IN THE MOUNTAINS OF FIRE

by

Dolores J. Nurss


Volume VIII: The Final Conflagration


Chapter 40

Lessons and Legends




Wednesday, May 21, 2709


     My leg feels hot and tender. A teenage boy unfamiliar to me inspects it, then says, "Inflammation's peaking right on schedule, it looks like. I don't think it's infected."
     "Let me take a look at it, myself--I used to be a medic, you know, before I became a soldier." I force myself to sit up with a groan, then peer at my unbandaged wound. Yep, it's ugly but healing.
     He laughs, putting on the cool and soothing wet-to-dry dressing. "I used to be a soldier before I became a medic." Then I see the scars across his wrists. "I can serve the revolution better here than out there, Cyran says."
     "He said something of the sort to me, too. Recruitment must be good."
     "Like nothing I've ever seen in my life."
     "I can hear you," Cyran remarks.
     The boy looks surprised. "Are you awake?"
     "Do I sound like I'm talking in my sleep?" E sits up gingerly. "Yes, Deirdre, recruitment is up. Damien has given me more value than twenty sober soldiers." E smiles wryly. "It doesn't hurt that you and yours have given him so much to sing about."
     That should make me feel good. I always thought that one of the finest things a Tilan could ever hope for would be to have heroic songs about oneself, surging about from border to border in some grateful country. Never mind that we're normally supposed to work in secret, deep down I wanted to leave legends behind me, even if under an alias. I think we all want that, when we're young.
     It doesn't feel good at all. I know now the biocost of generating legends. We have filled this entire village of Koboros with people broken by those tales. And the songs just keep perpetuating themselves, inspiring new recruits to bleed legends in their own turn, keeping old wounds open and slashing out new ones.
     "Yet you always wanted me to remember you, to write about you. You never gave me peace."
     "Who said that!" I cry. Then I see the others blink at me.
     "Nobody," says the boy quietly, but then comes over to sponge me off.
     "I distinctly heard a woman's tenor voice."
      "Shh, shh, you're just still feverish is all." At least a kid with scars on his wrists won't judge me for having a few mental quirks. And I do feel unwell again.
     Cyran says, "It's okay, Deirdre. Whatever you're hearing, we're with you. And if it's ghosts, Tanjin and Lufti will defend you."
     I wish it could be as simple as ghosts. This...I don't know what this is..or who...me or not me or...whatever. Weariness pulls me backwards into sleep again.
     (Right on schedule. I hear the rattling of the metal cart drop farther and farther behind, though the squeak of painted wooden wheels never quite drowns it out. So I drop back, too, till I walk beside Wallace as the old man stares, halfway seething with disapproval, half with longing, at Zanne's ample buttocks making her skirt swish this way and that as she pushes her bright cart.
     Right then I get a telepathic sending from her that yes, she's fully aware of his attention, and normally this would flatter her, but yes, she is quite cognizant of the dangers of revealing that she in fact enjoys the attention. I shift my own position to block Wallace's view.
     With awkward gallantry, George offers to push the cart for her. She smiles, wiping a bit of sweat from her brow, and says, "Sorry, darling, but I like the exercise. Kind of you to offer, though." Zanne has never liked exercise, though she does it faithfully, both for her profession and her vanity. An itchy silence follows, irritated rather than resolved by the noises of our vehicles.
     Jake stops us. He breaks into a random farmer's shed, which I only know holds goods that the owner has gone long past claiming because of course that has to be true, Jake being an oracle and all. He comes back out carrying a guitar and a mandolin. He hands the mandolin to Don, then pulls a small steel pot out of Zanne's cart and hands it to me.
     "Zanne, give us the note," he says. She nods, and with her perfect pitch she sings an A. Don and Jake tune their instruments. I get the feel for the pot, how to balance it loosely on the side of my hand inside it, while softly thumping it, with fingertips, with palm, with nails, in different places, till I get a proper sense of what sort of sounds it can offer me.
     A pause, a silence, and then I feel the gentle touch of Zanne's mind tapping into mine, as I translate one of our favorite songs into Toulinian. As she starts to push the cart again, she sings,

     
     "I have no father, no mother; I make Heaven my father, Earth my mother.
      I have no home; I make awareness my home."
     And strolling, Jake and Randy play the instrumentals, as I keep the beat with soft metallic flourishes. And the tensions melt away with the return of a soft and cooling breeze.)

