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The Taitaja

Chapter Text

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Illuminated Initial letter "A"fter the dozenth time the wagon's shaking let the blinding white light and frigid air into the wagon, Fern broke a thorn from her herb basket and used it to pin the heavy curtains together.

If only the curtains had been thick enough to muffle the constant chatter from the Greenwardens! If she had to listen to one more conversation marveling over a snow-covered frozen waterfall, or how every village had carved living niches into the mountain, or about far above the treeline they had traveled, she was certain she would scream.

Still, it would be rude to ask them to stop talking, so Fern put her fingers in her ears and tried for the thousandth time to get comfortable enough in the cramped space to sleep.

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After telling Fern that she was needed in Lowdewton, a faraway mountain village that had come under attack from a raivo, Abbedissa Bouvardia had added, "You have learned to recognize Kasvisto's nine thousand gifts by sight and smell. You have learned to apply their essence through touch and salve, tincture and elixir. Yet twice before you have begged me not to send you out." The abbedissa frowned. "I have indulged these requests and twice sent another, but no longer. If you choose not go to Lowdewton, you will be transferred to the gardens. Permanently."

The ultimatum made Fern's throat close up so tightly that she could barely speak. It would be humiliating, to spend her life harvesting herbs for others to use, but why must the assignment be so far from the Greenkype? Woodlands were all Fern had ever known: couldn't the abbedissa see that she would be entirely out of her element in a land of snow and rock? How could she be be of any use in such a place? Surely her knowledge would fail her again.

… Acacia, choking on her own blood, clawing at Fern in desperation as the spellbomb poison tore her apart…

Fern swallowed hard. "I want to help our world by healing. Relieving suffering. It is what I have always dreamed of, what I have worked for."

"I am glad to hear that."

"But what if I make a mistake? What if they—" She could not even bring herself to say the word.

The abbedissa might have been thinking of Acacia as well, for her wrinkled face softened. "You have learned all you can from your teachers and your books, but to expand your knowledge and grow into your calling, you must venture from the known into the unknown. Become one with the land and the people."

Fern nodded and wiped her eyes. She knew the abbedissa was right, but the feeling of shriveling like a swathe of dead whispering grass was awful. "I only know a few words of Murre, so if they don't speak Kieli in Lowdewton I don't see how I will be able to get to know them. And how am I to get there? I don't know the way."

Abbedissa Bouvardia pressed her lips together for a moment, though it was impossible to say whether she was suppressing laughter or anger. "Taitaja Fern, you speak as if I am sending you into the mountains alone, but protectors will accompany you to Lowdewton. As for conversing, one of our speakers has been studying there for some time. Now go. Make your preparations. A driver will arrive at the gate just before sunset." She paused. "As for the rest… take heart. I know you will find within you and around you all you need, even if it is as yet ungathered."

 

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Weaving through the Greenkype's cloisters and hallways on the way back to her room, Fern received congratulations from everyone she passed. How had the news of her assignment traveled so fast?

And then she saw the basket outside her door. Waist high and so big around that her fingertips would barely touch if she hugged it, such baskets were constructed to hold bottles of tincturing liquids and oils as well as racks of the leaves, stems, flowers, and roots used in Rohto, the healing art. The basket, newly woven, still smelled of the riverbank where the flat reeds that made up its walls grew.

Fern lifted the lid. The basket was empty.

She sighed and ran her hands through her hair. Obviously she was expected to take the basket to the Gardens and stock it herself, but how could she know what to take when she didn't even know what sort of injuries she'd have to treat once she got to Lowdewton? She couldn't take everything! Other than the few obvious choices—oxtail and burjar for bleeding, icegrass for fever, oblivionflower for pain, moonglow lichen for mending—there were so many other possibilities! She'd have to pick a wound-cleanser, and something to soothe superficial injuries. And what about poisons? She had to take something for poisons! She wished she'd thought to ask Abbedissa Bouvardia if the assignment was just for battle injuries, or long-term care as well.

The mid-day chime interrupted her churning thoughts.

No, she had to stay calm, and do this. She had to do this. She wanted to do this.

If she didn't do this, her life had no meaning or purpose.

Leaving the basket in the open doorway, she went into her room to pack for the trip.

If she had to be at the Forest Gate by sunset, stocking the basket was her most important task between now and then. If that left no time to bathe or wash her clothes or do the mending she'd been putting off for weeks, well then, so be it. She would have to mend and wash when she got to Lowdewton.

In the corner by the window, on a triangular shelf, a shallow bowl  filled with water held a small flat river stone. On the stone was a ball of moss. Delicate green and orange sporophytes sprouted from one side, arcing toward the light.

Fern picked up the moss, cupped it in her hands, and blew on it. The ball uncurled into a small green moss-otter, who ran up Fern's arm, nibbled at the corkscrew curls around her ears, then rubbed its muzzle on her cheek.

"I couldn't say no this time, Sammal." Fern delicately scratched the lighter green moss under the otter's chin. "So I'm going to go help a village on the other side of the Dividing Mountains."

Sammal made a soft questioning noise.

"No," Fern said, "It's probably too cold and dry there for you."

