The girl was definitely dead. Kiranta told herself that there was nothing she could do about it. She couldn't get back to sleep. It wasn't just the shock; there was something else wrong.
Kiranta rose, and drank a dipper of water. There was a direction to the wrongness she felt, but no distance. Kiranta wrapped her delicate-looking shoulders in a deerskin and went outside in her fine linen nightshift. While walking through the sleeping village she pinned the direction down: it was there, just a trifle north of west, but how far? Danger had never before had a sense of urgency about it when it was too far off to range. How could it be urgent, when Kiranta could range as far as a strong man could march in a day and a half?
Kiranta took her coal-crystal out of the deerskin pouch she wore around her neck and let the moonlight glittering on its eight facets focus her mind. There was so little information, nothing but the touch of another mind that … stopped. Not one of the sages could tell Kiranta whether that mind went to some undetected world or dissolved forever, and Kiranta was no wiser for having felt it go. It had been a young mind, a girl who was Reaching for the first time. She had never used her power sense before; she had been caught in something that forced her to produce beyond her ability — but what? What could do that? In scarcely more than an instant the girl had gone from paralyzing fear to relieved recognition of Kiranta's talent, to despair, to a sense of being avenged, almost a feeling of triumph. Then she went wherever souls go, and left behind a faint, nagging sense of danger unlike any Kiranta had ever felt before.
The trees west of the village were as black as char, visible only because they blotted out the moonlit sky. What else did they conceal?
Kiranta shrugged. She had a good cave picked out where she could cache her books, and it wouldn't take long to pack what she needed for the trip. She had, after all, left home suddenly once before. This time, she could hope that she would come back.
When Kiranta was ready, it was near enough to dawn that she didn't have to wake Sara. The headman's First Wife always rose in time to be sure that she prepared Nigel's breakfast herself. Because the weather was mild, she had laid her fire outside. She was breathing it into life when Kiranta came to see her.
When the fire caught, she rose and said, "What have you there, Lady Kiranta?" It was only an exclamation. Sara knew what Kiranta's needle case looked like.
"I've got a journey to make and I don't know when I'll be back. It can't take less than three days."
"Can you wait to see Nigel?"
"No, and I don't want to wake him."
Sara was too polite to ask what errand was so urgent.
"I'll tell him."
"It would be his night with Tola, so I'd like to leave my needle case with you for her. It was almost time to give it to her anyway."
Sara didn't ask why it couldn't wait three days. She said only, "I'll make sure she gets it."
"Tell her the two books are in there too — and tell her I think you chose wisely when you advised Nigel to marry her."
"I'll tell her. Lady Kiranta, try to come back to Pine Ridge."
Kiranta smiled. "Healers are hard to kill."
"Especially a healer from Roanoke."
"Aye, we teach some useful things at Roanoke." Kiranta wondered whether Sara had noticed that she had said "we teach" when she should have said "I learned". She put down the carved wooden box that held the needlework tools that were now Tola's, and adjusted her pack, reluctant to leave. She said, "Sara, Nigel chose all his wives wisely." It was as close as she could come to saying what was in her heart.
On her way out of the village, Kiranta waved to Mike, Sara's firstborn and Nigel's oldest son; he appeared to be on his way to have breakfast with his parents. Mike was three years older than Kiranta, yet she thought of him as a younger brother. He was always hanging around, trying to help, and making a nuisance of himself.
Mike's mother had seemed as dignified standing by her fire in her old buckskin as she did in her best linen. Kiranta walked a little faster and didn't look back. She hadn't felt this much pain when she had left her own mother. Of course, she had been sixteen then. It had been past time to leave her mother, and in leaving Roanoke, she had left everything. If Kiranta were to settle in a new village now, it would differ from Pine Ridge only by lacking Sara.
In midmorning, there was a sort of jolt in Kiranta's sense of danger. It rose sharply, and immediately dropped to what it had been when she first knew that she had to follow it. Fading in the first place had been strange enough. This sort of jumping around was outrageous.
The signal grew stronger at noon, in a puzzlingly non-threatening way. Kiranta stopped to eat some of the food in her pack. Before she had quite finished the calmness went away, leaving a sensation best compared to worry. Kiranta swallowed the last bite and hurried on. This confusing, inexplicable feeling had to be removed as soon as possible.
The warning was indecently unsteady for an hour or two. At about the time that it wearied into stability Kiranta became aware of another traveller behind her. By midafternoon, she knew it was Mike. When she stopped at a spring, he caught up with her.
"You travel quickly, Lady Kiranta. You couldn't have had more than twenty minutes' start on me and it has taken me all day to catch up."
"Have you been following me?"
"Mother told me that you were going on a long and dangerous journey. I couldn't let you face it alone."
"So you skipped your breakfast and dashed off half-prepared."
Mike straightened himself and displayed his brown arms with an attitude that would have better suited a sixteen-year-old to whom muscles were a novelty. "I am always prepared."
"You may go where you will, but my errand feels urgent. I won't wait for you." Suiting action to words, Kiranta returned her canteen to its place and strode down the trail. Mike hurriedly filled his own canteen, drank, splashed water on his face, and ran to catch up.
He came even with her, puffing and trying not to show it. Kiranta said, "you won't last long at that pace."
"I'm strong. A girl needs a strong man."
"I suppose I needed a man when I climbed the mountains that lie between the great valley and Roanoke."
"There are no men in the mountains — and you are beautiful."
It was the first time that Mike had dared to say that Kiranta was beautiful. Kiranta said, "I can stop being beautiful. It would only take a couple of days." As suddenly as a slap, the sense of danger rose to an intensity that was like an ache. Kiranta staggered from surprise. Mike, thinking she had stumbled, grabbed her arm.
"If you were as homely as mud, I would still want you for my bride! I'll be the headman some day, I'm strong and healthy, you'll always be my first wife, my only real love …"
Half maddened by the painful warning, she snapped, "Did you think I climbed the great mountains to marry you?"
Mike was dumbfounded. Kiranta almost forgot the warning in her shame at such wanton cruelty. She said, "Mike, I'm not going to marry anybody at all; I climbed the great mountains so that I could live in a hut all my own, subject to the whims of no man."
Kiranta put her hand on Mike's arm and smiled. "I've seen headmen and hunters and the Wizard himself, and I haven't seen anyone I'd rather marry than you." Mike knew well that a healer was about as likely to lie as a hunter was to use his best bow for a pry-bar. Kiranta's affection for Mike was genuine, if sisterly. "Pesky younger brother" was a kinder word than Kiranta had for any of the other louts who had wanted her talent and body.
"Mike, you like what you see in me because you've looked close enough to see what's there. You're not expected back. Go on to William's Creek and look over the girls — look deep and don't just flirt."
"I will — but I won't find any like you!"
"You'll find one that's better." She forstalled his protest by saying, "Would you do me a favor?"
"You remember Jorj's daughter Selena that came a few months ago to have an infected hand healed?"
"Yes." Already he regretted promising "anything".
"She's awfully shy — a compliment from a handsome man like you would do wonders for her."
"For you I'll cheer her up."
"Don't lead her to think you've come courting."
"I'll be careful of her feelings."
They said goodbye. Mike dallied, pretending to adjust his pack, so that they wouldn't have the embarrassment of walking together.
The danger signal soon dropped off again. Kiranta should have been happy then, thinking of Mike and Selena and the continuation of life. At the least, she should have felt the cheerful indulgence of an elder watching the inevitable follies of the young. Instead, she kept thinking of what Selena would permit Mike to do if she accepted him, and it was a picture that her training as a healer made much too clear for comfort. It was natural, it was necessary, it was right — it was disgusting.
Kiranta firmly turned her mind to selecting a wedding gift. A nicely-written history of Pine Ridge would do; a book looked fine in a headman's hut, and Tola would read it to her stepson. The courtship ought to take long enough to give Kiranta plenty of time to have some parchment made, and time to talk to the elders of the village. It was about time she learned how her new home came to be.
She could begin to compose the parts that she already knew. It would begin at the beginning with the words that began all histories: "In the Year of our Lord fifteen hundred and eighty-eight, in the world of demons, a girl was taken by a man of another tribe. Her people would not suffer him to keep her, because it was against their custom, nor would they accept her as one of themselves, because she bore within her a child not of the tribe. One day while she was planting corn, her grief rose up because the world of demons held no place for her, and so grievous was her sorrow that she fell into the world below. So it happened that the First Demon walked the Earth." There was no need to describe the Mother's struggle to survive; this was to be a history of Pine Ridge, not Roanoke. She could skip to "When the child had seen eleven summers, the Second Demon came to claim the First Demon and her daughter as his wives, and to become the first Wizard." There was certainly no need to describe the Second Demon's epic journey to find and capture the First. Had the Mother feared the first Wizard as much as Kiranta feared the tenth? Poor soul, there was no running from him — not with a child to care for and her life dependent on her little farm, and him with nothing in the whole world to do but to chase her. She'd have had to accept him or kill him. The records showed clearly that he would not have permitted any third choice.
A patch of sorrelweed attracted Kiranta's attention. She filled a pouch with the herb, and rubbed a handful of leaves into her hair as she strode along. She'd have no more mooning over her raven-black hair out of boys who knew even less of ravens than Kiranta did; let Pine Ridge think what it would when she returned with faded hair.
The danger signal fell into a pattern. It was so weak at night that she didn't notice it when she didn't look for it, and could sleep undisturbed. It was painfully strong for something like half an hour every morning and every afternoon, strong-but-oddly-calm for a few minutes at dawn, at midday, and in the evening, and a nagging hurry-hurry-hurry the rest of the time.
Kiranta gathered no food save what lay in her path. She rose long before dawn and traveled hard all day — still the days passed and she did not come sensibly closer to the source of her unease. On the eighth morning of her flight, she knew that regardless of the urgency of her errand, she must stop at a village to replenish her supplies. She ate her lunch in the shade of a coppice that had been thinned less than a year ago, proof that she was not far from other humans.
The painful peaks had been growing less pronounced over the previous two days, and the nighttime lulls had been coming on before sunset. Kiranta hoped that the lull would come on so early and stay so long that she could get a rest at the village as well as food.
In the afternoon, she found still water and examined her appearance. The bleaches she had used on her night-black hair had streaked it enough to pass as an ill-considered attempt to dye gray hair, and the white roots had begun to show. After a week of Power deprivation, the face reflected in the pool was the weatherbeaten face of one who had had time to learn by experience what Kiranta had been taught at Roanoke. Her hands had lost their deceptive smoothness. Her virgin slenderness could pass for the frailty of age. When she entered a village, no handsome young man would importune her to stay.
Not too long before sunset, Kiranta came within Reach of a village a little to the north of her path. She veered toward it and was dismayed that her goal moved with her in the way that the moon keeps pace. She "listened" intently as she approached the village. Something was — no, not dangerous … She sat down against a rick of wood that someone was drying against the winter, studied her coal-crystal, and organized her impressions. It didn't help.
The trees gave way to bushes. With a little difficulty, Kiranta found a path that berry-pickers had hacked among the thorny brush. Signs of cultivation grew more pronounced until she passed through pruned and mulched bushes into corn fields. Kiranta noted with approval that there were few weeds to be seen among the young corn plants. She guessed that it would take a quarter of an hour to walk across the clearing at a brisk pace on a good path. It was too much clearing, even for the thirty-odd houses that stood in it. What a job it must be to haul firewood for such a settlement!
It wasn't the children who came out to meet her, but the adult males, and she felt in them — not so much fear as suspicion, a feeling that one ought to be careful. Across the clearing she could see that some of them were running the other way, as if they thought something might be hiding in the forest. The headman was among those who came to greet her. Another, a white-haired man, was the first to speak: "My lady, may I see your hands?" He took both her hands into his own and examined them as if he were a healer. "She has the talent!" Relief, joy, a sense of something long desired came from the assembly. Did they think a woman might travel alone if she were power-blind?
And what had the old man seen when he looked at her hands? Kiranta said, "How know you that when you have none?"
"No scars, my lady. Never a scratch has gone without Healing." Perhaps power-blindness could make a man develop his other senses, and his sense. He continued, "I am Newt, Herbalist of Mile-of-Prairie."
"My name is Kiranta. I come in search of food, a night's lodging, and supplies for my journey."
"Lady Kiranta, I would be honored if you ate supper with me and slept in the hut of one of my wives. As for your journey-bread …"
A child of nine summers broke through the ring of men and held out his right hand to her. The arm remained bent, as if an invisible rope tied his wrist to his waist. Newt knelt beside him, saying, "Erin, it is too late. The bones have knitted together."
"Then they will have to be broken," Kiranta said.
Newt tightened his hold on Erin and turned so that the boy couldn't see the anger on his face. "That would take a sage …"
"Or one who has studied with the sages. Take your shirt off, lad. Let me see whether I can help."
When Kiranta saw the boy's shoulder, she knew that if she could get enough power, she would shove those bones back where they belonged whether she got her fee or not. Erin, too excited to be still, too frightened to speak, said "Bow?" and stretched out the crippled arm.
"Are you trying to ask if you can hold a bow?" The boy nodded.
Newt said, "He was … very good."
Kiranta ran her hands over the sickening lumps of cockeyed bone, her gift showing her every detail of the wrongness that was invisible to Newt and to Erin himself. "It will take a lot of time, a lot of work, and a lot of power." She looked up at Newt. "Has he friends who will give him power?"
"It will hurt when I break your bones. It will hurt more than it did when you broke it the first time. You will cry like a baby."
The expression that children wear when adults underestimate them flashed across Erin's face. He said, "That don't matter."
Gently, Kiranta squeezed his good shoulder and said, "I truly believe that it doesn't." She helped him pull his shirt over his crippled arm. "When I've had my supper, I'll talk to your father."
