The Healer’s Apprentice

December 11, 2015

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?”

“No.”

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.”

“They won’t.”

“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.

END

Making a Soul Jar

September 3, 2015

image source: Wikimedia Commons. photographer: Muhammad Mahdi Karim.

image source: Wikimedia Commons. photographer: Muhammad Mahdi Karim[*].

The wheel spins between his knees. The clay spins beneath his hands.

“What are you making?”

“A commission,” he says. “A special piece.” A delicate, long-fingered touch narrows the piece’s neck near the top. He shapes the lip inside with a wooden Kemper tool.

“What’s that for?”

“That will hold the stopper.” On a nearby table sits a disk made of cork, perhaps two inches thick. It looks just about the right size to fit.

“Will it seal?”

“No. The seal is not part of my commission.” Always, always his fingers shaping as he works: a tall clay bottle, with that hourglassing of the neck.

“What’s it for? Wine?”

“You would have to ask the buyer. But if he is storing wine in it, then it must be very precious wine.”

“What makes you say that?”

The potter keeps working. “He is most choosy. He came to me because I am the best.”

“What if he just said that so you’d take the commission?”

The piece keeps turning, slowly. “It is still true.” The potter smiles. “This is a simple piece. Any potter could have done it. But he insisted.” The wheel stops. “He is paying too much, but he does not think so.”


[*] By Muhammad Mahdi Karim (www.micro2macro.net) Facebook Youtube (Own work) [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html) or FAL], via Wikimedia Commons

Book review: Archivist Wasp

August 31, 2015

Nicole Kornher-Stace’s novel subverts genre expectations right from the beginning. Though fantasy and science fiction are Archivist Wasp covergenerally considered components of a single genre, it’s still pretty rare to see a novel where the supernatural and the super-technological exist in the same world.

The Archivist Wasp, the character for whom Kornher-Stace’s novel is named, knows that she lives in a fallen world, and so does everyone around her. They speak candidly of the time Before, and accept hidebound traditions–even those that are harmful and potentially fatal–as necessary. Even Wasp, who is constantly seeking to escape her position as Archivist, does not question the institution itself. So much is typical of post-apocalyptic fictional settings, and even when we learn something of this world’s technologically advanced past, we are on familiar ground.

But not so fast. The world of Archivist Wasp is one where the technological and the supernatural co-exist inextricably, upending reader expectations in some surprising and refreshing ways. It doesn’t quite have the uncanniness that I personally associate with magical realism; the story feels a little too concrete for that. It does mean that some reveals that I anticipated never occurred, but this does not make Archivist Wasp unsatisfying. Far from it; the story never loses its sense of concrete reality, even when wandering into territory that reminded me more of Michael Ende than of Suzanne Collins.

Speaking of Collins, readers will perhaps be tempted to compare Archivist Wasp to The Hunger Games. There are some similarities: a tightly controlled, post-disaster society whose viewpoint character is subjected to seemingly arbitrary rules that could harm or kill her; a frequently breathtaking potential for violence (the novel opens with a fight to the death and never lets up); a battle to subvert authoritarian rule that, as the story unfolds, we see taking place down two parallel tracks that may not be so parallel after all.

But there are important differences as well. I found myself reminded more of Buffy than of Katniss, particularly the later seasons of the show when we learned something of the Slayer’s origin and how violent and non-consensual was her original choosing. Wasp too is marked out and set apart, and forced to come to terms with her identity while seeking escape from it.

It wasn’t until I’d checked Archivist Wasp out of the library and set myself to read it that I found it was a YA novel. That it certainly is: not so much because the protagonist is young, but because of how it treats its theme of journeying and becoming, and the affecting, genuine voice of Wasp herself. Wasp is an appealing heroine, human in her flaws and ambitions, but there’s a bit of the mythical about her as well, and not just because in this world, the Archivist is a death-goddess’s avatar. That is only one of the many respects in which Wasp’s journey resembles that of Persephone, Inanna, and other goddesses who go to the world below and bring back knowledge. Archivist Wasp is an impressive book.

The Sculpture

May 7, 2015
dancer image

Dancer image from Pinterest, original provenance unknown.

She was a dancer. It was the thing that she loved most in life, and so what she most wished to show.

She came to me and said that she wanted to be a sculpture. She’d heard about me, about what I can do.