The otter slipped inside her collar until only a few orange whiskers were visible.

"What, hide inside my shirt the whole time I'm there? Wouldn't you rather stay here and play in the sunshine?"

The moss otter poked its nose against Fern's neck.

"Alright. I'll bring it. Do you want to get in now?"

Sammal made a sharp, dismissive trill.

"Okay, okay, I heard you." She took a small lidded ceramic jar with braided loop handles from her desk drawer, added a few stones, poured in water from Sammal's bowl, then criss-crossed each loop over the ornamental knob on the lid. Supervised by Sammal, she then put the jar carefully into one of the pockets woven into the inside of her basket.

"So, now I'll pack my things, and then we'll go to the garden." Fern folded her clothes into a rucksack, then toed off her green leather slippers, pulled on her one and only pair of thick socks—how was it they had holes in the heels, even though they'd barely been worn?—and fished under the bed for her bramble-boots.

The right boot had a broken lace.

She sat on the bed, considering the faint outlines on the bare walls of her room. Reminders of the things she had taken with her when she'd moved into Acacia's room. Things she hadn't brought back, because she hadn't gone into the room since Acacia died.

Sammal patted her face with tiny otter paws.

"Yes, I know," Fern said as she began to re-thread the broken boot-lace, "and yes, I am happy I still have you."

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As she'd suspected, it did take the rest of the day to stock her basket. After laying in a full bunches of each of the standard cures, her basket had only been half full. As she'd stared into it, biting her lip, the Elder Tender had passed her and said with a smile,  "They say that if you can lift it with one hand, it's not full enough."

"Oh."

The rosselia buds hadn't opened yet, and the crownleaf was suffering from some sort of mosaic mold, so she had to settle for domeroot and cragbark. They took longer to tincture, but at least they wouldn't wither from the cold. She added riotweed and itchroot to encourage circulation and reduce swelling, fireseed for deep muscle and bone aches, and then went to the Apothecarium to acquire a few jars of string mushroom ointment, used to soothe cuts, burns and bruises.

As the Apothecary handed her the jars she asked, "Stocking your basket for the first time, are you? Need any menstruum or oil?"

Fern nodded gratefully. She'd almost forgotten! She could use any oil or animal fat to make her salves, but the Lowdewton villagers weren't likely to have menstruum—a clear, volatile liquid made by fermenting grain—which was essential for tinctures because it evaporated quickly from the skin once applied.

Once three bottles of the liquid were safely stowed in the padded honeycomb at the bottom of the basket, Fern put Sammal in the jar, took one last look around the Garden, then shouldered her basket and walked alone to the Forest Gate.

It was late afternoon. On the road outside the gate was a garishly-painted curtained wagon being pulled by four massive oxdogs. A matron with a weathered face and a battered broad-brimmed hat sat on the driver's bench. "Lowdewton?" she asked, releasing a puff of blue smoke from her pipe.

"Yes."

"Basket going?"

"Yes?" Fern said uncertainly.

The driver knocked the ash from the pipe, jumped down from her perch, and, before Fern could caution her to be careful with it, swung the basket up onto her shoulder with two fingers, carried it around to the back of the wagon, put it in, then returned to her seat.

Fern hurried to check on her basket. It was upright and undamaged, though wedged so tightly between two stacks of crates that she couldn't budge it. "Would you mind if I made some room so that I can sit back here?" Fern asked the driver, who was refilling her pipe.

"Nope." She didn't offer to help.

By the time Fern had restacked the rolled tents and smaller crates enough to create a cramped niche for herself in the wagon, a squad led by Protector Honorblade had arrived. Honorblade, a brusque woman whose short black hair was beginning to streak gray at the temples, was one of the Greenkype's most famous protectors, legendary for having kept a demon swarm at bay for four days with only her broadsword and a stack of incantations.

Honorblade and her second, a red-haired woman about Fern's age, rode up to the back of the wagon. "You ready to go, healer?" Honorblade asked. "If you've forgotten anything, now's the time to get it."

The instant the protector said this, Fern realized with utter mortification that she had forgotten to pack any bowls or cups for mixing her cures. But she couldn't possibly hold up the journey while she ran and got some! "I am ready to go, Protector," she said.

"Alright then." Honorblade rode around to the front of the wagon. "Head out!"

"That's too cramped to be comfortable," the red-haired woman said to Fern, indicating the inside of the wagon. "You barely have any room to sit. Why don't you take my mount? I can ride up front with the driver."

"No, thank you," Fern said.

"Okay. If you change your mind, let me know."

As the wagon began to move, Fern hugged her knees and tried not to panic or cry as the Greenkype began to recede. Her last glimpse of it was its rooftops briefly blazing red in the setting sun, but then the sun was gone, and both the Greenkype and the forest were swallowed by the dusk.

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The journey to Lowdewton felt as though it took an eternity instead of days. More than once Fern was tempted to pass the time with mendsleep, but as she was the group's sole healer, she had a responsibility to stay awake and available.