Newt stood. "The healer," he said, "Must eat and rest before she can attend to you." He led Kiranta toward the hut of his third wife. "And why is it," he said to her, "That one who has studied with the sages wanders from village to village?"
"I do not wander. I don't know where I am going or why but the direction has not varied in the slightest."
"I didn't know the talent sent people on quests."
"It hasn't before, not in all the records of the sages. The Second Demon's search for the Mother wasn't like this. He could detect her only because there was nobody else."
"And you can't be searching for a mate this late in your life."
Most folks thought nineteen was time to be getting desperate but … how lucky it was that Kiranta had said nothing! She had been so attentive to the first educated mind that she had encountered since leaving Roanoke that she had forgotten her disguise.
While Newt's third wife served their supper, they discussed the virtues of herbs, and compared the books in Newt's small library with the versions that Kiranta had read. It was the books that dominated the conversation; Newt was even more pleased than Kiranta to have, for the moment, a companion who could read. He told her of the aged, sage-schooled healer who had trained him.
"Marion often mourned that I'd never be able to teach anyone how to use the talent, but it didn't matter after all. Mile-of-Prairie seems to lack the seed for healers, and such few healers as came from the west were set on reaching Roanoke. One studied with me through the winter about twenty years ago, but she traveled on in the spring."
It seemed to Kiranta that she should have heard tales of this lonely man from her students at Roanoke. "When did the last one pass through here?" she said.
"It's been over fifteen years. Three years after Eglantine stayed the winter, there was a man, Edward, who stopped for a few days in Mighty Oak and their headman sent for me. Edward was the last."
"I think I remember reading his notes at Roanoke. He described a peculiar sense of foreboding that drove him out of his home."
"The foreboding came true. Villagers to the west of us repeat strange tales of kidnappings and murders, and even the murder of healers — but surely you were there before Edward, not after him." He looked at her closely. "After, him, after all. Why did you do it my lady?" Kiranta only looked puzzled. She dared say nothing, lest she lie. He said, "It has been but a few days since you were a handsome young woman."
"I was beautiful. My mysterious errand seems too urgent to waste time in tripping over ardent suitors."
"Is that enough reason?" Kiranta kept silent. "The worst lie is the lie you tell yourself."
"I will not — submit — to any man."
Newt smeared chicken fat on a corncake and ate it in silence before he replied, "Then I can only hope that you meet a companion fit to overcome your maidenly qualms. There are too few healers in the world."
Kiranta laughed, a short, sharp laugh that sounded like a cough. "My sisters and my half-sisters and half-brothers will surely make up for me. My half-brother Ewald has already sired thirty-four."
"He must have as many wives as — the Wizard Ewald!"
"It would seem that I'm to have no secrets from you at all."
"Why would the daughter of a Wizard leave Roanoke?"
Kiranta was silent for a time, thinking of the peace she had enjoyed in Pine Ridge. Newt said, "I don't think it was your mysterious quest. You aren't travel-worn enough to have come all the way from Roanoke, and your manner isn't that of one who was recently at school."
"No. I was the Healer of Pine Ridge more than a year, long enough that it hurt to leave."
Kiranta, too, ate a corncake in silence. "My half-brother felt as you do, that it would be a waste to leave me virgin. He had told me that if I could find no mate among the few male healers in the World, he would marry me himself."
"Only a half-brother, and his mother's father was the Ninth Demon. We are less related than any two people in Mile-of-Prairie. I was already wondering how long I could trust his self-control, and then my mother bore him the only son he's likely to have out of her, and the child had no talent."
Newt said, "It is well known that a woman taken by force will never bear a son."
"Soon or late, he would have chosen daughters over letting me go to waste. And even for a healer, it was getting late. I was past sixteen when I fled."
Newt told her of the various ills the villagers had that he could not handle. She elected not to tackle anything more complicated than stubborn infections, except for the crippled boy, and comforted Newt by saying, "If I live, chances are that I'll come back this way."
There was only one abscess in the village, and five or six cases of warts, depending on whether you counted young Hector's feet separately. It didn't take long to take care of them. The crippled boy was another matter. Kiranta studied her coal-crystal while Newt assembled those who wished the boy well — the entire village, as near as Kiranta could tell. Though the operation she proposed to perform was tricky, it was a relief to know exactly what she was doing, and why she was doing it.
Erin was nervous, which was all to the good. He looked pitiful, lying stretched out on Kiranta's wolfskin sleeping robe like a sacrifice out of some Demon-world story. She could feel sympathy growing in the crowd. Newt gave the speech Kiranta had taught him, telling them what Kiranta would do, what power was, telling them that all they needed to do was to look at the boy, imagining him well and being willing to help. Ceremoniously, he presented her with an earthenware bowl piled high with crumbled cedar bark, dried sassafras leaves, and other aromatic fuels. Kiranta solemnly struck a spark and lifted the bowl to breath upon it. Would the spark take? She could feel suspense focusing the attention of her audience. A flame sprang to life, and died as swiftly as it had been born. Smoke rose and spread from the bowl as Kiranta chanted low, thrilling words that ever seemed on the verge of making sense. The smoke ceased to rise, but continued to spread until all were breathing the odor of smoldering spice.
Kiranta set down the bowl and approached the boy. Many of the watchers stopped breathing. Erin trembled. She had told him repeatedly that this was going to hurt. Almost gently, she took his arm in her left hand and raised her right hand. Her fist smashed down. The power-focused blow shattered bones as she jerked the arm to a position that it couldn't occupy before. Erin screamed and power poured out patterned in protest: no, he shouldn't be broken, he should be healed. Some bits of bone squirmed into the positions they had had a year ago, some into places where they had never been but would fit, stray bits dissolved, tendons stretched here and shrank there to fit the new shape of the bones, muscles prepared to take up their former duties, and still the power came, overflowing Erin into Kiranta, washing out the fatigue of her journey, healing the hand that had broken Erin — her work on Erin so thoroughly absorbed Kiranta's attention that the flow of power also healed the weathered skin, but by then it was too dark for anyone to see that her hands didn't match.
Kiranta sat half dazed for a moment.
When she had seen that the minor ailments would earn more journeycake than she could carry, she had promised everything Erin's father gave her to Newt and his wives, but the best reward for this deed was Kiranta's alone.
As if unaware of the crowd, she helped Erin to his feet and pulled and pushed his arm. It moved as freely as anyone's. Hugging him, she said, "But a few weeks of exercise, and thou shalt be as good as new!" She set him down, but failed to correct her over-familiar speech: "Mind, when thou takest up thy bow again, never shoot more than one arrow more than on the day before."
Erin, lifting the restored arm with his left hand as though he could not believe the sensation of freedom, replied as he had been taught: "one on the first day, two on the second, three on the third,…"
"Get thee to bed. Healer's orders." She looked at the crowd. Their faces were blurred and seemed to move. She waved them away. "You too. Power loss is tiring; you need your rest."
Two of Newt's wives took hold of her arms. Firmly, Newt said, "And you, my lady, are giddy." Kiranta suffered herself to be led away and tucked into bed. For a power-blind man, Newt saw very well.
When Kiranta awoke, the village chickens still slept in their tree, but Martha, Newt's second wife, was watching a bubbling pot of thick corn porridge. She served it with a sauce made of dried berries and concentrated maple sap. When Kiranta was preparing to leave the still-sleeping village, Martha said, "Lady Kiranta, will you ever return to Mile-of-Prairie?"
"I can make no promises, but it seems likely that Mile-of-Prairie will lie on the shortest route to Pine Ridge when I return - and I will remember the hospitality I received here."
Kiranta did not say that it would take something important indeed to keep her from following up her cure of Erin. There were few sages who could handle that much power alone. It would be a great pity if something trivial should spoil it. At least she could be sure that he wouldn't fall out of another tree; Newt could be counted on to see to it that Erin neither refused to climb again, nor tried too hard to prove that he wasn't afraid.
With her power replenished by the excess good will at Erin's cure, and by a full night of sound sleep, Kiranta felt capable of stepping up her pace, but she knew better. She had travelled half again as far as an untalented hunter could have gone in the past eight days, and her goal still seemed no nearer. It was not time to waste her strength.
In midmorning, at the usual time, the danger-sense tensed as it always did just before it began its strong and erratic jumping. It climbed more than usual, making Kiranta want to run along the trail, then jumped so sharply that she cried out and fell to the ground.
In frantic haste she swept the forest rubble away from the earth and dug a tiny pit. The far-seeing spell was seldom used and still more seldom useful, but she had to do something. With shaking hands she crumbled half-decayed leaves into the pit, too tense to be grateful that it hadn't rained in several days, so that dry fuel lay ready to her hand. She struck a spark, she sang the hypnotic chant. The smoke rose around her until only the danger-signal remained, stretching away from her like a thread that vanished in the distance. Kiranta Reached along that thread …
Pain seared her chest. She saw a face that should have been handsome, but it was twisted in anger, scarred from old fights, and marked by evil. Fresh pain blotted out the vision. Kiranta screamed and buried the tiny fire, crushing the earth down as if mere smoke could bring the vision back. She tore off her buckskin shirt and ran her hand down her arm in disbelief. The skin was perfect. After what she had felt in her vision, it should have been red, blistered — no, not charred. A deep burn could not have hurt so much.
Kiranta gazed into her coal-crystal and forced herself to ignore the distracting danger signal. What had she learned? Pain, and the face. The face had been seen by torch light, behind it had been a stone wall, a natural wall evened up with chisels, a limestone wall like the walls of the storage cavern at William's Creek. So the thing she sought was in a cave, and the cave was in the same kind of rock as that which lay under her feet. At least she wouldn't have to walk all the way to the great Pacific Ocean that the demons had spoken of.
Kiranta traveled on. The painfully-strong sense of danger faded until it was little stronger than it was at night. At noon it rose and steadied, but not so much as before. In midafternoon it jumped as sharply as it had in midmorning, and without warning. This time it only broke her stride. She walked faster and faster until physical pain overcame the sense of danger. The warning faded away after a time, to rise a little near sunset and fade to the nighttime level with a worrisome unsteadiness. An increase in this unsteadiness woke her in the night. Since the moon was nearing full, she rolled up her sleeping robe and traveled on.
On the tenth day the danger sense behaved as it had on the ninth, save, perhaps, that the lulls were quieter. When the midmorning high had faded, Kiranta threw herself upon the next patch of smooth ground and slept until noon. The noon rise was neither so strong nor so steady as it had been in the first few days. The sense was disturbingly uneven that night and Kiranta walked until the moon was high before she slept for a few hours. She woke well before dawn.
After noon of the eleventh day, the danger-sense faded to what had been night-time level, and she slept until the midafternoon rise jolted her to her feet. After that the signal was usually night-time weak except for the odd strengthening at dawn, midday, and evening, and the jolts of the morning and afternoon. On the twelfth and thirteenth days Kiranta slept when she needed to.
On the fourteenth day the warning rose feebly at dawn and midday and evening. As troubling and painful as the midafternoon and midmorning rises had been, their absence was more troubling still.
Though the fourteenth noontime rise was scarcely discernible, it brought Kiranta's attention to the slender thread she followed, and she ranged it; at long last she knew how far it was to the end of her journey. At the rate she had been traveling, she could get a full night of sleep and still reach the source of her unease before noon of the following day.
The sense of danger failed to rise on the morning of the fifteenth day. It seemed weaker than it had ever been. Ignoring the worry the change caused her, Kiranta stopped at a stream to bathe and tie up her hair. Whatever she should find at the end of this trail, it couldn't help her to look as though she had been rushing to meet it. It might help that she looked like a harmless granny: bleach and sunshine had thoroughly grayed her hair, and she had begun to feel at home in her wrinkled skin.
If the signal changed at all over the morning, it grew weaker. It was nearly swamped by the warning that she should not enter the village that lay in her path — but it came from within that village. Kiranta veered from the direct route enough to approach from the north, took a moment to meditate over her coal-crystal, and plunged ahead. She feared that she had little time left.
When she was almost within sight of the village a man nearly as young as Mike barred the path with a spear and shouted "Who goes there?"
Kiranta stopped in bafflement. He was a source of danger even though he had no ill intentions. He stank of fear. "I am Kiranta the healer." Pretending not to see his dismay, she continued, "Has anyone need of healing? I have need of bread."
"You will soon cease to have need of bread, Granny Kiranta. I must take you to His Majesty, and His Majesty has no love of healers." The man took her arm. Kiranta took care to remain relaxed. If he should happen to think it was an old, stringy-muscled arm, she had no wish to let him feel iron cables move beneath her skin.
The village was as large as Mile-of-Prairie in much less than a mile-long clearing, and lay in a miasma of fear. It seemed dirty and crowded, yet Kiranta saw few men and no children. She expected to be taken to a headman's hut; instead their goal was a monstrous heap of hewn rock. Immense labor had been expended to build a shelter that would be impossible to warm in the winter.
The central chamber of the pile was twice Kiranta's height, and large enough for an entire village and half the next to assemble. Deer antlers were stuck up here and there, and skins painted with scenes of human slaughter were hung on the walls. If that was an effort to relieve the gloom, it was a dismal failure. At the far end of the room, a table laden with food was surrounded by girls dressed in linen. They didn't have a festival mood to match their clothing, and they weren't eating. They watched the man lolling on the oversized chair behind the table, so intently that they were unaware of Kiranta and her escort. The man in the chair was tall, and had good bones. Kiranta would have prescribed for him more exercise, more fresh vegetables, and much less fermented fruit. His face was the face she had seen in her vision.
The man leading Kiranta dropped onto his face with his arms stretched before him. He hadn't shown the least sign of illness when he was touching Kiranta's arm. The man behind the table said, "Rise, Jedediah." Jedediah rose and stood absurdly straight beside Kiranta. "And what is it that you've brought me?" He honestly didn't know, though his power was nearly as great as Kiranta's. Under the menace and evil that came from the figure behind the table, Kiranta read a thread of hope that opposed his desire to kill. Though she believed that he wanted a living healer, she continued to note possible obstacles to sudden flight, and to consider the best ways to employ the surprising strength of her power-trained fists.
