I first glimpsed the girl as a small bundle wrapped in the sergeant’s cloak. “What do you have for me?” I asked. It was my turn to take the fourth watch, midnight to dawn; a quiet night, until now. Moonlight spilled through the doorway as the sergeant carried the bundle into the Infirmary and gently set the girl on the wooden examining table.
“We’d crossed into Rahesh on a raid, Honored Healer,” the sergeant said. She’d pushed her helmet up on top of her head and unlaced her cuirass; the iron strips clinked. A runnel of sweat bisected the soot on her forehead. “We heard her crying. The bastards had tied her to an altar, and…” She looked away.
When I tried to remove the cloak, the girl drew it more tightly around her. I glimpsed bruises and welts, some old, others new. “Merciful Mother!” I said. I’d seen this before on prisoners rescued from Rahesh, but never on one so young.
Hide your disgust, I told myself. The child needs your comfort, not your outrage. “Hello,” I said. “My name’s Lisayne. What’s yours?” She eyed me like a dog that’s been beaten many times. “I’m a Healer. I’d like to help you. Will you let me?”
“We think she’s about six, Healer,” the sergeant said. “Hasn’t spoken a word. Screamed like a demon possessed her whenever she saw any of my male soldiers. I had to get all the men away before she’d let me take her.”
“You didn’t bind her in any way?”
“No, Honored Healer,” the sergeant answered. She rolled up the cuff of her leather shirt, showing old shackle marks and a slave tattoo on her wrist. “I know better.”
I nodded, then turned to the child again. “Won’t you at least tell me your name?”
The girl’s blue eyes regarded me suspiciously. “Are you going to hurt me?”
Her tone squeezed my heart. “No one will hurt you any more. I promise.” I brushed a lock of golden hair off her forehead, feeling the old pangs of regret that I’d never be able to bear children: the price the Goddess exacted for Her gift of the Healing Magic.
“How can the Goddess allow such atrocities?” the sergeant asked.
“It’s not our place to question the Goddess.” I said this for my own sake as much as the sergeant’s. When I saw the look on her face, I added, “You did well. I’ll make sure it’s noted on your record. Go rejoin your soldiers.”
The child watched carefully as I probed for broken bones, listened to her heartbeat. Then I extended a wisp of my Healing Magic, and she began screaming and flailing her arms. Horrified, I cut the spell, but she kept screaming. Other patients protested the noise. I could not quiet her. Then I heard the voice I least wanted to hear.
“Novice! What’s the meaning of this?” I froze as Elder Mairen entered the room. She was the most senior member of the Council of Elder Witches, the spiritual leaders of our Holy Aurigan cause. “What are you doing to this child?”
Elder Mairen glowered down at me, a gaunt scarecrow of a woman in her long blue overtunic, her black coif wrapping her angular face like an executioner’s hood. I felt as if my strength was being bled away. To disguise the trembling of my hands, I smoothed the wrinkles from my skirt. With her wintry blue eyes and long nose, the grim slash of a mouth bracketed by deep lines, Elder Mairen could reduce anyone to tears with a look.
“The child was brought in…”
Elder Mairen ripped the sergeant’s cloak from the girl. I gasped when I saw the full extent of her bruises and wounds. The girl started to screech, but Mairen grabbed her hair in one hand and laid the other over her face. “Silence,” she said. The child froze.
Mairen glared at me. “That’s how you quiet them,” she said. “Or had you forgotten?”
“Honored Elder, look at what the Raheshis did to her,” I protested. “They must have infected her with some kind of spell. You saw what happened when I—”
“Don’t blame your incompetence on others, Novice,” Mairen said. “‘You, who would be a Healer, what is the Magic?’”
Damn her! She’s going to make me recite the Code! “‘The Magic is the force that binds all life and all being,’“ I answered automatically. “‘Part of the universal wisdom.’”
“‘What are the forms of Magic?’”
I wanted to stand up for myself, refuse to be humiliated, but my will was paralyzed. “The primary is the Healing Magic. The others are Songweaving, Amplifying, Shapechanging, Weaponing.’”
“‘How do we draw upon the Magic?’”
“‘When we eat the holy seeded fruits, such as apples, we partake of the seeds of knowledge. When we perform sex rituals, we strengthen that power through the joining of the male and the female energies.’”
