The Ash Burned Us Most
By John Calligan
The bones of the dragon had become a monument. Ribbons woven between its ribs cast shadows across the scrubland as the moon rose big and red above the Honey Moors. For decades, people had decorated its resting place, hoping to calm the wrath of its kin. Nothing could. Treating the Children of Lota as if they were honored gods struck High Priestess Fraymari as a small betrayal. As she rode closer, she thought of smashing its bones with a hammer. Gathering its ribbons and burning them in a fire. Drawing a circle with the ash to curse the next dragon who came to mourn. She hated this profane place, and she hated their pursuers for driving them through it.
Fraymari held the reins of her horse, Daystar, in one hand while gently rubbing his neck to keep him calm. His ears twitched in quiet agitation. She stole a glance behind her. Roson limped along on his mount a few paces back, while the highwaymen who had been following them were still more than an arrow’s flight away, as they had been for hours. “Don’t worry,” she whispered to Daystar. “I’ll protect you.” And she would. Daystar had been her partner since she was a child, and she loved him like a brother.
They rode farther into the failing light, and Daystar’s hipposandals quietly beat the arid ground. Dust from a day of riding dulled his sandy coat. She pulled her hood a little deeper, wishing her powers could make her invisible, or make Daystar fly, or kill her enemies. If she were alone, she could gallop him far from the road and hide in the hills, but that was impossible with Roson. His strong horse had been beaten down by his terrible riding. He slowed her like a plow.
Fraymari had grown up under the shadow of the moors, raising sheep with her family, riding horses, and moving with the seasons. There were many dangers here, and she had been hunted by highwaymen before. She knew their tactics. The only reason the highwaymen hadn’t pushed the pace was the fear that they couldn’t keep up, and that they would waste their horses, leaving them stranded in the scrubland. Once they realized Roson’s horse was fading, they would have no reason to hold back.
Earlier in the day, she had led them through irrigated fields and along the river, but still they followed. At least that proved a couple things: The highwaymen hadn’t allies farther up the road. They weren’t going to the same refugee camp, nor were they nomads from Fraymari’s tribe, scouting a path for their seasonal migration. No. There had been no legitimate reason to follow her to the river. She had thought Roson would want to stop and fight, but he felt as she did—there were too many people waiting for their healing magic, and they had to do everything in their power to get there. Highwaymen be damned.
She yawned, long and hard, and her head lolled. This was a test of endurance. Someone’s horse would refuse to go on. Someone would fall asleep on their riding pad.
“How are you holding up?” asked Roson.
She brushed back the beaded braids of her hair and smiled at him. Her lean face and strong neck sometimes made her expressions seem harsh, or so she thought. He smiled back.
Roson rode too stiffly on a good day. He sat like a statue, with his tall muscular frame crunching down on his horse’s back like a vice. Sweat glistened on his forehead, and he rubbed it away leaving a smudge of dirt across his narrow, angular face. Roson was pretty as they came. The dark curls of his hair and beard were neatly trimmed, and when the wind changed, she could smell the spice of the fragrant herbed oils he wore.
Men from the inner ring of Aranjura knew how to dress, but they couldn’t ride. And a man who couldn’t ride was hardly husband material, no matter how much she enjoyed sharing a tent with him. Fraymari tried not to frown at the sight of his horse’s sagging head.
It was sad to think they could die out here. Worse, their deaths would mean the deaths of countless others. That couldn’t happen. It wouldn’t happen.
As she turned away, Roson spoke. “You’re going to make it.” His voice didn’t carry even a hint of fear or concern, even though it should.
If the highwaymen knew who Roson and her were, they might know they were sorcerers, and not every mortal creature feared sorcerers. Most did, but not all. What could she say? If Roson decided to turn and fight, that was his choice, but they couldn’t both risk death. Somewhere in the Honey Moors, a desperate refugee camp needed aid. Plague had swept through the kingdoms to the northeast and would soon be on Aranjura. Even her nomadic people would be at risk. The disease had to be stopped. She had lost family and dear friends to plagues before, so when her order had asked her to go, she went with a quickness.
Healing the sick was what she was born to do.
“Smoke ahead,” said Roson. “Looks like a big camp.”
Really? Thank Imakora. Fraymari sat up straight and peered into the night. He was right. A faint, grey darkness rose over the next hills.
Daystar must have picked up on her excitement. His pace quickened, even though the highwaymen were far behind them. “Easy my friend,” she whispered, gently sitting back to ask him to slow. He did. She could feel him, desperate for safety, coiled inside like a snake, but still he listened to her. He trusted her, and she him.
The trail, little more than a narrow, beaten path, curled under a steep cliff high enough to block the moon. Behind her, the highwaymen vanished. No doubt, they too saw the fires and thought better of following her and Roson into the narrow confines of the pass. It took willpower, that she hadn’t had in her youth, to keep from shouting taunts back toward her enemy. She shared a big, wide smile with Roson. She could kiss him.
In the valley between tall hills, the camp appeared. An impossible number of tents were lined up in the military style. Not the sturdy round tents of her people, but small triangular structures made of canvas and little else. She had expected dozens, but there were hundreds.
Her heart sank, and she patted Daystar’s neck like a drum. Healing magic had its limits. She could cure a few people every day, depending on how sick they were, but the curses that cause infection spread like wildfire over dry brush in places like this. “What are we going to do?” she whispered as Roson stopped beside her.
“See what they need,” he said. “Then get them to a monastery.”
She sighed. Of course, that’s what they were going to do. That was the plan for a small group. It was the only plan they ever had. She had meant: what are we going to do if all these people are dying.