They stopped twice a day; once in early afternoon to eat and drink and relieve themselves, and again late at night to eat and pitch tents and sleep. Night was the part of each day Fern looked forward to the most—the space made in the wagon when the tents were out meant that she could stretch out, her ears unassaulted by the scritch and screech of the wagon wheels—but it was also when she had to fend off Mera, who kept trying to convince Fern to join the card and tile games the protectors played at night. Fern doubted that Mera's friendliness was anything more than simple courtesy, but even so she didn't want to encourage it.

Late in the afternoon of the fourth day, after spending a day and a half in the the frigid heights of the mountain pass, the wagon turned off the main Arostielle road and into deep snow. The oxdogs strained to pull the wagon, so the the protectors dismounted and pushed.

"Stay there," Honorblade growled when Fern made a move to pull on her boots and help push as well. "If you get sick, there's no one to take care of you."

Fern crawled up to unpin the curtains in the front of the wagon. They were approaching a wide wooden bridge over a river; beyond the bridge was a large bare circle of earth, with the charred remains of a bonfire. Beyond the bonfire, a path sloped up and out of sight behind a raised area surrounded by palisades.

They stopped between the bridge and the bonfire.

"Now what?"

"Now we wait," Honorblade said. "They know we are here. Be on your guard," she warned her squad, "but do not make any threatening moves."

The driver lit her pipe.

Fern crouched down in the wagon, hugging her basket and watching through the parted curtains.

It was not long before a group of figures came into sight.

The ones in front carried weapons and seemed to be the village's defenders—although instead of the hammered metal armor of Honorblade and her squad, they were dressed in knee-length garments made of overlapping panels of padded cloth and embossed leather. Shivering in the wagon, she envied their fur hoods and heavy mittens.

As they got closer, Fern was mildly surprised to see that most of the faces were nearly the same brown as her own: she'd thought they would be as pale as snow. Behind the defenders were several elders, and behind them, two younger women came into view. One—to Fern's astonishment both barefoot and bare-headed—wore only a long blue tunic. Spirals decorated her forehead and chin; her arms and legs were the color of heartwood.

"The one in blue is a world-walker," Mera said quietly. "The one next to her is probably our speaker."

Fern assumed that the Mera was referring to the short, energetic figure in an embroidered overall and an extravagant fur hat.

The group stopped on the far side of the dead bonfire, and the short woman came to the front. "Welcome to Lowdewton!" she called out in Kieli. "I'm Tulkki Kirja! You're from the Greenward?"

"We are," Honorblade said.

"Come up to the longhouse," Kirja said. "Receive their hospitality." She then turned to the Lowdewton villagers and said something in rapid-fire Murre.

"I take it the situation is stable?" Honorblade asked Kirja as she led her horse around the dead bonfire.

"At the moment," Kirja said. "Their elder world-walker died six days ago. Sininen—" she indicated the woman in blue—"was her student."

"And the creature that attacked her?"

"In a cave. Most of the defenders are encamped between the cave entrance and the village." Sininen said something in Murre, and Kirja nodded. "It's been quiet since then, so go ahead and get settled. Rest up. I have a feeling it's going to be a tricky fight."

Fern never could have used such an informal tone to someone she'd just met, but Honorblade didn't seem to mind. "Sounds good," she said, clapping Kirja on the shoulder. "Now get me something to drink and tell me about this village."

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While the driver saw to the oxdogs and horses, the Greenwardens followed the elders into the longhouse.

Past the small vestibule whose double sets of doors were designed to keep the winds out there was a long, wide, high-ceilinged room. Blessedly warm, it was lit by three small fires spaced along the central aisle. On either side of the aisle, raised wooden platforms that ran the length of the building provided seating, sleeping, and storage.

Fern and the others were ushered to seats around the central fire, and were offered bowls of root soup, strips of dried meat, and some sort of alcohol.

Fern, who had dragged her basket inside and placed it behind her on the seating platform, passed on the meat and alcohol, but gratefully spooned up the fragrant soup.

After translating the various toasts and speeches made by the elders, Kirja told the story of the horror that had invaded Lowdewton. "There is a cave, to the northwest of the village, where those that have died are buried so that they can spend the afterlife telling tales to each other instead of to the living. The last time that offerings were taken to their feast, it was seen that the resting places had been disturbed.

'The elder world-walker took spirit form and journeyed there at once, and saw a horrible creature. Fearing that it was consuming the souls of the ancestors, the world-walker tried to banish it, but when it resisted, the world-walker returned to her body, which was being watched over by Sininen and the elders. She told them to send to the Greenward for aid, and warned them not to bury anyone in the cave until the creature had been defeated."

Fern noticed that Sininen had her hands clasped so tightly that her knuckles were white.

"And just as she said this," Kirja said somberly, "the creature, which had tracked the world-walker's spirit back to her body, rose like mist from the earth, took solid form, and killed her."

Fern was horrified.

"So what did they do with her body?" Honorblade asked. "Unburied corpses can attract many unwanted guests."

"They wrapped her in oiled skins and put her in the river," Kirja said. "Fortunately, no one has died since."

Fern thought about Acacia, burning on the pyre. She still hadn't been able to bring herself to take the ashes to the Grieving…

"Taitaja Fern!" Honorblade startled her out of her reverie. "Have you been trained to identify the cause of an attack from a victim's injuries, or not?"

