Dolores J. Nurss

Volume VIII: The Final Conflagration

Chapter 35

Reunions of the Lost



Friday, May 16, 2709, continued

     (The rain felt like the whole sky fell on us, but now the sun has come out again, right when we emerge from the protection of the forest, winding down the last slope of the last mountain with the plains before us.
     Jake looks sunny, too, scanning all around. "All that grass," he says, "reminds me of the Silver Slopes, near the Cave of Changes. Except the light looks gold, not silver." He's right. We've entered that golden hour just before twilight. He turns to Wallace and George. "You'll find it beautiful," he says. "A consolation every time you emerge." They don't smile back.
     Don says, pushing the cart, "It looks like we won't have much trouble finding a level place to pitch our tent, at least."
     But Jake shakes his head. "Not yet. We'll need to keep going a little longer than that." Wallace sighs loudly, yet nods.
     Don still grins, though. "Don't take it too hard. I wanted to surprise you, but I found a box of potato-flakes that doesn't have any magentine in it--imported from the Charadoc. When we do camp, we'll have a quick and tasty hot meal to reward the march. It's got everything in it that we need, just add hot water."
     "Well, that's something," Wallace concedes with grumpy approval.)

     Cyran and I now both ride the mule, but Blossom doesn't seem to mind the combined weight; it's not like you could call either of us robust. And boy has somebody turned up the heat! I strip off all of the layers that e'd piled on me before and I wrap them around hir, because I can feel hir start to shiver, as I doubtless had done before. Shock, e said, after all.
     "Aren't we a pair!" I exclaim. E laughs weakly in front of me.
     Now the cliff below us dwindles to a bank at the foot of another God-made, time-scoured wall of stone that rises to challenge the one above us. A stream rushes nearby; I can hear it but not see it, because mists rise, blue with the twilight, around where it must run, not too far from the road.
     Now we ride into the slot between the cliffs, and the water sounds closer. I can see the damp stone wall, manmade this time (or woman-made, if nuns live here?) that keeps it off the road, cracked a bit yet nowhere breached. I tense at this excellent location for an ambush.
     Now the way opens up a bit again, but not too much, still very much a canyon. Bushes and saplings increasingly crowd the road down to a path. Brushing against leaves sends up a cawing black cloud of crows. I look down at the road beneath us--I can't even see pavement for all the years of fallen leaves.
     Now crumbling stone walls lie athwart our path, yet they don't block us, for the great wooden gate fell off its hinges long ago; Blossom's hooves sink silent into the spongy old wood. Now, though, when she reaches the flagged courtyard beyond, each hoof-fall sounds loud, echoing off the ruins. The river-mist rises higher, to spread in and out of the old arches, swirl around the pillars and tumble into doors and windows. I shiver and pull a shawl back around me. If I'm not careful, I could see ghosts in the mist.
     A hoarse voice says, "I remember the battle here." It takes me a minute to recognize it as Cyran's, husky with emotion. "We were young, naive. We didn't think that anyone would dare to raid a convent. I was a bloody ex purple mantle and damn me but I still didn't know what they were capable of! And all we wanted to do was set up a hospital."
     "We have a good one, now, though, not far off." We both turn, surprised to hear Alysha behind us, her own mule's steps muffled by the same wood that we crossed. "But this would have made an even better one, here. I figured that I'd find you here, Cyran." She tries to smile reassuringly. "You missed the turn-off to sail right past Koboros, you know. You'd be in a clean, warm bed by now if you hadn't."
     E gestures towards a cemetery. "We gave them all a decent burial, didn't we?"
     "Yes. All of the nuns and the abbot in the graveyard's heart, a protective ring of rebels around that, and the enemy in their own spot outside that, yet still in hallowed ground. Father Man sprayed Holy Water over everything with his mouth, for his hands were still sore back then. I held up the cup for every swig. No ghosts here can complain against us, war being what it is."
     "But the chapel...the desecrated chapel...blood spilled like the wine of Christ...right in my mouth, Alysha!"
     "I know," she says softly, riding up to take Blossom's reins. "I know." And she leads us out of there.
     (I feel her before I see her. Our minds have linked in the past. That doesn’t go away, though I can’t really read her. She's no oracle.
     Yet I know where to turn, where to point to the speck trudging through the mud and the rain-sparked, rippling lushness of all that late spring grass, the landscape of year-old saplings and bushes, and the sweeping quiet.
     She feels me feeling her. The distant figure pushes back her hood, unfurling her pale waves. She releases the pushcart to rummage in it. Soon I can barely make out the movement, but I know her. She must be combing her hair—that sunlight-on-ice hair rarely found in nature, but she does come by it naturally.
     Now she trudges no longer. She bounces. I can feel her smile like the wan spring warmth.
     The others see her, too. Randy whoops for joy, running ahead. Soon he takes over her push-cart (decorated--that's her all over) and she lets him. Don and I jog up, ourselves, laughing, Don pushing the rattling old cart like it's a hobo race. She deigns to let us hug her when we arrive, making no apology for the smell of weary miles without hot water. I have rarely seen her so tired or disheveled, and something haunts her eyes beyond exhaustion. Yet her smile, insolent as always, remains pure Zanne.
     She shakes hands with Wallace, then George, introducing herself in flawless Toulinian, though I suspect she knows little of the language beyond a tourist’s basics—about as much as I know of Vanikketan. And finally she turns back to me, with an arched brow.
     “I must say, it took you boys long enough to find me. You’ve been broadcasting for miles, don’t you know.” Then she takes my hand, concern creasing a brow that has acquired a wrinkle or two since we parted last year. “And you’re a bigger target than ever. What happened?”
     "I could say the same of you, and ask the same question."
     Don interrupts. "Let's pitch tents and get a fire going, and we'll discuss it over hot potato mush."
     Zanne looks alarmed, then relieved. "You know," she says with a sigh. "Most of the food's not safe."
     "I know. I vetted this." Then the doctor in him assesses her and his enthusiasm softens to concern. "You've been through hell, haven't you? Well, you don't have to bear it alone for one step longer."
     She sighs, startling me by throwing an arm around my waist. "My men. It's good to have my men beside me once again.")