"A stranger I found on the trail to David's Ford, Your Majesty."
Jedediah was trying to tell Kiranta to hide her talent, and so she would, in her own way.
She said, "A stranger in need of food and a bed for the night, sir, and able to heal your sick. I know the uses of every herb that grows in the forest." A granny of Kiranta's apparent age should be long past bragging about her knowledge of herbs, if she had anything else to brag about.
"Bring her closer. I have use for a healer." His Majesty was so full of power that Kiranta could feel the disease in his soul without coming closer, a disease he wouldn't thank her to diagnose. She found it hard to believe that someone with more power than any living sage could be as power-blind as His Majesty appeared to be. A mere latent could detect power as strong as Kiranta's.
Though he meant her no immediate harm, his general malevolence was so thick that it was only with difficulty that she could detect the thin thread that had brought her here. The source of that thread was very close now, somewhere below her.
Noticing Jedediah, His Majesty said, "Get back to your post. There's no telling what other vermin may be creeping in here."
Radiating relief, Jedediah prostrated himself again and backed to the door. That left four men in the room besides His Majesty. They stood two to each side of His Majesty, staring straight ahead as if they were alone. Each bore the scars of many wounds, wounds that had healed without the help of directed power.
His Majesty glared at Kiranta and demanded, "What would you do with a man who refused to eat?"
"Serve delicate and tempting food, frequently and in small amounts. Strawberries should be beginning to ripen, and chicken broth is always good if carefully prepared and seasoned. I'd probably have to give him a little power, to strengthen and encourage him." Kiranta put a little smug pride into the last statement, as a minor granny might, if she could be unaware of the simmering power of the being she confronted. It did not strike Augustus as odd. He not only couldn't feel power, he didn't realize that other talents could.
"You have a patient. If you restore him to health, you will be welcome to stay here, bountifully supplied with the best food and the finest linen …" He seemed indifferent to the havoc such a lie would wreak on his control of power. It was fortunate that he was so enjoying his performance that he thought it was the second half of his sentence that shocked Kiranta: " … if you let him die, you will die yourself." His Majesty believed every word of that as honestly as he was able.
To the fluttering surprise of the girls who were feeding him, His Majesty rose to leave. Two of his men grabbed Kiranta to drag her after him. Since she was touching them, Kiranta tried to feel out their souls. They seemed to have only an echo of His Majesty's will. No wonder a man with such strong power might "have use for a healer". After being used for such clumsy destruction, a talent would be no more fit for healing than an obsidian scalpel that had been hammered on rock.
The other two men drew a skin aside and unbarred a heavy oaken door. Beyond it, steps led downward, some carved from bedrock, some made of stones set in mortar. Kiranta knew she was moving toward the solution of the intolerable mystery, and trembled. His Majesty snarled, "Nobody will hurt you if you do as you are told."
That was a lie too.
The cave was larger than the storage cavern enjoyed by William's Creek, and more of it was dusty-dry, but it was not as well managed. Much of it was wasted on things that didn't need to be kept cool. The linen might be here for the sake of the dryness, but what was one to make of heaps of pretty stones? It was wasteful to keep metal here, where it wasn't any use. A foul smell mingled with the earthy scent of the cave. A side passage had been chiseled at the top and filled in at the bottom so that it could be closed off by another oaken door. It could not be far beyond that door to the mystery Kiranta sought.
Behind the door, between Kiranta and the mystery, was a nearly-vacant chamber furnished with one table, one chair, and two polished wooden shelves. Ranged on the shelves were fifteen or twenty books, three-fourths of them in the clumsy wooden covers that had been in use before the eighth wizard had summoned a demon who knew the art of bookbinding.
His Majesty plucked one of the books from the shelf and thrust it before her face, saying "Have you read this one? Look what lore might while away your evenings!" His insincerity was so thick that Kiranta thought that one entirely power-blind would know that His Majesty had no intention of letting any hand or eye but his own touch these books. Her need was so great that she could not focus her eyes on the title he offered for her inspection, and she wondered what she could say that would make him let her go at once to the lattice door on the other side of the room. "But of course grannies learn from other grannies and not from books, don't they?" The echo-men displayed sneering grins when they saw that their master was pleased. Later, Kiranta would realize that her lack of interest had convinced His Majesty that she could not read. At the moment, only the end of the delay could enter her thoughts. His Majesty replaced the book and continued toward the lattice door from which the stench issued.
The door was made of heavy locust bars, as if something had to be kept in. The thing Kiranta had come to deal with was so near that this had to be the last door to separate her from it. An echo-man carried a torch into the passage behind it, two more forced Kiranta to follow, the remaining echo-man protected His Majesty's rear. The stench of dead blood and rotting excrement grew stronger.
The chamber to which the passage led was littered deep with trampled straw, except that a narrow oval in the center of the room had been swept down to the stone floor. A small heap of filthy straw at the far end of the oval was the principal source of the stench. The rest of the displaced straw was gathered in the middle of the oval; half-buried in this heap was something that appeared to be a naked man. Not even the ruddy light of the torches could give color to his pallid skin, as white as the creatures one finds under rocks. The slug-gray skin was blistered, and mottled with purple and green and red.
Kiranta closed her eyes, wishing she could also cover the talent that told her that the dying girl had doomed this excrement-smeared white worm to be Kiranta's mate. "Get him out!" She clenched her fists, controlled herself, and covered her outburst by adding "The foulness of the air will kill him. You can't expect me to heal in this dungheap."
His Majesty said "It is quite impossible to remove him from this room." He lifted a limp arm with his elegantly-shod toe. Stout iron encircled a wrist protected only by a thin wrapping of bloody leather.
Kiranta used her talent to calm her stomach, and examined the contrivance. The ring around the man's wrist was made in one piece with a much smaller ring, like a distorted figure eight, and a thin bar of iron that had been beaten into a ring was linked through the smaller ring, and another ring into that one, and the linked rings reached across the room to link into a staple set into the limestone of the wall. An iron pin and another staple confined a loop of excess links. Another such arrangement stretched from his other wrist to the opposite wall; that narrow oval of swept floor must represent the extent of his travels for the last fifteen days.
A knot deep in Kiranta's breast told her that she would have to kill the man responsible for this before she could escape. And before that, she and this pitiful wretch had to survive this coming hour. For him, at least, it would not be easy.
Fatigue made it easy to move like the granny she pretended to be as she straightened herself. "Then clean the room," she said. "If he can't be taken out, then all this disease-breeding filth must be taken out."
"You will find no vermin." His majesty pointed at the stained bandage on the dying man's left wrist. Power flowed from His Majesty. The pallid man whimpered and his left arm pulled against the iron that bound it. Kiranta did not like His Majesty's smile. "I have some skill in the lesser arts. Each day his entire skin has been cleansed in this manner."
Carefully, Kiranta replied, "Because of the cleansing your great talent makes possible, he may live — but not unless the room itself is clean. The straw must be carried out, the ceiling must be swept, the walls must be washed and the floor must be scoured. Every day his bedding must be shaken in the sun. He must have light; if he cannot have the light of the sun, then we must never deny him the light of torches. And," she paused for emphasis, "He must be bathed at once. In warm water."
"Let it be as she has said." His majesty pointed at an echo-man, who left the room.
"Now loosen him by what you will allow so that I may examine him. And don't draw the …" Kiranta hesitated.
"We call them 'chains'." It was as great a perversion of the word as of the metal.
"Don't draw the chains tight again."
Two of the remaining echo-men pulled the pins that shortened the chains. Kiranta knelt beside her patient. The slack face was unmarked save for an old bruise near his pale hair, and some irritation at the corners of the mouth. His face and lower arms were a pale brown that was not quite so ugly as the rest of his skin.
"Is he supposed to be such a color?"
"His brownish patches were a little darker a couple of weeks ago, and he was pinker."
There were revolting patches of light-colored hair on his chest, arms, and legs, and his pubic hair ran up his belly to meet the hair on his chest. It seemed to be only an exaggeration of the body hair some men had.
"What has he had to eat and drink?"
"He's had a little water today, but we haven't been able to rouse him enough to make him eat."
"He's been refusing food?"
"Not until yesterday, and we got a little gruel into him then. He stopped eating seven or eight days ago, but would swallow whatever was put into his mouth."
A red and blistered streak ran from the shoulder to the elbow of the left arm — exactly where Kiranta had expected to find a burn after her vision "seven or eight days ago". It hadn't healed more than two days' worth. And for all of her sensitivity, Kiranta could barely detect the sick man's power.
"He might not be so far gone that I can't drag him back." The minor granny Kiranta appeared to be would have needed to carry the demon out into the sunlight and surround him with loving friends to have a slender chance. In this dark and hateful place, even Kiranta's talent would be taxed.
The strong odor of the urine that soaked the straw under the demon told Kiranta that the water His Majesty had forced him to swallow had not been enough. He had probably been going short ever since he stopped feeding himself, and possibly before that.
The first echo-man returned with a work-crew of tired, weathered women. Kiranta filled a clay porridge bowl from one of the buckets that they brought with them. She counted into it a few grains of the priceless sea-salt she had brought from Roanoke. Holding it up to His Majesty, she said, "Cleanse this drink, Your Majesty, as you cleanse his skin."
His Majesty took the bowl with a condescending smile and stared at it for a moment. The water stirred physically from the force of his power. The demon mewed. Kiranta accepted the bowl with a slight inclination of the upper body. "Your talent is great indeed, Your Majesty." Great, but undiscriminating. He had killed all the living things in the water.
Spoonful by spoonful, Kiranta passed the potion between unresisting lips. The water eased the demon's discomfort and he could not refuse to swallow. At such close range, His Majesty's seething impatience made it impossible to conduct an examination and feed the demon at the same time. Like most impatient people, he made delay for himself. When the last of the half-pint of salted water was inside the demon, Kiranta closed her corporeal eyes and passed her hands over the filthy body.
When she had finished, she looked up at His Majesty and begged. "He must have sunlight, Your Majesty. He hasn't just lost interest in living, he is trying to die. It is only his ignorance that is keeping him alive."
His Majesty grinned. "I sent for a little ray of sunshine for him nearly a week ago. It should come soon now." She knew that would be all that she would get from him. Given enough well-wisher's power, Kiranta could save the demon anyhow, but no-one wished the demon well except Kiranta and Kiranta was very tired. "What internal damage?" His Majesty said.
"Everything is slowed that isn't stopped, and there's some injury to the kidneys. I think I can repair them when he's got enough water in him. I'll bathe him now, if you'll bring me some much-washed linen and …"
His Majesty said "Give her anything she wants" to one of the echo-men, and left.
She sent the echo-man to get fresh jars of hot water to put under the bed, and peeled back the deerskin tent that kept the demon warm. The healthy, pale-pink generative organs contrasted so sharply with the bruised and blistered thighs as to draw the eye. Kiranta laid a scrap of doeskin over them before she began her examination. Though still a little floppy, his blisters had started to fill, and areas that ought to be swollen showed a little puffiness. The worst of the dehydration was behind him.
Kiranta restored the tent, leaving just enough space for her two arms, one hand under his comparatively undamaged loin, one resting lightly on his blistered belly. She narrowed all perception to those two damaged kidneys and laid over them the picture of what a kidney should be. A patch here, a little repair there, a sort of twisting sensation and that odd little snap, and they were "mirrored"; whatever she did to one would be done to the other.
It had taken twice as much power as it ought to have done. His will-to-die had made him a sink. If she failed to finish what she had begun, it would take nearly as much power as the torrent she had unleashed in Mile-of-Prairie to repair his kidneys. Kiranta's reserves dwindled rapidly; the kidneys responded slowly. When it lacked only a trace to make it safe to let go, no more than it would take to blush on demand, there was no more. Kiranta made one last mighty effort and from somewhere she got the power he needed.
The sun glared red behind Kiranta's eyelids. She should have known; when she saw the demon object to His Majesty's use of power, she should have known that he was a latent like the girl His Majesty had killed. She should have known even sooner. When the dying girl had patterned her power to bring back a mate for Kiranta, would anything less than a latent be chosen to sire Kiranta's children? She shuddered and turned her face away from the sun.
Someone said, "She's waking up! Run and tell His Majesty!"
Ah, no. Maybe she had moved, but she wasn't waking up. It had been a week since Kiranta had had an unbroken night of rest, and that last bit of power had come out of her own vitals. Kiranta wasn't waking up for a while, and yet — was that the smell of chicken broth? It was definitely broth, and someone was trying to offer it to her. Kiranta moved her mouth. That isn't it, wait until the lungs are full.
"Soup." The attendants fluttered, but did not understand. Kiranta gathered strength for the space of a few breaths. "Sit." Another breath. "Soup."
Now they understood. They propped her up and fed her the broth. It was excellent broth. There was strength in it. Kiranta must remember to compliment the cook.
The source of danger that was His Majesty was moving. It came nearer. It stopped a few feet to her left.
"Did you finish your work before you took this little nap?"
Kiranta ignored him. Before the hour was out, she had to get up and give the demon another drink. She had no strength to waste on a self-styled king.
As if cursing, he said, "First the demon and now the healer! If I could be sure of getting another one, I'd kill 'em both and start over."
He promised dire things to the women if they didn't take good care of the healer, and direr to the healer if she didn't take good care of the demon, and went away. Kiranta said, "Soup."
The demon's kidneys were producing a little urine now. Kiranta ordered her guard to produce a convenience for the demon to relieve himself, and deliver it before morning. She also put in an order for water in which dried corn had been boiled, and some of the chicken broth which had strengthened her — there were signs of life in his intestines, too. In some deep level, the demon had begun to hope.
