Warm power flowed through Trevor’s hands, guiding the child’s broken leg to return to its proper shape. Sweat beaded on his brow as his body worked to contain the will of the Mother Goddess. If he failed to eat or drink enough, or if he let his concentration slip, he could lose control and kill his patient.
Block the pain. Stop the bleeding. Push everything into place. Remake the connections. Heal the flesh.
Trevor’s lungs demanded more air. His stomach gurgled for more food. Stuffiness invaded his sinuses. Dryness overtook his mouth. Heat from the hearth fire, such a comfort when he’d arrived from the winter’s cold, stifled and burned his body. Still he guided his gift to heal the hurt.
When he stopped, he gasped for breath. Aching built in his skull, promising a terrible throbbing soon. “Water, please,” he rasped. His skin felt old and papery, and he couldn’t smell anything. The tny, grubby room tilted to the left.
He shouldn’t have done it all at once.
“Is it done?” The boy’s mother asked. She sounded suspicious, as if she hadn’t watched her son’s femur recede and the flesh heal over within a matter of minutes. As if she suspected Trevor of peddling false cures.
Propping his head in both hands, he braced his elbows on his knees. “I need water.”
Cold liquid sloshed on the knee of his linen pants. He held out a hand. The woman shoved a wooden cup into it, splashing more of the contents over his fingers.
The moment he took his first sip, the woman prodded his arm with a finger. “Is it done?”
Trevor wished he could expect better from these people. He nodded so he could drink in peace. The water soothed his parched throat.
She shoved the boy off her lap and stood. “You can go.”
Her son reached for Trevor. She shooed him out of the small kitchen. Trevor’s nose woke and sucked in the aroma of stewing beef with garlic and onions.
He hadn’t eaten beef in years. These people had threadbare curtains, a packed earth floor covered by rags, and an open fire for cooking, yet they ate better than him.
“I’ll just need a few–”
“Get out. My husband will be home soon.” She wanted to pretend nothing had happened.
So much for the generosity of gratitude. Trevor drained the cup. “There’s the matter of payment.” His voice croaked and cracked, stealing the perception of authority. Using the back of the creaking wooden chair, he stood. His head swam and he wavered on the spot.
As soon as he stepped outside, the cold would sap his remaining strength. With luck, he’d manage to convince his pony to take him home before he fell unconscious. Five day old vegetable soup waited over a low fire for him.
The woman planted her fists on her hips. “You already get paid. Ressler says so. I don’t have anything for you.”
Rubbing his face, he sighed. All three of the deals he’d made with the nearby villages needed reworking. He couldn’t keep sacrificing himself for them. One of these times, he’d let them squirm and demand extra payment before treating the injury.
No, he wouldn’t. He knew himself better than that. The pain called to him, screaming through the air in dark ribbons. Agony like that of the boy before Trevor helped him wrapped itself around him until he choked. Negotiating under those circumstances would do him no good.
“Out!” The woman chivvied him out, forcing him to shamble to the door. She wrenched it open and shoved him outside.
Frigid cold slapped him. He staggered into the snow covering the household’s dormant herb garden. Only the wall saved him from falling.
“Pony,” he called, his voice stolen by the last rays of daylight.
His noble steed, a half-sized horse of stout temperament and shaggy coat, whickered and clopped up the cleared path to the door. Unable to climb onto the beast’s back, he leaned against the warm creature and wished his thin cloak had fur on the inside. Gloves would’ve helped too.
They walked up the lane together, his toes snagging over and over on the uneven dirt path. Others passed him on their way. He knew most of them on sight, and everyone in the area knew him. Few greeted him. No one asked if he needed help.
Until a stately chestnut horse stopped in front of him.
“Are you all right?” the rider asked. She peered over the neck of her mount, her dingy white, fur-lined cloak nearly glowing in the meager light peeking through nearby shuttered windows.
He tried to straighten enough to have a conversation. His legs buckled. In the cold, his fingers had lost their grip. Trevor fell on his backside with a thump and a groan.