A breeze blew to her, directed by the contours of the land, and it carried a scent so sharp it turned her stomach. It reminded her of the poor cistern on the northside of Aranjura, or a flooded field that had washed over a cesspool. With the stink of human excrement came something worse. The rot of flesh? Sweat? That smell only very sick people could have?
“Maybe it won’t be that bad,” he said. “It looks safe. No commotion. Quiet. I think I smell cooking fires, maybe…it’s hard to tell.”
Roson was a renowned pessimist and used to the stink of people. Maybe he had expected this. She hadn’t. Suddenly aware of the tension locked in her own disgusted face, Fraymari gave a quick, fake smile, to which Roson quirked an eyebrow.
She dismounted, loosened the straps of her riding pad, and walked alongside Daystar to give him, and Roson’s poor horse, time to recover.
Two riders on the squat horses of northerners rode to meet them. Kaspurans didn’t know how to love horses like her people, though they would say they loved them. Really, they owned them. Fraymari led Daystar ahead to remind Roson to let her talk. She wasn’t in the mood for pleasantries. Late as it was, the healing they could provide tonight would burn away what they would have tomorrow if she didn’t hurry, for the moon’s light replenished them.
She rubbed Daystar’s neck to comfort herself.
“Hail and well met,” said the first rider, looking down on her from his mount. “I’m Camp Leader Tegon.” He was a short, plump man with a tied beard and headscarf. Tegon brushed away his cloak to show the harlequin embroidery of his fine linen tunic, a far cry from the undyed hemp she wore, and that Roson had chosen for himself.
“Hail and well met,” she said. “We are healers from Aranjura, servants of Imakora the Redeemer. We are here to help. I am High Priestess Fraymari. Highwaymen followed us here, but we were able to outpace them.” Her full title had a way of getting people to do what she wanted, and she had long since given up on being humble about her station.
“I’ll send our scouts to circle and look for them,” he said, though he must know they would never find the highwaymen. “Thank Imakora you arrived safely. Come with us.”
Imakora the Redeemer had been born from magic in the first age, shortly after Lota the Dragon Goddess had given birth to the world—all of it, a meal for her children. Creating the world took many days, and the youngest dragons had grown hungry and impatient. Imakora tricked them into filling an oak sapling with their horde of primal magic to sooner be rid of it and hasten their mother. They did, and so Imakora had cut that tree down and built a bow so powerful she could only draw it by pulling against her feet. And with one arrow, she killed Lota and saved everything that was left, magic and all.
Fraymari followed Tegon to the outskirts of camp where tens of other horses grazed under the watchful gaze of a teenage boy. She gently removed Daystar’s hipposandals and looked at his hooves while the boy hurried her way. The ride had worn them down significantly. Thankfully, they would be camped with these people from days to weeks, giving Daystar time to heal.
“Priestess,” said the boy. “May I take your horses?”
Her horses. The idea that someone would think Roson’s poorly trained and ridden horse was hers was embarrassing. She looked him up and down. He was skinny but healthy and as tall as her. “His name is Daystar, and he needs rest while his hooves regrow. No one may ride him but me. He needs water and grooming.” She handed the boy a piece of silver, and he took the reins. Fraymari let Daystar push the side of his head into her. “Go with him,” she said. “He will take care of you. See you soon, my friend.”
It was hard to let someone else take care of him. She watched the boy lead Daystar and Roson’s horse away. Both seemed to trust him, so that would have to be enough for her.
Roson stretched like an old man and limped a few steps before he found his feet. Gods knew his horse was in even worse shape. Hopefully he wasn’t lame, but she wouldn’t dishonor Roson by checking for herself.
People watched as they passed. Heads craned out from the smaller tents, and the few people who sat beside their fires watched in silence, eyes full of unwarranted hope.
Tegon walked with them to a large, square tent on the northern side of camp. Through its open flaps, candlelight flickered hauntingly. A sour odor wafted from inside—spoiled meat thrown on the coals. Tegon slowed, as did Fraymari. Roson touched her shoulder the way he always did when he needed comfort. She caught him from the corner of her vision. His eyes were fixed forward, face stony, lips thin and stretched tight. She patted his hand and kept walking. She was worried, too. Maybe she would take him to her tent to comfort him when they were finished.
Tegon pulled the flap back a little more and stood far to the side. His face had already started to redden from holding his breath. “Look and see what this curse has done to us.”
Fraymari stepped inside. She was short enough to walk under the flaps without her head touching. Four beds, canvas folded over dry grass, sat to either side. On each was a person, man and woman, young and old, and they were covered with oozing sores. Green scabs larger than her thumb marked their pale faces. She resisted the urge to turn up her nose, and she walked straight to the nearest—a boy in his early teens. The stench of his rot mixed with the soiled linen, sweat, and dried vomit to create the scent of the abyss. If only there were a little sulfur. His clothes hung from him as if he were hollowed out, but as he turned his head to her, she could hear the scrap of the cloth pulling free from his sticky skin. Listlessly, he stared. She brushed the hair from his face, but he didn’t seem to notice.
“How long has he been like this?” Fraymari asked.
“A week, and not so bad two days before, but once the sores appear, death follows.” An old woman hobbled over holding a candle and knelt beside her. She wore a sky-blue headscarf and many-colored harlequin mantle. She held out a bundle of sage in her left hand and waved the smoke over the sick child. Fraymari leaned in to let the smoke wash over her and drive away the smell.
The northerners were stronger with fire, but for healing, they came to her people. As the old woman softly chanted a futile healing spell, Fraymari turned her focus inward.
Her magic sat deep inside, near her naval. A turning sphere of energy she had pulled from a magic flower, the prima materia carried the potential to become anything. She tensed her muscles deep in her core and concentrated, forcing the sphere to turn in a new direction. As it did, it became like water. Its coolness flowed through her, and she hoped it would keep her from falling ill.