By midnight, he was so strong that she saw fit to begin giving him half-doses of a pain-killing tincture. Four hours after that he was strong enough to move, and might soon be strong enough to roll over. Unable to keep watch over his restless slumber, she tied his hands and feet to his bed. She sang him a lullaby that she'd learned from the tenth demon, then returned to her much-broken rest. He'd finally had enough water — she had already needed to make him empty his bladder — he was lashed down firmly enough to keep him from doing himself harm, and he was freshly dosed with painkiller. This time, she promised herself, she would enjoy a full dream-cycle. Then she'd make him swallow a little corn-broth and maybe another drop of tincture and she'd have another nap.
Just as she began the slow, luxurious climb to awareness, she sensed His Majesty on the stairs.
The demon, curse his hairy hide, was in the deepest part of a natural sleep, and snoring gently. Kiranta tried to feel gratified at the improvement in his condition.
The "king" was close enough now that she might have heard him. She brushed her hair out of her face and stumbled down the passage into the library. His Majesty had his usual entourage, and a maiden who walked with her hands behind her back and her head drooping. It was hard to be sure in the torchlight, but her hair seemed lighter than usual. Now and again the blood of the First Demon shows itself in brown hair. The child's hair curled at the ends, like that of the — the Eleventh Demon, if none had been summoned to Roanoke since Kiranta left. The girl must be a throwback to the First Demon.
Kiranta confronted His Majesty with synthetic anger: "What do you mean by disturbing such a sick man so early in the morning? And coming down yourself when you know he's afraid of you! I thought you wanted this demon to live."
"Now, now," said His Majesty. He tried hard to be soothing, steeling himself to it by thinking of the pleasure of killing Kiranta when her usefulness was at an end. "I only came to bring you your new assistant." He indicated the maiden.
"She looks more like another patient. What have you been doing to the child?"
"She's had a long journey to get here. When she's had a chance to rest …"
"If I had a chance to rest, I wouldn't need an assistant!" The "king's" power reminded her of a simmering pot. Perhaps her weariness had led her to go too far in interrupting him. Kiranta brushed a hand across her eyes. "Never mind, just go away and let me put her to bed. You did arrange for a bed and some nightclothes?"
The king waved toward the oaken door. "Here it comes now."
"Well, tell them to be quiet. The demon has finally gone to sleep." Kiranta led the maiden into the passage without looking back.
All but one of the torches had gone out while Kiranta slept. She lit two more. The maiden stood where she had been left, ignoring Kiranta, ignoring the men setting up her bed. Kiranta found the fine steel sewing knife her grandmother had given her at First Blood and cut the thongs away from the maiden's wrists. The girl let her freed hands hang. It seemed to Kiranta that she could have cut the girl's throat without a sign of protest. Kiranta rubbed the bruised wrists — it would take so little power to heal them, and Kiranta could not spare it. She fed the girl a little of the demon's corn-broth, and at least she swallowed without coaxing.
The servants who set up the bed left an additional bundle. Kiranta presumed it to be the girl's luggage; she would investigate when they had rested. She undressed the girl, inspected her bruises, washed her face, put a nightshift on her, laid her down, and covered her warmly. As an afterthought, she put a handkerchief into the girl's hand. Kiranta sang a lullaby that had been old when the First Demon sang it to the firstborn of the world. She accompanied it by a wordless soothing of power, an impression of "I am your friend. We are safe for now."
When the child was calm enough for tears, Kiranta soothed the demon and fed him a little corn broth. She was so weary that it was hard to make him swallow without arousing him.
Now the demon was settled, the child was crying herself to sleep. Kiranta carried the girl's discarded buckskins through the library, dumped them at the feet of the guards, muttered something about laundry, and staggered to her bed.
Kiranta slept through a dream-cycle, turned the child, fed the demon, slept, turned the child, fed the demon, and slept. When she woke the third time, the demon was looking at her with inhumanly-pale gray eyes. Kiranta pushed back her uncombed hair and sighed. She said, "It's probably time I stayed up anyway; it must be nearly noon." The demon's eyes followed her without interest. The child was in a different position than the one Kiranta had left her in; it was no longer necessary to turn her.
She raised the demon's head and stuffed a pillow under him. Clearly and slowly she said, "My name is Kiranta. I am a healer. I have come to help you."
The demon said, "Lo, Ronna."
Kiranta turned the covers back enough to expose his right hand. "The first thing to do is to get you loose from this bed; now that you're awake, I can trust you not to hurt yourself." She untied the knot that fastened his bandage to the bedframe and re-tied it to the chain, to spare his battered wrist. "I'll bet you're stiff after being tied up all morning. Let me work some of that out." Kiranta rubbed the underside of his arm and shoulder and neck. She took hold of his less-damaged parts and flexed his elbow and shoulder for him. A tear rolled down into his ear. "I know it hurts. It won't last long." If only she had a little power to give him! If she could wipe out the pain for a few minutes, he might not be so sorry that he hadn't died. Kiranta chattered as cheerfully as she could; the demon ignored her. He did shift his feet a little when they were free, as if seeking to be less uncomfortable.
He wouldn't open his mouth for the corn tea no matter how she coaxed. He wouldn't struggle either. At length, she pulled out his lip and poured the tea past his clenched teeth. He swallowed.
"There, now. It's a good thing you haven't cut that wisdom tooth yet, isn't it?" He silently wished she would go away. "Now I'm going to ask something of you that's real hard. I've got to get you out of bed and put you on the commode. I can't stand on both sides of you, so I'm going to bring in somebody from outside. He might look scary, but I won't let him hurt you. I'm in charge now and I won't let anybody hurt you."
Kiranta felt her way through the darkened library toward the rectangle of torchlight that showed where the outer door stood open. She heard the rattle of dice, and coughed. She heard a scurrying of sandaled feet, a shadow crossed the door, a spear-butt clicked on the floor.
Only a healer would have noticed the quick breath of the two stiff sentries who flanked the door. "One of you must help me lift him." They looked indecisive. "You, you're the bigger. Be careful not to frighten him. The least little shock can kill a man so weak. I've told him I've got you guys under my thumb, so don't spoil the illusion."
The guard put down his spear and followed meekly. Kiranta could feel his fear without touching him — it had been bad enough to face the possibility of being outside the door when His Majesty's prize demon died. Now Kiranta was forcing him to risk being found actually touching the body.
The demon looked up, then closed his eyes with a faint whimper. Kiranta scolded herself for not finding out whether the other guard hadn't beaten the demon. On the other hand, maybe this one hadn't — during the last week, the poor wretch had been too ill and confused to tell one guard from another.
Together, they lifted the demon onto the "commode," a structure something like a chair. He remained limp, yet his power was tense and fearful. Kiranta had to expend power to make him empty his bladder. Afterward she bathed and massaged his back while the guard supported him like a corpse.
As soon as the demon was back in his bed, Kiranta pointed her thumb at the doorway and said "Out!" The guard left with relief that the demon might mistake for fear of Kiranta — if he looked. Kiranta took both his hands in hers and said, "He's gone. You're safe. He's gone." She used talent to punch through his fear, to convey without words "You have a friend. There is hope."
He twitched. He gathered all his courage and made a mighty effort to break through the deadly paralysis, and his hands twitched.
His hands twitched again, and again, they tightened on Kiranta's, he took a great shuddering breath and screamed, trying to rise as Kiranta pushed him back into the bed. He had screamed with all his might and failed to make enough noise to disturb the child sleeping beside him. Three more faint screams, three more feeble convulsions exhausted him. He sobbed and fought for breath. Kiranta held his hands, repeating "You will get well, you will escape, you will get well, you will escape." and projecting to him you can trust me like a mother.
He tired. She wiped his face and turned her attention to his wrists. She accelerated, just a little, the reverse healing that was picking out the scars that had begun to form, and she used what power she could spare to tack together the deepest layers of broken tissue. His will to live was beginning to struggle with his despair, so there were a few spots where she could turn his own feeble healing loose to finish what she had begun.
She wiped his face again, made him blow his nose, and gave him some corn tea to swallow.
"Now that thou art properly awake, tell me thy name." He only looked at her in weary confusion.
"My name is Kiranta, what is yours?"
"Nobody wants to know my name." He turned his head. Kiranta gently made him face her.
"I want to know. Tell me thy name."
"I'm Bennet Madison. Do you believe me?"
"Why should I not believe thee, Bennet Madison?"
"Old Gus wouldn't. He thinks I'm somebody else."
"I figure it's some scientific type. I'm just a remodeler's helper. I don't know anything about bombs."
His whining reminded Kiranta that she had been calling him "thou" as if he were a baby, and he needed to be reminded that he was an adult. "But 'Old Gus' has been trying to get you to tell him anyway."
"His Royal Majesty King Augustus the first of Auguston." A comparatively healthy bitterness, now.
"How did you get here?"
"Where in hell is 'here'?"
"You're not really in Hell. We're not even sure there is a Hell. I hear that Auguston was called Hazel Patch before Augustus named himself "king", and I suppose it will be again when I've killed him."
Ben stared at her. "You weigh a hundred ten dripping wet … " He closed his eyes and groaned. "Just tell me what country I'm in!"
"The same country you left, pretty much. Ohh!" She closed her eyes with the pain of her stupidity. "You think you're still in your own world!"
"Are you trying to tell me I'm on another planet?"
"Oh, no, it's the same planet. It's just a different world. Our world is below yours, in manner of speaking. When you were torn loose from the world of demons, you sort of 'fell' into this one."
"And I s'pose people fall into my world from the one above that, and we're all from somewhere else."
"Oh, no, if there is a world above yours, and if there is somehow life without power, they still can't fall out — they wouldn't have any power, so they can't fall, and people in your world can't control power, so they can't summon them. So there might as well be only the two."
"The sages believe that life would not be possible in such a world if it did exist. Reproduction is hard enough in this one. And we have no record of people falling out of this world into one below."
"We don't either." The demon closed his eyes, plainly wishing she would go away. He must not sleep again quite yet. Kiranta lifted his shoulders and propped him up with pillows.
"Tell me how they brought you here." He shrugged ever so slightly; Kiranta could feel him trying to slip into a daze, out of the reach of his pain. She said, "I'll be better able to help thee if I know what has happened."
"Drugged. Gas, I guess."
"Don't guess. Tell me what you saw and heard and did."
He was silent. "It was night. Perhaps you were in bed?" He nodded slightly. "Your own bed, at home?" Again, an assenting silence. "So you must have come home. What did you do when you came home?"
"Took a bath, ate supper, did the dishes, sat around reading for a while, put on pajamas, went to bed. Didn't know anything until three or four big guys grabbed me. Guess they must have seen that the drug was wearing off awful sudden … "
"They grabbed me and shortened up the chains — wonder why they didn't sooner."
"They shortened your chains …"
"Picked off some rags that were over me, and ripped off my pajamas. They tore the top up to get it past the chains. Then they picked me up and collected the rags that had been under me and dropped me back into a hole in the straw. 'N'n they carried … " He fell silent.
"You don't like what you are remembering." He turned away from her. "It will help you to tell me."
"She was dead, wasn't she?"
"I felt her die. That's why I came to save you." Kiranta laid a hand on his temple, wishing that his injuries would allow her to hug him. Ugly and broken of spirit he was, but he was in pain, and he needed her.
"It was blood that was all over her, it really was blood, then, they must have cut her throat. They carried out the … the body, then, and they took the torches with them."
"No more. You shall always have light." Kiranta "remembered" suddenly that his hair hadn't been groomed since he woke, and combed it to give him a chance to rest. When she had finished, she said, "What did you do there in the dark?"
"I just laid there until I started to shiver. Then I got up and raked up the straw as best I could to make a bed. My hands weren't much use 'cause the chains were so short, and my wrists were sore from the way they had yanked on the chains, but I managed to get some of the straw over me and eventually I fell asleep." He closed his eyes as if to demonstrate. Kiranta made him turn to face her.
"Something startled you awake. What was it?"
"Torchlight. I'd been in pitch darkness so long it seemed blinding, and there in the glare was His Majesty King Augustus the First of Auguston, asking how he could make the fearful weapons of my people. I can't even remember whether it's 235 or 238 that goes boom, and he wants me to build him an A-bomb." His voice changed from whining to something more like a philosophical shrug. "Or maybe an H-bomb, who knows?"
Poor Majesty! Even if someone thought the Tenth Demon's vague tales of city-burning bombs interesting enough to repeat, "Old Gus's" inhospitable treatment of healers cut him off from even a slight possibility of hearing that there were weapons in the Demon World that made firearms seem far from "fearful." And so the Eleventh Demon, in the face of inhumanly cruel treatment, refused to tell the secret of Black Powder because he didn't understand the question!
"They all went away and took the torches with them. About the time that I decided that I'd been left to starve, a torch came out of the tunnel. I could make out through the glare that they were carrying something. I begged for water and one of them said that I'd get some as soon as my hands were bandaged. He didn't need to threaten me. I was too sick, too confused, to fight no matter how suspicious I was. He wrapped some leather around my wrists and it's still …" He looked at his hands in puzzlement.
"You were … asleep when I changed your bandages."
"They don't hurt near so much. I didn't know fresh bandages could make so much difference." He wriggled a bit, missing the crusted filth. "You must have given me a bath, too."
"I had to."
He tried to smile. "I must have been revolting."
He hadn't improved much. "After he bandaged you?"
"Then I got the water, and a bowl of mush. They wouldn't loosen up the chains, but I managed to eat with one hand."
"Speaking of food … "
"I'm not hungry."
"That's because you're sick. You need the food, my word as a healer." At the look in his eyes, she put the spoon back into the bowl of gruel. "Those marks …" She touched the corner of his mouth. "You've been fed by force, haven't you?" Kiranta soothed him with power, knowing his body would miss what she spent on his mind. If only he had friends to give him power enough to still the pain! "Try to think of it as medicine you must swallow down. Don't let them win." He closed his eyes and forced himself to swallow. "Good boy. We're going to win this fight — and when you've finished, I'll give you some strawberries."