“‘What ways of drawing upon the Magic are forbidden?’”
Even thinking of that answer made me cringe. “‘The first forbidden way of drawing upon the Magic is the Qabbraya, the process of drawing energy by inflicting pain on others. The other is by performing the sex ritual on a child.’”
“‘What is a Healer’s first duty?’”
“‘To do no harm to those entrusted to our care.’” I glanced at the little girl, frozen by Mairen’s spell, and wondered which of us violated that one first.
“‘And the second?’”
“‘To respect the learning of those who have come before us.’” Even if she’s a tyrannical harridan, I thought, though I dared not voice it.
She said, “Yes. Respect. Allowing no harm. Would you say you’d lived up to those precepts, novice?”
My fists clenched and unclenched. I wanted to lash out, but could not.
Mairen apparently took my silence for an admission of guilt. She continued, “Since you seem to know only the letter of the Healer’s Code, I will finish your shift. Goddess knows what else your ineptitude has done here. Get out.”
All I could say was, “Yes, Honored Elder.”
I barely slept. At daybreak, I stalked, still fuming, out to the main thoroughfare of Jehan’s Lair. Elder Mairen had no right to speak to me that way! The early sun kissed the Lair’s red stone valley and the hollowed out mounds of soft volcanic ash where we made our homes. Why can’t I stand up for myself? My route took me through the marketplace, where I smelled spices, meat cooking, yeasty breads, garlic and potpourri, mingled with sweat and the odors of too many bodies jammed together in too small a space; an apt description of the Lair in general, I thought.
Cursing drovers herded oxen along the pathway. My teachers and the other Elder Witches encouraged questioning and debate. But talking back to Elder Mairen is out of the question. I returned the salutes of passing soldiers. They honor my learning and Healer status. I spent my life learning the Magic, earning my title. How dare she call me “novice”?
The walk allowed me to reach the Infirmary in a better frame of mind. Not free of my anger, but far enough away from it to serve my patients properly. As I entered the Infirmary, I glanced furtively toward Elder Mairen’s chamber, sighing with relief when I saw she wasn’t there. Reporting me to the Council, no doubt, I thought. At least while she’s haranguing them, she can’t bother me.
From further inside the Infirmary, a child’s laughter danced a duet with the plink of mandola strings. I raced down the stone halls to one of the patient chambers, pausing in the doorway, not believing what I saw.
The girl from last night sat on a cot, her laughter echoing off the red stone walls, her sparkling gaze following the mandola player, a dark-haired woman in a bright green tunic and black trousers.
I coughed. The girl looked up, the joy in her eyes transforming to fear. Someone had given her back the sergeant’s cloak, which she drew around her. But the woman leaned close and whispered something that birthed a new ripple of laughter.
“Suzannah,” I said, “what are you doing?” And how did you reach this child when I could not?
Suzannah looked at me, one eyebrow lifted. “Songweaving for your patients, Lisayne,” she answered. She had a heart-shaped face, with high cheekbones and a broad mouth that always appeared ready to smile. Just now, her mouth was a tight line across her face.
“’Zannah, you know what we agreed.” I’d had my fill of confrontation last night, and wanted to avoid this one.
Suzannah would not allow it. “I know. Stay away from children.” Her eyes frosted. “But what was I to do, turn my back when I heard Alysa crying?”
“It means ‘Joyful One,’“ she said softly. “Hasn’t had much joy in her life, has she?”
Gently she stroked the girl’s soft golden curls; Alysa did not even blink. When I touched her, she went into fits. What kind of Healer does that make me?
I ventured, “If it was up to me, you wouldn’t be banned. But it’s Elder Mairen’s rule, not mine. No matter how much we wish it was otherwise, we can’t change what she says—” I hesitated.
“About Sh’gan,” Suzannah finished, in the lilting brogue of her homeland, Gilam. The original word, Sh’gan’gareth, was literally, “Unnaturals,” a slur on the same-gender sex rites people like Suzannah practiced in their Magic, Unlike Traditionalists, like myself. All the Sh’gan I had met simply embraced the term, rather than acting ashamed or angry.
Idly, Suzannah coaxed a few harmonics from the mandola strings, adding, “I don’t take part in the sex rites since what happened to Finola.”
