A Cure for Nel
A Tale of Estelend
Leya’s daughter fell ill on a summer afternoon. At first, Leya tried to convince herself that Nel’s malaise was due to the hot, sticky weather. But by evening, when the gathering storm broke, the child’s skin was parched and fragile from fever, and an ominous swelling was coming up at the base of her skull. Leya’s mother Elena hurried through the thunderstorm to fetch the village witch to look at the little girl. “I can do nothing,” Sulila, the witch said after examining Nel. “It’s brain-fever. She’ll die by morning.”
It was the verdict Leya had feared, but she couldn’t accept it as easily as that. “There must be something you can do.” Nel looked so small on Leya's big bed, moaning and limp, her sun-gold hair damp and matted. Elena held one of her granddaughter's tiny hands to her face and wept, while Daris the blacksmith, who had followed Sulila and Elena through the rain, stood holding his dripping hat in his hands, his dark eyes sorrowful.
“If I could help her, dear, I would,” the witch said. “But all we can do is try to keep her comfortable until it's over.”
“No!” Leya cried. It was so unfair that the disease came on and killed so swiftly, leaving parents helpless to do anything but watch their children die. She picked up the rag she had been using to bathe Nel's face, threw it down, and went to the window. Lightning shot across the sky, the rumble of thunder and the roar of the rain on the river blended together. “There must be something someone can do!” Tears swelled in her eyes.
“There is nothing anyone can do,” Sulila said firmly. “You are not the first woman to lose a child. I lost four. It’s terrible, but you must accept it and go on with life.”
“I won’t!” Leya’s tears spilled down her cheeks. “How can I just watch her die? She just wove her first table-mat! She’s all I’ve got!”
“There could be more, if you would allow it,” the witch said in a low voice, making a small gesture with her head towards Daris. “You must go on with what fate gives you.”
“How can you be so calm about it, telling me I can replace Nel!”
“I didn’t mean replace, dear—”
Leya left the window and sat on the edge of the bed. “Maybe the wizards know a cure.”
Sulila shrugged. “Who am I to say what the wizards know? Maybe they do have a cure for this. But I’ve never heard of a wizard leaving his tower and coming out to the middle of nowhere to help the daughter of a village weaver.”
“I know one who will.”
Elena looked up at her. “Leya, surely you aren’t thinking—”
“Arn abandoned you with a baby four years ago, and you haven’t had a word from him since. What makes you think he’ll help you now?”
“He has to, Mother. He owes Nel and me at least that much.”
“Leya, listen,” the witch said. “It’s pointless. You’re only making this harder for yourself. Nel will die by morning. It would take you a week to reach Ferin, who knows how long to convince Arn to help you, if he has any help to give, if he's even at the School there which you don’t even know for sure, and then another week to return. A dead child can’t be helped, not even by a wizard.”
“I have to try. I can’t just sit here and wait for her to die. If you can find some way to keep Nel alive, I’ll do my best to find help for her.”
The witch fidgeted, and suddenly wouldn’t meet Leya’s eyes.
Leya’s voice dropped. “I’ve heard rumors there’s a way.”
Sulila sighed heavily. “There is a way. But it’s difficult, and dangerous, and might turn back on itself.”
“What is it?”
“I can put a compulsion on her, to force her to keep breathing. The spell takes a lot of strength and nearly constant tending. But I might be able to keep it up for two weeks. I’ll warn you, though. She’ll suffer. Her pain and fever will remain, and every breath will be a struggle. It may reach the point where she’ll no longer want to live, and her spirit will fight all the harder for release. Would you do that to your child?”
Leya looked at her little girl. She couldn’t allow Nel's life to end like this before she had ever really even lived. “You keep her alive for me. Either I’ll return with Arn and he’ll save her, or I’ll return alone and then I’ll be able to let her go. At least I’ll know I tried, and so will she.”
Daris stepped towards the bed. “I might be able to help too, Mistress Leya, if you’ll let me,” he said quietly. “The little girl always likes me to sing to her and tell her stories when she comes to visit me. I could stay with her, help keep her mind off the pain, help her wait for you. If I may.”
Leya looked at the smith, dark and shaggy, built like a bear but the gentlest man in the village. Almost every day for the last four years her mother had said, “Daris would be a wonderful father for that child, if you’d only let him.” Maybe her mother was right. But he wasn’t Arn—her bold, brilliant, golden, laughing Arn. Arn had made every day seem new and exciting, filled with unlimited possibility, and she could never quite believe her luck that he had chosen her to share the adventure with him.
