can I laugh with Lufti dead?"
       Damien overhears her. He's tipsier than usual for this time of day, swaying where he smiles, his face red and puffy. "He's never left you, you know. You jus' can't touch him."
       Kiril looks stricken. I tell him, "That's hardly comforting!"
       I grab his arm discreetly but forcefully and start to steer him away when Kiril suddenly calls out, "I'm sorry I lied to you before, Damien, but this time it's true."
       Damien reels around back to her, his face crinkling in perplexity. "What are you talking about?"
       "Back in Merchant's Caverns, I told you that I was pregnant after I had already had a miscarriage. But this time...this time...and Lufti's not here to...not for anything."
       Damien stumbles back, his mouth and eyes wide open. And then he clamps his mouth shut, his eyes swimming, and he lurches forward again. With a drunken, rough gentleness he pulls her to his breast and she lets herself be pulled, wrapping her good arm around him, nestling into his jacket. He starts to open his mouth once more, stops, and then just holds her in his swaying, his chaummin-stink, his kindness and his grief, his red eyes staring off as if he's trying to see ghosts, all the dear, dear ghosts.
       Cyran overhears. "Kiril, I'm mustering you out," E says, holding onto a rock by the fall, yet standing on hir own. "Halfway, at least--I want you to become a stationary medic. You can stay with Deirdre in Koboros. I've heard reports from multiple sources that you already know basic nursing, how to clean wounds and bandage patients. And you're smart enough to learn more, smarter than Makhliya, even younger as you are." Hir face turns stern as e says, "I don't want any more pregnant soldiers in the line of fire."
       I try to smile at Kiril when she finally releases Damien, her hair disheveled and her cheeks wet. "I think I might actually miss this traveling life," I say, "when I retire to Koboros." And I realize that I don't even want to go "home" anymore, back to an institute and a friendclan that will never quite understand the changes in me, except maybe in Rhallunn.
       (As I gather up my few possessions--my sweater and my coat, my changes of clothes (ah, that bright and splended scarf!) my purse full of small tools (but no cosmetics, not anymore, not since we learned that every brand holds magentine) and my canteen, I think that I shall actually miss Anselmo's truck--amusing, isn't it? No, I mustn't think like that--Tshura's not here to feel amused.
       Yet this truck has become a sort of portable stability to me, almost a home. It has rocked me to sleep and shaken me awake so often that I wonder how I'll get a good night's rest without it; its rhythms set the meter for this verse of my life's poem. The patterns in the grain of the wooden siding, the one that resembles a nymph, the one like an island in a river, another like water receding on a beach, these have all become as familiar as the pictures that one hangs on one's own walls at home. I see the patterns when I close my eyes to sleep. I shall even miss the stuffy air, because it made the sudden, shrieking up-slide of the door a shock and a joy of chill and freshness; after this it shall all be merely air.)