“It’s more than that,” I said. Most Sh’gan practiced their rites quietly, separate from the Traditionalists, and never disturbed the uneasy alliance the war had created between our two circles. In my mind, I heard myself last night, reciting the Code: “Performing the sex ritual on a child is also forbidden.”
I said, “You know how many people accuse Sh’gan of using children in the sex rites.”
Suzannah’s jaw hardened, accenting the dimple in her chin. “I heard Alysa crying. Was I to pretend I didn’t hear, because of the lies of fools? What would you have done?”
“Possibly the same as you,” I said. But I’m not Sh’gan, I thought. Elder Mairen once tried to banish all the Sh’gan from the Lair. As a fugitive slave, Suzannah would command a large bounty in Rahesh. The other Elders had voted Mairen down, thank the Goddess.
Yet Suzannah troubled even the less hidebound Traditionalists. Like a cat, she seemed to consider it your obligation to accept her on her own terms. She apparently took pride in being different in every way; those differences included what she’d done to her hair. Her Raheshi owner had forced her to grow it long, as was “natural.” After her escape she’d hacked much of it off. It had grown in since, but still was very short, parted roughly in the center, with cowlicks at odd angles and wispy bangs that brushed her eyebrows. Her crooked nose had resulted from an encounter with a soldier’s pike. Even her eyes didn’t match; the left was green, the right blue. She was as inconspicuous as perfect pearl in a dungheap.
I admired her independent spirit, and hoped I was free of Mairen’s biases. Yet I had no power to change things. “’Zannah, come on. Mairen’ll be back soon.”
I moved to separate her from the child; Alysa shifted to Suzannah’s far side. ’Zannah murmured, “It’s all right, Alysa. Lisayne’s a nice lady. She won’t hurt you.”
But Alysa hadn’t been moving away from me.
“Novice, why have you allowed this Sh’gan near this child?”
Elder Mairen’s stare froze me. “First your incompetent attempt at a Healing sends the child into fits! Now you’re worsening the damage!”
Alysa hid behind Suzannah, tightly clutching her hand.
“It wasn’t Lisayne’s fault, Honored Elder,” the Gilamite said softly, using the proper honorific, but with no trace of submissiveness. “I was Songweaving for the patients. When I heard Alysa crying, I wanted to help.”
Chin high and eyes calm, she stood her ground, showing no fear. She had told me of imprisonment in a brothel in Rahesh, and of seeing her wife, Finola, crucified. What could frighten her after something like that?
Perhaps some of ’Zannah’s courage rubbed off on me, for I said, “Honored Elder, surely you must be glad for whatever Suzannah’s done. Alysa looks much better now.”
The Elder’s glare drained my courage. “I don’t care what this Sh’gan claims, Novice!” she snapped. “I cannot find the spell infecting this girl if she’s not suffering from it when we examine her. You allowed this creature to interfere in things that are not her concern.”
Abruptly, Alysa said, “She’s my friend. I don’t want her to leave.”
Mairen moved to silence the child, as she’d done the night before, but Suzannah seized her wrist. “Just a moment, Elder!” she said. “Alysa has been seriously ill-used. Or hadn’t you noticed? I heard a little girl in pain, frightened and alone. I know what that’s like, and I wanted to ease it. You apparently prefer to leave her suffering.”
Mairen appeared stung by ’Zannah’s boldness, but she quickly recovered. “I’d sooner that than put her at the mercy of a child-raper,” she said.
Suzannah’s face darkened. “How dare you?” she snarled, and drew menacingly close to Mairen. But she glanced at Alysa and stopped, as if recognizing the price Mairen would exact of the child for her choice of words. Her throat muscles worked, and her hands clenched and unclenched.
She knelt beside Alysa and murmured, “Dearest, I can’t stay. Elder Mairen will take care of you.” I wondered if Suzannah’s stomach twisted as much as my own at those last words.
Alysa shook her head. “I don’t want her. I want you.” She tried to hide behind Suzannah again, but Mairen yanked her away. The girl drew breath as if to scream, but a look at Mairen’s face silenced her.
“She knows better than to try any whining with me,” Mairen said.
“You said it yourself,” ’Zannah snapped. “You don’t care. You’re no better than the Raheshis! More interested in power than the welfare of a little girl.” She slung the mandola strap over her shoulder and left before Mairen could say anything.