The woman hopped off her horse with practiced ease, her thick braid of brown hair flipping to the side. She rushed to him and crouched to check his head.
“I gather the answer is no,” she said. Lines creased her young forehead with worry. Men with broken hearts and egos no doubt littered her past.
Trevor huffed. As he girded to let her help him stand, he noticed small smears of blood on the front of her cloak. The smudges seemed fresh, though he saw no hints of pain about her. “Is that yours?”
She glanced at the stained fur. “No. Can you stand?”
“I hope so.”
The woman had strength enough to get him onto his feet and into Pony’s saddle.
“Do you know where I can find the healer?” she asked as she handed him Pony’s reins. “The stablemaster at the inn said it was obvious, but maybe he meant in daylight.”
“I do, yes.” Trevor slumped, finding it more practical for staying in the saddle than failing to sit up straight.
“Can you point me? The person who bled on me…” She brushed the smears and frowned with distress. “He’s not dying, but he’s not getting better either.”
Though he needed to eat, sleep, and bathe, Trevor would do the right thing. He always did the right thing. Ewan had loved him for it, or so he’d said. “Can he be moved safely?”
She glanced toward the main part of town, where larger, less ramshackle buildings huddled along a trade road. “I think so?”
“The path to the healer’s house is that way.” He pointed. “There’s a wooden sign.” He kept up the sign himself, using a chisel and plant dye. “It’s about half a mile through a sparse wood. Don’t bother trying to fetch him if you don’t have to. Bring your injured gentleman to the house and ask for help.”
Nodding, she flashed him a taut smile. “Do you need me to make sure you get home? I can escort you if you’d like.”
He almost cried at the thought of someone caring whether he lived or died. No one had since Ewan had passed over a decade ago. “I’ll be fine, thanks to your help.”
She nodded and patted his leg. “Be gentle as you take him home,” she said to Pony.
To Trevor’s surprise, the pony whickered at her, then ambled on his way. The beast walked with the smoothest gait he’d ever used. Trevor didn’t dare turn back to see the woman lest he lose his balance. Instead, he raised a hand to wave at her and smiled to himself. Soon, he’d see her again.
Pony carried him through the dark tunnel of the narrow, tree-lined path to his home, hibernating branches overhead almost invisible against the starry backdrop of night.
A bramble of thorny shrubs surrounded the garden in front of his thatch-roofed hut. Several plants defied the cold to grow out of season for him. Among them, a vine with a gentle green glow snaked along both sides of the snowy path to his front door. The rest huddled in muddy patches, radiating heat for each other.
Pony stopped at the gap in the hedge and waited for him to dismount. The shaggy beast would take care of himself until morning. He’d done so many times before.
Trevor shuffled up the path, spending what little energy he retained to avoid slipping and falling. By the time he reached the front door, he heard hooves crunching through the snow, moving at a swift pace.
He’d hoped to have time to fill his belly before his next patient arrived.
Ribbons of pain drifted on the air, reaching for him. He turned and saw the shapes of two horses with riders. Agony radiated from one of them, reaching for Trevor with thick, choking fingers.
Resigned to the situation, he pushed open the door and staggered inside the main room of his home. The heat had waned in his absence. At least the banked fire hadn’t guttered and failed. His soup still smelled like carrots and onions. The aroma and its promise kept him moving.
The door rattled with a politely urgent knocking before he’d fetched a bowl from the shelf over the hearth.
“Come in,” he called out.
As expected, the woman pushed open the door. She helped a young man draped in pain ribbons.
“Settle him there.” He pointed to the patient bed he kept in the main room.
Worn old quilts covered a mattress made of a living, quite resilient fungus colony. It added an earthy musk to the small room and discouraged vermin.
Aside from the bed and hearth, the room held a wooden table with two mismatched chairs and a cupboard nearly empty with his pathetic food stores. Hangings patched together from scraps and ends of cloth hung on the walls in a futile attempt to retain heat. More of the same covered the earth floor. The hut didn’t have any windows or other openings, aside from the vent above the hearth for smoke.
He slept in a tiny nook on the other side of the hearth, on another mushroom mattress. At least he had a water pump inside the building.
