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The Way of the Healers
Much is demanded of a Healer and inner peace is her only reward. She must seek neither power nor wealth. To walk in the Way is difficult and not all succeed.
When a Healer names a man as Chosen, she must leave the House for she must think only of her craft and those who need her care. If she elects to depart, her knowledge of the healing arts will be stripped from her mind. She will be left with only those skills known to commoners who do not follow the Way.
Jindera left the herb storage hut and strode toward the cottage. Clouds dimmed the morning sun, then slid away. The leaves of the oka trees rustled in the summer breeze and the mingled scents of herbals and seasonings swirled around her. The coming of clouds meant a storm approached, but she felt certain no rain would fall this day.
Would the medicinals she would brew from the herbals she'd selected be of any help? She could only hope. All night, she'd fought the fever raging through her mother's body and had seen no change.
Mama, why did you leave the Healers' House? Her mother could have remained and raised her children with the sons and daughters of the other Healers. On his tenth birthday, Jindera's twin would have been sent to his father. But Jindera's mother had chosen to leave. Love for a man had been her reason.
Tears blurred Jindera's sight. She had loved her father dearly. His death seven lunars before had brought sadness to a home where love had ruled.
Rays of sunlight glinted on the golden stones of the cottage and brightened the dull yellow of the thatch. Jindera hurried along the gardenpaths that meandered among the beds of herbals and seasonings.
The plants flourished. Lajin's touch, she thought. Her brother had only to tend any ailing plant and it thrived. She paused at the cottage door and peered along the road from the village. Her twin should return soon with the staples he'd gone to fetch.
The stench of illness pervaded the room where her mother lay on a narrow cot. Jindera's breath caught. For a moment, she thought her mother had left this plane without the blessing to release her.
Holding back a sob, Jindera fled to the kitchen to blend a fever potion. She carried the mug of steaming liquid to the sick room and spooned the medicinal into her mother's mouth. A drop or two fell on the linen sheet and spread like the tears Jindera held inside. She inhaled deeply. She had to hold grief and fear at bay. When the mug was empty, she rested her head on the edge of the mattress and prayed the remedy would work.
She jerked awake. How long had she slept? The light in the room told her 'twas near midday.
The rasp of labored breathing filled her ears. She felt her own breaths fall into the same pattern. She raised her head and turned toward the door. Where was Lajin? She tried to reach him on the inner path where they could speak in secret. Flight. Fear. What had happened to him? Her hands and body shook. His fear or hers?
Jindera rose and looked outside. The fragrant scents of the garden brought a welcome calmness to her troubled spirit. 'Twas a false hope. If Mama dies, what will Lajin and I do? Having but sixteen years, they weren't old enough to hold the land.
She heard a rasping cough and turned back to the cot. Her mother's eyes were open. A wave of hope spread through Jindera. "Mama."
"Leave. You. Lajin. Soon. Danger comes."
"We can't leave you without saying the blessing."
"Must." Racking spasms shook her mother's body.
"Mama, don't talk."
"Must. Once. Three sisters."
Jindera listened to her mother's halting words. A grandsire who was a Master Mage. Mama born on the desert and leaving with her older sister for a Healers' House. How her two sisters wanted power and schemed to obtain control of others. One who had talent. One who had none. Mama who had talent and wanted love.
"Ralor. Comes. Hurt. You. Lajin. No Healers' House. Not good."
"Mama, be still." Jindera pressed her hands against her mother's shoulders.
"Starflowers. For Ralor. Make tea. He sleep. Then flee. Remember, danger from Healers."
Jindera chewed on her lower lip to keep from crying. The door opened and for an instant, she feared her father's brother had arrived. The garden, the guardianship, the cottage would pass to him and to the one the Healers sent to tend the garden. The door opened. She turned.
Lajin stood in the doorway. His flushed face and panting breaths told her he'd been running. "What's wrong?" she asked.
"Black robes in the village. Taking boys. What will I do if they come here?"
Jindera shivered. The mages would learn about Lajin's talent for nurturing plants. They would take him. "You must flee to the forest and hide. Go now."
He knelt on the other side of the cot. "Not until we say the blessing."
"Son. Daughter. Go."
Jindera grasped her mother's hand. Lajin took the other. "Mama."
The heavy breathing slowed, then stopped. Had she willed her death?
Jindera's voice joined Lajin's. "Fare well, Mother. May the sun shine on your days and the moons light your nights. Let your shade depart and do not hover between this plane and the next."