One evening, about a week since the patrol had brought the girl in, Suzannah and I sat across a table from each other in the crowded mess. On all sides, people shared tables in pairs and threes and fours. Tall black soldiers from Goz and shorter, fair-haired Aurigans; wiry assassins from Khan Histar and mercenaries from Hadan who fought side by side against their common foe. But I saw no tables where men and women mingled. Ironic, I thought. The war had brought together a diverse group, against a state where men enslaved women. Yet in our daily practices, where union should have been paramount, we were divided.
But a large group of Sh’gan occupied one corner of the mess, away from the rest. Men and women alike shared tables there, voicing the same speculations about the war, the same complaints as we about the food and the officers, the same worries about loved ones. The “unnaturals?”
“How’s Alysa?” ’Zannahasked, over a plate of mashed potatoes, kale and some seasonings, known as colcannon. She had added chopped pork, leeks, onions and chives.
I took a moment to answer. “She seems all right.”
Suzannah frowned. “Seems?”
“We moved her to the orphanage with the other children,” I began. “She looks healthy and normal. Appears to be eating.”
Her gaze pierced me from beneath her dark brows. “What are you not telling me?”
“Elder Mairen treats her every day.” I looked down at my meal. “She’s taken an interest in her welfare.”
Suzannah scowled. “I can’t think of anyone I trust less with a child.” She ignored my sharp look. “How does Alysa look? Does she play with the others? Does she do the things children do? Has she talked to you or anyone?”
Her questions forced me to confront things I’d been avoiding. “I don’t know what to think. She ran from me one day. I followed, but Elder Mairen ordered me to stop. Said she’d ‘get over it.’ And she seemed to. The next day, Alysa apologized to me.” I paused. “I’m telling you things that aren’t your concern.”
’Zannah snorted “A child’s welfare isn’t my concern? Has Mairen shown concern for the poor girl?”
“’Zannah! I visit her every day. I encourage her to play with other children. I bring her treats from the kitchen. I care very much about her!”
I looked away, then back at her, and sighed, “Sometimes she’ll join a group of children, but doesn’t really play with them. One of the older ones told me that as soon as I leave, Alysa moves away and sits by herself.”
Suzannah stirred the colcannon without not eating any. “And Elder Mairen says she’ll just get over it? Lisayne, don’t be stupid. What kind of Healer can see things like that and think nothing’s wrong?”
I could have slapped her. “I’m not stupid!” When several people nearby stared, I lowered my voice. “Elder Mairen is the best one to take care of Alysa. By the time Elder Mairen was my age, she was the most powerful Healer in a century, and now she’s over a hundred.”
’Zannah shrugged. “And all those years cover her like calluses, so nothing new gets in.”
“Even if I thought she was doing something wrong, I can’t just go in and tell her.”
Suzannah’s mouth twisted. “Why not? You’re doing a fine job of telling me I’m wrong, and you don’t really believe it, do you? You’re worried about Alysa, too, aren’t you?
I looked down. “Elder Mairen says not to worry, that Alysa will be all right.”
“Elder Mairen calls you Novice, though you’re a fully consecrated Healer. She says your Magic will never amount to anything. Are you going to decide for yourself who you are, or are you going to let her decide for you?”
I’d asked myself the same question. In Elder Mairen’s presence all questions vanished like smoke. “You talk as if she’s evil,” I said. “She’s not evil. She’s had a hard time of it. When the Raheshis saw how powerful she was, they captured her. She defeated their chief priest in a duel of magics, but it cost her all the joy in her heart.”
“So that gives her the right to never smile or offer anyone a kind word?” Suzannah gave a short, mirthless laugh. “Well, I had a hard life, too. I lost my parents when I was Alysa’s age. I spent nearly a year on the streets, begging, sometimes stealing. Cold and scared, wondering why the Lord and Lady hated me enough to make my parents die. There were so many of us orphans that the City Fathers in Gilam passed a law making a child caught in a crime the property of the victim, to do with as that person saw fit. I saw children as young as four with a hand cut off, or put on the streets as whores, or sold as slaves.
“But I was lucky. A Sh’gan mage named Nahan took me in and cared for me like his own daughter. Taught me my letters and my Magic.” She pressed her face very close. “And he didn’t use me for sex rituals!”
My face burned. “I didn’t think he did.”