But Arn wasn’t here now. Daris was. “Of course, Daris,” she said. “I'd be grateful.”
* * *
Leya left early the next morning. Her fisherman father rowed her from Mog’s Bottoms to where the Reed River joined the mighty Inhastra. There, Leya boarded a passenger ferry that would take her south to Ferin, the great city on the coast of the Inward Sea. Throughout the journey, Leya remembered the loud rasping sound of Nel’s breathing under the compulsion spell, and wondered if she was being selfish. Perhaps it would have been kinder to let the child’s sufferings end naturally. But other memories came to her mind, of illnesses and night-frights when Nel had clung to her for comfort, certain that she would make everything all right. How could she live with herself if she betrayed that trust? Besides, if the wizards did have a cure for brain-fever, it was wrong of them to not share it. The people of Inhastra were taxed to support the wizards and build their schools and towers. It was time someone asked the wizards to do something in return. And what kind of man would refuse to save his own daughter’s life if he had the power to do it?
The journey to Ferin seemed to last a month, but really only took six days. Ferin was one of the great cities of the world, and Leya, who had never before been away from Mog’s Bottoms, was completely overwhelmed from the moment she stepped off the boat. She saw more streets and buildings and people just from the dock than there were in ten villages the size of Mog's Bottoms. The School of Wizardry, Leya had heard, was on the Royal Square across from the king's palace. She guessed that such an important place must be near the center of the city, just as in Mog's Bottoms the building that housed the tavern and the village council was right on the village common. With this vague idea of where to go, she entered the labyrinth.
After spending most of the day walking, Leya still hadn’t found the School. All the streets ran in circles, crossed back over themselves, and ended suddenly. Streets with names like Royal Progress and Wizards’ Way led her to parts of town that were decidedly unroyal. Finally, exhausted and frustrated at having wasted a precious day wandering around lost, Leya stopped in a small market square. The single stone bench was already occupied by an unkempt man wearing a shabby gray robe embroidered with odd symbols in purple, gold, and black. He sat quietly, throwing breadcrumbs to the pigeons clustering around him on the cobblestones of the square. The robe had a wizardly look to Leya, and the man, though shabby and wild-haired, seemed quiet and harmless enough. Leya walked over to him. “Pardon me, sir, are you a wizard?”
The man turned his worn face to her. “A wizard? I suppose so.” He gave a dry laugh. “At least, I used to be.” He patted the bench. “You look tired, girl. Sit yourself down for a bit.”
Leya gratefully dropped down beside him. There was a strong smell of ale on the man's breath, but his eyes were so sad she still couldn’t be afraid of him. “I just arrived in Ferin this morning, and I’m trying to find the wizards’ School.”
“What do you want with that place? I hope a pretty young thing like you isn’t planning to waste her life in a wizard's tower.”
“My daughter is dying. Her father left us to come here and learn wizardry. I’m going to ask him to come home and help her.”
The man raised his eyebrows and laughed. “I wish you luck! I’ll show you the place, since I’m all for putting burrs in the wizards’ shoes, but you’ll get nowhere, girl. He won’t care. Wizards aren’t capable of caring.”
“I’ll make him care.”
“Right.” The former wizard sounded unconvinced. He threw the rest of the bread onto the ground, and the pigeons attacked it eagerly. “Come on, then. It’ll be getting dark soon, and a nice young lady like you shouldn’t be on the streets alone after dark.”
Leya followed him through the maze of streets to the Royal Square and the School. They were not, as Leya had supposed, in the center of the city, but on a slope that rose up to a bluff overlooking the Inward Sea. The School itself was perched right at the top of the headland. Then, since it was getting dark, the wizard, who had given his name as Raldo, took Leya to an inn not far from Royal Square owned by his cousin. He assured Leya that, although he lived there, it otherwise catered to humble but respectable ladies and gentlemen.
The Silver Swan was clean and well-kept. Minna, the owner, welcomed Leya warmly, especially when Raldo told her the reason for Leya’s visit to the city. “Pah on the wizards! I hope you give them a good shaking up, girl. We had a plague of the bloody runs here six years ago, one out of every ten or twelve people dying, the rest too sick to bury them. And no wizard so much as poked the toe of his shoe outside of the Royal Square to help. They could cure it, all right. They cured the King and Queen. But they couldn’t be bothered with the rest of us that pay taxes for them to live so well.”