The woman half-dragged her man to the bed. He favored the left side.
“I’m fine, Aine,” the man mumbled. Trevor suspected he’d repeated this a number of times along the way.
“Of course you are.” She helped him lie on the bed with the same gentle strength she’d used to help Trevor. With the hesitation of unfamiliarity, she unbuckled his sword belt and removed his boots.
“What happened to him?” Trevor asked as he ladled thin vegetable soup into his bowl.
“Someone tried to kill him a few–” Aine blinked at him. “Aren’t you the man I helped on the road?”
“Yes.” He smiled at her. “I apologize for not introducing myself. I’m a bit worn around the edges after healing a broken leg.” With his bowl of soup and a spoon, he sat in a chair. “Someone tried to kill him?”
She frowned at him and set aside the man’s sword. “They didn’t have someone escort you home? Or bring the victim to you?”
The way she asked made Trevor want to lie for the boy’s mother. He didn’t know why. “No. Your husband seems the more important matter at the moment.” Trying to push away the confusing impulses, he ate soup and gestured for her to explain.
Aine blinked once, then she checked on the man lying on the bed. “Right. He was stabbed. A few nights ago.” Despite her clear competence, she seemed flustered by this subject, and by attempting to remove his clothing. Perhaps they’d handfasted recently, and she hadn’t yet adjusted to it. “The midwife tended him right away, then we had to leave.”
Something unpleasant had definitely happened to this young couple. Something besides the stabbing, of course.
“It keeps oozing blood on and off. He’s in a terrible amount of pain. I didn’t realize how bad until he tried to climb a ladder into the stable loft and fell off it.”
The pain would’ve wrenched Trevor out of his chair if he had the energy for it.
He did the math in his head. A young couple, newly handfasted, the man stabbed, fleeing home abruptly, and sleeping in stable lofts. He wondered if they’d stolen the horses.
Not that he cared.
More likely, their parents had objected to the match. A fight had ensued. They’d fled a resulting feud with a bare minimum of possessions, or some similar situation.
He felt for these kids. Aine was maybe eighteen years old, and the man not much older. They didn’t deserve to have to flee their families to love each other. No one did.
Trevor lowered his spoon and noted he’d eaten most of the soup without noticing. “I’m sure it’s clear, but I can’t do much for him at the moment. You’re welcome to stay the night. With rest and another meal, I should be able to at least start healing him in the morning.”
She nodded. “Thank you. I’m so sorry to impose like this. I can work to pay for whatever he needs.”
“That’s not necessary. Replacing what you use is all I could ask in good conscience.” He hated himself for saying that, and for the feeling he did the right thing by saying it. They had nowhere else to go, so he should ask them to work. The roof desperately needed patching, he had precious little firewood, and if he didn’t get some meat soon, he didn’t know if he’d survive the winter.
He opened his mouth to correct himself and faltered. “I don’t have a privy, just chamberpots. You’re welcome to the soup. I’m going to take my rest. Please don’t build the fire until morning, as I don’t have enough wood to sustain that kind of use until spring.”
Even saying that much felt wrong. Trevor stood and set his empty bowl in the washbasin. He nodded for no reason he could explain.
“Try to get some sleep.” With that, he fled to his nook. As he undressed and settled under the covers of his bed, he heard the pair whispering to each other. They masked their words well enough he couldn’t make out the conversation.
Trevor drifted to sleep lost in a memory of Ewan scolding him for giving too much and taking too little.
When he woke, the smell of cooking meat confused him. He dressed and emerged from his nook to find Aine sitting in a chair, tending three carcasses over his fire. Three furry pelts in need of cleaning and tanning lay on his table. The sight made no sense. The scents made him drool.
“Where did you get rabbits this time of year?” He sat in the other chair.
She ducked her head. “I looked through your stores, and you barely have enough to feed yourself, let alone Keltran and me.”
Trevor’s face heated with embarrassment. He tried not to show that he cared. “I already knew that.”
