IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume VIII: The Final Conflagration


Chapter 37

Time and Space to Heal



     In the morning, on the walk back to debriefing, Deirdre tried to refamiliarize herself with the songs of the birds that she grew up with, the one that cackled, the one that chirped a five-note tune, the one with its plaintive, weeeEEEEoooo trill. They seemed foreign to her now. But the same ocean that lapped against the shores of the Southwestern Continent also reached here, with much the same fresh scent, and the fog-soft light, early in the day, softly blushed much as it did in all port towns.
     She passed a church along the way. Round, like a normal church, this one bore stripes of stained glass like a big, pale melon. Not her denomination. People walked towards it, alone or in small families. It must be Sunday, she thought. Yes, she recalled, it had to be Sunday, not that she went to Mass anymore. But would Justín even come to work?
     Back in the office, she discovered that he had. Maybe he had a different day off. Maybe he didn't care.
     They hardly said a word to each other, and didn't meet each other's eyes. However harmless, it felt as though they had broken a taboo in last night's dinner. Agents and debriefers didn't socialize; considering the professional intimacy between them, it almost seemed incestuous to recognize each other as human beings. And yet to say such a thing also felt so absurd that it didn't bear discussing, or even admitted to within. And so the pressure in their hearts had no outlet.
     Deirdre felt grateful when the music began once more to play as she sank back into the cushioned chair, retreating from last night into older memories; no matter how traumatic, they were at least not immediate. As the trance overtook her, she felt her recollections unreel from her as though drawn from her solar plexus, not her head at all, each note gently tugging out a strand, bringing it upwards into light as dispassionately as a Roman priest might pull up omens from a sacrifice, but
we're all much more scientific than that now, she thought...

Saturday, May 17, 2709


     "See?" the aged boy says proudly. "A genuine microscope!" The sight of his dimples warms my sore heart. First Rashid shows Cyran, who's sharing the stone and adobe room with me, and then he brings the instrument over to my bed so that I can smile and nod, confirming that he does indeed now possess a powerful tool in the pursuit of medicine. It has a powder-blue body, just like the one that I recall from a science class in childhood, and a glance confirms that it came from the same manufacturer in Istislan.
     "So what did my slide tell you, o sagacious one?"
     Rashid sets the thing down on the bedside table. "That you have more parasites in your bloodstream than I've ever seen in a patient still alive, including two varieties unknown to me."
     "I knew it!" I slap the mattress with my good hand. "I knew I'd picked up something in Camelot!"
     "But here, too?" Cyran chimes in. That's not lucky."
     "Luck has little to do with half our ills," Rashid says, changing my dressing. "I'd say you need to learn to be a lot more careful about what goes into your mouth."
     "Not near enough," Cyran remarks.
     "You're not exactly stout, yourself, Cyran," our doctor retorts. "You're both going to get dinners every night till you build up your strength."
     In my defense I say, "I didn't have much choice in Camelot. I fell face-down into a ditch full of dirty water."
     Rashid shrugs. "Okay. I'll concede you the foreign bugs, at least, as bad luck." He undoes my bandage almost cheerfully, saying, "I've got a decent antiparasitic in stock--finally--but you will need rest and refueling to let it work." He reaches up into his hat-band for a tube of antibiotic cream, from Paradisio by way of Stovak. "Your immune system's shot, Deirdre, or it couldn't have gotten this bad."
     Slowly I watch his expression fade into a habitual scowl as he wraps me up again. "You, too, Cyran. Don't waste my precious antibiotics by flogging yourself out of bed too soon." Why did Cyran wince when Rashid said "flogging"? "At least Deirdre admitted she chewed too much greenfire."
     Not knowing what to say to that, I gesture at my wounded leg. "I'm sort of pinned in place anyway. Besides, didn't Cyran tell you? I'm retiring to Koboros permanently. We can work together for the rest of the war."
     Rashid's smile returns, actually making him look boyish, not so much with the brightness of a child coming downstairs for Christmas, but more as one who, after a bad camping trip, sees home's lights ahead. But he says, "I don't want you working for awhile, not even light duty. The antiparisitic has some rough side effects. At most you can sit up in bed and drill Kiril on her lessons."
     "Kiril--how is she?"
     "Better than you. You did a good job setting her arm, though I had to resettle it a bit after that last battle. She told me that you both know about her pregnancy, so I can say that she's also starting to experience some morning sickness. Still, she learned tricks for controlling nausea during her time at sea, so she's not as bad off as some I've seen." He gives my bandage one last check and then tucks the blanket back around my leg. "In fact, she's been asking about you nonstop. I'll tell her that you're awake and ready to talk, if you'd like."
     "I'd like. Thanks! And what about Chulan?"
     His face falls as if he had never smiled at all. Slowly he says, "I think that she might get some sight back, but she has sustained permanent corneal damage. The medicine didn't get to her in time." And he leaves me feeling ashamed that I didn't hold onto the precious remedy that he'd entrusted to me a year ago.