I’m good. Not really that good, though. Aesthetics isn’t my gift, life is. I don’t know how I do it–that’s wrong. I do know.

What I can’t do is explain it. There aren’t words. All I know is my sculptures live on after their subjects are dead. Yes, you might say that about any artwork. Isn’t that the point? I mean in the literal sense. There’s kind of…well, call it vitae. I don’t know how else to describe it, but trust me, you’ll know it when you see it. Like with this young lady.

Beautiful, isn’t she? That arc of arm and spine. She chose that pose. I insist on it. I’ll take reference photos, like this one, so they get an idea of how they’ll look. They don’t always realize how bodies translate. She did though. That’s a dancer’s business, that creation through movement. Even when perfectly still. You can see it.

She died. Not long after I finished taking the photos. She said they were just how she wanted the piece to look. It was a gift, of a sort. I don’t have to wonder whether she would have approved of the result. At least, not as much as I would have, otherwise.

But she’s there. In the finished sculpture. You can see it.

Go and look.

Batman at the Dojo

April 23, 2015

We all have a reason for coming here. I’m a bouncer, building up my toolbox. Daisy’s tired of getting hassled on the street. Kurt just wants to be a badass. Charlie’s a delivery driver who’s been robbed a couple of times.

It’s always been a small group. The core of it’s been the same for years–me, Daisy, Kurt, Charlie–but others have come and gone. The four’ve us have been around so long that none of us can remember when he started showing up. Nobody remembered his name for the first few days. Nobody knew quite how he’d found out about our place, either. You have to know somebody, but we never did work out who it was that he knew. We like it that way. There’s a certain kind of person who takes the time and effort to find an underground club. They’re persistent. Likely to stick around.

Of course, he’s got ways of knowing about things like that.

But nobody mentioned it. We know each others’ stories, and we don’t. It’s not a social club. I think that’s why he came to us. He knew we wouldn’t ask a lot of questions.

Why did he go looking for a place at all? He’s rich, he’s connected, I know for a fact he studied with teachers the rest of us will never have even the slightest hope of meeting, never mind learning from. But once I figured out who he was, it was obvious.

You can’t practice for a fight by yourself. That’s what all those movie training montages get wrong. Punching the air doesn’t tell you a thing about how those moves will work in a fight. You might as well sit on your couch and watch Youtube.

I think something happened. He’s cagey about media, you know. I mean for his vigilante activities. His other life, his public life, the more PR, the better.

I think he lost a fight. That’s the sort of thing you don’t hear about. But there was all this chatter about him going up against some crime boss, even videos and photos of the start of the fight, then it moved out of public view and nobody ever heard a thing about the outcome. You’d find something on Google and by the time you clicked the link, it was gone.

It wasn’t long after that he showed up. I mean, I’ve seen him fight. Not in real life, but I’ve watched the videos like everyone else. I’d call his style abrupt. Lots of jerking motions and quick sideways moves. No flow at all, but it seems to work for him.

But when someone’s been in a brawl they’re going to be a bit stiff afterwards, even if they won. And he was moving those first few days like someone had kicked him in the kidneys. That’s why it took us a little while to figure it out. We might not have recognized his face, but we’d have known him by how he moved. Everyone’s a little different there, and his style, well, it’s distinctive.

I remember the moment when I knew.

We were doing a sticking-hands drill. We do it to learn balance and control, and develop sensitivity to an opponent. It can transfer to being able to anticipate an opponent’s moves. Perfect for getting into a lot of fights with adversaries of unknown skill. I could tell it wasn’t his favorite thing to be doing–his patience is situational–but he went along with it. And there was a moment where I felt an opening. Just a little one, but we’re trained to exploit those, to open them up and use them to reach our opponent. So I did that, closing inside his guard and scoring a palm strike to his chest.

His reaction was extraordinary: a surprised grunt, a widening of the eyes, and then a turn to the side that, had I not anticipated it by the barest fraction of a second, would have ended with me flying across the room and into the wall.

I disengaged, with a nod to acknowledge, and went for my water bottle to cover my consternation.

Obviously he hadn’t wanted anyone to know. That’s the whole point of a secret identity, right? I don’t mean his public face, which all of us were careful not to recognize–it’s not like he was the first local celebrity to show up there, though usually they’re professional sports players or show fighters looking to up their game. I mean who he really was, the identity for which the playboy public persona was just a front and a funding source.