There was a silence. Then, “I know that. I’m sorry. I’m just—”
A female officer set a tray down at our table. Then she saw Suzannah, picked up the tray, and looked for another table. The pain that flashed into Suzannah’s face touched my heart. I blushed. “Ignore her.”
She made a wry face. “I can’t worry about people like that.”
That glimpse of Suzannah’s pain lingered in my mind. “Tell me more,” I said.
Suzannah seemed to gather her thoughts. “When I was older, I spoke of repaying him, but he said you pay for love you receive by giving it to someone else. So I can’t sit by and do nothing while that demon has hold of Alysa.”
“’Zannah!” I protested. “Elder Mairen’s stern and unforgiving, but she’s—”
“Not Elder Mairen,” Suzannah said. “There’s a demon infesting that child. I’ve felt its presence.”
Unbidden, old prejudices about Sh’gan leapt into my mind. “How do you know that?”
She looked at her colcannon and did not answer, as if she were waging some internal debate. I said, “If there were a demon, Elder Mairen would have detected it.”
Suzannah looked at me as if I were an idiot. “Elder Mairen couldn’t detect her own backside if you gave her a candle! She has no Magic.” I stared at her. She continued, “There was no duel of magics in Rahesh. Do you think a Raheshi wizard would offer an Aurigan witch anything like a fair fight? They took her Magic from her. Any power she has she’s leeched from everyone around her. Including you.”
I sat back in my chair. “That’s preposterous! She’s the senior member of the Council! And you still haven’t told me how you know all this.”
She hesitated again. Shook her head. “I. can’t. I just know. And you know it too. Or at least you suspect it. Why do you think you lose your nerve when you face her?”
“I don’t believe you” But the flesh puckered on my arms.
Suzannah shook her head. “Mairen fears you as much as she fears me. Open your eyes, Lisayne. She terrorizes you. And she tried to have all the Sh’gan banished. Because we threaten her. You, me, everyone who might see the truth. Everything she says and does is intended to keep people off balance, so they won’t realize she’s stealing power from them.”
I stared at her. “Why do you talk this way? You’d think Elder Mairen was the enemy!”
“Isn’t she? Would you like being called a ‘creature,’ as if you weren’t even human?”
“But it’s not just her. I once saw two Sh’gan men burned alive in the town square! And the monsters who did that—”
“—Were trying to protect the children,” she finished. “Only they weren’t monsters, they were people. Like the Raheshis, who made me watch them murder Finola. Like you and Elder Mairen, afraid of us. As if we have a disease you might catch if you even touch us.”
“I’m not like her!”
In response, Suzannah leaned forward, eyes focused on me, and took my hand and held it. In spite of myself, I flinched and pulled away. A tight, bitter smile ghosted the corner of her mouth. Face aflame, I stammered an apology, but Suzannah just shook her head.
The rest of the meal, I picked at my food, and barely heard her goodbye. I watched her pass through the crowd with her head high, black cloak swirling about her like mist, and wanted to hide.
Later that night, I wandered the Lair, thinking. Could ’Zannah have been right? Was that why I lost my nerve in Elder Mairen’s presence? And what about Alysa? Suzannah claimed she was possessed, but would not say how she knew. What did that mean?
In the years since General Eurydice had led us here, the Lair had grown to the size of a small city. My steps took me away from the densely inhabited areas, to a section of older delvings that had been abandoned when larger mounds were excavated. As I approached a corner, I saw torches, and heard Elder Mairen. “Sergeant, dispatch half your soldiers to search toward the east rim. You and the rest come westward with me. The Sh’gan can’t have gotten far with the girl, and we must find them before she works some devilry!”
Blessed Goddess! Briefly, I wondered if Elder Mairen had been right about Suzannah all along. But they both claimed to care about Alysa. Who was I to believe?
I thought of the laughter ’Zannah had brought forth from Alysa, and decided to mount my own search. I’d convince another Elder that ’Zannah wanted to help the child. The truth would come out. I did not have to decide who was right and who was wrong.
When Mairen’s two parties had left, I headed through a maze of twisting, turning paths, passing long deserted mounds with centuries-old markings on them, male and female figures, runic characters. I felt as if the eyes of those ancient inhabitants were watching me. The sounds of life diminished behind me, and my heart beat very loud. Serpents twisted in my stomach as I ventured deeper into the shadows.