“Why doesn’t anyone make them do something when that happens?”
“Some have tried, but no one ever gets anywhere. But you, girl, you look determined enough to make something happen.”
* * *
The next morning, as Leya walked up the streets to the height where the School was, memories churned through her mind of when Arn had left her with a newborn baby, less than a year after their wedding. “I can’t breathe, Leya,” he had said. “I feel trapped. I’ll go crazy if I have to spend my life in this stupid little village, catching fish in this stupid little river. I need magic, more than I can find here. Don’t you see, Leya, it’s better for you and Nel if I leave? We can only make each other unhappy.”
Leya hadn’t seen the necessity of his leaving. She had loved Arn and was happy in their life together. She had attributed his increasing silences in the evenings and his distance from her to worry over providing for a family. She had argued and pleaded with Arn, begging him to stay, promising to do more to make him happy, telling him how much she and Nel needed him. But one morning he was gone, off to Ferin and the School of Wizardry.
The old pain and bewilderment at being abandoned rose up again. Leya pushed back the urge to run, cry, break things, and used it to shore up her courage. When she pounded on the carved wooden door of the School, the door shook under her fist.
A youth in a plain gray robe opened the door. “What do you want?”
“I am the wife of Arn Lunikson, of Mog’s Bottoms. I wish to see him,” Leya said with all the dignity she could muster.
Maybe he wasn’t here after all, or maybe the boy was just being dense. “Arn Lunikson. He came here about four years ago, from Mog's Bottoms in the north. A tall, blond man? Isn’t he here?”
“Oh! You mean Master Arnelun. Well, you can’t see him. Goodbye.”
The boy started to close the door, but Leya pushed her way through the openeing. “I’ve got to see him. There’s an emergency in his family, and he’s needed at home.”
“Master Galeth!” the boy shouted.
A stocky, gray-bearded man in heavily-embroidered robes hurried into the entry hall. “What is the meaning of this?”
“I want to see Arn—Master Arnelun. His daughter is dying, and I need him to come help her.”
“I’m afraid that is quite impossible, madam. Master Arnelun is preparing for his examinations for elevation to the Circle of Middle-High Masters, and must on no account be disturbed. And, in any case, once a man or woman enters this School as a student, he no longer has any family but us. Good day, madam.” The Master put a hand on Leya's shoulder to steer her back out the door, but she ducked away from him.
“My daughter, Arn’s daughter, is dying of brain-fever. If you wizards have a cure for it, I need him to come help her.”
“Of course we have a cure for brain-fever. Quite a simple thing, really. But we have far greater and more difficult things to concern ourselves with. I must insist that you leave now.”
His words left Leya stunned. How could anyone be so callous? “If you turn me away, I’ll tell everyone you have a cure but you just can’t be bothered to share it.”
Master Galeth's face turned red. “You may make as many idle threats as you wish, madam. I’ll take you to Arnelun so you can see for yourself. He’ll refuse, and none of us will compel him to go with you.”
Leya smiled. No, you will see, she thought. The wizards might be powerful, but so was a mother's love.
Master Galeth led Leya up a long, winding staircase to a round room at the top of one of the School's many towers. Arn was seated at a table covered with papers and a variety of metal contraptions whose purpose Leya couldn’t begin to guess. Her first sight of him was like a blow to her stomach. For a moment, all she could do was stand and look at him as she tried to catch her breath. He was even more handsome than ever, and looked as well-fed and well-groomed as a prince. A black-haired woman, tall and slender, stood beside his chair, her hand resting on his shoulder.
Arn looked up at Leya, his blue eyes as bright and captivating as when he had been courting her. “What are you doing here?” he asked mildly.
“Nel is very sick, Arn.”
“Our daughter. Remember? I wouldn’t be surprised if you don’t, she was only a month old when you left us.”
“Of course I remember Nel. I'm just wondering what this has to do with me.” He turned his attention back to the chart he was studying, and the woman leaned over, explaining something.
Leya felt like she was trying to break down a brick wall with words. “Arn! She’s dying of brain-fever. I know you can help. Master Gareth told me there’s a cure. Come back with me, please, just long enough to save her. That’s all I’m asking.”
Arn looked up at her again. “I'm sure Master Galeth also explained that I am preparing to take a very important examination. Part of it involves astronomical work—that means the study of the stars, you know—”
“I don’t know, and I don’t care.”