“I’m an animal empath. I can speak to them.” She also blushed, which made him feel better. “It seems cruel to lure these to their deaths with it, but we have to eat. If you have a use for the furs, you should keep them. After I clean them, I mean. And start them tanning. I wouldn’t leave them like that.”
She stuck a fork into one of the roasting animals and peeled off a strip of meat, releasing a puff of steam.
“How did you manage all this without waking me?”
When she shrugged, Trevor noted the droop of her shoulders and the weariness around her eyes. The girl hadn’t slept much. Keltran must’ve kept her awake with his pain. At some point, she’d given up trying to sleep and hunted up three rabbits to feed them.
Aine offered Trevor the fork. “I used some of your salt. I don’t think I can replace that.”
“That’s fine,” he muttered. “I really meant firewood more than anything else.” He plucked the meat from the tines and blew to cool it.
“I’ll get out later and chop some wood for you.”
Aine had whirled into his life and offered all the courtesies he’d once considered common without a second thought. He hadn’t even done anything for Keltran yet, and she’d already made him breakfast.
He stuffed the meat into his mouth and revelled in the subtle flavor. With a belly full of this, he’d…probably get sick. Meat hadn’t entered his body for at least a month.
“I shouldn’t eat much of this at once.”
“I’ll put some into your soup.” Aine shifted to that task without missing a beat. “I brushed your pony while I was out taking care of our horses. He enjoyed it quite a bit.”
“I, ah…” Trevor moved his chair to Keltran’s side. The man still slept.
Aine tsked at him. “You weren’t in any condition to do that last night. Neither was I, for that matter.”
He didn’t want to deal with her generosity. Ewan would’ve laughed at him for that. To distract himself, he took Keltran’s hand and focused to reach past the ribbons. Through his power, he saw Keltran’s body like a map.
In his early years, before he’d understood how to direct the power, he’d spent time sitting with his younger sister. The intricate dance of all the body’s systems could still mesmerize him. He missed lying in bed with Ewan and watching his blood flow through his lungs and limbs.
But Keltran had a serious injury. From what Trevor saw, he shouldn’t have survived what had happened to him. Someone had slashed open his side, nearly gutting him. Another half an inch deeper, and the blade would’ve opened up his intestines, killing him far too fast for anyone to save him.
He’d been lucky to have a midwife of some magical skill tending him. She’d put a framework in place to keep his wound from worsening so he could heal on his own. More than likely, she’d also blocked his pain temporarily. Any midwife worth the title could do that.
The pain block had faded, and their flight had stressed the framework. Without intervention or a few weeks of rest, Keltran would die.
“This injury is serious,” he told Aine without opening his eyes. “I’m not capable of healing it fully in one sitting, even when I’m in good shape. You’ll need to stay for a few days, maybe as long as a week.”
“But you can heal it?”
“Yes, of course.”
She let out a heavy breath of relief. “Take as long as you need.” Her voice warbled with unshed tears. “I’ll get more food, and chop as much wood as I can find. I can clean too, and cook. Whatever you need. Please just help him.”
The locals had lost that sense of wonder and awe over his gift. How much he relished hearing it shamed him. He shouldn’t need the adoration of a wife for saving her husband.
Work would distract him from that jumble. He imagined infecting the pain ribbons with a virus made of light. The “disease” leaped from ribbon to ribbon, traveling at lightning speed to the source.
Others experienced their patients’ pain differently and used other idioms for their blocks. One midwife he knew heard it as discordant music. His mentor had described it as smelling like rotting cabbage.
In his sleep, Keltran sighed.
Trevor opened his eyes and let go. “Now I need to eat.”
Aine handed him a bowl and spoon as if she offered it to a god. Tiny chunks of meat floated in the broth with tiny specks of carrot and herbs. “Thank you so much.”
The soup’s incredible savory aroma smothered all Trevor’s thoughts. He devoured it with abandon.
While he ate, Aine put on her boots, coat, and cloak. She flashed a smile at him, then another, softer one at Keltran, and disappeared outside.