Then a shadow touched my shoulder. Cold, unliving fingers froze my soul. I spun, saw a vaguely manlike thing that consumed all the light. I screamed and ran.
As in a dream, I seemed to get nowhere. The shadow-demon was behind me, stinking of blood and fear and death. I stumbled and scraped my knee. It grabbed my ankle in its cold fist, then slithered up my leg. “Goddess, help!” I struggled to regain my feet, but could not feel my legs.
Then something else had my arms, something warm and strong that pulled me from that hideous grasp. Suzannah shoved me aside and faced the demon, beckoning with her hands. The thing charged. She ducked, seized it around its middle and heaved it against a mound wall. When it hit, it spattered like ink, black droplets running down the stone.
She shoved me. “Move! That thing’ll re-form before long! Unless you want it to feast on your soul!”
Holding tight to Suzannah’s hand, I followed her through the winding pathways until we reached the valley’s edge. There was a narrow cave in the cliff wall, just wide enough for a person to fit through, and as black as a Raheshi’s heart. I stared into that blackness, my heart hammering and my skin cold and clammy. “I can’t.”
“No choice.” Suzannah shoved me in ahead of her. A gesture with her hands shut the opening. When I did not move, she dragged me. The stone scraped my body. I felt as if the dark had swallowed me, so that I could not breathe. A globe of light appeared in Suzannah’s hand. We were in a narrow cleft in the rock. “Sorry,” she said, and gently touched my shoulder. “I know you’re afraid. But trust me, this is better than letting that thing get you.”
“Are we safe?”
“Not for long. Come on. “Waiting just makes it harder.”
I looked around, seeing the shadow-demon everywhere. But she’d faced it down, hadn’t she? What others had she faced? “Okay. If you can, I can.” We set off, half running. Dampness glistened on stone walls, dripped from hidden cracks, oozed into my sandals. My feet made soft, sucking noises. She held my hand, even when the passage widened.
“That thing possessed Alysa?”
’Zannahnodded. “I’d just managed to force it from her, but it escaped before I could do anything else.” She was breathing heavily but did not slow her pace. “It can’t live outside her body for long, so it’ll follow us.”
“Why did it attack me?” My side was starting to ache.
“I think it was drawn to your power,” she answered. For a second time she’d spoken of my “power.” I didn’t feel powerful.
Soon we reached a grotto that glowed with faint light from an unknown source. The walls disappeared into musty smelling darkness. I heard the flap of wings and suppressed a shudder. Alysa lay on a low rock shelf, eyes closed as if asleep. In the eerie light, she looked frail, her pale skin almost translucent, faint blue traceries of veins painfully visible.
Suzannah leaned against the cave wall. I saw a gash on her leg. When I knelt to Heal it, she said, “Don’t. It’s a small injury, and it feeds the magic.”
It took a moment for her words to sink in. “The magic?” I whispered. “Do you mean the Qabbraya? The pain-magic? Are you—”
“It’s not what you think.” Her voice was weary. She reached behind her neck and lifted something over her head, a small, pale object dangling from a gossamer string, which she held out to me. “Do you know what this is?”
It was like a shaved twig, tapered at each end, with a crook in it that described a graceful curve and a hole through which the flimsy line passed. On closer inspection, I saw that the line was not string, but golden hair. And the twig was bone. “A vetandus,” I gasped. I’d learned about the evil magic of the vetandus at the Academy, but this was the first one I’d ever seen.
“This is what’s left of my wife,” Suzannah said. “Go ahead. Touch it with your hand or your Magic. See what the Raheshis did to a filthy Sh’gan.”
I took the thing in my hand and extended a tendril of Magic to it. On the edges of my perceptions, where my normal senses met my Magic, I saw a woman nailed to a cross. When I tried to look directly at her, she disappeared.
“I’m Finola.” I heard a voice full of pain. As her voice appeared in my mind, so too did the images of her death: I felt the Raheshi executioner drive the nails through her hands and feet, screamed with her as they raised the cross, the unceasing ordeal as she hung there, praying for death’s release. The pain filled me, and became me, twisting, throbbing. Frantically, I sought the source, trying to Heal it, but could not.
“Only someone from Rahesh could dream up such an atrocity,” Suzannah said. “When someone uses that sorcery, it sends my beloved wife’s soul into screaming agony. She can never escape and never die.”
“Goddess! That’s horrible!”