Startled, Fern looked down at her hands. "We study the injuries that are likely to be inflicted by each type of enemy, but that's so that we can prepare cures ahead of time." Her stomach churned. This was not the answer that Honorblade wanted to hear, she was sure of it.

"So you've not seen injuries in the field?" Honorblade asked.

"No."

"Come along and learn, then," Honorblade said. "Examine the body." As Fern started to reach for her basket, Honorblade said, "Leave it. Nothing in there will help the dead."

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The sun, though dropping fast, was still fairly high in the sky, but provided no warmth. The air was mercilessly cold compared to the cozy warmth of the longhouse: every breath Fern took made her chest hurt. The fur hood and heavy mittens that Kirja had lent her kept Fern's head and hands warm, but also underscored how inadequate the rest of her clothes were for such an icy land.

They had descended from the upper village, then followed Sininen to where two defenders stood guard on the riverbank next to staked ropes that angled into the water. Sininen gave a command, and the defenders quickly pulled on the ropes, dragging an openwork woven sledge out of the water.

There was a long dark bundle on the sledge. Fern moved forward as they carefully unwrapped it, revealing a figure covered with a large blue burial cloth.

"Have they been careful to fish and take water upstream of the body?" she asked.

"Yes, they've been careful," Kirja said. "Sininen is the only one who handled the body; so far she's fine. I've been keeping a special watch on her."

"Could you uncover the body?" Honorblade asked. "Enough for the taitaja to see the wounds?"

Kirja conferred with Sininen. "Fern, stay where you are but do not touch her. Everyone else move back. And be alert. Sini's going to put down some barriers."

Sininen took a handful of white powder from a bag at her waist and carefully inscribed a circle around where Fern stood, then stood on the other side of the corpse and made a circle around herself.

"Salt," Honorblade said.

Sininen bent and carefully lifted the cloth, folding it down to expose the upper half of the world-walker's corpse.

The old woman's eyes were milky white. Her arms had been crossed over a carved staff that had been placed on her chest, only partly covering the brutal gash that ran from her throat to her belly. Both the wound and the center of the burial cloth had traces of a slimy, blue-black ichor.

Fern felt a wave of empathy for the terror and agony that the old woman must have suffered. Careful not to step out of the circle, she asked Kirja, "This happened after her spirit returned from the cave and reentered her body?"

"Yes."

Honorblade asked, "Tell me—as the creature appeared, was there was a smell of rotting seaweed and fish?"

As Sininen pulled the wet shroud back over the old woman's body, Kirja said, "Yes, she says there was such a smell, very strong. Is it important?"

Honorblade nodded. "It is possible that a raivo now infests your burial chamber." She looked grim as the Lowdewton defenders returned the body to the icy water. "My squad will enter the cave in the morning, when the power of darkness has waned, and confirm it." She turned to Fern. "There are likely to be casualties. Will you be prepared?"

"Yes."

As they headed back up the path to the upper village, Kirja ran up to walk beside her. "Sininen said that our strength united will allow us to defeat the creature." Kirja paused, as if waiting for Fern to say something, but then added, "And after she thanked the Greenward for sending knights to battle the evil, she said she was also grateful that they had sent a healer to patch the knights."

Fern knew Kirja had told her this because to Kirja it was a compliment, a sign of confidence in Fern's abilities, but the responsibility made Fern feel as if she had changed places with the dead world-walker, and was now wrapped in darkness, unmoving at the bottom of an icy river.

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As they climbed the path to the village center, Fern was surprised to see the tents still in the driver's wagon.

Kirja noticed her expression. "Oh, no one's bothering with those," she said. "Everyone sleeps in the longhouse. It's easier and warmer."

"All of us?"

"Sure," Kirja said. "There's plenty of room, as long as you don't mind snuggling."

Fern found she did mind. It was easy for the villagers, or Kirja, with her easy smile, or even Honorblade and her squad—who all seemed to be shield-bonded to each other—to sleep in a pile like puppies, but Fern had slept alone since Acacia's death: being close to others only made her lonelier. "If someone can show me where I could set up my tent," she said, shouldering her basket, "and where I can get a few measures of boiling water, I think I'll get a head-start on preparing the cures I might need for tomorrow."

Kirja looked surprised, but then said easily, "Let me see what I can do. Go wait inside. Stay warm."

Fern stood just inside the longhouse. Honorblade and her squad were already draped all over each other. Without their metal armor, it was almost possible to mistake them for villagers.

Kirja came back, holding a small glowing lantern with smoked glass sides. "Come with me." She led Fern across the central area of the upper village, out past the guards at the palisade gate, and then down to the outer ring of the village.

Their destination was a cottage-sized dome covered with short bristly grass and frosted with snow. Kirja pushed on a small angled wooden door recessed into the side of the dome, and they ducked through.

"This sod house will be warmer than your tent, both for you and for your patients,"  Kirja said.

The light from the lantern shone on a long table set along the right hand wall. On the left were three latticed rectangular frames as big as cots, and a large oval basin of carved stone, nearly big enough to sleep in. The air was even warmer than the longhouse, rich with the aroma of earth and roots. Fern took a deep, appreciative breath. "What is this place?"