“Who brought this plague to you?” asked Roson, arms folded protectively.
Fraymari met Roson’s widened eyes. “Oh?” There hadn’t been a dragon here in years, and not one with pestilence in living memory.
“They hate us, so much. Ash fell from its wings and burned our insides,” said the old woman. “Soon, the disease will spread to everyone.”
Dragons were the enemy of everything living, and angry with humans for killing their divine mother. Some spread misery with fire. Others poisoned the hearts of people and turned them against one another. This one poisoned the air.
“Damn them,” said Fraymari.
Roson walked to the other side of the child and squatted. In his hand, he summoned a sphere of blue light that illuminated the cloud of sage smoke. His watery prima materia spun so quickly Fraymari saw only its perfect smoothness. He held it high and stared with burning blue eyes. The light of his materia would pierce the subtle energies that surrounded the sick boy and tell Roson what was wrong with him.
“What do you see?” asked Fraymari.
Roson closed his hand, and his materia vanished back into his body. “I don’t know,” he said. “It is as if death were an element, like fire or water. A green light stains the deepest parts of his aura and spreads like a forest fire, leaving death behind.”
“How bad is…”
“He becomes death.” Roson closed his eyes. “I don’t think I can heal him, not without all of my magic. Not without more materia, and not without a place of power to support me. Maybe both of us together could do it. Maybe not.”
Some sacred sites made magic easier. Standing stones. Temples built in the elven fashion. Natural springs of magic. Out here, there was little to help, and the nearest temple with an enchanted elven archway strong enough to heal a multitude was days away.
“They are traveling to the Temple of Three Towers, anyway,” said Fraymari as she looked to the old woman, who nodded. “Three days is all. We will travel along with them, heal who we can, and then help organize a response at the temple.” Her plan sounded so feeble as she spoke it. The curses of the gods were always stronger than their blessings.
Roson stood, and Fraymari with him. They walked out of the tent, and then some paces away to meet with Tegon who talked with a small group of healthy men and women. The smell of sage smoke traveled with Fraymari, and the cool evening air cleared her head. There were so many tents, so many people. How many were sick? There had to be standing stones closer than the temple, but they were relics of an older age, and nowhere near as powerful. Their strength would run dry.
She stared out across the plains under a sheet of bright stars. A streak of light cut across the sky. She had never seen a dragon. Maybe shooting stars came from them.
Tegon and the others opened their circle to let her and Roson in.
“What do you say?” asked Tegon.
“It should be easier to heal those who have just fallen ill,” said Roson. “Bring us those who are showing the first symptoms, so we can save the most lives. The healthier they are, the more people we can help.”
“And the very sick?” asked Tegon.
“They will have to wait until we arrive at the temple. Ask them to pray,” said Fraymari. Prayer was all the help they would get. She wanted to tell them not to waste their prayers, because curing them all would be impossible. They should pray for comfort.
Another large tent had been raised for Fraymari and Roson to work their magic on the sick. The open door faced away from camp and toward the full moon. She had waited anxiously for the first person to arrive under Tegon’s direction, so she could pour out her magic and still have enough time to rest before the sun rose.
The first two arrived and were indeed healthy. Both were hot and had running noses, but little else seemed wrong. It was impossible for her to tell if the dragon’s magic had touched them, or if they had regular colds, but it didn’t matter. She healed them and was happy for it.
The next was not so well. Rotting pimples had blossomed on her forehead and she retched on the dirt floor. Her sunken face looked as though she hadn’t drunk water in days. Fraymari healed her as well, but it cost her. She poured away half of the magic she had left on this one woman, and even with all the green light purged from her aura, she scarcely looked better.
Like the previous woman, another appeared in the doorway of the tent. Richly dressed in fine, dyed linen, she wore silver rings on her hands and toes, blue gemstones in her ears, and a circlet of gold. Was she a queen? A princess? Or were crowns simply fashion to these people? The wealthy woman staggered in and knelt as if she expected to faint. She wiped her brow and her head lolled. A vicious rotten wound stripped the side of her neck and pustules seeped on her cheeks. The smell of her wounds was enough to turn Roson’s head, who had his hands full with his own nobles.
“I am not so sick,” the woman said in a small voice. Her long hair had been braided in such an elaborate fashion she couldn’t possibly have done it herself.
“I see.” Fraymari couldn’t take it. Two in a row that she should never have had to see. It would be right to tell this woman that there was a mistake, that she was sent on accident, and that she was too sick to heal. But Fraymari was a priestess, not an executioner, and this woman knelt before her. She stuck her head out from the tent and called out at Tegon who stood with his retinue across the lane. “What’s going on? Can’t you tell who is sick and who is well?” asked Fraymari. He opened his mouth to speak, but she yelled over him. “Tomorrow, I will triage your people.” She closed the tent flaps and didn’t listen to whatever it was he was saying.
The woman looked away, coughing under her breath. Her body trembled raggedly. “I told you, I am not so sick.” Tears wet her cheek.
Fraymari took a sharp breath. If she could save her, and that wasn’t certain, it would take everything. She had expected to heal six at worst. Eight or twelve would have been better. But four? It was as if she had killed the rest herself. But she hadn’t. Tegon had. What made this woman so special? Fraymari looked down her nose with her face crunched in disgust.
She took the woman’s hand, led her back a few steps to a felt mat, and helped her to the ground. “I will see what I can do.”
The woman closed her eyes. Her earrings were worth more than everything Fraymari owned.