Why took me longer to figure out than it should’ve. I thought back to his evident physical pain those first few days, which we all chalked up to unfamiliarity with fighting, or an unpleasant experience with the personal trainer he could no doubt afford, or, mostly likely, getting mugged. Lots of people don’t try out this stuff until after the first time they could have used it.

But then I realized. He’d been beaten in a fight. The goddamned Batman had been beaten in a fight, and he didn’t want that happening again.

I just hope none of his nemeses show up here too.

Though I guess we wouldn’t know it if they did.

Short fiction recommendation: Nebula edition

February 21, 2015

The 2014 Nebula nominees were just announced, so this seems like a good time to start something I’ve been meaning to do for awhile, namely push more short fiction at people. Even people I know who are fairly well-read in the genre (i.e. have read, or at least heard of, most of the Nebula nominees before they’re nominated) don’t read much short fiction or have heard of the authors.

Though I’d hope that most have heard of Aliette de Bodard, whose On a Red Station, Drifting was a previous Nebula nominee. In any case, you can read her nominated short story “The Breath of War” at Beneath Ceaseless Skies. As is usual with de Bodard’s stories–some of which I’ve had the privilege of reading in draft form–the level of craft here is exceptional. The author weaves the details and functioning of this world into the story so that the seams hardly show, and the characters, their relationships, and their concerns remain front and center. Families are often a prominent feature of de Bodard’s work, and such is the case here, but this is no mere character study. There is a broader canvas here, as is also the case with her other stories, and it rewards close reading.

Away and Returning

February 15, 2015
(Image: Woman of the Ardennes)

(Image: Woman of the Ardennes)

Their children were grown.

“I love you,” she said. “But I want to see the world, before I am too old to walk more than a mile in a day, and too bent with toil to care.”

“I love you,” he said. “But this is home, and the wheat is high, the cows give milk, and apples hang in the orchards in autumn.”

She packed a bundle, kissed him goodbye, and set out on the road that ended at their village.

She was gone a long time. When she walked back up the road again, it was with a limp, and she leaned on a stick. There were lines on her face that there hadn’t been before, and at least one new scar. Her clothes were different, and the look in her eyes was different too.

Every day, he had made supper, and sometimes someone from the village had shared it with him, but more often he ate alone.

Now he welcomed her in, and set the plate before her, and opened the wine she handed him from some far land, and the room smelled of sunlight.

“Tell me all about it,” he said, and she did.

The Company: The End

November 8, 2014

The story so far.

It took some days to rejoin the main company, all the while keeping our captive secure, and watching for those of his former companions who had escaped and might try to mount a rescue. But we made it in the end, and the Jarl was pleased.

Olemilekan and his companion remained with the company, somewhat to my surprise. But they pointed out that under the Jarl, they had some protection in a land where the very existence of sorcerers was taken as an abomination.

The swordplayer, on the other hand, used her share of the prize for the capture to buy out her contract. I don’t know where she went. The last I saw, she was riding south.

As for me, after thinking it over for awhile, I decided to stay on. Some people weren’t happy about my bringing in a sorcerer, but more were happy at the capture we’d made with his help, and at the general rise in the company’s fortunes.

We’ll see if I still think so in a few months. I’ve heard there’s a war on.

END

The Company: The Warrior (47)

November 2, 2014

The story so far.

The other Ashadin in the troop followed me back to where the swordplayer lay. By the time we got there, she had lost consciousness. Olemilekan stood to one side, watching, but when the Ashadin formed a circle around their fallen comrade, he and his companion mounted up and rode slowly back toward the rest of the troop.

Our prize was bundled onto his horse and brought back as well. I helped with that, not without a backward glance or two at the Ashadin, who sat so still they might have become statues. After a short while they were lost to sight.

The Company: The Warrior (46)

October 31, 2014

The story so far.

I got up, went to my horse, and rode back the way I’d come as fast as I dared. I didn’t even look back to see what Olemilekan and his companion were doing without me. I encountered the troop leader just riding out of the trees, the rest of her riders behind her.

“What’s going on?” she demanded, as soon as she saw me. “Report.”

“Quarry’s taken,” I gasped. “He’s all right, maybe a bit bruised. But one of ours is badly wounded. She told me to fetch the other Ashadin.”

Surprise, puzzlement, and even fear raced across the troop leader’s face in quick succession. But finally she shrugged.

“All right. If she wants to die with her people around her.”