Kirja put the lantern down on the table. "I think it's used for all sorts of things. Bathhouse, smokehouse, guest-house, textile dyeing… You said you needed heated water?" Kirja looked around the room as if searching for something. "Oh—over there." She pointed at a small puddle edged with stones in the back left corner. "Ha, Sininen did say that it was the tiniest hot spring you'll ever see." She put her hands on her hips. "So, will this do, or do you still want to sleep in your tent?"

"No, thank you, this is good," Fern said, nodding and looking around as she took off the fur hat and mittens and set them on the table. She set her basket down. There were no chairs or stools, but she didn't need to sit.

"Can I watch?" Kirja asked.

"It will be boring."

"No it won't! It's something I've never seen before."

Feeling self-conscious, Fern took the lid off the basket and began to select ingredients. As soon as she put the first herb bundle on the table, Kirja asked, "What's that?"

"Domeroot and cragbark."

"What's it for?"

Fern sighed. It was going to be like being in class again. "To clean wounds."

As she reached to take a bottle of menstruum from the bottom of the basket, she remembered that she hadn't packed any vessels.

Kirja, unfortunately, was extremely observant. "What's wrong?"

"I'm… going to need six or seven clean, empty cups or small bowls, if the village has any I can use until we're done here."

"Oh, to mix your medicines in? That should be easy," Kirja said. "Do they have to be made of wood, or can they be something else? Stone, crystal, metal? Are there any materials that would be bad?"

"It can be anything as long as it can hold a liquid solvent non-reactively," Fern said. She remembered a joke that one of her teachers was fond of making. "Bowls or cups made of feathers or bread probably wouldn't work very well."

Kirja blinked, momentarily confused, and then grinned. "Anything else?" She pointed at the racks. "Do you want mattresses or blankets for those? Or something to sit on?"

"A blanket, if one can be spared."

"A second lamp?"

"One is fine."

"Alright then. Seven or eight bowls or cups. No bread, no feathers." She left.

Fern exhaled slowly, then took out oxtail and burjar, oblivionflowers and moonglow lichen, arranging them in an orderly row at the back of the table. It calmed her, having these old friends lined up and ready to share their gifts. It made the sod house feel less strange. More like a home.

She took Sammal's jar from the basket and undid the lid. "Come out if you want," she said softly, "but she'll be back soon."

The moss otter climbed out of its jar and crept across the table.

"They need to bring me containers," Fern said. After the otter tilted its head quizzically, she replied, "I'm going to make some cures tonight, so they're ready for tomorrow. The protector thinks there's a raivo in the cave here. Oh, that reminds me." As Sammal watched, she took a small bag of salt from the basket and began to sprinkle it around the edge of the room.

There was a knock on the wooden door. Sammal scurried into the basket an instant before Kirja and Sininen opened it and came in.

"We have bowls and cups!" Kirja announced. "Sininen wanted to watch too. I hope you don't mind?"

"Thank you." Fern put the containers on the table. She felt uneasy about allowing them to watch her work, but then again Abbedissa Bouvardia had encouraged her to become one with the people. She hoped this would count. "Some plants," she said, "are used for direct healing. "

"That's when you hold the plant and transfer its beneficial aspect directly into the patient?" Kirja asked. "I think I've seen that before! It's an amazing power." She spoke a few sentences in Murre to Sininen.

Fern bit her lip. Kirja had seen another healer at work? Who? Would Fern compare favorably? "Yes, that's direct healing. But tonight I'm going to make tinctures and infusions." She took two cups and held them out. "Fill each of these almost to the top with water, please."

While they did this, Fern took three of the bowls. She poured a one-third measure of menstruum into one, and a one-quarter measure of oil into each of the other two.

"Why don't you use water for everything?" Kirja asked as she and Sininen brought back the cups of steaming water.

"Water's only good for infusions," Fern said. "Things you want people to drink."

"Oh!" Kirja said. "So you'll make those in the cups?"

"Yes, once the water cools."

"And in the bowls?"

"Tinctures," Fern said. "Liquids that evaporate after application and leave the skin dry. Ointments and salves remain on the skin and soak in." Feeling awkward, Fern took the bundle of domeroot and cragbark in one hand, then put the fingers of her free hand in the bowl of menstruum. Closing her eyes, she called upon the spirit of the Greenward, upon Kasvisto and Rohto. "I embrace the essence of root and leaf and bark," she whispered, feeling the essences from the bundle flow up her arm like blood through her veins. Across her body, and down into the bowl. As the liquid began to heat up, she took a deep breath and thanked the goddesses, then took her hand out.

Kirja peered at the bowl. "Amazing! The liquid changed color!"

The childlike reaction made Fern smile a little. "It is the same thing that would happen if I soaked the plants in the solvent for a few days." She opened her hand. "But see? They're dry."

Kirja brightened. "Oh! And this way they never get used up?" She began to speak to Sininen again in Murre, pointing to the herbs and the bowls.

Sininen's eyes got big. She asked something; Kirja translated. "So if you have enough of the right liquid, you can make as much of a cure as you need?"