“Astronomical work that can’t be done again for another year. If I go with you, I will be unable to take the exam this year, which will delay my elevation until the winter after this. Besides, I have other important duties which I can’t possibly take time away from.”
“Arn, your daughter is dying!”
“No, Leya. Your daughter is dying. My family, my concerns, are here now. Surely you can understand that.”
“Arn, please!” Leya fell to her knees in front of him. She felt sick at having to beg, but if that was what it took, that was what she would do. The woman with Arn looked at her as though at a mess an animal had left on the floor.
“The answer is no,” Arn said, still completely unruffled. “And no one here will try to make me change my mind.”
Leya suddenly wanted to smash his smooth, handsome face, then do the same to the cold, beautiful woman beside him. She took a deep breath and stood up, clenching her fists. “Damn you. Damn all of you. I hope you feel my daughter’s pain as you die, and that everyone will turn their backs on you as you're doing to her.”
Master Galeth took her arm. “Madam, you must leave now.”
Leya resisted long enough to spit at Arn. She missed, but felt a small satisfaction at the sight of her saliva marring the polished marble floor. Then she let the Master show her from the building.
Leya stalked across the crowded Royal Square until she plowed into a man carrying a large basket of grapes. “Watch where you’re going, sister!” he yelled.
“They can cure brain-fever!” she shouted back, pointing at the School with a shaking hand. “They can keep children from dying, but they won’t! They're too busy grubbing for power and titles and—and embroidered pictures on their robes to come and save my little girl! My husband is in there and he won’t come save his own daughter!”
The people around her stared at her and whispered to each other. Some of them edged away with frightened faces. To her left, from the direction of the palace, two soldiers in royal blue and red strode towards her. She pushed through the crowd and ran all the way back to the Silver Swan.
Minna didn’t ask any questions. She sat Leya down at a table by herself and gave her a large plate of bread and cheese. “Eat, dear. Then you can tell me all about it.”
Leya's stomach was too tied up in knots for her to be able to eat. She opened her mouth to tell Minna about Arn's refusal to help, but broke down sobbing. “Why are they like that? Why are they so heartless? Can’t they feel anything?”
“I don’t know, dear.” Minna smoothed Leya's hair and handed her a handkerchief. “Maybe Raldo knows, but he never talks about when he was a wizard.”
“He isn’t like that, is he? At least he doesn’t seem to be. Is that why he left, because he couldn’t be like the rest of them?”
Minna sucked in her rounds cheeks as she thought. “He isn’t the person he was before he became a wizard, but I certainly wouldn’t call him heartless. He never talks about what he did there, or why he left. But he might talk to you. While you were gone, he must have asked at least ten times if you were back yet. He seems to care more about you and your little girl than he has about anything since he left the School.”
If Raldo could tell her the secret behind the wizards’ apparent heartlessness, she might be able to find a way around it. If nothing else, if she learned something the wizards didn’t want outsiders to know, she might be able to blackmail them into helping. “All right. Would you please tell Raldo I’d like to talk to him?”
Minna went upstairs to talk to Raldo, and returned after a few moments. “He says wait till tonight, till the tavern room is empty. Then he’ll talk.”
“Not till tonight?” Leya felt another stab of frustration and anxiety. A second day lost—there were only six or seven days left of the time that Sulila had thought she might be able to maintain the compulsion spell.
“He’s...fragile, ever since he left the School. He needs to prepare himself. I think that the things he's going to tell you are difficult for him to talk about.”
“All right, then. Tonight.”
Leya tried to make the rest of the day hurry past. She insisted on helping in the kitchen, peeling carrots and turnips and chopping onions, and on changing the linens on the guest beds. The familiar domestic tasks kept her hands busy and her mind from dwelling on the time slipping away and the ordeal Nel was going through. Evening came, and the tavern room filled with boarders as well as people coming in just to dine. Leya helped clear tables, then waited, with growing anxiousness, for the last late-evening drinkers to leave.
Finally, near midnight, the last few customers left. Minna extinguished the lamps and went into the kitchen to finish washing up, leaving Leya alone in the tavern room. It was dark, except for the banked fire in the huge fireplace, and silent. Leya started to think that Raldo had forgotten their meeting. Then she heard a stair creak, and looked up to see Raldo come down into the room. He walked slowly, his shoulders more hunched than usual. “Get me drunk, girl. Then I can talk about it.” He sat down at a table in the darkest corner of the room.