Jindera met her brother's gaze. "You must go. I'll follow."
"The grave must be dug."
Lajin, why must you linger? You heard Mama. You must go."
The door of the cottage slammed against the wall. Jindera saw the man in the doorway and shivered.
Her uncle grasped the frame. "So she's passed. The land and you are mine." His slurred speech spoke of drunkenness. He pointed to Lajin. "Boy, dig the grave. I would see her in the earth before sunset. Should have time before they come."
"Who comes?" Jindera asked.
"Mages," Ralor said.
"Why?" Lajin asked.
Ralor laughed. "For you. Do you think I want to live with one who in time will challenge me for the land? The Healers usually send their elderly to spend their last years in a garden. Such a one would be no threat. Girl, to the kitchen. I would eat."
Jindera sought her twin on the inner path. Go to the forest. I'll fetch the packs. When he's at his meal, I'll follow.
Lajin shook his head. I'll see Mama in the earth before I leave.
Why must you be so stubborn? Your pack will be at the kitchen door. Take it and flee before 'tis too late.
She hurried to the kitchen and pulled the soup kettle from the warming shelf. She hung it over the fire. In the pantry, she grabbed the packs she and Lajin had prepared and tossed them into the yard. On a cutting board, she put roast antel, cheese, bread and the last of the appa pie.
"Uncle, the food is ready." She dished the soup and filled a mug with kaf. After she finished serving Ralor, she slipped out the back door and lugged the packs to where Lajin dug the grave. "Go now."
He lifted a shovel of dirt. "Not 'til Mama lies beside Papa. We'll go tonight when Uncle's sleeping."
"How can you be so sure he won't hear us creep from the loft? What if the mages come? Mama is beyond our care. She bade us leave." Jindera's hands clenched. Why didn't he feel afraid?
"If they come, I'll hide." Lajin continued to dig. "Mayhap Uncle lies and 'tis tragon speaking."
Jindera frowned. Ralor had been drunk. "Then I must go into the forest."
"To gather starflowers to make sure he sleeps." She grabbed her brother's shoulders. "I wish you'd leave now. I have the feeling trouble comes." She groaned. He had that stubborn look she hated.
"We go together." He jammed the shovel into the earth.
She saw the tear-tracks on his face. He grieved, too, but his eyes showed a determination to have his way. "Come with me."
He shook his head. "When I'm finished and Uncle sleeps."
She wanted to thump him on the head, though what good would a blow do? When he had these stubborn notions, there was no way to move him. "Take care. I won't be long. Mama told me things you should know.'
She ran toward the line of dark trees. Something puzzled her. Where had Ralor gotten the coins to buy tragon? Since her father's death, her uncle had lived at the cottage and earned enough from the sale of milk and eggs to buy brew. Had he some scheme involving the garden? Once he was named land holder, one third of the herbals and seasonings would be his. She and Lajin would be little more than servants. But her uncle had said the mages were coming. Didn't Ralor know her twin was the one with Mama's touch with plants?
Jindera sighed. She wished she'd been blessed with the talent. Her abilities lay in the blending of herbals into medicinals and knowing what an ailing person needed. Mama had called her a Healer born. Yet she knew without training, she couldn't practice except in the village. Her parents had refused to send her to a Healers' House and her mother's learning had been blocked when she'd left the Way.
As the dim light of the forest surrounded her, Jindera set aside her grief and scented the air for the dulcet yet spicy aroma of starflowers. She needed enough blossoms to brew a sleeping tea so she and Lajin could escape.
In a small clearing where sunlight dappled the surface of a pond, she found clusters of the pale flowers. With care not to pull the roots from the ground, she collected a bunch. The aroma soothed her grief.
For a moment, she leaned against an oka and breathed the scent. Where would she and Lajin find a refuge? Though Mama had cautioned against the Healers was there another choice? Any Healers' House would take her, but her twin was too old. Since the Houses were located in towns, she wondered if he could find work nearby. His ability to coax plants to provide rich harvests should excite any farmer.
Jindera straightened and started back to the garden. As she neared the forest's edge, she heard shouts.
Jindera, help me. They want to take me. Lajin's plea on the inner path startled her. She stumbled and nearly fell.
In order to see what occurred, she dropped the starflowers and climbed an oka. She saw Lajin struggling with several black-robed men. Don't fight. I'll follow and help you escape.
