After four centuries of political infighting with Linden, the ruler of the Marches, all Mariah wants is a little peace and quiet. Then, privateers attack her daughter's family, leaving Norerah at death's door. Mariah’s anger boils over. Mariah seeks vengeance with Ashton, her ring-mate and Linden's half-brother, only to discover a strange new magic that threatens all the half-elven hold dear.
“Stop interfering, woman.” The Lord High Commander's words boomed through the Healing Hall.
Mariah glared back at him. Though she no longer wore a sword or visited Linden's ranger camp, Mariah still dressed in warrior's breeches and knee-high boots, much as he did. Only her honor belt, embossed with as many death stars as his, showed a healer's insignia.
The slim, hesitant youth who had shared her bed with his half brother long years ago had been swallowed by this stocky, graying man. His large nose almost touched hers, bringing his sharp elven teeth close enough to bite her. The heat of his anger brushed against her tan skin. Mariah tensed, ready to defend herself and the others in the room.
The air in the public area crackled.
The Half-Elven patients and their families cowered against the wall, increasing Mariah's anger at the stupid clod who dared growl at her. Their staring eyes rolled with fear at what the combatants might do. They pulled what energy they could from the air to strengthen their protective shields. Mariah's skin itched from the static raised by their efforts. But she focused her attention on the ruler who had once been one of her closest friends.
In a voice as third as loud as Linden's, Mariah said,. “Calm down, you fool. You're disturbing the patients.”
“Blast your patients. I'm warning you. Get your nose out of my business.”
“I was just consoling the girl.”
“My affairs don't concern you.”
“Elysianna deserves better than being dropped cold by a coward.”
Linden's face turned red. “By the Fates, I wish Ashton was still here to put a leash around your neck.”
“Well, he isn't here.” Mariah controlled her sigh, hid her sorrow at her ring-mate's absence. “You sent him spying on our southern enemies.”
Mariah took a deep breath, ready to yell back at Linden's next comment.
The hall's head healer appeared in the doorway that lead to the consulting rooms, her hands folded in front of her. A scowl darkened her face. “Quiet, the two of you. Take your disagreement elsewhere.”
Thick silence spread over the room.
“She rules here. Go drill your troops or something.” Mariah whispered. “I came here to help. Not cause the patients discomfort.”
The force of Mariah's glare pushed Linden towards the door. He stomped away, looking as mulish as he had when his father forced him to clean the byre as a boy. Mariah shooed him on his way as if her hands were a broom.
Her face calm in spite of her thumping heart, Mariah turned. “Who's next?”
No one moved until a small boy touched her hand. He looked up at her sideways, ready to run. “My granny's tooths hurt.”
With a closed-lipped smile hiding her pointed front teeth, Mariah grasped his hand. “Shall we stop them from hurting?”
“That'd be nice, Lady. Then she can chew ham again. She does enjoy a nice slice of ham.”
The Half-Elven in the hall shifted, many chuckling softly. Those that did not show amusement were too sick, ill from human complaints they lacked the elf skills to heal.
Mariah extended her hand to the grandmother. “Do you need help?”
The granny, a withered women dressed in peasant skirts with thin white braids wrapped around her head, looked up from her bench.
“I could use a hand in rising from the bench, Lady.”
Mariah lifted her arms over her head, stretching to feel the full impact of the retreating gale. If only Ashton and I could sail away from our troubles like our daughter!
Tired from a day of mediating petty disputes for her holding, and then, helping at the healer's hall, Mariah stood on a promontory over-looking the churning eastern sea. The wind whipped her loose chestnut hair around her head. The gusts tempted her to ride the buffeting air currents without keeping her pointed ears politely tacked to her head out of sight. The illusion of freedom teased the weight of time and sorrow from her thoughts.
For a moment, she thought of removing her shirt to feel the wind against her unbound breasts but changed her mind. Flight held no allure without Ashton next to her. When alone, they often sailed the air currents making love, their souls merging until their bodies glowed and sparked with their co-mingled power.
Her mind reached out to caress the tether of woven energy between them. Ashton was angry. Her lips tightened, but she couldn’t help him. They had agreed to live apart to ease Linden's complaints that they picked at him, two against one.
:Mother, where are you?
Her daughter’s silent cry riveted Mariah’s attention away her pain. Norerah and her family should be far at sea by now. Unexpected pain invaded her mind as she sought out her daughter, only to catch a dim glimpse of her own hall far to the west.
The thought was a bare whisper before the connection between them went dark. Mariah transferred home across the leagues without thinking. Found her daughter bleeding on the floor of her own hall. A harpoon pierced the babe in her carrypack and opened a gaping wound across Norerah’s back until it embedded in her shoulder. Her daughter's reddish-brown brown warrior’s braid fell across the blood soaked rag rug the two had stitched together during the long winter nights.