“You’re already drunk,” Leya said.
“Not drunk enough.”
Leya found a bottle of fairly mild ale behind the bar; she didn’t want him so drunk he was physically unable to talk. But Raldo downed the bottle all at once and said, “That isn’t enough.”
After he emptied the next bottle, he began to speak. “It’s what you give, in exchange for power. I gave, but it didn’t work right with me. I still had enough of me left to realize what I’d lost. I got the power, but it wasn’t enough to make up for what I gave away. So I went mad.”
“What do you give?” Leya asked gently, leaning across the table towards him. “What happens?”
Raldo’s mouth worked, but no words came out. “I can’t,” he said. “More ale.”
Leya obliged, and he finished the third bottle as easily as he had the first two. Then he leaned towards her. His breath was heavy with ale. “You have the capacity for power. I can feel it.”
Leya shrugged. “A little, I guess.” Her weaving had always been better in the first few days after she bathed in the sacred Source-waters that flooded down from the sky and the mountains in the spring. But her gift, her ability to take in magical power from a Source, was no more than that, and nothing like a wizard’s.
“It’s the Source here,” he whispered. “Where they exchange—” His eyes squeezed shut and his breath caught as though a sudden pain took him. It passed after a moment. “The Source, halfway down the cliff behind the School. That’s where—” Again his voice caught. He tipped up each of the bottles to his mouth, shaking out the last few drops. “You have the capacity. You’ll see.”
Leya put her hands over his. “Thank you. I’ll go see.”
Raldo let out his breath. “More ale.”
“You’ve had enough. You’ll make yourself sick. Good night.” Leya walked to the staircase. Behind her, she heard Raldo going over to the bar.
In her room, Leya fetched her shawl and an unlit glass-sided lantern with an attached flint and steel. When she went back through the tavern room, Raldo was working on his fourth bottle of ale. Another half-dozen full bottles waited in a neat row in front of him. He said nothing to her as she slipped out the door.
The streets were nearly deserted, except for the occasional pair of soldiers on patrol. Leya kept to the shadows, standing still every time she heard boots on the cobblestones, hardly daring to breath until the patrol passed. When she reached the Royal Square, she followed an alley that went between the great buildings and their grounds up to the edge of the bluff. There she lit her lantern and searched until she found the path down.
It was narrow but well-worn. She reminded herself that every wizard at the School made the trip at least once; it couldn’t be as dangerous as it looked. But from the path it was more than a hundred feet straight down to the surf-pounded rocks at the base of the cliff. She whispered her daughter’s name and stepped onto the path.
Leya went slowly, studying each bit of path carefully before setting foot on it. Nel’s name made a constant rhythm in her mind, keeping her from thinking of the rocks and sea below. The wind off the sea had a chill in it. Leya didn’t dare shiver lest she lose her balance. She pulled her shawl more tightly around her shoulders and concentrated on setting one foot in front of the other.
About halfway down, as Raldo had said, she reached the Source, a black maw in the face of the cliff. It looked like just a cave, but Leya felt the Source-power, born of the forces of earth and sky and bred in the mystical conduits inside the earth, that dwelled within its darkness. There was something foul and grasping about the cave that made her think it would be better to be smashed on the rocks below than to enter that place. It was said that Sources could be corrupted if someone entered them with ill intent. This was why the priestesses made anyone who wanted to bathe in the sacred spring floodwaters fast and meditate for three days at the start of the flood season. Leya had followed the ritual and bathed in the Source waters every spring since she was five or six years old, except for the year she was pregnant with Nel. Those waters had never felt like this Source did.
Did she really want to enter this place and risk touching, or being touched by, its corruption? Did she want to learn a secret so terrible that a man could not speak of it while sober?
She had no choice. Leya took a deep breath and said her daughter's name out loud, then went into the cave.
Inside the cave, chill currents of air moved against her face and arms. The interior must have been much larger than the opening suggested. Further back in the cave, something glowed softly, a shimmer of a thousand different colors. As though drawn by a spell, Leya walked towards the glowing mass and touched it. It was more substantial than mere light, more like lukewarm water but thicker. As she felt the substance, faint thoughts shot randomly through her mind—brief sensations of love, pain, delight, pity, anger, quick fleeting memories of a hundred different faces and places and happenings. Mystified, Leya removed her hand from the light. The thoughts ceased.
A voice came into her mind. Give yourself to me.
Leya couldn’t tell if the words were only in her mind or if a voice had actually spoken. “What do you want?” she asked out loud.