He took the water she gave him as dutifully as the gruel, but the first strawberry seemed to surprise him. "Wild strawberries!" he said, and found the strength to take the second one in his hand and look at it. "They beat me and burn me and chain me up in a cave, and then they go out and pick me wild strawberries."
"They're probably cultivated. We can't breed berries for size the way they do in your world."
He swallowed the berries, neither dutifully nor with pleasure. Kiranta removed the pillows and lowered him to the bed. "Don't go trying to sleep, now. It isn't good for you just yet. I think they brought you food in the early morning, and at noon, and just before dark. Every morning and afternoon, 'his royal majesty' came down, asked you questions you didn't understand, and had you beaten. The rest of the time you were left alone in the dark." He lay motionless. "Am I right?"
"Reckon. I din' know what time it was."
"The morning of the ninth day, he decided that beatings weren't going to make you talk, and had you burnt."
"Old 'Gus held the irons in his own dirty hands." There was a faint trace of spirit in his voice.
"He burnt you here, and here, that morning."
"And I 'luccinated."
"Little while after he burn me, I had a ha-luci-nation. My burn quit hurting, everything went bright gray, and I smelled burning leaves. When he burned my arm, it brought me out of it."
Kiranta wanted no further communication with Roanoke and yet — a far-seeing spell that worked both ways! She had no right to keep such a startling discovery secret.
The demon didn't puzzle over her sudden silence. He quietly began to fall asleep. Kiranta gently touched his face.
"You stopped eating after that?"
"No point to it. N' point, but din' wanna make'm mad."
Augustus had said so casually, "He stopped eating, but would swallow whatever was put into his mouth."
"A few days later you decided to fight them."
"Lost. Your fault."
"We are going to win. You will live and be free." Kiranta expended yet more power — only a trifle, but over half of what remained. She glanced at the sleeping child: if she could spare a little power, if she wasn't too revolted by the sight of Ben …
"Now that you've told me how you came here, it's only fair that I tell you my story."
"This world is different from yours in some ways. Living things in your world make power, but they don't have to have it. It's used up in healing and growth and in reproduction, but only according to its nature, it can't be controlled. In this world, nothing can live without power, and power is affected by your state of mind. For example, if a pregnant woman stops wanting her baby for even a minute, she might lose it.
"Some people can make conscious use of power, and use it to heal other people." And in other ways, if they have not been taught of the consequences. "We say that such people have talent. I have a strong talent." Perhaps the strongest in all history. "Another way we can use talent is to help people in your world who have let go of it, to give them the extra power they need to fall into our world. We can't tell when or where to work the spell, so demons are very rare. You are the eleventh, and the first two were spontaneous."
"Din' let go."
"No, you didn't. Augustus … did something different. It would have blunted his talent, made him power-blind, if he had not already been blind. And it took more power than he had, for all his strength. He killed the girl to get her power, and that was his undoing."
"When he finally killed a girl with enough power to break an unwilling demon loose, she had enough power to Reach, and she Reached me. It took me fifteen days to get here and she didn't have fifteen seconds, but she used me for revenge. She put a pattern on her power, so that the man it chose would be … joined to me. Every threat to you is a threat to me." Could the link be broken? Every moment that Kiranta permitted it to endure unchallenged, it grew stronger and yet — Ben needed it. "Augustus prizes you highly; I won't be able to get you out of here without killing him."
"Joined…my life your life…'sis mean we gotta get married?"
Kiranta could neither move nor speak.
After a time, the child moaned and turned over. Ben looked that way and said, "Is tha' ... little kid?"
Kiranta replied, "She is a young maid, comely and of fair complexion. More than that, I do not know. She was too weary to speak."
"What she doing here?"
"Sleeping. It's the best medicine for what ails her."
Ben frowned impatiently. "How did she get here?"
"'Old Gus' himself dragged her in this morning. He said that she was my assistant."
"He din' bring her here to peel potatoes."
"There's no 'potatoes' to peel — no demon has happened to have potato seed in his pockets." The demon deserved a more serious answer than that. Kiranta told him that Augustus had said that he had sent for a "ray of sunshine."
"Ol' Gus thinks I'm like him. He pick me little girl so I can beat up on her and feel good."
The worm was showing some glimmerings of intelligence. Kiranta only said, "When he sent for her, he hadn't yet realized that he was killing you."
Kiranta fed him again and let him lie down. The girl soon woke, and whimpered. Kiranta held her close. "You're safe now. I won't let anybody hurt you. It's all right." The girl relaxed a little; it was surprisingly quick, but power-blind Augustus could hardly find a second latent maid; he must have killed dozens before finding the maid who had brought Ben to him. Kiranta tried not to remember the clotted clumps of straw that had been carried out. "My name is Kiranta." The child did not speak. "What are you called?" Fear, hunger, thirst. "What is thy name?"
"Violet." Kiranta didn't remark on how well the name suited Violet's delicate beauty; no doubt "Old Gus" had done so. "Do you want some water and something to eat, Violet?" Violet nodded. "Good. I've got some hot chicken soup, and some nice fresh pone."
Violet looked up in search of the food, saw the bed, and cringed. "That's a sick man. His name is Ben. He is very sick now, but I am going to make him well."
Violet drank water until anyone but a healer would have feared for her belly. Kiranta gave her the solid parts of the soup, reserving the broth for Ben. Ben was fretful behind his closed eyes, his curiosity about Violet transmuted by his weakness into worry, a wish that she would go away.
Violet needed something to pull her out of her shock, some easy chore.
"That's enough food in you for now — go clean yourself up so you can feed Ben." Violet obediently retired behind the screen to wash and put on buckskins that were still damp at the seams. Kiranta opened the bundle that had come with Violet — a brush, a comb, a carefully-mended festival gown, and a doeskin shawl were all the luggage His Majesty's men had thought needful. Kiranta suspected that they'd have left the shawl behind if they hadn't needed something to wrap the other things. Kiranta used the comb on Violet's tangled hair. When clean, her hair would be a rare and beautiful brown, fit companion for the Demon's own pale coloring. Was that jealousy Kiranta felt, for a man she didn't want? She should be glad that Ben might have such an attractive second wife to take his mind off the first. Her stomach twisted. If Kiranta was to be First Wife she would have to … be first.
"Sorry." It was unpardonably careless to pull poor Violet's hair like that, but her protest was healthy.
Violet had lost her hairpins during the march, so Kiranta tied her hair back with a bandage, gloomily foreseeing that when she demanded that Augustus supply Violet with new pins, he would steal them. The only excuse for "Old Gus's" continued existence was that killing a human might injure Kiranta's talent. And she had to wait until Ben could walk.
Ben took soup from Violet's hand without cajolery. He wasn't feeling better. He just didn't want to burden the child further. Perhaps His Majesty had spoken more truth than he intended when he'd said Violet had come to help. Kiranta touched her. Violet felt pity without revulsion. When she had power to give, she would give it gladly.
Ben tried to seem pleased with the strawberries Violet fed him.
Violet was stronger, calmer. If she were kept gently occupied, she would soon be strong enough to face what had been done to her. Kiranta said, "Ben doesn't believe in power, he's never seen any. If you'll sit here where he can see the bruise on your face, we can show him what power can do." Obediently, Violet sat. The mark was a mere discoloration; a healer as talented as Kiranta could flick it away as easily as a spot of corn-flour. Too much had been done to Violet; Kiranta must take the harder way. With scattered words and a linkage of minds, Kiranta taught her to send her blood to the injured area. The bruise grew hot and scarlet. From now on, Violet would blush when she pleased and conceal her embarrassment when she chose. The blood carried away the debris of injury. The bruise was so nearly healed that there was little more to do; in the concentration of power Violet brought to the area, the flesh relaxed into its natural state. A strong concentration of power, but Augustus was power-blind, and latents are too scarce to find by blind chance.
"All done now, let it all flow away."
Violet touched her cheek in wonder, entirely a child who has learned something new. Ben said, "That was a pretty good parlor trick." He felt surprise and suspicion.
Violet raised her battered wrists, saying, "Can we try it here?"
"Those will take a while, but you can help it along." Kiranta picked up Violet's right hand. "This one first." Violet sent in the blood and the power and the purple areas turned scarlet. A tiny droplet of blood oozed from an abrasion. Violet gasped and stopped.
"It's nothing. A little blood vessel started to leak when you raised the pressure inside. You can't lose enough to worry about, but I'll clot it — it's distracting you."
With Kiranta's help, Violet found it easy to direct her power into the wounded wrists, and it was clear and ample power. There was no longer any doubt: Violet was a latent healer. Kiranta did not say anything. What Violet didn't know, Violet couldn't tell.
Violet stroked wrists now marked only by a few new- looking spots, and said "They're perfect! I thought you said it would take a while!"
"Tomorrow, I'll let you do the same for Ben."
"You have to rest and build up power." She touched Ben and said gently, "You are alive, Ben, and I plan to keep you alive." In its way, this shifting of the familiar rules was as bad for him as physical abuse. He needed to know that Kiranta meant him well. Ben nodded; Kiranta kissed him as she thought a mother would, and soothed him. It brought her near empty again. It was taking all the power she could produce just to make him hold his own, but if she could rest a little tonight … she turned back to the child. "How old are you, Violet?"
"This will be my fourteenth summer. I've just …" Becoming a woman had horrid significance for Violet now. Kiranta didn't ask her to continue.
"Where are you from?"
"Dogwood Holler." Violet shivered. Ben raised a hand as if intending to comfort her. His chain clinked, and he let the hand fall.
"The king's men … "
"They came to your village…"
"All the maidens — in the square. Blue cloth, fine blue linen with blood stains. It grabbed me!"
Kiranta held Violet and rocked her. "The garment they tore from you, Ben, was it blue?"
"Blue, and bloody. He brought it back, once, when I'd been beaten."
"One for each village, then. He would have charged them with power, to discharge when it was touched by a girl you'd like." One suitable for you, a latent like yourself. "It didn't really grab her, just moved a little …"
"But in the state she was in, all those big brutes herding the girls like cattle…" Ben had clenched his fists around his chains and pulled them tight. Kiranta wondered what he had seen in the demon world, that in his condition he could imagine the scene so clearly from such slight clues.
Violet whimpered, "My daddy cried. They hit him and he cried."
"He won't cry when he knows you are safe. He only cried for you."
"I walked, I walked and walked."
If the memory of that journey was dim and muddled, let it remain so. She must have shown courage, or they wouldn't have troubled to tie her hands.
Once again, Ben moved a little, as if intending to touch Violet.
After a time Violet said, "Is Ben a demon?"
"No! I'm not!"
"They don't call themselves 'demons', you know."
"They called me 'the demon's bride'."
"If you should come to like him, maybe you really will be the demon's bride. But we'll have to get him out of here, first."
"Do I get consulted, or do I have to marry every old lady and little girl that comes along?"
If he refused Kiranta … but the link would still be there. There would be no escape for Kiranta if she could not break it. And if she broke it now, Ben would die. "I doubt that there are any more." If Augustus' spell trapped only latents, it was almost certain that there were no more. "Nobody can make you marry us, Ben. Not even Old Gus."
Violet wasn't clinging so closely now.
Kiranta said, "Violet, I need sunlight. Do you think you can take care of Ben by yourself for an hour or two?"
Violet nodded. Frightened, willing, uncertain.
"We'll have to put him on the commode before I go. That will take the two of us."
"Hey, wait a minute, she's a girl."
And Kiranta wasn't? She felt offended that he thought of her the way she wanted him to think of her. Kiranta pulled off his warming tent. It was better to outrage his modesty than to scare him into fits by calling in a man. Violet covered her mouth, eyes wide in curiosity that changed into shock at the sight of his wounds.
Before they put him back into the bed that Violet had shaken and smoothed, Kiranta made him stand for a bit, supporting himself with his hands on the bed while she examined his back. He gasped like the winner of a race, determined to endure until ordered to rest.
He was lucky in one respect: the king's men had been in the habit of holding him down on his back while they tortured him. The injuries on this side were only those that come of lying naked in coarse straw, and the beginnings of the sores that develop when an unconscious man isn't turned often enough. With the deep injuries more-or-less stable, with the promise of Violet's power in the morning, with an hour's respite for herself at hand, Kiranta could afford to make him more comfortable.
Violet watched in fascination as the worst of the abrasions and bedsores faded. "Tomorrow," Kiranta promised, "You and I together will do much more than this."
Ben breathed a great sigh when they got him into the bed, and lay as one dead. Kiranta didn't bother to leave his hands free of the covers.
Kiranta gathered her collecting equipment. Just as she was putting on her hat, Ben's eyes found Violet. Like one trying to correct a social oversight, he forced a smile and said, "Thanks, Violet. It's amazing what a difference shaking out a bed can make."
Violet looked puzzled. Kiranta said, quietly, "In the Demon world, they can't use power. Ben is having a little trouble getting used to the idea." She checked Ben one last time, and said, "I won't be gone long, and nobody else will come in while I'm out. I'll put you down for the night when I get back — don't go to sleep before that. Violet, I want you to walk around the room now and again to get the stiffness out of your legs. All you have to do for Ben is to feed him and keep him awake. Make him tell you about self-propelled cars and flying machines. If that doesn't work, rub his feet with chicken fat."
Ben said, "Yecch!"
It lacked nearly an hour of sunset when Kiranta emerged from Augustus' cellar, and it was dark when she returned from the forest and the untended fields. Despite the guard crashing along behind her, she felt refreshed. She found Violet rubbing Ben's feet.
"Did it seem like forever?" Violet nodded. "How did you get on?"
"He hasn't complained about the pain." Violet meant that he had refused to complain about his pain. "He drank nearly a pint of corn broth."
