THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE
Dolores J. Nurss
VIII: The Final Conflagration
Monday, May 19, 2709
At first all I do is sleep. Open my eyes. Close them. Repeat to find that light and shadow have shifted. Like my body finally caught on that it can catch up on rest. And I like it. My mind doesn't want to do much, either.
Home. I feel home. And I don't ever want to budge. The Charadoc is in me and my blood is in the Charadoc. I am more than culturally immersed, I have drowned in the Charadoc and now float in her warmth, awaiting my rebirth.
I smell something delicious; I hope my stomach will stay steady enough to let me eat it. I wake to Malcolm bringing me a cuy-and-potato soup with mystery-greens. I had only halfway glimpsed him in shadows the night before, but now that I see him in daylight, he looks even bigger than the first day that we met and he wheezes in the mountain air. The seams on his straining trousers look darker than the surrounding fabric, pulled to expose previously unweathered cloth. I eat my stew, not remarking on it. Who knows what griefs he has seen since last we met?
He blushes, knowing what I must be thinking. Gently he says, "Here, you need protein and vitamins. We have plenty of food these days." Then I hear him mutter to himself, "Obviously!" and he looks away.
Does he think that I, of all people, would judge him? In a small voice I say, "I guess all the medics know about my, uh, my greenfire problem." Damn but it hurts to say that last word! "Are you going to scold me about it?"
He starts at that, then says, "Do I look like I feel qualified to scold anybody?" And then he laughs. And then we both laugh, and the air lightens.
(Zanne, already looking as if she had never seen any grief at all, spends the day cramming us on the Vanniketan language, with occasional, if bewildered, help from Wallace. "I have a brand-new cow" uses a different verb for "I have" than, "I have a lame old cow," one indicating a fresh having and the other a state of having had something for too long. "Having a new cow, I no longer need the old cow." We learn the conjugation for "no longer". "So I think that I will barbecue the old cow. No, I know that I will barbecue the old cow." Future tense uncertain versus future tense certain. "My daughter asks me not to barbecue the old cow." Supplication changes the tense again. "Oh well-it's probably tough anyway. And besides, I prefer to barbecue snowbird." Present tense probable, then present tense preferential.
Apparently what Jake and Wallace have spoken to the few locals that we've met has been nothing more than a tourist's pigeon tongue. Jake's not usually inclined to laugh at much, but this had him chuckling and shaking his head.)
Words--so many words need said that I don't know where to begin, so I don't. I want to talk with Malcolm, especially about Lufti and Tanjin, but the war between the medicine and my parasites wears me out. I fade back out before I can finish eating.
(By evenfall I can confidently state in Vanikketan, "I'm so tired that an army trampling through the tent couldn't wake me," in negatory future tense certain.
George, who has tried in vain to keep up with the lessons, declares with equal certainty in Toulinian, "You didn't learn all that in any natural way!"
"We're trained for this sort of thing," Don puts in smoothly, helping Wallace set up the tent while I get very busy about the campfire.)
I struggle to stay aware of my surroundings, despite my closed eyes. I hear sandals clopping on the stone path outside, and soft voices gossip to each other about a woman recovering from something she did after some drunk dumped her, but she didn't think he'd make a good father anyway. And the birds sing on.
I feel the real bed under me, as they make them in the mountains: a rope-meshed wooden frame, and on the mesh a mattress made with a spongy moss core, wrapped around with wool, then feathers quilted into more wool, then a linen sheet on that and then me, then a blanket, then a proper quilt. The linen feels clean. I feel clean. When did someone bathe me? I try to see what else I can discern with my eyes closed, but then I wander into dreams instead.
(As Zanne butchers a hare with surprising elegance despite the blood all over her hands, I whisper to her in Tilianach, "Watch out-they're both untrained oracles."
"More than that," Jake puts in, also in Tilianach. "They're dangerously unbalanced."
"As one might expect," Zanne says casually, carefully cutting out the fud.
Jake squats down beside her, smiling as though they talk about old times in their natal tongue. "More than you might think. The younger one's a serial killer and former cult leader. The older one's a rapist."
Still smiling brightly back, Zanne murmurs, "Jolly!" and disembowels the little animal. "You could have told me sooner."
"Why do you think we arranged our bags so that you slept between me and Don?"
"Thank you," she says graciously, delicately separating the liver from the gall-bladder.
I add, "We just wanted you to get to know them a little, first."
"I could have gotten to know them all kinds of wrong ways," she remarks, skinning the hare. "Fortunately I already gave them a cursory telepathic scan, found a spaghetti-tangle of confusion about women, and kept my guard up."
Jake stands and ruffles her curls. "I knew you could take care of yourself."
She gives him a sour smile and says sarcastically, "Well, thanks for the overconfidence!" and she sets the hare aside to reach for a lump of sage-scented homemade soap.)
* * *
Late in the night, I open my eyes. The moon has almost waned to its final quarter, yet still remains gibbous enough to fill the room with a ghostly light. The hair on my neck prickles, a sort of reflex that guerillas develop, a sense, even in sleep, that something approaches.
And now I see him, moving so silently that he seems to drift, as though his feet don't touch the ground at all, Rashid slips in. His hat shadows his face so thoroughly that he might not even have one, just a black head shape underneath the brim, framed in billowy curls. First he hovers over Cyran; a gentle hand touches hir brow and finds no fever left. Now he comes over to me, and checks me likewise. His touch feels cool; I'm not out of the woods yet.
Softly he says, "Forgive me for disturbing you, but I have medicine you need." I realize that he did this the night before as well, but I had forgotten it. He reaches up to his hatband...and accidentally knocks the hat off.
Snake eyes! I recoil, screaming--Rashid has snake eyes!
For a moment Rashid stands there, stunned. Then a sleepy Malcolm lumbers in, wheezing and clutching his chest, but quickly coming over to engulf me with a mighty hug, soft and warm and familiar.
"It's all right, Deirdre," he rumbles at me. "It's just the fever, it makes everything seem scarier than it is. Rashid won't hurt you."
"He's a mage, a shapeshifter, he's he's he's going to devour us all!" But I feel less certain of doom in Malcolm's arms.
I feel a different touch on my shoulder, while Malcolm still holds me. Cyran has gotten out of bed. "I've entrusted Rashid with my life, Deirdre. Rashid, you tell her...now where did he go?"
Malcolm says, "Doctors' feelings get hurt, same as anybody else. He'll be the same as usual tomorrow. Here, let me get you your salicylic, Deirdre."
He starts out the door, but not before I see, silvered in the moonlight, the anxiety in his face as he turns one moment towards the way that Rashid ran.