Finola interrupted. “One survives. There are ways to find respite. Take ’Zannah’s hand and link with us both.”
I clasped Suzannah’s hand firmly, and the music of their two hearts leapt through me, a harmony that filled me with their love. I’d never realized how passionate the love between two women could be.
“Suzannah’s love eases the pain,” Finola said. “However briefly. I save my strength that way. I’ll need all my strength to help Alysa.”
“I still hate using this foul sorcery,” Suzannah said. “I can weave a song that—”
“Songweaving takes too long, dear heart. We’ve no time. That thing will—”
With a roar, the demon shredded the darkness around us like paper. Suzannah leapt to her feet and got between Alysa and the demon. The thing poured itself over her.
When Suzannah sprang to Alysa’s defense, I lost my sorcerous link with her. But I was still linked with Finola. “My magic, Lisayne! Don’t try to Heal it, don’t try to fight it! Use my magic now!”
When I obeyed, the pain-fueled magic flowed through me. I raised my arms, and beams of yellow light speared from my hands to strike the shadow-demon. Its howl of pain blended with Finola’s scream as the sorcery struck it. The demon swatted at me, but I drove it back and flung it against the chamber wall. It spattered against the stone, as when Suzannah had fought it, but the Qabbraya sorcery seared the droplets before they could congeal again. There was a loud screeching that faded in volume, slowed to a dull growl, then silence.
Only then did Finola stop screaming, but my body twitched with the pain and the power that had flowed through it. “Goddess.” I collapsed, shards of Finola’s pain coursing through me.
“Whoever implanted that in Alysa expected it to encounter Aurigan Healing Magic.” Pain I could not Heal hung in Finola’s every word. “They didn’t expect their own pain-magic.”
I Healed ’Zannah’s leg where it was still bleeding. That much I could do. She murmured her thanks and walked over to Alysa.
“The demon consumed a lot of her soul,” Suzannah said. “I’d hoped I reached her in time.” She touched the child’s shoulder, murmured her name. Alysa did not respond.
“What happened when you banished the demon?” I focused some Healing Magic on the girl, tentatively, remembering the last time. I’d almost have welcomed a screaming fit, but there was no response. I probed deeper. “There’s a trace of her soul left. Only enough to keep her breathing and her heart beating. Damn the bastards who did this!”
“Let me help,” Finola said.
“No!” Suzannah and I both answered at once. Our eyes met. “You understand” ’Zannah said.
I repressed a shudder. “Better than you realize.”
I looked at Alysa. As a Healer, I was trained to accept death’s inevitability. “Everyone dies,” I said.
“I can’t,” Finola. “So we just give up? Does either of you find that acceptable?”
I said, “Finola’s right, I can’t Heal Alysa. And I’m certainly not going to kill her.” Suzannah stared at me. “What if I use my Healing Magic on the girl while you and Finola add your power to mine? We might save Alysa.” And possibly free Finola. I dared not voice that hope, lest it flicker out like Alysa’s life.
Silence followed, broken only by the sounds of our breathing. At last, Finola said, “It’s worth a try.” She, most of all, must be trying to rein in her hopes.
I told ’Zannah to take my hand “I’ll call on my Magic. Then we’ll both hold Alysa.”
I took a breath and used my Magic. The link to each person is different; the chamber where the soul dwells reflects the events of the individual’s life. A child’s soul-chamber should be a bright, sunny place, filled with the promise of life. But Alysa’s was like a prison, grim, grey, forbidding. Utterly without hope. Linked with Suzannah and Finola, I could feel their revulsion for the cruelty that had never allowed any hope to enter the child’s life.
As I probed deeper, sharp, vivid images from Alysa’s life swept over me on a wave of fear and nausea. Terror, confusion, helplessness as the priest tied her to the altar. Brown stains of old blood against grey stone. Screaming, struggling as the demon took her.
Then for an instant, I saw Suzannah as a girl, backing into a corner in the nighted streets of Gilam. Blood from her nose mingled with her tears as the tall boy closed in, slapping his thigh with his belt, his teeth gleaming like knives. Four others followed. Not hurrying. Waiting to take their turn.
That image vanished, and I was back, approaching Alysa’s soul. In the innermost chamber, I saw it, a faint, blue flame, guttering like a candle starved for air. A mystic carapace wrapped her soul, with cracks in its surface. “This is the most delicate part. You see the cracks there, damage inflicted by the demon. I must lift the carapace to reach her soul, but if anything goes wrong, it could shatter and her soul will be lost to us.”