"Nearly a pint! He'll be walking soon. I brought some greens — these for you, these tender sprouts for Ben."
Violet wiped her greasy hands and went to wash. The demon's face was even uglier than it had been when Kiranta first saw him. Kiranta laid her hand on his brow. "A little screaming and groaning can be good for you, you know." She let a little of her renewed power flow — not to abolish the pain, only to give him the strength to endure it. "You will rest soon. I will let you sleep as soon as you've eaten."
Kiranta prepared and seasoned his salad one bite at a time to give him plenty of time to pretend to chew it. He took a mouthful of corn broth as well. When he'd finished, Kiranta showed him the bottle of tincture.
"If I give you a spoonful of this medicine, it will still the pain and put you to sleep — but if you take it I'll have to tie you as I did last night, to … "
"Tie me!" It was his first waking cry of pain. "I can't be any more helpless, tie me to the bed and give me the dope!"
Kiranta poured him a dose at once and his face became less drawn even as he swallowed. Knowing that the pain would end took away the burden of it. Almost cheerfully, he let Kiranta and Violet put him on the commode once again. Kiranta sensed more determination than embarrassment in him.
Before he lay down, Kiranta completed the healing of the parts he would lie upon. With a full night of rest assured, she was free to spend herself. The weight of her fatigue descended upon her when her spare power was gone. Nothing seemed important to her but her beckoning bed. Kiranta straightened herself. The untalented bore it, and bore it every day. She forced her voice to be even and calm. "Violet, prepare yourself for bed so that all will be quiet when I've done with him."
Kiranta tied him with great care and checked everything twice, lest fatigue should cause an error. The demon felt concern for her, and would have spoken if the tincture had not already begun to confuse him. Kiranta touched his face and said, "Sleep well, Ben. We will all feel better in the morning."
Every two hours through the night Kiranta arose to feed the demon a little watery gruel — too little. He was still burning his own body. With Violet's help to feed him while Kiranta rested, with Violet's power to strengthen him for richer foods, if Augustus did nothing, Kiranta might yet have the strength to save him.
She gave the demon another small dose of narcotic at midnight. The respite from pain was well worth the risk. It gave him the will to live, and the will to live made him destroy less power. Kiranta's own power regenerated with painful slowness, even though she rose at her own convenience this night. Any competent healer would tell her to stay in bed for two full days.
Violet woke first the following day, and bathed and dressed with great care to avoid disturbing the others.
Kiranta half-woke when Ben opened his eyes. He was quietly watching Violet. Kiranta sank back again.
Soon Ben's distress aroused her again. She sorted her most recent memories. Ben had begged Violet to untie him and Violet had replied, "I don't dare." Kiranta called out "Violet? Loose the demon and feed him." Before she had managed to become awake enough to tell Violet to secure Ben's chains to his bandages, she heard Ben telling her how it was done. Kiranta lay blissfully unconscious until Ben's aching bladder forced her from her bed.
Ben was strong enough to stand between Kiranta and Violet, leaning heavily on their shoulders with his teeth clenched against the pain. Once again Kiranta examined his back before she let him lie down, and cleared away the sores that had begun in the night.
Kiranta stretched, washed, and fed herself on dainties that had been brought for Ben. Even with Violet to watch Ben while she rested, Kiranta would have little strength to spare today. And how much could Violet bear? For Violet there would be no respite from this dark hole. Ben could not be left alone, and Violet could not be sent out alone - even in Kiranta's company, encountering His Majesty's servants would be worse for her than remaining here with Ben.
"Are you ready to heal Ben's wrists, Violet?" Violet nodded uncertainly. "Ben? Do you want it to stop hurting?" Ben frowned in disgust. Underneath, he was apprehensive, partly aware that he was approaching a crisis. "Then want it. Just lie there and want to be whole, want to be well." Don't fight me. Don't try to die. "Violet, you're going to have to look at what we're going to mend, and it is badly injured. You'll have to be calm, and think of what ought to be." Kiranta cut the stitches that held the bandage on his right wrist. "I'll give you plenty of time to control yourself. He's been waiting for weeks and a few more minutes won't matter."
Fresh blood oozed out when the bandage broke away, a healthy sign. The blood and the broken skin didn't bother Violet, but she flinched when she saw that tendons and a vein were exposed. With the scar tissue gone, it looked even worse than when Kiranta had first seen it. Ben had never been awake when his wrists were uncovered; Kiranta felt his nausea. To both of them she said, "We're going to mend it. All three of us. Ben, think of being healthy. You must put your whole being into wanting that wrist to be right, but Violet — Violet, you must be calm and measured. You can't waste power. Pretend that you are darning a shift and think of power as thread; you must put in exactly the right amount. Now. Ben, think of the way your wrist used to be. Violet, concentrate on the deepest part of the rent." It's only a job of mending.
Kiranta guided Violet as she supplied power, a tiny trickle slowly growing as Violet's ability to control it grew. Ben helped instead of resisting. He was in a detached state that let him participate in his cure without believing that it was happening. Obedient to his wish, his body rushed to the repair all the material that it could spare. In mild curiosity he watched as the wound closed and the skin rejoined, with only a pink streak to show where the dead outer layer had not yet been replaced. Violet stopped the flow of power. Kiranta gently flexed the wrist and quietly said, "Now Ben must eat."
Violet understood that Ben must not be jostled, and smothered her jubilation over the feat that she had just performed. She brought a bowl of thick corn gruel swimming in maple syrup, and fed him tiny bites. Kiranta rebandaged the wrist with lingering care and laid his arm beside him. Still Violet fed Ben spoonful by patient spoonful until she had packed into him all that his shrunken stomach could hold. Kiranta removed his pillows, using power to turn his detachment into a trance that would deepen into sleep, and said that he must rest until his food had had time to digest. And you must digest something else as well, Ben.
"You have made a great effort," she said quietly to Violet. "You, too, must eat and rest."
Kiranta ate a little when Violet ate, and saw her into bed. Now Kiranta was free, but not to sleep. Young Violet would not lie abed long enough for Kiranta to nap, and Ben had already begun to dream. She took the candle stub from her pack, lit it at one of the torches, and went to peruse His Majesty's books. Ben's dreams turned into nightmares. The nightmares seemed unlikely to awaken him. She let him dream and continued to catalog the books until he had slept long enough.
Violet lay wondering whether she might rise. Kiranta nodded and beckoned to her, and gently propped Ben up on his pillows again. "You have slept, Ben, and are refreshed."
"I am … refreshed." He was still confused in sleep.
Kiranta cut away the bandages on both wrists. Violet had smoothed her clothes and combed her hair. Kiranta called to her, "Violet, come and take a look at what your power has done." Kiranta flexed the sound wrist and prodded the mended area. Ignoring Violet's prideful gaze, Ben looked from the sound wrist to the mangled one and back again. He dragged the good hand to the injured one and probed the former wound as searchingly as Kiranta had. He could no longer pretend that Kiranta's talent was a "parlor trick".
Kiranta said, "Either thou art mad, or this is a world different from the world you left, where the nature of things is different, and different people follow different customs." Ben nodded. Kiranta might have taken it for a weary quaver were it not for her strangely augmented power-sense. "Life will be simpler if you trust your senses."
"Ockham's Razor," Ben said. Kiranta looked inquiring. "I must … " He pushed his good hand under the injured wrist as if offering it to Kiranta and Violet. "Please heal me. My wrist hurts."
Kiranta used power to hold back her tears and laid her hand on a sound part of his shoulder. "Are you ready, Violet?"
When he had two good hands, they made him feed himself. Kiranta knew now that if he wasn't killed, he would live.
In the middle of the day, Kiranta took her priceless hour in the sunlight, collecting herbs for Ben and Violet. When she reported to His Majesty on her way out of the cellar, she asked that Violet be supplied with buckskin and a sewing kit so that she could make clothes for Ben; Violet needed something to do, and Ben's skin would be whole enough to bear clothing by the time it was ready. And with Violet occupied, Kiranta could sleep when Ben slept.
Between naps, Ben asked questions about the world. In the evening, while Violet sewed and Kiranta combed her neglected hair, he told them about the cozy room from which he had been so brutally snatched. It was a portion of a damaged building belonging to his master, whose business it was to repair the complex dwellings of the demon world. It was a poor dwelling by the standards of that world, but it was the first that had been all Ben's own. He had furnished it with more care than the length of time he expected to stay could warrant. Colorful posters adorned the walls and concealed the cracks; odd pieces of furniture discarded by his elders had been brought into harmony by hiding them under cloths and cushions; he had turned a "jackpost" where supporting walls had been removed into a decoration by surrounding it with hand-built bookshelves.
"I never stopped to figure out how I'd get the shelves out of the way when Mr. Jackson wanted to move the post," Ben said, and shrugged. "It's his problem now." He paused a moment. "I'm going to miss my books."
"Even your memory of them is priceless here," Kiranta said. "When we have gotten out of here, you must write down what you can."
"Will we get out?"
Kiranta hesitated, unwilling to frighten one who only hours before had stood wavering on the threshold of death, and equally unwilling to deny him the strength of trust and truth. Finally she said, "My power is greater than His Majesty's. I can kill him any time I want to." Kiranta drew a breath. "I don't want to."
"I'd not mind doing Old Gus in, if I could."
"I will kill him, but not with power. Killing blunts one's control. I would not be as good a healer; I might not be able to heal at all — His Majesty's power is greater than the power of a sage, but because of the ways he has used it, he can't even heal himself." Kiranta paused again. "If I kill him with power, I'll take in some of his tainted power — I'll take on some of his traits."
Ben understood the implications. "And you are stronger than Old Gus … "
"It would take all the sages together to defeat me, and some of them would be tainted." Kiranta touched him gently. "I'll not kill with power, but it won't hurt me to put a knife into his heart, and he'll stand quietly and let me do it."
"He will let you?"
"He thinks I am frightened and weak and of no account. He will let me, when the time is right." Kiranta smiled and petted Ben. "There's no point in killing him while I still need him to fetch and carry." She soothed Ben and said it was time for bed. She hesitated over the tincture. There was no question that Ben still needed it, but if he couldn't feel his pain, he couldn't be trusted not to roll over. The chains made it difficult to tie him by the wrists, and though his forearms were but lightly bruised---probably from the grip of hands — Kiranta did not want to bandage over the bruises again. Just how much could she ask of Violet? The child was a strong latent, and had already regained a substantial part of what had been taken from her this morning. Surely the comparatively minor bruises on Ben's arms and ankles wouldn't draw her down so much that a good night of sleep wouldn't restore her to full power. Kiranta smiled. Depleting Violet at bedtime was one way to make her lie abed until Kiranta herself was ready to get up.
She took Violet behind the screen and said to her, "Violet, I want to heal Ben's forearms and ankles before I tie him to the bed. Don't agree too quickly. I have never taken power from one person twice in the same day; I believe it will do no more than to make you tired, but I cannot be sure."
"What will happen if I stop giving while you are Healing?"
"Some of what you have already given might be wasted, but no harm will be done."
"Can you feel when you have given too much?"
"Yes." Kiranta could, and so could latents as strong as Violet.
"Then we shall begin with the worst bruises. If all goes well, we shall finish. If I feel that we are taking power he'll need for his burns, we shall stop."
Kiranta smiled. "Put on your nightshift before we begin. You'll be wanting to lie down at once when we've finished."
Ben needed medicine only three times in the night, and Kiranta rested well; in the morning, she knew for the first time how depleted she had been. Her senses seemed so sharp and clear that upon first rising she felt nearly as giddy as she had after directing the power of Mile-of-Prairie into Erin. She distrusted herself, for she had seen patients feel like this when the worst of an illness had passed; it would be hard to remember that she wasn't well when she felt so good. She owed her well-being to Violet, for Kiranta had spent very little of her own power on the previous day. How had Violet stood up to the drain?
"Laws, child, you've got more power than you had this time yesterday!"
"Does that mean we can work on his burns now?"
"As soon as we've eaten our gruel." Kiranta had called for it upon rising, and one of His Majesty's weatherbeaten women would soon bring their breakfast to them.
Even though he had been drugged, Ben had healed enough during the night that Kiranta could feel a definite difference; he was putting his own power to good use. He was getting well enough that he would require amusement soon; that was going to be difficult to arrange while he was chained by both hands and couldn't leave the cave. Over the gruel, Kiranta thought of a way to amuse Ben that would also put off His Majesty for a while; she maneuvered Ben into asking for a pencil and paper and a board to write on. The five codices in His Majesty's library had been copied from the Roanoke library only a generation or two ago. If they were complete, His Majesty knew the meanings of both "paper" and "pencil".
Kiranta turned her mind to Violet. Judging by her own condition, overdrawing power did no permanent harm — at least not when done only once — and Violet had actually strengthened on giving power. It was Kiranta's guess that if she drew Violet down until she was on the verge of passing out, and then let her rest for two days, she would gain as much strength as would be imparted by months of the usual cautious training. There was risk that when she was stronger, Violet would notice that she was a healer, but by then, Kiranta would have recovered her own strength. At the least, the extra sleep imposed by heavy power loss would postpone by a day the time when Violet began to feel her imprisonment.
After breakfast, she took Violet behind the screen. "Violet," she said, "I think we can heal all of his burns in one day, but it would be hard on you. You would sleep most of the morning, and after we finished up this afternoon, you might have to be carried to your bed. If I work you that hard today, I won't let you give power tomorrow or the next day."
"That medicine you give him to make him sleep — it's not good for him, is it?"
"It has risks, as does everything."
"And without the burns, he wouldn't need it."
"Without the burns, and with the rest you have given me, I could make him sleep without medicine."
Violet straightened herself. "I want to see just how much power I can give."
"Then let us begin."