It surprised Fern that Sininen had grasped the concept so quickly. "Yes. Making cures doesn't take as much energy as direct healing, but it does take some, and after a while it's tiring. That's why I'm going to do as much as I can tonight." She covered the tincture with a second bowl; at Sininen's curious look, she explained to Kirja, "The water-based cures won't evaporate, but this tincture will."

"I should bring you a few of the local plants," Kirja said thoughtfully. "There are one or two that have interesting properties."

Fern waited for a moment, hoping that Kirja and Sininen had seen enough and would leave. When they didn't Fern used one of the cups of water to make copperthorn anti-fever tea. It wasn't necessary as a first cure, but as it was almost always needed for aftercare, it didn't hurt to have it on hand—and perhaps watching a second boring procedure would get them to leave.

Unfortunately, it didn't. Nor did the third, an infusion of riotweed and itchroot. Fern had resigned herself to being watched as she made her salves when there was a knock at the door.

"Oh, I hope you don't mind," Kirja said as Sininen opened the door and let in several villagers carrying rolled bedding, two three-legged stools, a large dipper, a second lantern, and two large fur throws. "When Sininen told the elders that you were letting us watch you make cures, some of the defenders asked if they could watch as well."

Fern was aghast. Of course she minded! How dare Kirja put her on display like this?

Kirja read her expression, and said quickly, "I know, I should have asked, but since their lives will depend on you I thought it would be good for them to see your skills firsthand?" She looked entirely contrite.

Fern supposed that she had a point, especially if the villagers knew that this was her first assignment healing battle injuries, but even so she had a hard time keeping the defensiveness out of her voice. "Making teas and salves is hardly a true display of rohto."

"Maybe, but it's still amazing to those of us who can't do it," Kirja said.

Fern looked at the defenders. Most appeared wary, skeptical, even fearful—except for one. An older woman at the back was watching Fern with calm curiosity. Although the woman's face was lined, and there was white hair visible under the brim of her fur hat, there was also a liveliness in her dark eyes, a playfulness that made her seem much younger than the other Lowdewton elders. In fact, though Fern could not explain it, there was something almost encouraging about the woman's expression, as if she were confident that Fern would show her something impressive.

"Tell them I said thank you," Fern said to Kirja, and then, still feeling like a circus performer, she picked up the strand of fireseeds. "From these I will make a salve that will soothe aches deep in muscle and bone…"

.

Preparing the cures for an audience took more energy than she'd expected, though she supposed that anxiety had affected her as well. By the time she was done and the last of the villagers had left, Fern was glad that Kirja had ignored her insistence that she didn't need any bedding. Sleeping on the ground or in the wagon since she'd left the Greenkype hadn't been pleasant, since neither had comfort, warmth, or privacy. This sod house had all three.

Fern took off her boots, slipped out of her outer clothes, retrieved Sammal from the basket, and then crawled under the furs, nearly purring with contentment. She looked forward to waking up feeling fully rested.

And then, even though her body was aching and exhausted, worry would not let her go. She couldn't stop herself from  running through all the possible injuries she might have to heal the following day, what to look for, how to prioritize them… Surface injuries always looked the worst, but it was much easier to tell if they were life-threatening than internal injuries, which were not only harder to treat but almost always fatal. And what about poisons? What if she had not brought a wide enough variety of antidotes? 

Twice she got up, lit the lamp, and reviewed her stores, hoping to still the churning in her belly by touching each and every item. Twice she reassured herself enough to go back to the bed and try to get some rest, but every time she closed her eyes the horrible sense that she had forgotten something essential—or that she would once again forget something essential—returned to gnaw at her. The third time he had the urge to get up she instead wrapped her arms around herself as tightly as she could and forced herself to lie still, staring up into the darkness above her until it descended and buried her in sleep.

 .

She woke to Sammal's frenzied nips at her ear, and sat up with a start. There was a commotion outside. She dressed quickly and flung open the door.

A half-dozen or do Lowdewton villagers were limping toward the sod house. Behind them, Honorblade was shouting, "Hurry, bring them here!"

Fern realized with dismay that the scouting  foray into the cave must have already happened. Why had no one awakened her?

Honorblade turned to Fern. "I hope you're ready for wounded."

"Of course, Protector! Bring them here." Fern tossed Sammal back into the basket, quickly set up the other two racks as beds, and tied on her herb apron. She put oxtail and burjar in the right pocket for bleeding, oblivionflower in the center pocket for pain, and moonglow lichen in the left pocket for mending bone and tissue. Finally, she used a pristine piece of bucketmoss to soak up half the disinfecting tincture.

Mera and a second Greenwarden rushed in through the doorway, carrying one of the Lowdewton defenders, pressing down with blood-covered hands on a brutal slash to the defender's leg.

At the sight of the defender shuddering in pain and shock, Fern's anxiety and doubt drained away. Here was a being in pain.

She needed to alleviate that pain.