Fraymari brought her hands together as if cupping water, and her prima materia pooled between them—a spinning sphere of perfect blue light. The woman’s aura appeared to her. Yellow light swimming with energy reached from her body as wide as outstretched arms. Red tinged the bright field that hugged her body, the sign of anger she had never let go. The colors twisted and danced like storm clouds. Fraymari held her materia high and took the woman’s hand. The blue light shined down, and sickly green energy appeared across her chest, encroaching on the pools of light that represented her organs and surrounding the glow of her womb where another aura pulsed.
Did she know?
There was too much happening within this woman. The child. The curse. The quiet rage. Her aura was a chaotic mess. Fraymari needed to know her better, so she took a long, slow breath. A crack in the dam, and the reservoirs ran together. Their auras merged.
Fraymari met her eyes. Such a strange sensation—like looking in a mirror. So many emotions washed through them. Thoughts welled up from the dark places in their connected minds and faded away like dreams. She felt her anger, saw the red-light dance over her own skin, and pushed it away. The anger softened and vanished, making the contrasts of the remaining colors even stronger.
The woman let out a gentle sigh.
A low, simmering pain tightened Fraymari’s stomach. She held the materia closer to the stain, and the green light brightened, making the woman wince and filling Fraymari’s head with stinging nettles. The pain was another tool—when they both felt relief, she would know she had done enough.
“This will hurt,” said Fraymari. Maybe it was right that it hurt. She wished she could believe the spirits sent her this woman. Finding her pregnant and hoping to be healed seemed both lucky and unjust.
Fraymari tensed everything inside. She squeezed the small muscles deep in her body and blew out a long, slow breath. The green stain of light burned hotter and hotter, filling her head with stabbing pain, but she could feel it coming loose. Each bit of energy pulled out like a splinter. She gritted her teeth and ignored the low rumbling moan of the woman below her, clutched her hand, and drew the curse out.
The green light twisted in the air and faded away. Fraymari took back her hand and touched the woman’s cheek, thankful to have healed her and her unborn baby.
“You are healed,” said Fraymari. “It might take a while to feel better, but you and your child will be fine.”
The woman covered her belly with her hands and looked down. Their auras still gently mingling, Fraymari could feel her love—a warmth from the belly that rose through her head like poppies. “Yes?”
The woman sat up and clutched Fraymari in a tight hug. “Thank you so much.”
She held the woman back and felt her thankfulness like a hearthfire—the beat of her heart and the pulse of her aura. Fraymari loved her like a sister, and though she knew it was just an effect of the magic, the aberrant emotions that arise from an unguarded aura, she couldn’t help but justify it. In a way, they were sisters, all born from the same magic that made the world and what had come before.
Fraymari opened the flaps of the tent and saw the woman out. Inside, Roson sat over his eighth subject of the day. She had only healed four and felt drained to the core. Hungry. Sweating. Empty inside. Granted, two of hers were quite ill, but so were all eight of Roson’s. She stood behind him and placed a hand on his shoulder as he forced the rotten energy from a man. Finally, Roson’s shoulders relaxed, and the man went limp.
“Good work,” she said.
He leaned back against her hand. His sweat soaked through his tunic. “How many more?” he asked. Three stood in the doorway.
Fraymari walked back to the open flap, unhooked the fabric, and let it fall closed. “We are finished for the day. Come back tomorrow,” she said.
“Priestess, wait,” said one of the men. “Just one more of us, please.”
Roson was red faced and sweat beaded on his brow. “Send them—”
“No,” she said. “We are done for the day.” She took his hand and pulled him to his feet. It took some painful effort, like the last steps up a mountain, but she made her materia appear in her hand again. Roson’s purple aura suffered an ugly green mark like oil on water. It prickled and stabbed at the outer light and threatened to work its way inside. She shined her light over it and drove it away. He met her eyes, and their blue glow shined across his face. “We will heal them tomorrow.”
He nodded in acquiescence.
Today she saved five.
Fraymari pushed another small branch onto their tiny campfire and sat heavily on her pack. Her feet warmed in the light of the tiny flame, while Roson rested his head on a folded blanket and watched the stars. The campfire’s dim light cast shadows across his lean face. Beads of sweat caught the firelight like diamonds. Eight people he had healed. Seven she could give him credit for, since the last one could have killed him, but even seven was something. He was an amazing healer. His ability to invoke his materia and to keep it spinning fast, to heal over and over, even the very sick with neither the benefit of expendable materia or a temple arch amazed her. He was so willing to give his life for people he’d never met.
He turned his head and met her gaze. “What?” Damn the gods, why was he so hard to talk to? Little relaxed him enough to open up, but he needed to talk. So did she. That last woman, the rich one—the little light beating inside her. Fraymari still felt the heat. It was sad to have shared it, and for a moment been like a sister and mother to someone who hadn’t even given her name, and then let it go.
She was alone again.
She wanted to tell Roson how she missed her home, and how she worried about that woman and her unborn child, and how she felt guilty for having been mad about having to heal her.
“What do you mean ‘what’?” Fraymari whispered.
He looked back at the sky.
“You were beautiful in there,” she said. “You’re such a good healer.”
“Thanks,” he said. “You as well.”
She walked over, knelt beside him, and took his hand with a little tug. “Come to my tent. Saving lives makes me want you.” They couldn’t drink—it weakened their magic too much, but sex was as good for getting him to relax.
He turned to her weakly and rubbed her fingers but pulled away. “Wish I could. I feel like I poured everything out.”
“We’ll see about that.” She smiled brightly at him and tried to soften her expression.
He didn’t smile back.
“If you feel so good, maybe you could have done a little more.”
She scooted away and regarded him coolly. “Oh, excuse me?”
“I left it all in the tent. Why didn’t you?”