Kneeling by the expanding stain, Mariah struggled to remain calm. She took a deep breath as her fingers traced the path of the harpoon barb under the skin. Using the magic that made her a skilled healer, she mentally probed the broken ribs and lacerated flesh as she sought the source of pulsing blood. She needed to stop the flow; Norie had already lost too much.
Mariah took deep breaths to stay calm. The aftermath of battles always crippled her thinking. She forced the mocking memory of her elder son sprawled on a battlefield pierced by arrows from her mind. The healer had no time to soothe that wound to her heart. Only a thread tied her daughter’s life to this world.
Twisting her hair into a knot with bloody hands, Mariah bit her lip. I refuse to give her up to the Fates! The Summerlands can’t have her. One child is enough to give early.
Closing her eyes, she knew death would still be gloating when she reopened them. Fear and anger beat in rhythm with her heart. Abandoning her pride, Mariah called for the help she needed to save Norie.
:Nurteneg, to me with your kit! I need your help.
Her fellow healer and friend’s ring-mate, Wintel, answered. :My, my, aren’t you in a jolly mood, love. You haven’t felt so snarly since Linden refused to allow the rangers to live away from the camp. Do you need my help too?
Wintel, who was as prominent a healer as his partner and a strong ally in Mariah’s constant fights with Ashton’s half-brother, mentally embraced her. Hugged her close as few others in the Marches would dare. Wintel’s calm touch soothed her anguish a little, but Ashton’s arms would have comforted her more. Mariah shook her head. She needed to concentrate on Norie.
:I sent some of my new cleansing potion with Nurteneg. There’s more if you need it. May the Fates be kind.
“Blazes! Who had the balls to attack Norerah? Did the Suthrons violate the treaty or was it the Drummers again?” Nurteneg named their enemies to the north and south as she appeared in Mariah’s hall, her healer’s kit slung over her shoulder. “Do we need Wintel’s skills too? He’d leave his herbs for this.”
The eastern healer lifted herself out of her knee-high boots and sent them to the side of the wide front door with a negligent wave. She dressed much like Mariah in knitted breeches and shirt since she spent most of her time working with the rangers, except her breasts were bound. Most women of the Marches bound their breasts, even when wearing skirts.
Mariah frowned as she noticed the fine winkles around her friend's eyes. Too many of her mixed elven-human friends were aging. Even the veins on Nurteneg's hands rose from her yellow-brown skin.
While a skilled warrior, Nurteneg had been too young to have fought in the battle lines during Rebellion against the Suthron Hounds that saved their mixed race people from genocide. Her honor belt held far fewer death clusters than Mariah’s even though she had fought many times at Mariah’s side in other fights against raiders and pirates. Then, they both turned around and bound the resulting wounds they had inflicted.
Nurteneg’s brown warrior’s braid flopped over her thin shoulder, but grey hair curled loosely at her temples. Having an elven father had not prevented her aging. Like so many of the other leaders who held elfish magical power, she was aging faster than Mariah. Even Linden, the lord high commander, was showing signs of human aging though his control of magic was still strong.
“Wasn’t she supposed to be with Ortonlig?” Nurteneg looked puzzled. The gossip lines had flayed Norerah for her decision to abandon her healing duties and sail with her partner to seek new trading partners for the Marches. The healer knelt across from Mariah as she opened her kit. “Where is he? Why didn’t he protect her and the babe?”
“I don’t know,” Mariah whispered through white lips. She had just sealed the edge of the most seriously cut vessel, but the gash still oozed blood at an alarming rate. Mariah gathered the escaping static to reuse. “Work with me. Norie’s lost so much blood.” Her voice trembled.
A frisson of energy trembled on the air. Clean cloths with a steaming pitcher of hot water and basin appeared near Norerah’s head. The household pishkies delivered them from their cavern realm carved into the bedrock under Mariah’s home. Mariah hadn’t thought to ask. The small magic workers were ready for the emergency even though the hall hadn’t been used as a field hospital for a couple hundred years.
Sounding as calm as if he had just delivered scones and cafe, Qwergori, the chief pishkie, mindspoke, but both women could hear him. :Lady Norerah appeared without warning and called you almost before I realized she was here. You arrived in good time, my lady.
Qwergori, who lived under a geas to serve, like all his kind, sounded unruffled. Mariah drew comfort from his assessment. Her household ran effortlessly under his management, and she trusted him to organize the emergency. Qwergori hadn’t let her down once since she rescued him from the torture of a Suthron Hound during the Rebellion. Only his geas to serve made him her servant rather than her friend.
