The Healer’s Apprentice
Ferenc leaned on the edge of the table. Across from him, the healer bent over the patient. Her long-fingered hands probed at his abdomen, rested on his chest, felt along his scalp. Ferenc found the surety of the healer’s movements reassuring. She didn’t look like much, tall but skinny, with washed-out blue eyes and stringy dark hair that fell over her face as she worked. But she’d been the only one willing to come.
Two armed mercenaries stood by the hearth, warming their backsides. Their leader had taken up a position just inside the hall’s closed doors.
The man on the table wore a red tunic. It hid the blood, though in fact there was so little that the mercenary captain had not believed the healer when she said the man was dying.
“Someone has seen to his injuries,” she’d said earlier, when Ferenc had brought her to the village. The mercenaries had been amusing themselves by mistreating their prisoner sorely enough to make him squeal, but not enough to kill him. “But he is wounded inside. He will die.”
Now she leaned over the patient, her ear to his mouth. He murmured something to her that Ferenc couldn’t hear. The man smelled horrible, of sweat and blood and sour wine and something else, but the healer never flinched.
She straightened and looked at Ferenc. Firelight glimmered in her pale eyes. “Be brave, messenger.”
“What?” Ferenc asked.
“I could save him.” Her voice was so soft. “But he does not want to live. He has resisted giving them what they want, knowing that he will die soon.”
Ferenc’s hands tightened on the table’s edge. “Why not let them take it?” If they got what they wanted, they would leave. This wasn’t Ferenc’s village. But there was a girl.
“Because if they use what he knows, they will lengthen this war.”
“Did he tell you that?”
Ferenc considered this. “Could we get him away?”
“They would exact retribution on the village. He must die here, under my hands.”
“Then they might exact retribution on the village anyway.”
“How do you know?”
“Fetch me hot water,” she said, louder, and Ferenc realized that the captain was watching them. They had been speaking too softly, for too long.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said, and picked up a metal basin and made for the hearth. A kettle steamed over the fire. The soldiers watched as Ferenc filled it. He did not like being under their gaze. Being a messenger meant slipping by unseen, not healing a prisoner for mercenaries’ benefit.
Not that it made much difference that they were mercenaries. Over his months as a messenger he had seen enough killing, rape, and ruin for several lifetimes. Sometimes the perpetrators wore gold. Sometimes scarlet. Sometimes neither, and claimed allegiance with one or the other or themselves alone. It didn’t matter.
The basin was hot. He walked back to the table and set it down quickly, before he could drop it. A few drops of steaming water landed on the patient’s skin. He didn’t even flinch. The healer had opened her satchel and laid out an assortment of powders and dried leaves, even a few precious glass bottles containing amber and brown liquids.
“Thank you,” the healer said, coming around the table to the bowl, so that Ferenc had to move out of the way. That was all right. He didn’t want to be anywhere near what was about to happen. “I will try to ease his hurt,” she said, louder, and began dropping things into the water. An acrid-sweet scent rose into the hall. Ferenc’s nose twitched. The smell was pleasant, but with an uncurrent of something harsh. The patient’s breathing grew labored.
“Keep him awake,” the captain said. His voice sounded like a gravel throat and leather lungs.
“One of you struck him on the head. There is swelling. If you wanted a miracle you should have sent for an artmaster.”
Ferenc caught his breath. One did not consult those silver-eyed sorcerers of Simindâr. One did not so much as a breathe the suggestion.
The captain strode over to the table, right next to healer. She did not move. The captain slapped the patient across the face.
The patient groaned. “You’re not helping,” the healer said.
The captain ignored her, and yanked the patient’s head up by his hair. “Let her heal you. Hear me? You’re going to live, and you’re going to tell us what we want to know, and I don’t give a fuck what happens after that, understand?” The patient’s head dropped back to the table with a thud. “Do your work,” the captain said, and walked back to the doors.
The healer said nothing. She stared straight ahead, her watery blue gaze seeming to see something beyond the confines of the hall. She sorted through the leaves and powders and bottles without looking at them, her hands moving of their own accord. Only sometimes, as her hands moved over the bowl, a glittering dust seemed to fall from them. Ferenc blinked and glanced at the soldiers. They hadn’t noticed.
The healer dipped a metal cup into the bowl. Then she affixed a metal lid with a curved funnel to the top. She inserted the funnel into the patient’s mouth, past his teeth and over his tongue. Then she tilted the cup. The patient swallowed, as greedily as a thirsty man in a desert.
Then he relaxed. He still breathed, but his skin took on a sallow look, despite the ruddy light. The tension in his limbs had gone. He seemed to sleep.
