Authors: Daisy Banks
“Those of you who have had no contact with the fever, please go to where the girl with the red hair stands. She will tell you where you can safely set up your camps. Those who have come from villages near an outbreak, go to the fair girl in blue. I will go to those who have people affected. They will be lodged in a separate place. We will give you all healing potions.”
The groups moved toward Tab and Cecile, and she walked quickly down to a small knot of people who stood at the end of the causeway beyond the gatehouse.
Unlike the suspicions of the groups inside the courtyard, these people offered her their gratitude for the hope of healing. She explained where they were to set up their camp at the far side of the lake where they had ample access to fresh water and to firewood from the forest. Most of them left to go put up tents and shelters, but two men remained behind to wait for the soldiers to bring them a half barrel packed full of straw and cradling the earthenware jars of potion.
“One of us will visit your encampment tomorrow to bring more healing brews. Food will be delivered before the end of the day,” she explained. “Servants from the castle will get to you as quickly as they can with a cart of bread and broth.” Nin did not shrink away when one of the men bent on one knee to touch the hem of her robe. “You must inform us of any new fever cases each day so we know how much brew to send your groups, and should any of your people die, we will arrange for funeral pyres away from the camps.” She hoped they’d not have to light many pyres in the coming days. The men lifted the half barrel, by means of a rope carrier slung between them, and headed off toward the lakeside camp beyond the green meadow.
Once they left, she hurried back over the causeway and into the courtyard, now empty but for two guards and Tab and Cecile.
Cassandra joined them. “You have all done well, girls. Now you will go and bathe and eat. Tomorrow, we will begin in the same way as you have this afternoon should more folk arrive. I will go and make sure the kitchens are coping with supplying so much broth.”
All four of them headed over the cobbles, back through the entrance into the hall.
“My lady, the people doubt our power. Some believe us responsible for the sickness,” Nin whispered.
“That is sorrowful, indeed. There is nothing we can do to disprove the suspicions.”
The lady’s sweet, sad face caused a flash of anger in Nin. “There is. We can show them it is not so and defeat this evil.”
“Perhaps, but now you will all rest.”
They made their way to the door, but stilled at the thud of boots on stone. A shout echoed, and several loud male voices rang harsh. “Make way. Move out of the way there!”
Cecile grabbed Nin’s hand. “It’s Rollo?”
They stood back as the doors to the hall opened. Two young men carried in a stretcher, followed by three more pairs who all bore similar burdens.
Cecile’s racing steps clattered up the hall as she ran to the first stretcher. There was no mistaking his golden hair. Rollo had returned.
Tab hurried over to the next stretcher. Cassandra strode to the first of the group of bearers. “What has befallen you?”
The young man made a clumsy effort to bow. Grimed with the dust of days of travel, he knelt before Cassandra.“One of the villages, far to the west, they were armed and attacked the first riders. We barely got them out with our lives. My lady, rebellion brews.”
Nin hurried across the hall to them. “My lady, he is drained—they all are. Let them rest for a few moments. Send for Lord Farel, he needs to know.”
“You’re right. My brother must know their news immediately. Boy?” Cassandra beckoned to one of the young pages who gathered to gawk from the doorway. “Go to Lord Farel and say I need him here.”
Nin went to the third stretcher and stared at the terrible wounds the young man bore. After days of travel, the black bruises still disfigured his face. His friends had bound up the wounds to his limbs, but he suffered great pain. She felt it.
“My lady, shall we take them to the workroom for now? The herbs are nearer there,” Tab called.
“No, we need to be able to brew. It would disturb them. Take them down to the infirmary. There is enough room for them to lie in comfort. I want it prepared, and swift.” Cassandra took charge, and two of the servants scurried out.
A loud sob echoed. Cecile bent her head over Rollo, her slender hands covering her face.
Nin joined Cecile. One glance at the battered form of Rollo was enough to tell her all. “Cecile, go and help the man on the third stretcher for now. Come back to Rollo later.”
The pain of her friend darted through her. She understood, for if this were the man she loved, she wouldn’t have been able to help at all.
“I should care for him.” Tears slipped down Cecile’s face.
“Later, you will. I’ll clean him up, and you go to look after his friend. It will be best that way.” She gave Cecile a gentle push toward the third stretcher and turned to Rollo.
All her focus pinpointed to the bloodstained, grubby bandages. The sounds in the hall dimmed when she rested her palm on his fevered skin.
Pictures flashed through her mind. She jerked back at the weight of the staff that struck him. The bottles of potion slipped from his hands to crash on the ground, and as his knees sagged, the staff landed again. Bile stung the base of her throat, and she gagged. Twice more the heavy staff fell, and his bones cracked.
The sound took her far from the hall, away to the west, in sight of the high mountains. A brilliant dazzle of light such as was never seen in the south surrounded her. She breathed the light in until it filled her.
The warmth tingled in her skin. Full of hope, she catapulted back to the hall. Rollo lay before her, and the gentle heat would help his pain. She knelt beside the stretcher. Time seemed to cease. Bright beams shot from her hands to merge over Rollo’s body. Heat flooded her, and she sensed when it penetrated to the pain of his broken limbs. Only when the bones clicked into place did the light dim. She looked up from him to the hall. The walls trembled in the torchlight for a second before all steadied and she rose from her knees.
She turned at the soft rush of exhaled breath from those in the hall. All of them stared, wide-eyed, at her. Thabit walked to her from the doorway. “Sparrow, you have done enough for now. They will be moved to the infirmary as Lady Cassandra wants.”