Sunday, May 18, 2709


     (Sunday, but the Church permits healing on the Sabbath, Father assures me. I think I'm getting rather good at bandaging wounds. The six ragamuffins hidden in this barn now, hardly moving enough to rustle in the hay, smell like veterinary ointment, not infection anymore. Father Mykolas grins at me and bobs his hand as if to give me a thumbs-up...if he'd had a thumb.
     He told me how he'd lost his fingers. I told him that I hoped their officers flogged the soldiers before courtmarshaling them and packing them off to prison for a war crime like that. That's when he said that a general had ordered everything, and watched to make sure that it happened.
     I stop myself just in time from pulling a bandage too tightly in my anger. With strength like mine, I might snap in two the skinny little girl's arm if I did. (Oh wait...that's not true anymore. I've got to get used to that.)
     I grab my crutch and rise to fetch more medical supplies. Stupid low-life officer must have joined the army to get some rank up over his betters. All kinds of scum enlist for those extra votes--sometimes I think that they're no better than the rebels who send out kids like these to fight for them. We should hold a higher standard--officers should only come from the better houses. At least poor Layne saw her duty and did it, even if the highborn men did not.
     And then with shame I realize that it had never even occurred to me to enlist.)

     The antiparasitic has kicked in and I feel horrible. It causes pretty much the same symptoms as the disease--fever, weakness, general malaise--initially, anyway. But at least the bugs in my blood are getting as good as they give, for once.
     Cyran seems to need even more rest than me. I almost never see hir awake, except when Rashid makes hir eat. But I'm not lonely. Kiril sits quietly in the room with me, crocheting a baby-carrier, one hand doing all the work while the other holds alpaca yarn in place. Every so often she peers at a creased and grubby pattern, hardly making any rustle at all. Now and then she makes mistakes, then unravels them and starts over, more patient than I am. After all, she has months to finish the sling.
     And we don't need any words. Comfort passes between us instead of sound, as thick and soft as alpaca wool, that reassurance that someone else shares our mourning, that we're not yet completely alone after all.
     I miss Father Man, though, even more than the dead. At least he's not one of them--Cyran told me how he'd saved so many lives at the Merchant Caverns explosion. But wherever he is now, I wish that he could bilocate. Out of all the makeshift funerals without a priest, I missed him most for Lufti. I wasn't close to Khouri, and Father never met Braulio, but...Lufti. I never expected a priest to bless even Tanjin's grave. But Lufti.
     And it's Sunday. I might have felt okay about that, too, if he'd been here to hold mass, even if I didn't commune, myself. But in Koboros it's just another day; no one seems to care anymore. Rashid sure doesn't.
     I toss about, trying to find a comfortable way to hold my leg, aching for God, or for any kind of meaning, really, something that would tell me that all our suffering has served a greater goal, that freedom doesn't mean the liberty to run from soldiers or having the right to kill them, that I have a mission and that I haven't made the Charadoc worse. All I do is weaken the silence with the creaking of the ropes beneath the mattress.
     Kiril looks at me, lays down her crocheting and leaves as silently as she came in. I doze off uneasily. When next I open my eyes it's because I hear her steps beside heavier boots.
     Damien hovers in the doorway for a moment, and then enters with a basket. He comes right in under my net, pulls out a bottle and offers it to me. I try not to puke at the sight.
     "Thanks, but Rashid would kill me."
     He grins lopsidedly. "Rashid has surprising lenience for his patents' bad habits. But it's only wine, Deirdre. I wouldn't bring chaummin to you in the shape you're in." Over in the next bed Cyran opens hir eyes and looks at us.
     "I'm afraid I'm not even up to that," I say.
     "Bread, then?" And he pulls a small loaf out. Cyran sits up as best he can. And suddenly I realize what Damien's up to. And I feel so very, very grateful!
     "I think I can manage a small piece. And I will...I will smell the wine." At their puzzled expressions I explain, "When you smell something, you absorb a few molecules of its essence. And if it's the blood of Christ, a little goes a long way."
     "I'm afraid it's not that," Damien says with a shrug. Oh yeah. Of course. It's only an agape. "But you can sniff the bottle if you like."
     I look at him sideways. "And why even that, Damien? I thought you'd had a falling out with God?"
     He shrugs. "We've had words, yes, but who haven't I quarreled with? I get mad at Him, I don't understand Him, but God almighty the world gets empty without Him. Music has to come from somewhere--I don't really think that it all comes from me."
     And so Kiril and Damien sit on my bed, their boots kicked off, their feet smelling rank in a friendly, un-hospital way. Soon Cyran gets up and slips under the net to join us; e and Kiril sit close to either side of me, our backs against the wall and some pillows, while Damien settles at our feet. First we pull apart little pieces of the fresh-baked bread and savor those, and I find that I can keep it down just fine. And then we pass the bottle around, just inhaling the bittersweet vapors and thinking about grace.
     And then Damien unleashes his roughened voice, wailing acapelo, like a fallen cherub, the hymns from kinder times, but even the memory of such hymns can stir up hope. Kiril and Cyran nestle close to me, the heat of my fever embracing them both. The ringing in my ears feels like a high chime drone to the holy tunes.
     And finally, after our little service, Damien sings his new song about the Dancer for the Dead and our hearts break and spill out tears, but they wash us clean to hear our Lufti properly honored. The song goes on, the sweet parts and the bitter of a short but passionate life, and it concludes with his final dance deep in the mountainside, saving his loved ones from beyond the grave.
     And then the silence returns and we sit gratefully in it, filled to overflowing. And Damien corks the bottle unsampled, setting it aside.





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