     Night for all practical purposes falls by the time Blossom carries us into Koboros, though the sky above the peaks still shows a deepening blue, only a few stars visible as yet. Yet windows glow a cheery yellow down in the old stone village, twinkling promises at us. Soon young people help us off our steeds and into Rashid's examining room. They pull off our boots and settle us onto cots and in walks Rashid.
     The boy still has the stoop of a worn old man, though still not yet full height. His thick hair has grown out, floating beneath a hat with various things stuck in the band--I can make out, from my angle, a thermometer, a pen, a small pair of scissors, and some tweezers. The hat shadows his eyes, but I can see lines frame his mouth, and his skin looks chalky.
     He scans over notes that he apparently just wrote down, not looking up at us. "Kiril filled me in on what's been going on with you two. Cyran, you first. Infected mastectomy. Take off your shirt."
     Cyran hesitates, then pulls it off. Rashid brings a lamp closer. "You're going to have quite a scar from the first injury, and you reopened Hekut's incision, but the infection's healing up nicely." He glances my way. "Kiril told me about your treatment regimen for hir--good call, Deirdre."
     "Hello to you, too. I'm glad to see you, Rashid."
     He holds the lamp close to Cyran's eyes. "You chewed leaf on the way here," he states.
     "I had to, to save Deirdre's life."
     "They always have to," he sighs, but with a patient smile. "Her life wasn't in all that much danger. The others could have evacuated her just fine." He pulls the thermometer from his hat and sticks it in Cyran's mouth. "But I daresay your judgment wasn't top-flight even before the greenfire, no fault of yours. We've got antibiotics, now; I'm prescribing a course of them for you--and rest. You will have rest if I have to tie you to the bedposts."
     "Cots don't have bedposts," Cyran says, just a bit surly.
     "Oh, you're not spending the night here. All of the real beds have posts to hold up netting; we're still in bug season, after all."
     Rashid walks over to my cot. "Now you, Deirdre." He glances down at his notes and then at me, and with a sudden flush of embarrassment I know that Kiril has been thorough. Yet his eyes look gentle, understanding. "Let's see your leg, first," he says.
     He irrigates all around the metal. I hiss at the sting of salt mixed in with the fizzing peroxide, and I smell Akbar's Ox Ointment in there, too. Then I feel the pinch of a needle going in, and then it seems as if my calf balloons up, but of course it doesn't.
     "I wish I could knock you out completely, but Kiril says that they had to drug you on the way. I can't tell how much muras you might still have in your system; pastry's not a good way to measure medication." He reflects a moment, then sighs. "I just can't risk adding anything to it, especially not with an underweight patient."
     I want to tell him, "Believe me, I threw up as much of it as I could force out," but he has no reason to believe me, does he. So instead I say, "Let's just get it over with."
     "Close your eyes, then," I hear ponderous steps behind me, and the scent of antiseptic soap. Then enormously heavy arms weigh down my good leg while locking my bad one in place as implacably as a memory. Other steps I know soon come up and Kiril throws herself across my upper body, new cast and all, to keep me down.
     I hear the click of tongs closing on the metal, but I don't feel anything yet. Then I sense a sort of pulling and a sort of suction behind it. And then a wailing crescendo of pain shoots through and from me because of course the topical can't reach all the way down! And then I pant for air while Rashid says, "It's out, Deirdre...aaand I have more than enough blood for a slide sample." I hear paper tear off of slides that he probably also carries in his hat. Kiril and Malcolm keep on holding me, holding me, I hurt but feel safe, I have loved ones left, Kiril and Malcolm and Rashid take care of me and then I fall back into that wild magenta flower, spinning and spinning into some sort of muras flashback, thanking God that for once my altered neurology works in my favor.



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