The healer set the cup down, and placed one hand on the patient’s shoulder. The man’s chest rose, fell, rose, fell…and stopped.
The healer raised her head, reflected firelight sliding across her eyes. She said, “He is out of danger.”
The captain understood at once. He strode to the table, grabbed the patient’s jaw, and turned the lolling head from side to side. His backhand was so sudden and vicious that Ferenc cried out as the healer hit the floor. She got to her hands and knees at once, but the captain drew his sword.
She paused mid-rise. “That won’t bring you what you seek.” The two by the hearth had stepped forward, hands on sword hilts. Ferenc couldn’t move. There would be two deaths in this room tonight. He had no more power to prevent the second than the first.
“It’ll make me feel better,” the captain said. “Then we’ll burn this village to the ground, which will make me feel better still.” He advanced on the healer, the sword’s point inches from her face, forcing her backward until she all but sat on the floor. “But best of all will be doing to you what I wouldn’t let my people do to him,” he finished, with a jerk of his head toward the dead man. “You know nothing of use to me.”
“She does,” Ferenc burst out, and then quailed when the captain turned toward him.
“Explain,” the captain said.
“She knows what that man wouldn’t tell you,” Ferenc said. The healer glared at him with such ferocity that he thought his hair might catch fire, but he continued. “Don’t kill her. And don’t burn the village. Please.”
The captain smirked. “You live here, boy?”
“No.” He would not mention the girl. “I’ve seen enough death.”
The captain glanced at his two subordinates and gave the tiniest nod of his head. Ferenc made it a few steps toward the hall doors before they seized him. Each of them was over a head taller than he, and even the woman of the pair had a grip that went all the way around his upper arm with fingertips to spare. She drew a knife with her free hand and held it under his chin. He could just see its glimmer from the firelight if he strained his eyes downward.
The captain still had his sword pointed at the healer. “Get up.”
She did so, watching him all the while, though it seemed to Ferenc that she stared past the captain’s ear rather than into his face.
“Now,” the captain said. “You’re going to tell us what we want to know, or we kill him. Then we kill everyone else in this benighted village. Then we start in on you.”
The healer straightened. Her gaze shifted, just a hair, so that she met the captain’s gaze, and Ferenc again caught that odd glimmer. “Thank you,” she said.
The captain barked an uneasy laugh. “What for?”
“For giving me leave to do this,” the healer said, and raised her hands.
Ferenc never could piece together what had happened next. A howling wind whirled through the room, with a flash as bright as lightning. He tried to shield his eyes, hampered by the mercenaries’ hold on his arms. Then they let go, so suddenly that he stumbled forward, hit the table, and recoiled. Shadows blotted his vision. Something hit the floor with a clatter. Something else crashed into him and Ferenc fell with an awful shock to his knees. Then there was silence.
Slowly, his vision cleared—except for a dark blotch in the corner of the hall. No, that was real: a sort of cloud, which began to turn, striating with green and white light until it was a turning spiral.
The healer stood before it. It was she, but so changed: taller, her hair white not dark, and her eyes…when she turned toward him and her eyes caught the firelight, they glowed.
“Silvereyes,” Ferenc gasped. He stumbled backward, and tripped over something on the floor. It was one of the mercenaries, not dead but insensible to the world around her. The other one lay nearby. And the captain…
The captain had fallen forward, and somehow in doing so had gotten his sword turned around. Two feet of it stuck up from his back, covered in blood.
He looked up at the healer again. She had turned away, heading for that swirling blotch in the corner. A wind blew in that direction, and somehow Ferenc was sure that the vortex was the cause, sucking the air into itself.
“Wait!” he called, though when the healer turned back that silver gaze struck him dumb. For an eternity he could think of nothing to say. Then: “Where are you going?” Because that vortex went somewhere.
“Back to Simindâr,” she said. “Now that I have revealed myself.” Her voice had changed, too. Or perhaps that was the wind.
“But—” He had so many questions. “But why did you care?” The silvereyes weren’t human. They had fought humans, and lost. So far as he knew, not a one of them would weep if every human being in the Ten Kingdoms disappeared overnight.
“Because I want this war to end. Just like you.”
He stepped forward, stopped. His hand reached out. “Can I come with you?”
She shook her head. “You were too ready to give over for your own concerns. This is not a way that you can fight, not right now. If you become such a one, you will find me again. Goodbye.”
The vortex closed behind her, and the room fell silent except for the stirrings of the two mercenaries. Ferenc looked at them, at the dead man on the floor, and at the dead man on the table.
He didn’t know what the healer would do in this situation, had she not had her own means of escape. He only knew what he could do right now.
He raised the bar on the door and ran into the night.