Give me what I ask, and I will give you what you desire.
It was the Source itself which spoke, Leya realized. There was an oily, sickly-sweet quality to the voice, matching the feeling of corruption in the cave. “What do you ask?”
You must surrender all of yourself to me. All that you are, all that you desire.
“What do you offer in exchange?” Leya continued speaking out loud; her physical voice seemed to place a defensive barrier between her and the corrupt presence of the Source. She had no wish to commune with it mind-to-mind.
I give you part of myself. I give you the power you long for.
Something inside Leya, the place that was filled when she immersed herself in the sacred floodwaters, opened up wide, with a hunger greater than any other she had ever known, greater than any desire for food or love, sleep or life. Was this what Arn had felt, this craving that made everything else seem insignificant, that nothing but Source-power could fill? She almost felt as though she would starve to death if she didn’t fill the hunger with the power offered by this Source. But her emptiness was not absolute—even as all desires for everything but power faded away, her love for Nel was there, solid and immovable. It did not, would not, give way to the yearning for power.
I will fill you with power, the Source said. You have a place for it, and the ability to use it. I will make you great. But you must want only that, and give everything else to me.
Leya looked at the luminescent mass with mixed horror and pity. The emotions and desires of all of Ferin's wizards, including Arn, were there, surrendered in exchange for power. Arn was no longer Arn; he was Arnelun, a mere vessel for this Source's power. He no longer had the ability to care about anything but power.
Leya reached into the light again, feeling through it. How many wizards had left their hopes and loves and dreams, their very essences, there? Hundreds, thousands? But she soon came across a flicker that was intimately familiar to her: a fragment of laughter, joy in a clear sunrise and the rippling of fish under the quiet surface of the river, love for a small golden-haired woman who looked like her. Carefully, she brought out a handful of the glowing, gelatinous matter which contained what had once been Arn. “This is what you ask,” she said.
It is what I ask, the Source replied.
Leya blew out the candle in her lantern. “But I don’t want your power. I have come to exact a price from you.” She swiftly poured the handful of the glowing substance into the lantern and closed the cover. “You took my husband from me. This is the price you owe me for him.” Then she ran from the cave.
Behind her, she felt the Source’s rage grow. Leya clutched the lantern by its ring-shaped handle in one hand and with the other pulled herself, half-crawling and half-stumbling, back up the steep path, guided by the strange light from the substance in the lantern. The cliff trembled, and rocks and dirt rained down around her. Leya flattened herself on the path, clinging to the bare dirt, until the world was still and silent again. All traces of the Source’s anger were gone. Leya looked at her lantern and was relieved to see the soft, glimmering colors still flowing inside it.
At the Silver Swan, Leya found Raldo slumped, unconscious, over his table. Empty bottles, some of them broken, littered the floor. She smoothed his thinning, tangled hair and whispered, “I don’t blame you.” Then, heavy with fatigue, she went up to her room.
The next morning, Leya presented herself at the School again. This time she carried a bundle wrapped in her shawl. When the young doorkeeper opened the door, she didn’t bother asking permission to enter. She pushed through while the boy watched, aghast, and headed for the staircase. The boy ran after her. “You can’t go up there!”
Leya turned and smiled. She wondered if he had already given himself to the Source. “I can do whatever I want.” She hurried up the stairs while the boy called for help. Leya soon heard others behind her, but she had reached the door to the workroom where Arn had been the day before. With any luck, he would be there again today. She barged in, Master Galeth and half a dozen other wizards on her heels.
Arn was there, the black-haired woman standing at his side. “You’re back.” He didn’t sound angry; Leya supposed there was nothing left inside of him but power.
“Yes, I’m back. I’ll ask you again, Arn. Will you come help Nel?”
“Leya, you’re being ridiculous.”
Leya uncovered the lantern and let it dangle by the ring on its lid from her forefinger. In the daylight, the colors were very faint, but they still seemed to cast a shimmer over the horrifed faces of the gathered wizards. Someone gasped, “No, she couldn’t have—” The woman with Arn grabbed the back of his chair as though to steady herself.
“I took what you gave to the Source. Maybe some other people are in there, too. Maybe now the Source will take back the power it gave you.”
“Madam!” Master Galeth looked sick. “If you drop that lantern—if what's within it spills and dissipates—Arnelun will die, and anyone else whose essence you have in there...”