Now. Help me before they make me one of them.
Stay calm. I'm coming.
No. Flee. 'Tis you--"
Lajin's voice ceased abruptly. With a suddenness that made her gasp, pain shot through her head. Feeling dizzy, Jindera clung to the rough bole of the tree. Where was her twin? She couldn't see or hear him. He couldn't be dead.
The mages mounted their horned horses. As they rode away, she climbed to the ground. Not caring that she trampled the plants, she ran across the herb beds. She stumbled over her uncle's body and nearly toppled into the grave. Tendrils of smoke rose from the house. She grabbed the packs.
"Girl, help me. They lied."
"Who, Uncle?" She dropped the packs and knelt beside him.
"Black robes. Bought me tragon. Asked about you and your brother. Took him. Wanted you. Told them no. One stabbed me." He groaned.
She examined the gaping abdominal wound and noted the pool of blood around him. She had neither the knowledge nor the skill to mend the torn flesh. "I can't do anything. I'll run to the village for help." She swallowed several times to keep from losing her morning meal.
"Too late." His moan rose to a scream, then died in a whimper.
With a whoosh, the thatch of the cottage blossomed with flames. Long fingers of fire thrust into the air. Showers of sparks took flight.
Jindera tried to drag her uncle away. She fell into the grave. When she crawled out, he was dead. Bits of burning thatch fell on the paving stones. Would the garden take fire?
She grabbed the packs and ran. At the edge of the garden, she turned. The flames had died. A pillar of black smoke stained the sky. Jindera collapsed on the ground. Everyone and everything that had been hers was gone. She rested her head against her bent knees. Exhaustion swamped her.
A voice on the inner path. Lajin?
Not her twin. The voice repeated the command. Where? The order was the only answer. Who wanted her? She couldn't abandon her twin. She rose, wavered and nearly fell. She had to find a place to sleep. Then she would decide where to go.
She looked around. The clouds seemed heavier. Would the storm begin this night?
The fire hadn't spread beyond the stones separating the herb and seasoning beds from the cottage. The herb hut on the far side of the garden had been spared. So had the meadow where the antels grazed. With leaden steps, she made her way to the one room building.
Jindera burrowed beneath a pile of sacks. Lajin! Still no response. He lived. She would know if he'd left this plane. When she woke, she would search out the mages and steal her brother from them. Soft tears began and continued until she slept.
The Code of the Merchants' Guild
Once the fee is paid, a boy must be apprenticed to four experienced peddlers. One who deals in cloth. One who deals in all manner of foodstuffs. One involved with jewelry, gems and household wares. One who deals with herbals and seasonings. Next, the boy must serve as a journeyman. Should he succeed in all his ventures and pay off his debts, he can buy into the Guild and open a shop in one of the towns. If he fails, he will remain a journeyman.
Corin hitched the four ponies to the cart. Yesterday, rather than continue past sunset to reach a village, he'd spent the night at the crossroads. He poured the remainder of kaf into his mug and drank. This was a poplular spot for travelers to camp. There was a rude shelter and a fire circle large enough for a spit. He wasn't sure how many kils he would have to travel to reach his destination. He'd only come this way once before with his first mentor.
After dousing the fire he'd used to cook his meals, Corin stored his pack, blanket and cooking gear in the narrow sleeping space. He thought of the rumors he'd heard in Pala that portended changes he hoped to see and telling of events he wouldn't believe until he met someone who had witnessed them.
The hopeful rumors included tales of the White Jewel being found and a new Queen for Earda, of the Black Jewel destroyed in an arcane battle and the Master Mages dead. Then there were the dire reports stating the White Jewel had been destroyed and the mages now ruled Earda.
He shrugged. Did it matter who ruled? He'd seen no differences during the lunars he since he'd begun his trip as a journeyman. He'd been forced to avoid too many black robes, especially in this area.
Once more, he heard his mother's voice. 'Twas all of her he had for remembrance other than a picture of her broken and bloody body. "Mages are evil. Made me a slave. Don't let them near you for part of you is theirs. They'll know. Beware for there are mages who don't wear the robes and who hide among the people."
Corin climbed to the seat and flicked the driving reins to set the team on the way. He prayed he would meet no black robes along the road. 'Twouldn't matter to them that he was in bond to the Merchants' Guild. Because of his age, they would test him for talents.
When the team clopped at a steady pace, Corin thought about his plans. Beyond the next village was a garden where a former Healer and her Chosen grew herbals and seasonings.