:Take comfort. Norerah is breathing well. The explosion starts when she regains her senses and realizes the babe is dead. I imagine Ortonlig is dead too. He did not arrive with her.
Mariah swallowed, her eyes tearing as she bit her lower lip, not daring to speak with lips or mind. Her mind stuttered, lost in among hundreds of possibilities for the scene’s ending. If only Ashton were here!
Again, his absence stung. They had agreed they were to live apart since someone had to watch Linden in case he descended into his mother’s madness. The more she tried to think, the more her mind collapsed in on its memories. Her thoughts chased themselves down a dark spiral to wallow in misery as it always did when Ashton wasn’t there to pull her from the darkness.
Oh, Ashton, how I miss you.
“Don’t you go all stupid on me,” Nurteneg snapped.
A sharp slap up the side of her head sent Mariah's ears ringing. Nurteneg's veined hand still packed a wallop.
The healer began enlarging the wound to ease the barbed harpoon point from Norerah’s armpit. “Braid your bloody hair so it stays out of the way.”
The bite in her friend’s voice brought Mariah to her senses. “Let me send the babe to the Summerlands before she loses her way first.”
Mariah’s heart bled for the infant caught in the darkness with no one to send her to the Summerlands. Mariah traced a finger along the infant’s cheek, remembering her gurgling laughter and waving arms. May the Light guide you to the Summerlands, my little love. She thought on her own human foster parents, long dead, calling to them to guide the infant to their arms. Please watch her as lovingly as you watched over me. Please.
The prayer finished, the grieving grandmother broke the harpoon shaft and pulled it from the infant’s body. Mariah held the infant close to her heart, not heeding the undried blood staining her shirt.
Anticipating her need, Qwergori appeared on the table with another basin and pitcher. He stood knee high to Mariah. His bald head shown from the rush light coming from the sconces hanging from the walls of the hall. A single gold earring dangled from the top of one ear. Not noticing her falling tears, Mariah let the pishkie wash the infant and tie the soft blanket when she wrapped the babe for the pyre.
Once Mariah’s attention focused on her daughter again, Nurteneg, as senior healer, declared Mariah too emotionally involved for the intense effort of meshing the damaged muscles. A healer herself, Norerah needed to retain full use of her arm.
Mariah accepted the chore of washing the wound with Wintel’s potion without protest. The two worked smoothly as supplies of clean bandages and boiled water appeared as needed. When the healers had done as much as they could, Mariah sat back without noticing she had chewed on her own lower lip until it bled until she wiped her mouth.
Nurteneg handed the last clean cloth.
Wintel appeared in the room in a pulse of static, carrying an open pot, just as the two women prepared to shift Norerah to a clean bed readied with pishkie magic. The slight healer wore his thinning hair short, While he looked unimpressive compared to most of Linden’s advisors, his control of magic held most of the militia in awe. Few in the camp could break through his shields.
Like most partners, the two eastern healers maintained a light rapport with each other so Wintel had known when they were ready for his salve. “Before you move her, let me cover the wound. It’ll help ease the pain when she awakes.”
While Nurteneg and Mariah wrapped a bandage around his compress, Wintel reached out and smeared more ointment across Mariah’s mouth. “You needed that as much as Norerah.”
The three levitated Norerah up the stairs to her old room.
Nurteneg sat down on the edge of Norerah's bed and rubbed her neck. “Qwergori or whomever, send Mariah cafe with whiskey and food for us, please.”
“You can’t give orders to my household staff. They won’t listen.”
“I just did.” Nurteneg snarled back as drink, ham, and bread appeared. “They know you need restore your energies as much as I do.”
Mariah’s hands trembled as she grabbed a cup. “Blast, I spilled it.”
Wintel, who was only a fraction taller than Mariah, slipped a slender arm around her shoulders and hugged her to him until she stopped shivering while Nurteneg began to eat from the tray that had followed the drink. His dark fringe of hair brushed against her cheek to reveal a pointed ear.
“Relax now, love, the worst is over. Go downstairs and rest for now.”
“Is being cared for by two of the most skilled healers in the Marches, besides yourself.” Wintel pushed on her shoulder, moving Mariah towards the door. “Don’t fuss.”
“Easier said than done,” Mariah said with a snarl, but she obeyed.
Mariah sighed as she walked down the stairs. Enemies still surrounded the Marches over 400 turns after the Rebellion she, Ashton and Linden had started to save their mixed race people from genocide.
I wonder who attacked this time. The treaty, they had written with so much blood, was despised by both Suthrons and Drummers...and by some factions among the Half-Elven too. When will I see an end to the blood?
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M. K. Theodoratus, Fantasy Writer