“Oh, really?” No wonder everyone looked so horrified. Leya let the lantern swing from her finger.
Arn looked down. His shoulders slumped. “I guess I have no choice. I’ll come.”
Leya smiled, her first real smile in more than a week, and covered the lantern.
The first available berth north was deck space on a barge hauling bundles of wool. Leya and Arn were accompanied by Miyra, the black-haired woman who was Arn's tutor, so that Arn could continue preparing for his examinations. Leya had decided that now that she had what she wanted, she could be generous and allow the woman to come with them. At night, Arn and Miyra bedded down together on the deck. Apparently they were also lovers, though, judging by the sounds that came from their blankets, there was much of lust and little of actual love or tenderness between them. The noise they made didn’t bother Leya; no doubt the two of them deserved each other. The only problem was that the sounds invaded her sleep, and she found herself awakening, sweaty and breathing hard, from dreams of strong arms, broad shoulders, and shaggy dark hair.
The trip upriver seemed slow, but the barge docked at Reed Point on schedule. A fisherman who knew Leya's father agreed to row the trio up the Reed to Mog’s Bottoms, and they arrived late that afternoon. Leya had only been away a day longer than the two weeks Sulila had given her. Surely one day would make no difference, Leya tried to convince herself as she hurried to her house. Surely Sulila and Nel could have held on for just one extra day.
She ran up the front steps and into the arms of her mother. Her father came hurrying down the road, following the group from the dock. “Did he come? He came!” Elena cried out.
Leya entered the house and set down her knapsack and the covered lantern, which she had carefully guarded the whole journey. She led Arn and Miyra into the bedroom. Nel was grayish and skeletal, and her eyes seemed to bulge in her shrunken face. Her breathing was horribly loud, and her arms and legs stuck out stiffly. But she was alive.
Sulila sat at one side of the bed, and Daris, solid and familiar, was on the other, singing a fishing-song in a gruff, overused voice. Both of them looked exhausted beyond words, but a smile filled Daris's face when he saw Leya. She smiled back at him, then went to her daughter's side and kissed her. “I’m back now, sweet one. Everything will be all right.” Nel didn’t react, but Leya knew she had heard her. Then Leya turned to Daris and rested a hand on his broad shoulder. Except for village dances, it was the first time she had ever touched him. “Daris, Sulila. Thank you for keeping her here. Arn can help her now.”
Arn went to the little girl, felt her pulse and the swelling at the base of her skull, then closed his eyes for a moment. “A very effective compulsion spell.”
Sulila nodded curtly. “I did what I had to do. I’ll admit, I didn’t think you’d come.”
“Leya is very persuasive. Now, Miyra and I must be alone to do this. We will tell you when you may come in.”
“Let me stay,” Sulila said. “I’ve seen too many children die of this. If there’s a way to cure it, I want to know what it is.”
Arn looked at Miyra. She shrugged. “I suppose she may stay. It’s simple enough, and involves nothing that the uninitiated are not permitted to know.”
“You’re very kind,” Sulila said sourly, but there was an eager light in her eyes.
Leya, Daris, Elena, and Leya’s father left the bedroom and stood together in the front room, waiting. Hesitantly, Daris put an arm around Leya’s shoulders. When she didn’t shrug him off, he held her more tightly. She leaned against him. He was warm and solid and steady. He was there; he had stayed. Unbidden thoughts of her dreams on the trip home came to Leya's mind, and she felt her cheeks flush. What she had wanted before, or thought she wanted, was gone, leaving only a trace of a memory. What she really wanted, what was within her reach, flooded into her heart.
Finally, Arn opened the bedroom door and nodded briefly to Leya. She ran to the door and peered into the room. Nel lay curled on her side, her thumb in her mouth, breathing easily and quietly. Leya picked up the lantern and gave it to Arn, then hurried to her daughter. She felt under the child's hair; the swelling and fever were gone.
Laughing and sobbing at the same time, Leya gathered her child to her. Nel awoke and clung to her. Leya looked up to thank the wizards, but only heard the sound of the front door closing behind them.
“They said they were finished here,” Elena said, coming into the bedroom with Daris. “I’m sorry, should I have tried to get Arn to stay?”
Leya shook her head. She held Nel more closely to her, and smiled up at Daris. Tears of joy made tracks down his unshaven cheeks as he gazed at her and Nel. “No, Mother. I don’t need him for anything else.”
Copyright 2013 Kyra Halland. All Rights Reserved.