     My dreaming merges into a waking awareness of Kiril fanning my feverish face as Damien strums a guitar nearby. That old Samurai song. How I used to love it in my youth, before I ever fully came to live it.
     No, I still love it--just in a different way. Love mutates more often than it ends, even if it mutates into hate. I glance over at Cyran, who's eyes meet mine from the other bed. E knows better than anybody about that; the truth of it aches in hir wound.
     (All three oracles redirect us back up into the foothills. I don't like the trudge uphill, much, but I do like the resinous pines all around us, and the company of squirrels who chitter now and then, wondering, perhaps, if we have any treats for them, or if we've come for a little life-and-death tag amid the trunks. At this point I do help Zanne push her cart, while George helps Wallace, glancing longingly our way.
     Softly Zanne speaks, but loud enough for our charges to hear, "Men don't always understand women." I tense, then relax, admiring her courage, to broach the subject that nobody dare ask. "And women don't always understand men. Our brains are hardwired differently." She sighs, then smiles wistfully, tracing her finger along some vines carved into the cart-pole in front of her. "I spent most of my life not realizing that desire in men primarily comes from sight. With us we're primarily moved by touch, but first we have to get to know you well enough to let you touch us. We like to look pretty, because we like to feel like flowers, like we add grace to this world; we don't intend to torture you with what you can't have." Then she takes a deep breath and says, "Because you can't have me. I'm married." She sighs again and repeats almost inaudibly to herself, "I'm married." And then we go on for the next mile or so in silence.)


* * *


     Rashid returns in the evening with his own herbal solution. He says that it promotes healing for the worst of wounds. He keeps his head down, his eyes shadowed the entire time. He carries a tightly sealed metal pot.
     "I'd have brought it sooner but it takes days to prepare," he says, putting down the vessel. " There's a certain mountain bush, hard to find, of a yellow-green color. Chafichac, it''s called. You crush the leaves into a paste, mingling it with carpaya. And then you soak this in strong chaummin till it dissolves completely, and then you pour the chaummin into boiling water. You boil the bandages in it, then cover the pot tightly and let everything cool enough to touch." As soon as he opens the pot a freshness more than a scent fills up the room.
     He dresses Cyran's wound first. "My mother discovered this remedy, from a dream. Well, sort of a dream. She was young then, before my birth, before she married, still living in her mother's house. She could never quite remember the dreams themselves, but she would wake up from sleepwalking, far from home, always on a dry and windy slope, always under the same kind of bush--one with many tiny leaves and an open, fluffy structure, with twigs so spare that she could sometimes see animals moving on the other side of it, but nothing ever hurt her there. And then she'd hurry home in the dark as fast as she could, before anyone might know or see her, for like most in my village she slept without a stitch on her."
     Cyran sighs with relief and Rashid tucks him in. And then Rashid comes to me, unbandaging my leg, inspecting it carefully. "In spring the bush grows many little yellow blossoms that smell like honey. Each dries around its single seed. My mother came home later than usual, one May morning, still sleepwalking, with a wreath from this bush in her hair."
     He irrigates my wound with the usual stinging solution, then wipes it clean and lays the bandages onto me, still warm and moist, and binds them gently but securely into place. Overlaying the resinous Carpaya scent I catch a delicate savor, barely there, bittersweet but fresh and clean, almost like the scent of a canyon river.
     "The townspeople saw her return at dawn, sleepwalking naked and crowned in a mist of twigs full of tiny lime-green leaves and yellow flowers. Many who'd gotten up early for chores fled back inside and shut their doors, terrified, thinking her a phantom of the old days. But some with long memories ran instead to fetch the most ancient woman you could imagine, barely able to totter up even while leaning on a young girl's arm and a sturdy matron holding her up on the other side. She had been the last survivor of the Hill Cults in the village. She recognized the herb, but didn't know what to do with it. Soldiers had killed her own teacher many years ago, and some lore had died with that woman."
     He wraps dry gauze around the greenish-beige soaked bandages. "So they brought my mother to the elder's home, and called in the village clerk as well. There they made her eat muras, to remember the dream. My mother's mother burst through the door and tried to stop them, but the men of the household grabbed her and held her, and wouldn't let her interfere. They tell me Grandma raised quite a ruckus, so that the clerk strained to hear and write down everything that my mother said in the delirium of the drug, but he did it, and now the community had a new remedy for deep, infected wounds."
     He pulls my blankets back up over me. "After that they had to make her the old woman's apprentice. And the Mayor ordered the clerk to teach my mother how to read." As I start to slip back into sleep I barely hear him murmur, "It would have been better for both of us if wild beasts had killed her up on the mountainside."





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