Carefully, my Magic touched the mystic shield. I directed ’Zannah to use a spell to form hands to gently lift the carapace, exposing Alysa’s soul. I hoped to form a magical pathway, connecting Finola, ’Zannah and me to Alysa. It was a delicate balance, like walking a tightrope, and it worked. I felt Finola’s soul flowing through me into Alysa. The flicker of life brightened, grew stronger…
Suddenly, the part of me that was still anchored in the physical world saw Elder Mairen and the soldiers break into the chamber. “Sever the Link!” Finola cried, but before I could do so, a magical blast shot through me and the flame of Alysa’s soul extinguished.
I snapped out of the spell. Suzannah was holding Alysa in her arms, rocking her as though the child were her own. Alysa’s eyes were closed, but she was not asleep.
“Mairen killed her,” Finola told me. “All that magic we’ve stirred up must have led her here. When she saw ’Zannah, she must not have realized how we were all linked. So the blast passed right through ’Zannah and into Alysa.”
“Novice, get that creature away from that child,” Mairen demanded.
I stared up at her fierce demeanor and saw her as she truly was. “Get away from her yourself, you old viper!” I screamed. But my victory tasted like ashes.
The soldiers looked from Mairen to me, and back again. Suzannah murmured Alysa’s name over and over.
Two days passed. I had spent much time testifying before the Council of Elders, and had seen little of Suzannah. I wanted her to know what happened. It was a somber, overcast day. I approached as she laid the final stone on Alysa’s mound. ’Zannah wore one shoe, a Gilamite death tradition, symbolizing that the body had had its place on earth, and now the soul had its place in the spirit world.
“Want to talk?” I asked.
“About what?” The light in Suzannah’s eyes had dimmed, her face was gloomy, the color faded. “They won’t do anything about Mairen. Even if they do, nothing will change. I was anointing Alysa today, and some soldier demanded what I was doing! As if I was going to commit some perversion!”
She tried to leave, but I held her arm. “Tell me what fool said that, and I’ll—”
“What’s the difference? Do you think I don’t see people stare when I enter the mess hall?” She tried to shake her arm free. “I’m leaving the Lair.”
“Will running away solve the problem? What about Finola? What’ll she say?”
“It’s not like she can do much. The Elders won’t even tell me what they did with her.”
I took the vetandus from my pocket and watched her eyes widen. “I think she’ll have a lot to say. Ask her about the Elder Witch who took the vetandus home with her.”
Her laughter told me Finola was telling her that very thing. I wanted to Link with them to listen, but felt I owed them their privacy. Yet I wondered what that Elder had thought when all her clothes came to life and refused to allow her to wear them.
At least ’Zannah was smiling. I wanted to keep her smile in place. “Mairen’s been relieved of her duties after… what happened.” Finola was probably telling her that, too.
I steered her toward the Infirmary. “I’m in charge here now,” I said, as I returned the guard’s salute. ’Zannah looked shocked. I was still a little shocked; I’d learned just yesterday.
“At least they’ve made one smart decision. But what’s all the noise?”
“We raided a slave camp last night. We’re still sorting them all out.”
Voices echoed through the stone hallways. “Sounds like kids.”
I nodded. “I’m going to need some special help with them.” I ushered her into a throng of children. Coloring, she stammered something about leaving, but I held her arm. “You asked me if I was going to decide for myself who I am,” I said. All around us, the voices suddenly stilled. “Why don’t you take out your mandola and show them who you are?”
Jack Mulcahy has been a writer all his life. He has written free-lance articles for newspapers and magazines, and sold fiction to Lesbian Short Fiction, Altered Realities, Young Adventurers (anthology), Pulp Empire, Sorcerous Signals, Flashing Swords and others. He is currently at work on the second book of a planned trilogy that combines the fantasy elements of Conan the Barbarian with the feminist sensibilities of The Handmaid’s Tale. He lives with his wife in suburban Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA. Links to some of Jack’s other work can be found on his website
I have worked with Jack for many months, his writing and world-building is one of the best I have read. His stories are well thought out and he has characters that will leave you wanting more. I urge you to check out his other work and look out for his book when it is published.