“Forgive me if I held back, because I didn’t want us to get sick. Forgive me for having to watch your back, because I can’t trust you to—”
“I didn’t ask you to watch my back.” He stared at the sky. “It’s like you don’t even try to push. Try to sacrifice. You glide while people are dying, like those men we turned away.”
“Imakora’s flayed fingers.” Fraymari spat the words, stood, and left. How dare he. She could punch him in his dragon-cursed face.
She rubbed a tear from her eye, not for his rejection, but for being stuck out here without anyone worth talking to. Without her family. Without her students. Traveling with Roson was like traveling alone. He could at least try to be something to her, but his mind turned like materia, and he didn’t want to share it with her. How long would she keep doing this? Maybe after this plague was finished, and the king had decided what to do with the refugees, she’d go back to her family.
Fraymari walked quietly toward the horses.
She didn’t sacrifice, he had said. He didn’t know what it was like traveling with him.
A small creek poured from between the rocks alongside a low-lying ridge. Daystar stood with a couple of old and dusty mares, grazing on the tall grass. Fraymari softly sighed, glad he wasn’t asleep. She walked wide around him, so the horses would see her coming. Daystar met her gaze and hobbled toward her as quickly as his bound lead legs would allow. He nuzzled her, pushing his head into her shoulder and bumping her with his side. She hugged him around the neck.
He was in better shape than some of the other horses. Food and water had probably been hard for the refugees to come by; they were lucky to find this campsite with so much water and decent forage. His sandy fur shined—that boy must have taken good care of him. “I promise I’ll take you out tomorrow, just you and me.” Their auras mingled closer, and she checked him over like a worrying mother.
Fraymari had hoped that sharing a moment with Daystar would drive out the remnant energies of the healing tent, but it wasn’t so. She touched her own belly and wondered how the mother and her unborn child were faring tonight.
Her feet tingled with pins and needles. If her sympathetic connection to Daystar was causing her pain, he could be suffering. She knelt and picked up Daystar’s hoof. It was a little worn, but not injured. She picked up another, and he pulled it back. “Easy my friend, just let me look. I’m not going to hurt you.” He let her have his hoof the second time, and though she couldn’t see anything wrong with it, it did seem to bother him. A couple days’ rest and he’d be fine.
She manifested the dimmed light of her drained materia, but even when full, it was pitiful compared to the massive aura of a full-grown horse. Animal healers were special people with seemingly bottomless wells of power. That wasn’t her. She let the light penetrate his body and hoped that it would help.
She draped an arm over his withers and rested her ear against his side. The warmth of his body pulsed through her. Far off, in the darkness of the plains, the firelight of a camp illuminated a pair of horses. Nomads on the move, probably, come to see what the commotion was. Hopefully, they heeded the warning posts and stayed away.
“Do you miss riding with our family?”
Daystar didn’t answer.
“I’m sorry I lost my temper last night,” said Roson.
Fraymari cast him a sideways glance as they descended the squat ridge and walked into the main refugee camp from where they had slept. Her breath fogged in the air—the sun had yet to clear the morning dew. Long shadows of the Honey Moors brushed the outermost tents.
He sighed and fidgeted with his hands. He folded his arms. He stared at the sun. She wished he’d spit it out. “I—hate feeling their problems sticking to me when I’m trying to go to sleep.” He tucked his chin, hiding his eyes behind the edges of his hood. “So, I pour it all out.”
“I know what you mean,” she said, remembering the pregnant woman from the day before, and the heat in her belly. “I don’t like it either.”
Fraymari fell a step behind him and watched him walk. They had only slept a few hours. Maybe he felt guilty for snapping. Maybe he just needed to get it off his chest. She rolled her eyes.
They stepped into the main aisle between the first row of tents. Cooking fires were lit while the healthiest refugees had started pulling down the camp. With so many people ill, it would take even longer to pack for the day’s journey.
The large box tent they had been given to work in already had a small crowd of the sick and their families. A bitter and stinging smell wafted in the air, strong even against the smell of beans on cooking fires. Northern aristocrats in their too-fine attire waited, coughing and retching while the dragon’s curse marred their faces and burned their guts. The whole camp stretched out before them. Possibly hundreds of people waited their turn, hoping Camp Leader Tegon would choose them to be healed before the seeds of the curse took root and grew.
An anguished cry cut through the tents. An old man. Another shriek. A woman.
Two men walked by holding a body between them. Fraymari followed their path with her eyes. Far from camp, a pile waited. Bodies. The refugees dying like flies in the winter.
“I’m not doing this again today,” said Fraymari.
“What do you—”
“I’m not struggling through three or four terrible sessions when I could walk out there and find twice that many people who I could save, right now.”
Roson rested his hand on her shoulder and gently insisted she keep walking toward the tent. “I know what you mean, but it isn’t safe. These aren’t our people, and they have rules. We have to abide or else—”
“Or else what?” She stopped hard and brushed his hand off her back. “I healed four people yesterday, Roson. Four. I could have done twice that, plus you, plus me. I might as well say I killed four.”
“We did what they asked. And you didn’t—”
“I let them die.”
She walked into the camp and didn’t look back. She knew he wouldn’t follow her.
Word of their conversation must have spread like wildfire. Not surprising, because she hadn’t kept her voice down. The sick sat in front of their tents, or piles of packed belongings. Some of them placed out bowls of beans or fruit if they had it. A few even left gold or folded linen. Did those she healed yesterday make the same offer to Tegon?
If not by wealth, how should she play favorites among them? Let fate choose by closing her eyes and walking to someone randomly? Cast a divination rod in the dirt? Walk past those who are dying while their families cry and throw themselves at her feet to find someone with a runny nose?