Making an entreaty to The Two, Fern grasped the oxtail and burjar in one hand as Mera put the defender on the bed, and then, channeling their coagulating powers, she slid her free hand under Mera's, pressing down against the wound until the blood flow had stopped. She cleaned the wound, then channeled moonglow to encourage the tissues of the defender's body to pull together and rejoin the edges of what had been cut.

"If you're not wounded, wait outside," she said tartly to the defenders who had crowded into the sod house.

It was gratifying to see them hurry out the doorway.

Once the patient was stable, Fern placed an oblivionflower petal under her tongue, then stood and moved to Mera. "Let's see your arm."

"I'm not—" Mera said, as if unaware of the wound.

"Stand still," Fern said, and began cleaning and healing the deep laceration.

Honorblade came in just as Fern was finishing, for the first time looking something other than grim. "Those two got the worst of it," she said, watching as Mera's wound closed to an angry red line. She nodded at the villager. "She looks better."

"Yes. It will take some time, but she will recover. Are there other wounded?"

"Nothing critical that I could see," Honorblade said, "though there might be a few in my squad trying to tough it out with broken bones. Wouldn't be the first time that's happened." She gave Mera a pointed look.

Mera scowled. "One time, Ava. I did it once. And it was a small bone."

Honorblade looked around. "This space is too cramped. Next time we'll take the wounded to the longhouse."

"Next time? " Fern asked without thinking. "You didn't defeat it?"

"No," Honorblade said. Her face once again stony, she turned and left. Mera followed her.

Fern sighed. Had she gained a measure of Honorblade's respect for her healing skills, only to lose it all with a tactless question?

She took a jar of the mushroom ointment from the basket and went outside. Four or five of the Lowdewton defenders were suffering from various lacerations. She closed her eyes and tried to spread a Veil of Compassion, a battlefield technique meant to locate wounded, but she had never cast it outside a classroom, and the fact that she couldn't sense anyone probably meant that she hadn't done it correctly. "If you're wounded or hurting," she said loudly, "there is no shame in accepting healing. Dead heroes protect no one."

Kirja repeated Fern's words loudly in Murre as she and Sininen approached. "How can we help?"

Fern handed them the bucketmoss and the mushroom ointment. "Use this to clean and treat the minor wounds. For anything more serious, send them to me."

Back inside the sod house — even with the door open, it was much much warmer than being outside — Fern sat next to the wounded defender and alternated cures until she was sure all the damage to the leg was repaired, then helped her take a few sips of copperthorn tea to stave off fever. After quickly checking for other injuries, Fern put her into a light mendsleep.

Outside, she could see Sininen and Kirja standing so close their foreheads touched, having a quiet discussion. Envy lanced through her at the sight.

Ashamed of herself, she looked away.

There was a step in the doorway. It was the white-haired woman. The sleeves of her armor were stained with blood, and there were splatters on her face.

The sight made Fern's heart jump into her throat. Even though she knew the woman wouldn't understand her, she couldn't stop herself from blurting out, "Are you hurt?"

The corner of the woman's mouth lifted slightly. She made a "follow me" gesture and left the sod house.

Fern took a deep breath and followed.

Outside, the white-haired woman was standing next to a defender sitting on a log. The defender, whose eyes were unfocused, was panting shallowly. Her left shoulder drooped noticeably and she was cradling her left arm in her lap. A broken collarbone, most likely, but Fern would know better once Kirja could ask a few questions.

"Kirja! Over here!" Fern shouted, kneeling to examine the defender, gently pressing her fingers again the defender's right wrist to take her pulse. 

Fern shivered a little as the snow soaked through the thin fabric of her leggings, but then something soft settled over her head.

She looked up. 

The white-haired woman had put her own fur hat on Fern, uncovering a long braid that shaded from white at the top to dark gray at the end. She smiled down at Fern as Kirja hurried over.

"Thank you," Fern said, realizing with a horrible, guilty start that the sudden warmth she was feeling wasn't simply from the hat. Somehow, she knew she was in danger of falling utterly, stupidly, hopelessly in love with a woman at least twice her age, whose name she did not know, whose language she could not speak, and who she would never see again once the monster threatening Lowdewton was vanquished.

She looked down quickly, blinking away tears.

.

After mending the defender's collarbone and wrist and making certain that no one else was hurt, Fern followed Kirja and Sininen to the longhouse, where Protector Honorblade had called a meeting to analyze the encounter. At the far end of the longhouse, Honorblade and Mera sat on the platform to the left of the fire, and Sininen and the white-haired woman on the right.

"Kirja," Fern asked, hoping she didn't sound too eager, "who is the woman with the braid?"

"Braid? Do you mean Nismaya? She's the village's Elder Defender."

Nismaya. It was unexpectedly melodious.

Kirja went on, "And just as reckless as Honorblade. The two of them charged into that cave elbow to elbow." She gave Fern a shrewd look. "Oh, I see."

Fern felt her cheeks tingle with a blush, and was grateful that the orange firelight would hide it.

"Oh! I almost forgot!" Kirja pulled something from her pocket and held it out. "I wanted to show this to you in case it's useful."

Fern took it. It was a small piece of lichen, a flat disc two fingers wide, but it was unlike any of those in her basket. Those that Fern had for soothing the body inside and out were mostly gray or gray green; this was a dark blue-violet dotted with spots of pale greenish-white. "I have no knowledge of this variety."