Trevor finished and set the bowl aside. He picked up Keltran’s hand again and examined the framework left behind by the midwife. She’d done a good job with her minimal power. He spent time building up and bolstering the scaffolding to hold Keltran’s innards together. To each existing spoke, he added four more and thickened them.
When he pulled out, noting dark motes of infection swirling in Keltran’s body, he groaned at stiffness in his neck and back.
“You sound worse than I feel,” Keltran rasped.
“You’re under a pain block.” Trevor reached for a cup of water Aine had thoughtfully set on the table and helped Keltran drink. “If you get up, you’ll undo half of what I’ve just accomplished.”
“I don’t think I could if I tried.”
Trevor stood and fetched meat and cheese. Keltran could handle that. “If you eat enough, and I’m able to burn out all the infection, you’ll feel great tomorrow morning. But you can’t get up until I say so. No activity, not even lifting your head on your own. Absolutely no sex until this is fully healed. I don’t particularly want to listen to that anyway.”
Keltran blinked at him once, then chuckled. “No, I don’t imagine you do.” He let out a long, slow breath. “Thank you.”
The gratitude had lost its glow. Instead of boosting his ego and mood, Trevor squirmed. He didn’t know where the discomfort came from. At his age, he thought he ought to understand his own damned feelings, yet he didn’t. “This is what I do.”
“You didn’t have to take us in to do what you do.”
“It’s much more convenient for me. This way, I don’t have to trudge outside to tend my patient.” Trevor collected a bowl of soup for himself and hoped Keltran would take the hint to eat instead of talk.
For one slow nibble of cheese, it looked like he would. “We don’t have any money left. I can’t pay you for any of this. If you hadn’t taken us in, we couldn’t have stayed in that town.”
Trevor thought he recognized the guilt of a provider unable to provide. “Aine seems more than capable, which leads me to believe you are as well. Once you’re back on your feet, I imagine the two of you will be fine.”
Nodding, Keltran turned his head. His gaze darted from spot to spot in the hut. Trevor imagined he didn’t miss much, even laid low with a terrible injury. “Is this how people usually pay you? With work instead of coins?”
“No.” Unwilling to discuss the subject, Trevor drank his soup faster than he knew he should.
Keltran squinted at him. He took a bite of meat and kept scanning the room. When he swallowed, he said, “You obviously don’t have much coin to spend. You have barely enough food, so they’re not paying you with that. Or firewood. Your clothes are worn. Your roof needs repairs. The paths outside aren’t cleared. What, exactly, do your patients typically pay you with?”
Setting aside his bowl, Trevor shrugged. He didn’t need a pair of kids telling him things he already knew. “It’s not important.”
“Yes, it is.” Keltran lifted his head like he meant to sit up.
Trevor pressed on his chest. “Lie still or you’ll hurt yourself.”
He settled again and closed his eyes. “You’re a healer. The real thing. You deserve to live in comfort, not squalor. People should fall all over themselves to take care of you so you can save their lives.”
“That’s not how things work.”
“Goddess bless, you’re young.” Trevor rubbed his face. “They cover my taxes and feed for my pony. That’s what they do for me. I can handle everything else myself.”
Keltran cracked open his eyes and stared. “Are you kidding?”
“No. I think it’s time to get some more healing done.” Trevor reached for Keltran’s injured side, knowing contact closer to the injury would help him conserve energy. He hadn’t done it before to avoid alarming Keltran if he woke in the middle of the effort. “Which means you be quiet so I can concentrate.”
Though Keltran stopped talking, his words bounced in Trevor’s head.
Last night, he’d healed an injury that would have lamed a seven-year-old boy. It might’ve even killed him without a full healer. In response, his mother had shooed Trevor out of the house like a rat trying to steal food.
He burned the infection with extreme prejudice, leaving no trace of it running loose in Keltran’s body.
When he finished, he sat back to catch his breath and discovered a fresh cup of water. He drank it down with great gasping gulps.
“Why do you let them treat you like crap?” Keltran asked.
“You should rest.” Trevor set down the cup and thought about another bowl of soup.
“I am resting. I’m doing nothing but resting.”
“Sleeping. I mean sleeping. Go to sleep.”