Why did healing have to be her gift? Fire. Now that was a gift. Kings treated fire warriors like petty gods. They did nothing before the day of battle but eat grapes and drink pitchers of liquor. But this was who she was, and she had hard choices to make.
“Hey!” Tegon shouted as he and two other men hurried toward her. She kept walking. He wouldn’t dare stop her.
Sitting in front of a tent was the pregnant woman she had healed yesterday. The woman held an offering bowl with grapes and a silver necklace. Under her mantel nursed a child. Her eyes were full of concern as she looked under the cover.
Fraymari knelt before her and their eyes met. “You already have a child?”
The woman nodded. “You can call me Kitra, and this is my little boy Adnon.” She pulled back the mantle. Adnon couldn’t have even been a year. He looked hollow, and green marks dotted his tender face. Fraymari leaned in and ran her hand over his small head—the soft spot on top had sunken in. The poor thing must not be eating.
“Why didn’t you bring him to me yesterday?”
A man stuck his head out of the tent. His finely trimmed beard gave him a dignified look, though the many scars on his face—his rough hands, sunken knuckles, and swollen ears marked him as a warrior of some renown. “We were told to send one.” He stepped out and stood so tall he blocked the sun. Fraymari swallowed at the sight of him. “We had hoped that if she were well, she could nurse this one back to health.” His voice trembled. “I didn’t want to lose either of them.”
“Someone, grab her,” shouted Tegon. People gathered around, sick and well, men and women, some holding children. Tegon pushed to the front. “Each family of my choosing is to be given one healing—not more. You have had yours.”
The large man openned his mouth to answer, but Fraymari raised her hand, silencing him. She wouldn’t let Tegon heave dishonor on either this man or her.
“I understand you don’t know me or my way, but I came here to help people. If I wanted to heal another in this man’s family, he would not be able to stop me, and neither can you. He may love your law, but I don’t know it, nor do I wish to.” She shot the husband a wicked glance, and he stepped back with head bowed. Smart. Let her take all this on. “When I am ready, I will come back to you for your recommendations on who should be healed.”
Roson seemed to appear behind Tegon, brandishing his materia in one hand, eyes alight with power. “You can’t reason with her. Let her do what she wants, and I’ll do what you want.”
Tegon stared Roson in the eye. What passed between them eluded her. A threat? Understanding? Roson was unreadable, though Tegon stood as if he were ready to strike him—something she wouldn’t have recommended. Moments passed, and Tegon waved his hand to signal his lackies to stand down. With a jerk of the head, he walked back to the healer tent, and Roson followed, but not before giving Fraymari a smile. “Good luck,” he mouthed, silently.
Fraymari turned and knelt beside Kitra and took Adnon in her arms. His arms draped over hers like dead vines, and his lightness made her skin crawl. “How long has he been like this?”
“Since yesterday. He was a little dehydrated and wasn’t eating, but he was well otherwise. I really thought it was me who was sick. Just me,” she said. “Not him.”
Fraymari’s insides felt like they had dropped through the earth, and her materia ran cold, freezing her blood. If she had taken charge yesterday, maybe she could have found them. What idiocy is it to heal a mother but not her child? “There are standing stones not far from here. Their power might be enough for your child, but your child alone.” She said the last part loud enough for the benefit of the onlookers. It was true. The ancient standing stones out in the scrub were made for traveling bands—not an army. Old as they were, they still held power, maybe enough to cure a child. “Some of my people camp nearby. If we are lucky, they may still be there. Let me bring Adnon to the stones, so he can be healed.” Fraymari looked at Kitra with pleading eyes, who then turned her own gaze to her husband.
Kitra had been a stranger, but now she was more than that.
Maybe fate put Fraymari here to help their them. Maybe she was supposed to make one family whole in a world full of death. The husband nodded his assent, and so she healed him, and the man beside him, and two children who seemed to have nothing wrong, and the people wept when she told them she had nothing left to give, though she did. She had a great deal, but she needed the rest for Adnon.
And she hoped it would be enough.
Fraymari ran to the horses. The dawning sun warmed the back of her neck. It would take hours to ride to the standing stones, if she could find them at all, and neither Daystar nor the child would be able to stand the midday heat. The creek stretched out before her, and Daystar hobbled alongside those same two mares and nibbled at the lush grass along the edge of the water. She slowed and clicked her tongue to let him know she was coming, and he hurried toward her.
She brought her hand to his shoulder and brushed back his mane. A tear flashed in her eye—she rubbed it away, but the other eye was wet as well. She pushed the thoughts away as best she could and focused on the task at hand. “Hello, my friend.” The words choked out like a little squeak. “We have a hard ride today, and I wouldn’t ask you if anyone else could do it.”
Daystar pushed his head into her chest as she put the halter on him, freed his legs, cleaned his hooves, and put on his hipposandals. Kitra had wanted to try to nurse one more time. They should leave, but Fraymari was thankful. A few precious moments to brush Daystar before they left.
Did he understand?
She groomed him as best she could, but soon enough Kitra and her husband arrived with Adnon. They helped Fraymari wrap the baby in a sling and hold her tight to her chest. Even though she hadn’t had any of her own, on occasion she had taken care of children, sick or otherwise, and even taken them on her horse. This child was by far the sickest. Adnon’s frail body could have been a corpse. The way his little bones pushed up against her reminded her of a lamb in a drought.
Fraymari rested her hand on Daystar’s withers and gently pushed down, asking him to kneel. He did. She climbed on with the baby, scarcely aware of the parents sobbing as she mounted. Daystar rose smoothly, and Adnon didn’t stir.
“Let me say goodbye to my son,” said the father.