He's always planned to return once he was on his own. Four years had passed since his mentor had bargained with the couple for part of their harvest. They'd sold him what didn't belong to the village or the Healers. The peddler had been able to open a shop in Quato and leave the road.
Corin's palm itched in anticipation of the profits he would gain. If he entered Pala or Quato with a wide selection of seasonings, he would pay his debt for the cart, ponies and supplies. In two or three years, he could open a shop in Pala. He even had a location selected. The shop fronted the busy market square.
The steady thud of the team's hooves against the hard-packed surface of the dirt road coupled with the swaying movement of the cart lulled him into a dream state. The thundering sound of an approaching party startled him. Some band of men rode in haste. Guards? Bandits?
When the first rider came into view, Corin shuddered. He had time to get off the road, but not enough to hide from the black robes. He pulled the wide brim of his hat low and hunched his shoulders so he would appear older. Near a stand of evergreens, he halted the cart and waited for the band of mages to pass. Their black steeds, the horns dyed red, raised clouds of dust.
Corin touched the blade of the knife he kept on the seat. He flexed his upper arms. The concealed stilettos were primed for action. Rather than surrender to the mages, he would force a fight and pray for death.
"They are evil, my son. I would not let them claim you. 'Tis why we live like this."
Their home had been a hovel. Their clothes and food gleaned from trash heaps. What they couldn't use had been traded or sold in the seconds' shops.
Corin watched the parade of horned horses. He noticed the unrobed young men riding on pack horses. His eyes narrowed. A third unrobed boy was held in front of one of the riders. His head lolled. Had he been fool enough to attack a mage? Why hadn't they killed him? That was the usual reward for defiance.
When all but two riders had passed the cart, Corin felt a surge of relief. If he'd been in Pala where streets twisted and alleys abounded, he could have escaped and even removed one or two of the group of mages. His years on the city streets had given him knowledge of every escape route. Out here, he stood no chance.
The pair of mages wheeled their mounts and rode toward the cart. Corin froze. Every instinct called for flight. He hunched his shoulders until his back was bowed.
"Peddler, what tribute have you for us?"
"T ... tragon. Ch ... cheese. Cl ... cloth." His voice quavered like that of an old man.
"Unlock your wares."
Corin slid from the seat. Tremors spread from his hands to his legs. He nearly fell. He fumbled with the lock and finally opened the trading side, then propped the wooden gate so it formed an awning.
"Old man, we won't harm you. Just take a few things." The man grasped two flasks of tragon and passed them to the second man. He examined the cheese and shook his head. He lifted four more bottles of the liquor. "Just this. Got prime cheese at the village. Left you two flasks. Thank me."
"Th ... thanks." Corin swallowed. Tragon was the most expensive of the items he'd stocked and good for trading for food and coins. At least they hadn't thought to look for his hoard. Those coins had been saved to trade for seasonings.
The mages packed the flasks in their saddlebags and mounted. Corin clung to the cart. His knees buckled and he slid to the ground. Laughter rose from the mages. Corin pulled to his feet. Better laughter than being taken like those three boys. He felt pity for the trio.
The air smelled of old smoke and blood. What had happened? Corin didn't want to know.
He locked the cart. Once he climbed on the seat, he grasped the long knife. He stared after the troop until they were out of sight and the dust raised by their steeds had settled.
He eased his team onto the road and flicked the reins. Where were the black robes bound? He wasn't traveling in their direction. For that he was thankful. He tested the hidden stilettos by flexing the muscles of his upper arms. The hilts slid into his hands. The blades were thin and razor-sharp, but he gained little comfort from their presence. The knives were useless in a face-to-face confrontation. They'd been crafted for attacks from hidden places.
Corin gulped a breath. If the mages had seen him as a youth, he would have been forced to join them. They would have discovered his talent, the one he'd used but once on someone other than himself.
Guilt and sorrow flashed into his thoughts along with memories of that dreadful day. He'd been eight. He and his mother had been scavenging when a party of black robes had found them. His mother had screamed for him to hide and he'd obeyed. He'd listened to her agonized cries and the sound of their fists.
After the mages had gone, he'd crept from his hiding place and found her broken and bleeding body. He'd been too young to understand what to do. He'd straightened and mended her bones, but he hadn't known the loss of blood was more dangerous to life.
Tears flowed over his cheeks. He'd failed, but even a Healer might not have saved her.