"It looks like the night sky, doesn't it?" Kirja said. "They make it into a drink, Talker's Tea, that's used when they negotiate with other villages. They claim it helps." She leaned closer to Fern and whispered, "I drank some when Sini first started teaching me the dialect they speak here, and I swear I became fluent twice as fast!"

Fern nodded and tucked the lichen into her herb apron. She'd take it back to the Greenkype so that Abbedissa Bouvardia and the others could add it to the Compendium.

Fern sat next to Mera, while Kirja sat next to Sininen.

"Are we waiting for someone?" Fern asked.

"The Lowdewton elders," Honorblade said.

Fern leaned forward a bit and half turned to face Honorblade, propping her elbow on her knee and her chin in her hand so that her unruly curls fell over the eye closest to the fire—the better to steal glances at Nismaya.

Kirja whispered something to Sininen, then the two of them smiled knowingly at Fern.

Her stomach twisted with nervousness. She'd never forgive them if they gave her away!

The elders came at last.

"So for those who weren't there," Honorblade began, "let me summarize what we found when we entered the cave this morning.

"My suspicion was correct. What we of the Greenward call a raivo has indeed invaded your burial chamber. Undead creatures that can shapeshift into mist and travel through earth and stone, like many supernatural creatures, they can temporarily be repelled with salt."

One of the elders, after listening to Kirja's translation, asked a short question.

"She asks where it came from," Kirja said, "and how it can be banished."

"A raivo is born of overpowering emotion—rage, jealousy, envy—at the time of someone's death," Honorblade said. "As they do not roam far from the place of their creation, your burial chamber is either where they died, or a place of significance to them."

"So it is, was, someone who died not long ago in Lowdewton? A restless spirit?"

"No," Honorblade said. "Spirits retain some of who they were in life, and so can be put to rest. Or banished," she added. "Raivo are not spirits. Strength and weapons of silver-chased iron are how we deal with them."

After Kirja translated this explanation, one of the elders gestured at Honorblade's sword, and raised an eyebrow.

"The creature sank into the ground before we were in striking range."

Fern wondered how so many defenders had been injured if there had been no battle, but she was not going to further anger Honorblade by asking.

After a brief discussion with Sininen, Kirja said, "What if we forced the raivo into a container or bound it to an object?"

"You can't use a sanctified coffer the way you would with a possessing spirit or demon," Honorblade said. "The raivo's mist form travels through earth and stone as easily as we move through air. Nothing could contain it."

"Not even a container of iron, lined with salt?" Kirja asked.

Mera shook her head. "There would still be the problem of driving it into the container. A spark does not willingly jump into a water bucket."

"What if I used incantations to control its path?" Kirja said. "Herd the mist like sheepbirds do?"

"I didn't know speakers did magic," Fern said.

"Oh we don't, not really," Kirja said, "Not like the things mages and sorcerers do. But the right word, written in the right way, can create a powerful barrier. Sininen and I think that between her world-walker abilities and my scrolls, it could work."

Honorblade shook her head. "I don't know, Tulkki Kirja. Such an untested technique against such a dangerous adversary…"

Fern sniffed the air. Was it her imagination, or was there a faint smell, like rotting seaweed and fish?

An instant later, several things happened simultaneously: Mera and Honorblade began to throw out arcs of salt, a mist exploded from the ground and enveloped Sininen in a swirling pillar of blue-black slime, and two whiplike tendrils lifted from the pillar. One lashed out at Kirja's throat; the other slammed against Nismaya and the elders, knocking them half-way down the longhouse.

And then, as suddenly as it had appeared, the raivo thinned onto a mist and disappeared into the earth.

Kirja, her hand over her throat, staggered toward Sininen, who collapsed, her ichor-stained tunic dripping with blood.

Fern rushed to them, seizing everything in her apron. She pressed her free hand against the gaping hole where the raivo had torn out Kirja's voicebox and shouted, "I call upon the spirit of the Greenward! I call upon Kasvisto, goddess of all green growing life, and Rohto, goddess of the healing arts! I beg you, bestow your gifts!" The moonglow and the purple lichen liquefied in her fist, burning as the burjar and oxtail sliced into the skin of her palm. Her arms flickered and arced with green light.

Kirja, her eyes pleading, tried to push Fern's healing hand toward Sininen, but Fern did not stop healing her; instead, she pressed the hand with the herbs against the wound in Sininen's abdomen. Planting her feet firm on the earth, she drew on the power as never before, determined not to lose either of them. She would outheal Death itself if need be…

With Nismaya's reassuring solidity behind her, she allowed an echo of her body  to fall backwards as another echo fell forward, reaching though Kirja and Sininen's bodies to snatch their flickering lights back from the edge of the abyss.

When she had pulled the sparks back where they belonged, she released them. Kirja and Sininen's eyelids fluttered, and their skin warmed.

Fern had just enough energy to put the two women into mendsleep before she faded into darkness, as drained and brittle as a snapped twig.

.

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First post 21 October 2017; rev 12 Feb 2020

© 2017