They returned to Ben's bedside. Kiranta said, "First we'll sort of baste a couple of deep bruises that will scar if they're left to Ben alone, then we'll heal the worst burn and continue to work until Violet runs low on power. Ben, some of your burns are numb, and they are going to stop feeling numb before they start feeling good."
"You mean that this is going to hurt."
"Some will hurt, some won't. There's a couple of scars that ought to make you think that Old Gus is working on you again. Don't go playing the stoic on us, for three good reasons. Holding in a scream uses strength you can put to better use, and a little moaning and groaning will help Violet and me keep track of what's happening."
"And the third reason?"
"Letting the men outside the door know that you are still in pain won't hurt our cause a bit." Kiranta thought she saw a mischievous gleam in his eye and added, "No faking. These guys know the real thing when they hear it."
Ben smiled grimly. "They've had plenty of experience."
Since childhood they had had such experience. Kiranta sighed, and said, "There will quite a mess to clean up when His Majesty is gone." And who was both qualified and available besides Kiranta? By the time she returned to Pine Ridge, it would have long since ceased to be her home. She could not build a new home here; she would have to leave Hazel Patch to complete her cure of it. Roanoke could never again be home, not even if she somehow managed to get out of marrying Ben; Kiranta the wanderer fit the academic life even less well than the headstrong Kiranta who had refused to become a sage.
But the problem of a home for Kiranta was far in the future, work needed doing, and Ben and Violet were waiting. There was a spot on Ben's abdomen and another on his left thigh where His Majesty had held the hot iron a trifle longer than he intended. While Violet and Kiranta repaired these burns, Ben breathed "aiee, aiee." The cries weren't loud, but resonant; they would have been heart-rending if the women had not been concentrating on their work. The men outside would hear that these were the cries of a man who was bearing pain voluntarily, not the mindless screams and insane mewlings they had heard when Ben was in their care. They would know Ben's spirit was healing; Kiranta would have to remind them that Ben was still fragile.
When Ben and Violet had been bedded down, Kiranta put on her hat and picked up her recently-acquired collecting basket. They would not need her for a time, and it would be best to take her hour in the sun before the arrival of the storm that a strong draft from the ventilation hole promised.
"I left him asleep," she said to the guards outside the door, "Let no-one go in before I return, not even the cleaners. If His Majesty sends what I ask for, have it left out here." One of the guards was new to that duty. "Were you told that he was to see only females?" The guard nodded. "Be careful of it; the sight of a man terrifies him, and he isn't fit to stand a fright."
As the guards had said, His Majesty was in his "throne room," the enormous central chamber. When Kiranta appeared, he beckoned for her and demanded a report from "Granny." It was lucky that he had never asked her name; it was likely that she was the only Kiranta in the world, and a unique name was likely to remind men of Roanoke and its demons.
"Sleepin' natural, he is, without any of my herbs. He's talking some and most of it makes sense; he's asked for a writing board and something he calls a pencilandpaper."
"What were his exact words?"
Kiranta scratched behind her ear with the hand that held her stagbone digging stick. "As near as I recall, he said 'can you get me a pencilandpaper and a board to write on?' I said I'd ask; I suppose I should have asked him what a pencilandpaper was." Indeed, she should have. If that one passage was missing from His Majesty's copy of "Memoirs of the Seventh Demon," His Majesty wouldn't know what a pencil and paper was, and Kiranta would be put to it to keep him from noticing that she knew.
But no scribe would think paper too trivial to include in a list of Demon-world marvels. His Majesty smiled and said, "It's what Demons use instead of writing boards. I'll see to it that he has plenty of boards. You see to it that he doesn't erase any before I have a chance to read them."
"I won't let him re-use a board before it's read." Nor would she let Ben know which remarks she erased before she showed the boards to His Majesty. It must never enter Ben's head that bombs can be made of black powder.
The storm was still well to the west when Kiranta stepped out into daylight, but when she returned with a basket of salad greens, an exhilarating wind promised that the rain would soon arrive.
The exhalation of the cave was too faint to detect save at the small ventilation hole, yet it had sufficed to remove the last of the stench. Once past the places where roots had been stored through the winter, there was naught to scent save the clean smell of red clay and, when she first entered the prison-chamber, the sweet smell of sleep. The scent aroused in Kiranta a strange longing for warmth, and the memory of her mother's comforting arms.
She kissed Ben and told him he might wake. Violet slept on. After Kiranta fed Ben and helped him to the commode, she gave him one of the writing boards that His Majesty had sent down and told him how to use it. He now had enough unburned skin that he could handle the board by himself, and Kiranta could feel that he would appreciate a little solitude. She lay down to await the arrival of lunch, and gave herself up to the bliss of rest and the regeneration of power.
After lunch, Violet's power sufficed to heal all of Ben's burns, and many of his trivial injuries as well.
Kiranta was careful to save all of the green and yellow marks, and many of those that were blue, for the most colorful bruises were those that had begun healing and were no longer sore. Between the bruises and the dead skin clinging to the healed burns, it would be a day or two before it became obvious that power had been at work. Perhaps it would be even longer before His Majesty noticed; he couldn't be aware of how little healing had taken place before Kiranta came, and his spies among the cleaning women didn't know how badly Ben had been used.
After Kiranta put Violet to bed, Ben lay for a while simply enjoying the lack of pain. Kiranta also rested, enjoying the discovery that she didn't desperately need to. When she stood up, Ben carefully, and with some surprise, pushed himself into a sitting position. Kiranta propped him up with pillows and put a stack of writing boards and a stylus where he could reach them. Violet had measured Ben, cut out a shirt and a pair of pants, and had begun to make a pair of slippers. Kiranta appropriated the needle, thimble, and sinew, and began to assemble the pants.
After a time, Ben said, "I wish I could do something useful. I can sew a little, but not on leather."
"Write a summary of one of the books you have read. His Majesty will probably put it on parchment for you."
"Don't you mean he'll have his scribe do it?"
"I doubt that anyone who knew how to write remained alive after meeting His Majesty. He'll have to do the work with his own hands." And his penmanship was none of the best, as Kiranta knew from notes in the margins of his books.
They sat in companionable silence for a while. Kiranta was surprised at how much she enjoyed sewing a plain seam. She paused now and again to massage and flex her hands, for it had been a long time since she had sewn for any length of time. It wouldn't do to get sore and have to waste power healing herself. She appeared to be recovering well; a good night's sleep should restore her to full power. She would rest all day tomorrow to make sure, then the following morning, when the small, harmless, aged granny approached His Majesty to make her report, she would shove her sharp stagbone root-digging stick into His Majesty's heart. Cutting his throat with her steel knife would be quicker, but she would have to raise her hand unnaturally high to reach his neck, and His Majesty might wonder why she had a sewing knife in her hand; he was only power blind, not stupid. The state of his face showed clearly that he couldn't heal a hole in his heart, so she need only protect herself until he died. The blow would have to be accurate, though; the stake must pierce one of his ventricles.
Ben wrote and napped by turns, arranging his pillows himself. Sometimes he and Kiranta would exchange a few sentences. Once he looked at his wolfskin coverlet for a while, then said, "Didn't you say that all life in this world came from mine?"
"To be more exact, everything is descended from ancestors that once lived in your world."
"Do wolves get despondent and fall out of the world?"
"Not exactly, and thereby hangs a tale." Ben settled back to listen.
"The first five children born to the Mother and her daughter were girls. The Second Demon used to watch them playing in the evening, and wonder where he would find husbands for them. That led him to meditate on the way he had felt before he fell into the world, and one day he thought that he knew what had happened to him. After that the Second Demon, the Mother, and the Firstborn prayed for company every night. They prayed every night for a year, during which time the Mother and the Firstborn each delivered another daughter, and they prayed on into the second spring and the second summer. One evening, they had no sooner gathered and begun to pray than they felt power draining out of them like water. When they recovered themselves, they knew that they were no longer alone in the world."
Kiranta paused for effect, and to look at Ben to see whether he was bearing patiently with her long-winded way of telling him where wolves came from.
"They also knew that they had wasted most of the time they had spent praying, for if anything is going to happen, it is going to happen in the first few seconds." Ben smiled a little at that.
"It was a time they had getting to the Third Demon before he starved or died of chill, for he had a badly broken leg, and he was over a mile from their little village." She could feel Ben's puzzlement, and added, "In the normal course of things, a demon comes through at the same place in our world where he was in your world."
Kiranta put her needle down for a moment to massage her hands again. "Like all demons since, the Third Demon could be trained to be a healer, and he was much happier in Roanoke than he had been in the Demon World, especially after he learned that the Second Demon's seven daughters would be his wives, but he'd no sooner learned to speak a little English than he began to complain that there was no meat. The Second Demon longed for meat even more than the Third, the First and the Firstborn were willing to indulge them, and, most important, the Third Demon knew deer and knew their habits. The Second Demon couldn't have summoned deer even if he had known them, because he came from a long way off and wouldn't have known the same kind of deer that lived near Roanoke."
Ben interrupted: "So they held another prayer meeting and up popped a pregnant doe?"
"No, a stag, an old one that had just been run out of his territory. Then they realized their mistake: it was breeding season, when only a stag would feel that there was no place for him in the world. They waited until the Demon-World weather was likely to be hard on does, and this time they didn't just think deer, they patterned their power to seek out a pregnant doe. The fawn turned out to be a doe, so they ate the male fawns that were born to the two does, and when there were enough does to make two herds, they summoned another stag. From those three animals all the deer of the world are descended."
"And the wolves came along when the deer started breeding faster than the people could eat them?"
Kiranta nodded. "The Third Demon was the Wizard by then, and it's a good thing that he still knew wolves."
"The chicken soup?"
"The Sixth Demon loved eggs and raised chickens. She was able to summon her rooster and two of her hens."
"Who loved strawberries?"
"I doubt that we could summon a plant unless we had a fresh demon with a specific specimen in mind; a plant has hardly any more power than something that isn't alive at all. There were already strawberries in the world when the First Demon fell, and that's a sad tale."
"How is it sad?"
"You know that demons bring a handbreadth of the Demon World with them?"
In a tone of discovery, he said "Those rags were my bedclothes!"
"Pieces of them, no doubt, and when your friends came to look for you, they must have found a hole in your bed filled with dirty straw. The world is so well supplied with plants that we feel that there must have been hundreds or thousands of demons before the First, each bringing a little plot of dirt and a few seeds, and each living out his span all alone. The demons have mentioned only one native plant that we haven't been able to find, and they tell us that no human would willingly go near it."
"What sort of plant might that be?"
"The Tenth Demon calls it poison ivy."
The prolonged conversation had exhausted Ben, and he slept for a while. When he woke, he flexed his legs, then rolled over onto his hands and knees to flex his back and stretch his legs. He rested on his face for a while after doing that, then rolled over to lie on his back a while longer before sitting up to write again.
Kiranta sewed, now and again getting up to stretch and walk.
In the evening, Kiranta said to Violet, who had been lying awake for some time, "Get up and dress yourself for supper." Kiranta put the pants down on top of the partly-sewn slippers, so that it would not be obvious that Violet had done no work on them since the previous supper.
When two women brought in venison stew, pone, and stewed greens, Violet was behind the screen washing her hands, and Kiranta was wiping Ben's hands with a damp piece of buckskin. Kiranta could see that the women were not so old as they looked, and remembered that the youngest person she had seen was one of the girls who had been serving Augustus at his table.
She asked the women, "When was the last child born in Auguston." One opened her mouth as if to speak; both turned pale. "When it was still named Hazel Patch?" They knew, and were afraid to say it: when Augustus took power, all the unborn children had died, and no children were ever again conceived. Kiranta laid her hand on the belly of the nearer woman: there were scars where there had never been wounds; the woman's hatred for Augustus had made her sterile, and not even Kiranta could restore the delicate structures. She had to have been very close to the king for that to happen. "Have you been the wives of Augustus?"
That they could answer, for they could pretend it was an honor: "Aye, all the women you have seen are the wives of Augustus." And all had been kidnapped. Hazel Patch was dead: Kiranta's patient was the ring of villages where men feared to be strong and girls feared to be pretty.
When the women had gone, Kiranta and Violet got Ben out of bed to sit up for his supper. They ate in silence, and Kiranta thought over what she must do. When she realized that the work to be done had no end, Ben looked up and said "What's the matter?" As Ben's strength returned, the two-way nature of the link between them was going to have to be taken into account. Kiranta wondered how Ben would react when he noticed that it existed.
She sighed, and said, "None of this would ever have happened if there had been someone to teach young August how to use his talent. There will have to be a Roanoke built on this side of the mountains."
And who was there to build it except the runaway sage? In Hazel Patch, Kiranta had found every single thing that she had run away from in Roanoke, and a mountain of hard work and responsibility on top of that. Killing poor, deformed August was the easiest of the tasks that lay before her.
The next morning, Kiranta decided to take her hour in the sun immediately after breakfast, that His Majesty might not think it odd that she ventured out early the following day, the day that she meant to kill him. She inspected the boards that she would show to Augustus. Ben had attempted to list the books on his shelves. Kiranta read the list carefully: what a treasure the Eleventh Demon was! She pointed to "The Art & Craft of Handmade Paper" and said, "You must review that one next."
Ben looked where she was pointing. "Paper making? I haven't read that one yet. It was a gift from …" He felt her dismay through the link between them. "Do you mean to tell me that nobody in the whole world knows how to make paper?"
"We know that it's made of fibrous stuff, ground wood, rags, and the like, suspended in water and collected on a screen. We've never succeeded in making anything you could write on."
Ben looked at the list longingly. "I probably couldn't have remembered enough details anyway. We need the book itself. And the dictionary, and the Rubber Bible — heaven only knows what we could have done with the Handbook of Chemistry and Physics; mine was an obsolete edition, with a lot of formulas for stuff that comes ready-made now."