As the sun moved to late afternoon, he reached the village. He halted the cart beside the tavern and unhitched the ponies. Once they were in the grazing pen, he took one of the remaining flasks of tragon and relocked the cart. He'd had no midday meal. The nausea caused by his encounter with the mages had finally passed and he was hungry.
When he entered the tavern, the buzz of voices in the dark smoky room halted. Corin studied the sullen faces and strode to the bar.
The burly barkeep leaned on the counter. "Your pleasure?"
Corin held out the tragon flask. "Trade this for a meal and a few coins."
His announcement seemed to loosen the tongues of the villagers. The whisper of conversation became a roar. The barkeep took the flask, drew the cork. He sniffed, then tasted a drop. "Prime. I'll buy. Have you more?"
"Just one flask," Corin said. "Had six more. Black robes stopped me and took the rest of my supply."
"Mine, too." The man spat on the floor. "Took two boys from the village and one from the garden. Good riddance to one of the village boys. Nothing but trouble. Fire setter. How'd they miss you?"
Corin pulled his hat low and hunched his shoulders. "Was so scared I shook. Guess they thought I was old."
"Or their sniffer wasn't with them." The barkeep slid a stack of silver and copper coins across the bar. "Take a table. Food's plain and hot. To drink?"
"A brew and kaf to follow. Pass the word I'll open the cart for trade after I eat."
Before long, his meal arrived. Savory stew, bread and a semi-soft cheese with the kaf and appa tart. Corin waved away seconds, then left to open for business.
First, he hid the coins in his stash. The early customers were older women. They purchased pins, needles and thread. Several bought lengths of sheepsilk.
One of the women arrived with two of the cheeses he'd had at the tavern. "Would you have kaf beans?"
He nodded. "And chokla leaves. Several varieties of tea, too."
"Weight for weight?"
After hefting the cheese, he shook his head. "Would leave me with little kaf to trade." He put his scale on the counter and scooped four measures of beans into the pan. He put them in a sack and weighed the cheese. "I'll add two measures of tea and one of chokla."
She nodded. "Done. And for the other cheese. How much cloth?"
Corin closed his eyes. The cheese was delicious and he could sell it at a tavern in some other village. He pulled three bolts from the stores. "A length of each."
"Three lengths of this one." She pointed to a blue with white embroidered flowers.
Soon men appeared to examine his supply of tools. Young girls bought ribbons and trinkets. Children came for sweets and toys. By the time first moon rose, the customers were gone. He stored the coins and traded items in the bins.
Not bad, he thought as he lay on his sleep mat. Surely he had enough coins to purchase a stock of seasonings. Even if he hadn't a large enough supply for one of the city markets, he could sell them along his route and return to purchase more.
The next morning after he broke his fast at the tavern, he left the village. He hoped to persuade the holder of the garden to allow him first selection for three years. That would give him a good hoard when he made his move to a shop. By then he would be twenty-one. He grinned. Few Guild members began so young.
As he rounded a bend in the road, he gasped. What had happened here? The thatch roof of the stone cottage was gone. Soot-blackened rafters showed and black stained the stones. A heavy aroma of burned wood and cloth hung in the air.
Corin urged the skittish ponies onto the paving stones beside the cottage. After hitching them to a fence railing, he stared at the remains. Had anyone survived? He approached and peered through a window where a partially burned shutter allowed him to see into the house.
Had the black robes done this? The gossips said they'd taken a boy from here. Had there been trouble?
What now, he wondered. He rounded a corner of the house. Beds of plants spread toward the forest. A windfall, except he had no idea what they were. His experience with growing things tended toward weeds seeking purchase in the dirt between the cobblestones of Pala's streets. Once he'd seen a well-appointed garden of a Guild leader, but that had gained him no knowledge.
He started toward the garden. When he came upon a man sprawled near a grave, he shuddered. Someone had killed this man. He dragged the body to the hole and managed to maneuver the corpse inside. He lifted the shovel and spread dirt over the body.
"I don't know who you were," Corin said. "I don't know who killed you. I'll not say the blessing to help you pass from this plain to the next until the man who took your life is dead. Seek and torment him."
When he finished the burial, Corin studied the garden. The stone hut in the far corner caught his attention. 'Twas there the peddler had selected herbals and seasonings. Corin grinned. Surely he would recognize the seasonings by their taste or smell. If fortune favored him, he could raid the hut and be on his way.