Keltran clucked his tongue. “What’s keeping you here? Is it a memory? Guilt? A debt you feel you owe to someone?”
The boy poked at scars Trevor didn’t want to deal with. He stood and got the soup. He’d eaten nothing but soup and cheese for weeks. Vegetables had boiled over his fire since a week after the first snow.
“Who died and left you alone here?”
“This is none of your business.” He couldn’t face Keltran anymore. Standing with his back to his patient, he ladled liquid into his bowl. “I should be able to heal you enough to ride by tomorrow morning. Then you can leave.”
“You loved her.”
One little pronoun killed a piece of him. Trevor remembered playing the game with his parents. Before they’d met Ewan, he’d tried to get them to approve of a partner for him. Day after day, he’d tried not to let them crush a piece of his soul by thinking he’d met a woman.
Twelve years after Ewan’s death, he couldn’t do it anymore. He couldn’t leave it alone and let someone do that to him. Not even a stranger who would leave and never return.
“Him,” Trevor said over his shoulder. “I loved him.”
Keltran said nothing for a long moment. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize. That’s why you work out here, in the middle of nowhere?”
Trevor nodded. “They don’t know here. He was dead already.” Words fell out of him like rocks hitting the ground with hollow thuds. “My family spent ten years barely accepting him because of my power. Then he died. It was an accident. He was gone in an instant.”
He’d knelt by Ewan’s side in mute shock. One moment, the love of his life had laughed at a stupid joke. The next, he lay dead on the road, his eyes glassy. His father had told others about the tragic loss of his son’s best friend.
No one had let him grieve, not even for a day.
“My mother thought she could cure me by finding me a wife. The girl found out and told everyone. No one would come to me for healing anymore and the Disciples called me–” They’d called him a lot of things. The priestesses of the Mother Goddess didn’t approve, and the nobility listened to them. “The family decided that made me useless.”
Two weeks after Ewan’s death, he’d walked out of his own home, disgraced and disowned. That night, he’d sat on the ground and wept, finally able to let it out because no one cared anymore.
He shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. I’m fine here.”
“It does matter, and you’re not fine. You’re letting these people take advantage of you. If the Goddess doesn’t approve, then why does She give you Her power to heal? It’s not so you can make yourself a slave to atone for something that shouldn’t be a crime.”
Wiping his eyes, Trevor huffed. He’d said far too much. The past needed to stay behind him. “You’re so damned young.”
“I may be young, but that doesn’t make me blind or stupid. You’re waiting here to die.”
The truth hit him like a brick between the shoulder blades. If he cared, he would’ve required food as part of his deal with the three villages. He would’ve asked for basic household items, like clothes and firewood on a reasonable basis. Between the residents of all three towns, they could spare enough to keep him comfortable.
“These people don’t deserve you. Aine and I are trying to figure out what to do with ourselves. You should come with us, because you need that too.”
He couldn’t pick up and leave with no apprentice in place. Could he? No, his bones wouldn’t take the cold anymore, not like they once did. Except…if he took cuttings of the plants, he could sell them. Herbalists, all of whom lived much too far to visit for a day trip, would pay quite a bit for fresh cuttings in the dead of winter.
With money, they could get tents. Aine had the skills to keep them fed. Keltran clearly had some skills, or else someone as competent as Aine wouldn’t have married him. Besides, he looked like the kind of man who knew how to use the sword leaning against the wall. Maybe.
“How did you get hurt?”
Keltran grimaced. “It was a gang of five. Maybe six. I can’t beat those odds. I’m not sure anyone could.”
“Maybe three people can.” The decision to leave felt rash, foolish…and entirely correct.
The moment Aine had offered him help, he’d started waking from a nightmare. They offered him a future. He hadn’t felt like he had one since Ewan’s death. All this time, he’d done nothing more than stumble along, sleepwalking to his grave. One day, he would’ve stumbled into it, unremarked and unlamented.
Keltran smiled at him. “It’s possible.”
Trevor smiled, and it felt more real than anything he’d done in a long time. “We’ll leave when you’re healed.”