* * *

       "Hekut knows what to do," I assure Cyran where e leans back against Alysha, hir eyes finally cloudy with enough chaummin, as Kiril gives hir a wad of leather to bite. "I've taught him how. He did the same for me." We gave hir good remedies in the poultices and sap, but it came too late for them to do much good.
       Hekut comes back from the fire with the blackened blade. Grimly the boy kneels down before his leader. One of Alysha's arms lock firmly around Cyran's shoulders as the other grips hir hand. And Hekut lances the infection.
       I don't know if the shrill comes from Cyran or the inside of my head. Everything starts to go white. Arms grab me and ease me down to the ground, as I feel the dizzy fire kindle up in me again. Kiril's right--I don't really get breaks anymore.
       Alysha says, "Khouri, she's a bit taller than you, but you're strong--do you think you can hold her while we ride? With Kiril's broken arm..."
       "Aw, don't worry about me," I murmur with feverish conviction. "They shall send wagons for us." I open my eyes to a splendid sky radiant with tumbled clouds. "Beautiful carriages, with carvings painted in bright colors, gilded and flashing in the sun. And they have beds inside, so we can all lay down and rest, all the way to Koboros." Oh how I long to stretch out my aches and melt into a bed!
       I hear Hekut laugh. "Deirdre always has the best delerium. When she banged her head up all she could talk about was feasts on fancy food."
       "Not always," Kiril replies, fanning my sudden beading sweat. "Sometimes she gets terrors. We'd better wait and give her some time to rest."
       "No." I hear Alysha say. "We must press all the harder. Rest hasn't done her or anyone else here much good--we need medicine."
       (In the rising mists of the past rain, evaporating in the late spring warmth, we hug our goodbyes, the last of our gear reclaimed from Anselmo's truck. The boys enthusiastically explore all of the carved and painted drawers and nooks of their bardos by packing them with stuff. They don't have much now, but I suspect that they will fill each to overflowing soon enough along the way.
       I rest my hands on Anselmo's higher shoulders. "I've memorized all of your contact info--we Tilián have tricks to it, for really important information, to make sure that nothing short of a cannon-blast will get rid of it. I promise, Anselmo, that I'll send Til detectives to find your family at the first opportunity. We have the resources to search the whole world, if we have to."
       He nods, eyes watering, then hugs me, his head resting on mine. "I will not forget you, Amiga."
       "Nor I you. You have been a true friend to me, too."
       Ozwald just has to have one more hug, himself, lanky and awkward and so enthusiastic that he nearly knocks me off my feet. Dayin gives me a shy wave and a smile; one embrace suffices for him. Then the boys go over to the Romani woman waiting to introduce them to their horses and teach them the ways of equine companionship.
       And then I turn to find Lijeh waiting to speak with me, his hand-rolled cigarette in his yellowed fingers. "It's hardly a fair swap," he says. "We're getting a firestarter, a scholar, and the formula for curing the Confusion, but what do you get, Zanne?"
       I smile up at him. "Could you spare me a pushcart?"
       "I could fix you up with a whole bardo."
       I feel tempted, but I shake my head. "That wouldn't be fair to the horse. I'd have to leave her at some point, who knows where. A pushcart will be fine." I wink and say, "I'm not afraid of exercise."
       "Then I will find you a splendid one. Let's see…" and I open up to his telepathic scan of my tastes. He snaps his fingers. "We've got just the thing! Wine red roses and bluish-green foliage with silver gilding on a sky blue ground--just the way you'd like it."
       "Perfect, darling." I smile as brightly as I can, the full Zanne voltage, smothering back the tears--for I have wept far too much these days. "That will be absolutely divine.")
       (The shopping cart that Jake found squeaks and squeals over the sidewalk, giving a little jolt every time it bumps over a grass-filled crack, which it does often, of course, but to my eye this gives it a sort of perky wobble, kind of cheerfully bouncy like an early 20th century cartoon. I think we all like the noise, as it has eased our traveling considerably. Currently Wallace takes a turn pushing it, but really he leans into it like a walker, glad of the prop.
       Don walks beside him, chatting with him about botany, the old headmaster's favorite topic and his area of expertise before he took charge of the school as a whole. Wallace thought he'd miss the old school garden, but so much more grows beside our path in the final flourishes of spring--plants that he had only ever read about before.
       George strolls in the lead, whistling, hands in his pockets, light-stepping with his pack in the cart. Sometimes birds whistle back, and he laughs. We're letting him get the feel of tracking down our path the oracular way; if he gets lost Jake can always set us straight.
       Jake and I take up the rear together. Jake's in a good mood, too, and that makes me feel chipper as well. I don't need him to talk, but he says one word, and then enjoys the spring in silence. "Soon," he says.)

       "Soon we'll be in Koboros," I hear Kiril say, riding nearby as Khouri's good-natured roughness tries to figure out how best to keep me in the saddle. "Soon. We'll have to be."



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