Fraymari leaned his way, though only a little thanks to his height, and he kissed Adnon’s head. Kitra touched Adnon lovingly.
“I had hoped you being pregnant would help me let this one go,” he whispered. “But now, I love him even more. I didn’t know that was possible.” Their hands entwined, and his eyes cast down to her still slim waist. “I want this one to have a brother.”
“I swear,” said Fraymari, “I will bring him back to you.” She didn’t know why she promised such things. It was foolish—juvenile, even. If the nomads had a sorcerer, if their sorcerer could help her heal him, if they hadn’t broken camp and left for new grazing land, maybe there was hope. She didn’t know, but she had to believe. This couldn’t be for nothing.
Fraymari posted with the trot as they traveled out over the dusty plain. She covered her mouth with her scarf. With the reins in one hand, she cradled Adnon with the other—more for comfort than protection; the sling made from the bright, harlequin print cotton Kaspurans loved so much held him fast to her.
Not far beyond the confines of the camp, a pair of riders watched her pass from a distant hill. They could have been the same men who had followed her here—they had the look of wolves. Even so, they did not come down to great her. Something about the way she rode promised it wasn’t worth it, to either them or their horses, to pursue her. She hated that.
Daystar trotted with grace; Adnon closed his eyes and fell into a fitful sleep. Poor Daystar. She couldn’t think about him—either of them.
Her mind wandered.
Hopefully Roson was having a fine time, sitting in the healer’s tent like a little god, indebting that petty noble and his dying tribe to him, enjoying people throwing themselves at his feet and thanking him over and over for all he’s done while he poured himself empty like a decanter. Fraymari couldn’t wait to get back and see how he was doing. How sick he had made himself without her there to watch his back. He’d find out what it was like to have to deal with the actual pain of connecting his aura without her to cleanse it for him. Damn Roson.
The ride grew long as she rode out over familiar ground, but the scrub and the tall peaks of the Honey Moors were an enemy today, and as the ground heated, her prickling anxiety rose with the distant mirages.
A stabbing pain lanced through her foot, all the way to the knee. Daystar’s ears bent toward his feet, a sign he felt it too. She looked to the sky and blocked him out. Pulled her aura back. Tried to ignore him.
He deserved better.
Adnon awoke with a ragged cry. A wetness rattled in the baby’s little chest so deeply that Fraymari’s skin hurt. She swore she could feel the baby vibrate with each breath. Prickles danced up Fraymari’s arms and back, and a vision struck her of knives buried in her chest, digging back and forth with each of the baby’s breaths. The child cried out louder, a sound so pathetic that all the other thoughts were driven from her mind, and there was nothing else. Desperately, Fraymari shushed the baby, hoping to make him quiet or comfort him or something. Seeing this, she knew…
She could never be a mother.
Fraymari let their auras merge, and she felt Adnon’s pain deeply, felt the edges of the sickness, the bits of the dragon’s curse that had grown in him like seeds. She felt where they were planted. She grabbed at them with her mind, like focusing on an itch and not letting go. Soon, she’d rip them out.
The ride became a kind of dream—a waking nightmare. She stayed posted for hours, longer than she ever had before. Her back ached, and her legs burned. She felt a trickle against her knee and wondered how raw the ride had made her. The baby cried off and on, Daystar sighed with exhaustion, and the barren landscape slid by without water or shade. Heat rose from the cracked earth as the sun lifted near its zenith. Her eyes stung in the hot air, and she began to wonder if she had lost her way.
Fraymari looked back over her shoulder the way she had come. One distant shrub or stone could be another. Ahead, two identical scrappy trees twisted from the ground, a knife’s throw from one another. She had picked the one on the left, or was it the right? It was too easy to get lost in the scrublands. Just riding by the sun and the mountains could be deceiving and cause a rider to take a wrong turn without realizing it. She traveled by picking objects in her path, and riding between them, one after the other. But her mind had wandered too many times. She could have lost the way and not realized it. She looked over her shoulder again. Nothing seemed right.
An approaching hill struck her as familiar. Thank Imakora, she should have trusted herself. She asked Daystar to follow the bend, and to her delight she found the standing stones. Eight in all, and each as tall as a person, they stood in a circle like mushrooms at the lowest dip between the hills. Beyond them, a cluster of circular tents and a hill dotted with sheep and goats, each as brown as the hills they walked on.
She had hoped beyond hope that she would find these nomads still firmly planted, but a man and a woman were tearing down one of the tents as she asked Daystar to slow. No wonder—the land had been stripped bare by their animals.
“Help!” Fraymari cried out. Adnon, sobbing and flaccid, didn’t even startle at her voice. “I need a healer!”
A rider circled out to meet her. A boy, not more than twelve, held a spear in one hand and the reins of his horse in the other. The beads in his braided hair fell about his neck.
“Hail and well met sister,” he said.
“Stay back. This child is sick,” said Fraymari. “Does your family have a healer?”
The boy nodded, and rode back to his camp, calling for his grandmother.
Fraymari dismounted near a wooden basin beside a small stone well. Daystar walked away shaking his head but came back as she drew two buckets of water and poured them in the basin. He greedily jammed his nose deep into the water while she staked his rope and tied him to the ground. She could hardly look at him, knowing the damage she might have done. Fraymari poured another bucket as an old woman approached, whispered a blessing over the well, and turned to greet her.
The old woman knelt comfortably on the other side of the baby and regarded him with sad eyes. The wind blew over her, carrying the smell of burning sage and reminding Fraymari of her mother. The woman’s full cheeks and grey hair were like the moon. Wrinkles cut a thousand deep fissures across her face, springing from her eyes like a river delta. She kept a cloak made from the blackest wool pulled tight around her, though her many-color beaded necklace glowed with purple light—once common among the sorcerers of her people.