In the library, Kiranta paused to erase the precious list. It wouldn't do for Augustus to know that Ben had owned a copy of "Muzzle-Loader's Handbook," or for Ben to know that Kiranta didn't want Augustus to know.
As she passed through Augustus' great hall, she wondered what was to be done with it. It might do for lectures when it was too hot to stay indoors and too wet to go out, but mostly it was fit only for a museum, a memorial to make future generations of students aware of how badly things could go wrong. Kiranta must train scribes as soon as possible, while the survivors were still able to dictate their memoirs. The scribes needn't be talented; the art of healing wasn't the only lore to be recorded, untalented penmanship teachers could save the time of healers for work that only the talented could do, and a trained herbalist such as Newt of Mile-of-Prairie was more use than a semi-trained granny.
But the crying need was for a healer of some sort within a day or two of every village, so that when some future Augustus was born, there would be someone to teach him how to use his talent before he had spoiled it. How many latent healers had escaped Augustus' wrath? Kiranta would have to train all of them herself, if she could not find a born healer to help her; the made could teach the born, but only the born could teach the made, and the weakest of the made could not learn unless a sage condescended to teach her.
There were more latents than the sages knew! With born healers converging on Roanoke from all over the world, they had never needed to give much thought to latents, but it had been established that stronger healers could teach weaker latents. Kiranta's power could teach healing to girls that the sages would consider untalented. And Violet's condition suggested that Kiranta's new technique of exhausting the candidate could, in a few weeks, build up a borderline latent until a common healer could teach her. It might even be that a made healer could make a healer by this technique, and surely a few of the sages would come to Hazel Patch, preferring a higher position at a smaller school.
The task before Kiranta was even larger than she had thought, but less impossible: she would have help.
When Kiranta returned to the dungeon, it smelled of rancid chicken fat. Once Ben's burns had been healed, it had been necessary to grease his patches of dead skin to keep them from shrinking and itching. It wouldn't do to bathe Ben until tomorrow, because some of his dead skin would come off if he were soaked, and the cleaners must see a demon who is still scaly and weak. And tomorrow, Ben would be strong enough to stand in a tub while they washed him.
When Ben had eaten the salad she had brought him, Kiranta cleaned his burns with fresh chicken fat, trimmed the loose scales with her sewing knife, and washed the grease off skin that didn't need grease. While Kiranta worked on him, Violet turned her back, sitting under a torch to continue stitching Ben's pants. She had completed the slippers and they stood beside the bed, ready to slip onto Ben's feet when he wanted to use the commode. Though he still couldn't walk alone, the women could retire behind the screen while he transferred himself from bed to commode and back again.
When she had cleaned him, Kiranta had Ben lie on his stomach while she rubbed his back. She found it pleasant to rub Ben's skin, and its startling pallor had ceased to disgust her. The reddish brown of his hair didn't remind her of a bloodstained deer pelt any more; she suspected that when he was brought out into sunlight, his hair would blaze like an autumn oak at sunset.
When she quit rubbing, Ben didn't want her to leave; he rolled over, and said, "Ah, that felt good. If you weren't old enough to be my grandmother, I would marry you."
Kiranta laughed, and said, "I'll hold you to that!"
Ben napped for a while. When he sat up to write on his boards, Kiranta made Violet stop sewing and walk around the room, twenty times clockwise and twenty times widdershins. When Violet had returned to her sewing, Kiranta made Ben stretch and flex every joint in his body.
While they were eating lunch, Violet said to Ben, "How old do I have to be to marry you?"
Ben said, joking, "Here, now, I thought I was engaged to Granny — I can't marry both of you."
"Why not?" Violet said. "The other Wizard has fifteen wives."
"Sixteen," Kiranta corrected, forgetting that she hadn't yet told them of her connections. She wondered whether her brother had married again since her departure.
"Who said I'm a wizard?"
Violet said, "Well, if we're to have a Roanoke, we've got to have a wizard."
"We ought not to call him a wizard, though — there can only be one wizard," Kiranta said. They mustn't do anything to make it look as though they meant to displace Roanoke, if they wanted the help of the Sages.
"Hold on, there! Are you guys talking about having a high-school graduate head up a medical school?"
Kiranta said, "We will teach a lot more than healing and herbs — there's history, reading, drawing, penmanship, composition, addition, subtraction, …"
"Are you talking about a college or a kindergarten?"
Violet looked baffled. Kiranta, having been familiar with the Tenth Demon all her life, divined his meaning. "We have to be everything. We'll be the only teachers on this side of the mountains."
"Call it an academy, then, the Academy of Hazel Patch."
Kiranta said, "There's your first official act: you've named us."
Violet said, "Next he's got to name himself, if he can't be a wizard."
Kiranta said, "What should we call the head of the academy?"
"How about the Head?"
Violet said, "Villages have headmen. An A-ca-da-mee has got to be different."
Ben said, "Well, colleges have presidents; grammar schools and high schools have principals."
"Principal Ben," Kiranta said.
Ben made a face. "Sounds like a TV show. How about 'Schoolmaster Madison'?" Kiranta could feel that he was not taking the discussion seriously.
Violet said, "What shall we call our sages?"
Ben said, "Let those who teach be 'teachers,' and the rest of 'em can be 'deans,' or maybe 'fellows of the academy.'"
Kiranta knew that "fellow" meant "companion". She suggested, "How about calling everybody with a vote a 'fellow,' and naming them 'teachers' and 'deans' according to their duties?"
"Done!" said Ben. "Pass the greens."
In midafternoon, Kiranta and Violet moved the bed to one side and made Ben walk between them for a while. The chains annoyed him; Kiranta said, "Don't think you'll get out of them the minute His Majesty is dead, either. I don't think he has provided any way to remove the chains, and if we can't find a suitable tool, you may have to wait until I can grow some coal-crystals and make a file."
"What's a coal crystal?"
"It's something that a strong healer can make in a bed of coals, by joining up the char a different way. Coal crystals are harder than anything, and make good files when you bake them in clay, but it's exhausting work even when you want little crystals and don't care if they aren't perfect."
The statement staggered Ben, but all he said was, "We call them diamonds." Kiranta refrained from putting a protective hand over the pouch at her neck; it wasn't time yet for Ben and Violet to know that Kiranta's coal crystal was bigger than the last joint of her thumb, and without flaw. His Majesty's crystal, proudly displayed on his hat, was a lumpy mass half again as massive as Kiranta's crystal, three or four badly-flawed crystals grown together. It spoke of haste and greed during the vigil, or incomplete instruction. Probably both. Kiranta gathered from her hasty glances at Augustus' memoirs that his talent had already been spoiled when the owner of the five codices had found him; when the old healer had spoken of limitations, and of the long years of patient work required to undo part of the damage, Augustus had killed her.
In the evening, Kiranta honed her digging stick, and drifted off to sleep aware that in the morning she would be stronger than she had ever been before. Perhaps stronger than anyone had ever been.
Kiranta was disappointed to find that His Majesty wasn't in his "throne room" when she emerged from the cave. The delay was going to be hard on her nerves, but if he wasn't in the throne room when she returned, he would send for her. She must gather herbs as if nothing were amiss. If she were to return any sooner than usual, it might cause wonder. She plotted out a circuit of the usual length, and vowed to walk neither faster nor slower than she usually did.
While she was pretending great interest in a stand of motherwort, her link with Ben indicated distress so deep and so sudden that only the sight of Augustus could have inspired it.
Kiranta whirled upon her guard and knocked him unconscious before he was aware that she had moved. She ran for the cave, healing the slight bruise on her fist as she went. Ben was feeling fear, anger, and determination — was he fighting? Some of the women in the fields looked up as she passed, then returned dull eyes to their tasks. The throne room was deserted, save for a guard standing on either side of the open door of the cavern, the same guards who had stood outside the library door half an hour ago. Ben now was feeling only frustration and anger. Kiranta ignored the guards; they had no specific orders for this particular situation, and they had never before seen anyone ignore their bulky frames, their spears, their battle-scarred faces, their menacing gestures. They hesitated, and when it was too late to stop her, they tried to reassure each other that the healer was allowed to come and go. Much later, Kiranta would have to heal two severe cases of nerves.
Kiranta dashed down the stone steps, using power to gain in seconds the sensitive eyes of one who has been in darkness for weeks; she still had to rely on her memory, on the feel of the floor under her feet, the touch of the air currents, the smells, the echoes of her pounding footsteps. When she saw the glow reflected through the open library door, she began to step down her dark adaptation. The library was empty; she dashed through the passage and paused in the doorway of the prison.
Ben stood in the exact center of the room, the only place he could stand when his chains had been pulled as tight as possible; he stood in a clear space made by hurling aside their crude furniture and their few possessions. In red rage, he was pulling on his chains as if trying to twist off his hands; he was undoing the work Kiranta and Violet had done on his wrists, and yet he felt no pain. On the far side of the room, well beyond the reach of the impotently furious Ben, Augustus held a disheveled Violet. He had twisted her arms painfully back so that he could hold both of them in one hand while he unlaced her tunic with the other. The echo-men watched in panting anticipation.
White rage urged Kiranta to leap snarling across the room, pounding Augustus with something far more delicate and valuable than Ben's hands. She carefully placed one foot in front of the other, struggling for control.
Augustus looked up, smiling, and said, "Well if it isn't the little granny, and white with fear. Come here, little granny, it's been a long time since I've had me a drink of healer's power." Kiranta ducked under one of Ben's chains; Augustus released Violet, who flew toward Ben. Kiranta continued, step by careful step. She still held her collecting basket in one hand; Augustus paid no attention to the digging stick in the other. "Ah, yes, come closer." Violet hid behind Ben. At first she clung to him as a frightened child will cling to its mother, then she shifted by imperceptible degrees to a pose more like that of a mother hen defending her chicks.
"Closer," said Augustus. Just two more steps… "It won't be as tasty as if you were educated, but — " Without waiting to touch her, he grabbed for her power, startling her into throwing up a shield. Augustus, even more startled, threw up a shield of his own. Kiranta threw out more power to keep his mottled vampire power from touching her. She backed away from him; if she stabbed him now, his uncontrolled power would kill Ben and Violet. The echo-men still retained that part of the soul which feels fear; they stepped away from the shimmering power, saw the panic written on Augustus' face, and fled from the room to lose themselves in the dark cavern.
Kiranta backed against Ben and Violet, as if her body could shield them when Augustus weakened and the enormous pressure of powers ceased to be in balance. In his terror, Augustus continued to increase his power and Kiranta was forced to match it; soon the power in the room would be strong enough to splinter wood. When Augustus ceased to control his power, if Kiranta had enough power left she might be able to shield herself — at the expense of spewing yet more power into the room. If Augustus held out long enough, Violet might have time to get outside, but nothing could save Ben and his priceless memories — if only there were somewhere for the power to go …
"Ben! Your books!" In such a concentration of power, with the link between them, Ben knew without asking that he must forget all else. "Every detail, Ben!" Kiranta could feel tremors in Augustus' control; he had produced more power than he had ever before thought possible, now he was nearing his limit, and he was too frightened to stop spewing out power.
In Kiranta's link with Ben a thread appeared; it led in a mind-twisting direction that must point toward the Demon world. Kiranta tipped her power into the thread; her power and the power pressing against it vanished, gone into the Demon World. The room seemed dead, as if the stone walls had gone numb. Before Augustus could stagger or look surprised, Kiranta sent out a pulse of patterned power. The pattern read: "I want it, and I want it right there."
Where Augustus had been stood a pillar made of eight-sided tiers, and on every shelf were strange-looking objects and strange-looking books. It stood for a heartbeat, then began to lean. It leaned faster and faster, it crashed to the floor, knocking a disk of wooden boards out of the shallow pit where it had stood. In the wreckage lay a black cylinder, and the freshly-cut surface of the end that had been uppermost gleamed like the edge of a freshly-sharpened knife. The tenth demon had told Kiranta that demons had so much metal that they used it to build their houses, but the sight of a piece of iron that big astonished her.
Kiranta turned to look at Violet and Ben. Ben exclaimed, "What happened to your face?"
Kiranta felt the soft smoothness of her cheek. "This is the way I really look. I made myself look old before I came here."
"And I promised …" Ben sucked in air noisily, then clenched his teeth. His wounded wrists had just come to his attention. Violet ran to pull the pin on one of his chains.
Kiranta helped Ben to sit down, then took one of his wrists into her lap. "This is getting old; I'll to have to teach you how to do this yourself," she said.
"Either that or find a chisel."
"Can you cut iron with iron?"
"The wrist pieces are cast iron, not wrought iron like the rest of it; I'm pretty sure they'll shatter, if you can hit them hard enough."
Kiranta said, "There's bound to be something in His Majesty's metal collection that can concentrate the force of a blow." Violet took her place at Kiranta's side. "We won't repair anything he can handle by himself; we may need your power for something else today. It won't be necessary to unbandage him." After the practice they had had on his burns, no further words were necessary.
When they had eased the pain in Ben's wrists, Kiranta said, "As soon as we get you loose, you must study your book of maps and try to figure out where your home is from here — when Augustus has had time to regenerate power, he'll fall out of a world where he doesn't belong."
"Maybe, maybe not," said Ben. "Won't he have appeared right where the post in the middle of the shelves was?"
"Yes. I centered the shelves on him exactly; I didn't want fingers or toes cluttering up the floor."
"So his head appeared right under the upper third of that steel post. And if its own weight isn't enough, it was holding up the second story; the ceiling would drop a foot or so right sudden when the support was taken away."
Kiranta walked over to the wreckage of the bookshelves. They hadn't been much taller than Augustus. There was, in fact, a feather off his silly hat lying on the floor. She shuddered at the scene, and wondered whether the Demons would find and bury the body.
She turned back to Ben and Violet and said, "I'm going chisel-hunting. We've got a mess to clean up, and we'll need all the hands we've got."
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