“This isn’t your child,” said the sorcerer.
“No,” said Fraymari. “It belongs to a refugee from Kaspura.”
“I see.” The sorcerer reached out, touched the baby’s forehead, and left a mark with her thumb—a tiny bit of red oil, given for health. “Did you see the dragon?”
Fraymari’s eyes widened for a moment, but she suppressed the reaction in her voice. “You could tell?”
“I’ve seen it before, a long time ago.” A deep frown pulled her face low.
Fraymari kissed Adnon on the forehead, smearing the mark. “You poor thing.”
She unwrapped him, folded the cloth for a bed, and placed him in the center of the standing stones. The baby’s cries softened into gentle sobs, but his face was pale as a ghost. With so little time left, Fraymari knelt beside him and manifested her materia in her cupped hands.
The sorcerer held out her palms which glowed with their own blue light. As they did, the standing stones hummed like ringing bowls.
Fraymari’s awareness extended to the child, and she felt the poison in his chest. Adnon’s aura seemed to be filled with sharp things—daggers that cut into the ether and filled the subtle space around his lungs with vile energy that corroded his soul.
She willed the light forward, and a shimmering blue energy rolled from her over the baby like waterfall. Freshly melted snow, as cold as ice and crystal clear, without even the scent of the rock bed or the forest floor.
Winter rain high on the Honey Moors.
The frost of a new star.
Her head lolled, and the cold of her power comforted her, and she could see herself resting in it all night, as if she had fallen asleep in the softest bank of snow—if only she had Daystar to rely on. He had always been there, since she was a child, and she had driven him like chattel.
“Stay with him,” said the sorcerer.
Fraymari jolted and focused her eyes back on the baby, but found her vision drained of color. A chill had charged through her as if the sun had been blotted out from the sky. She shook her head.
“Stay with him.”
Adnon shook his head back and forth. He whimpered and cried a loud, healthy cry, but then, his face contorted in pain. Green splinters of light appeared in Adnon’s aura and Fraymari could feel them, too. Sharp, irritating nettles, and then one stung her like a bee, and the baby screamed. One moment of weakness and the dragon’s curse, well planted in the child’s aura, bloomed forth.
“Oh, no,” said Fraymari. The green light widened and darkened like a stain.
“This won’t pass quietly,” said the sorcerer.
Fraymari’s stomach lurched. She cried out, and a surge of cold rushed through her. The light died, and she fell to the ground, numb and spent.
She could feel Adnon’s aura, still. Fraymari reached out with her mind and let their spirits touch. The nettles were gone, and the child cried for its mother, ravenous.
Fraymari giggled, shuddered, and cried. The old woman picked up the baby and turned to the small crowd of her family. She said a name, and a woman stepped out from behind her husband. Frayed hair, puffy cheeks, toddler of her own in her arms. She passed her child to another, lifted her tunic, and took Adnon to her breast.
He tensed in the mother’s arms and cried as he tried to find the latch. Fraymari watched, anxious for the release. The mother winced, then smiled, and Fraymari felt the sympathetic relief as Adnon’s energy cut loose from her own.
“Stay with us for tonight. You and the baby need rest. So does your horse,” said the old woman.
Fraymari sat up, and all the pain of the ride rushed back. She thought she might retch. Had she really been so cold that she had forgotten about him? “Do you have an animal healer here? Do you know where one is?” The question came out too fast—too desperate. She’d saved a child and still felt like a horrible person.
A look of concern widened across the sorcerer’s soft, wrinkled eyes. “No, my dear. The one we know will only come to us in the fall.”
“My horse, he needs…”
The small crowd shuffled. They looked about, as if for something to say. Equestrians the same as her, they must see how bonded she was to her horse. But they had already begun pulling up their tents. The hills were barren, having been grazed by their herds for months. Fraymari stood and walked to Daystar, hands gently outstretched.
“We will give you a ride, wherever you need to go,” said a voice behind her. She looked, but the nomads had turned away and given her the privacy of space.
She walked back toward the basin and Daystar came to her. With each step, his head bobbed up and down—a limp to take the weight off an injured foot. She remembered the sympathetic pain she had felt on the ride, a lancing of her left foot that traveled all the way to the knee. Fraymari walked slowly to him and hugged him gently about the neck, careful not to put any weight on him.
She ran her hands down his hot leg. “I won’t touch it,” she said. “Please let me see.” And Daystar complied. His hoof came off the ground easily, and she unfastened the hipposandal. The straps came loose, and it pulled from his foot with a sticky wetness. Dark blood caked the foot and dribbled from a deep puncture into the sole. The hoof had been worn away, leaving a blood-soaked mess. Her stomach turned and tears ran down her face.
A wolf howled on the moors.
She was leaving—she had to take Adnon back to his mother. The nomads were leaving too. They couldn’t afford to have someone take care of Daystar for weeks and weeks while he healed—to watch over him constantly, keep him safe from predators, and bring him grass since the herds had stripped this land bare; and he couldn’t walk to find his own.
Daystar was dead by her hand more surely than the men she had turned away from the healers’ tent. She had asked for his life to save a child who wasn’t even her own, and he gave it freely, because he trusted her. Now, she would have to find a way to put him out of his misery. She would tie his legs, and rest him on his side, cover his eyes, and slice his neck with a long knife. She would watch as the life ran out of him—for as long as it took, and she wouldn’t look away.
Fraymari’s chin quivered. She buried her face in his neck, knowing this was the last time. Her face twisted into a knot as she silently gagged on her tears.
And so selfishly she thought about shoving this in Roson’s face and telling her what she had sacrificed for the boy, when it was Daystar who had given everything.