Happy that Rollo’s legs would work again, and his pain grew less, she stood back as two men lifted the stretcher. Rollo would recover, but best of all was Thabit’s smile. She went to him and he hugged her close. Lady Cassandra joined them.
“After such an expense of energy you need to rest and eat, Nin. Have you eaten anything since yesterday?” Cassandra asked.
Nin shook her head and enjoyed Thabit’s embrace.
“Then you will now. Thabit, take her to the quiet of the workroom. Call the servants to bring her a meal.”
“There’s no need, my lady. I can wait until later.”
“No, Nin, don’t disagree with me. You can rejoin us when you have rested and eaten.” Cassandra spoke to her, but the lady’s gaze did not leave Thabit.
“Lady Cassandra is right, Sparrow. You need to eat.” He stroked his hands up from her waist to her shoulders, then turned her in the direction of the door.
Unable to argue with both her mentors, Nin went with Thabit when the stretcher-bearers came to move the young men.
In the workroom, Thabit sat her at the table, and a servant quickly brought food for her from the kitchens at his order.
“Tell me, do you feel well, Sparrow?” he asked once they were alone.
She swallowed a mouthful of soup. “Yes, I’m fine.”
He stroked a hand over her hair. “Will you tell me what you saw when you helped Rollo?”
“No, it was horrible. They hurt him, and I wanted him well again. The light got hot and his bones fixed back together the way they should be. Thabit, was it wrong?”
“No, but unusual, shall we say.” He sat with her while she ate.
“I don’t want anymore.” She pushed the dish away. “I’m not hungry or tired. Tell me about the place where I found you. How did it manage to cage you? What is it?”
“You know near as much as I. The place has no name I know of. I went unawares and it took me with ease.” His finger caressed her cheek. “But it could not take you, my little bird, not you.”
He will defeat the evil.
Determination was in his eyes. She knew without thought or word he would return and fight for them all. “When will you go back?”
“Once I trace who gives the creature strength for existence. Perhaps with knowledge of the one behind this call to evil, and an understanding of their power, I might stand a chance to master the force working against us.”
She grasped his hand and clasped her fingers over his smooth knuckles. “I will come with you. Together we would be much stronger. We will return. I can see it.”
“No!” His voice echoed around the room. “I will not take you there again.”
She narrowed her eyes and gave a small shake of her head.
“How can you deny me? You know the power we can wield together.”
A sudden wave of certainty hit her, strong enough to force her to disagree with him. “We will return, Thabit, I know it. You may take time to reach the decision, but we will journey there together.
“Now, I am going to help the others.” She lifted his hand, kissed it, and got up from her seat at the table. He arched an eyebrow at her.
“You have to understand. You must believe in us. Thabit, meditate, think on it, and you will see I’m right. You will find the way for our return when the time is right. I’m sure.”
She did not know how they would return. For that knowledge, she must depend on him.
Thabit stared after her. She had emerged like a butterfly and soared with bright wings before him. The door closed behind her, and he took a deep breath. Wherever his Sparrow was, she was no longer here. The young woman, who offered him her insight, bloomed full of light and power, calm and cool. Without a doubt, she told only the truth, and her powerful words tortured.
Return with her to the flame-filled horror. No, I couldn’t bear to see her pain.
He went to the far end of the room, sat with his gaze on the star, and waited until it shimmered before him to meditate.
High-pitched calls of young pageboys, who scurried back and forth in the corridors, disturbed his thoughts. He would find no peace here this day. He stood and made his way to the infirmary.
Nin glowed again. Radiant pulses of light flowed from her hands to one of the young men. Quietly, Thabit went to stand beside her. When the light dimmed and a great sigh came from the youth in the bed, he reached over and took her hand. He glanced at the boy whose face settled into a peaceful expression.
“He will heal and he will live,” she murmured.
“Is this the last one?”
She blinked up at his question. Cassandra came to stand with them and slipped her arm about Nin.
“Yes, Thabit. This lad is the last one of these four, and now Nin will rest, or walk in the garden if she refuses to sleep.”
“No, my lady. I will help Tab and Cecile tend to them, and the others who will come.”
Cassandra nodded but looked uncertain. “Very well, my dear,” she said as Nin moved off to one of the other beds. “Thabit, come and walk with me. Ladies, we will return here shortly.”
He had no choice but to follow Cassandra.
When they reached the quiet of the winter herb garden, she turned to him. “Thabit, I truly believe she has become a healing power without par. Nin is very special indeed, marked by the gods as one of their own.”
Memories of Nin’s arrival at the tower, her fearful eyes sadder than a lonely blossom, came to mind. She had gifted him with her trust. His foolishness almost lost her faith and love. The mark led to cruelty, and he could not bear to see her face more. “One of their own perhaps, but not marked, my lady. Do not mention it to her.”
“Thabit, you must use this power she has within her. When you find what we seek and return to defeat this dark creature, you
use Nin to support you.”
Cassandra’s face gleamed full of hope, and he swallowed hard.
Such a ceremony had not occurred in an age. How could he use his Sparrow, no matter what she had become?
“There may be no need for such extremes. When I have searched and found whoever has called this monster into being, we may gain all the answers.”
“There will be a need. I know it, you know it, and Nin knows it, too. You must decide. You cannot dismiss what has happened to her. She has become a tool, a weapon for you to use, if you will.”
He slammed his hand against one of the raised herb beds. Cassandra’s words were those of the gods, and he fought against fate. “I do not choose to use her as a weapon. She is the girl I want. The woman I want.”
Cassandra smiled. “Yes, I know. Your bond is all to the good for your cause. Tomorrow, the search will go well. I have seen you will find what we seek, and Nin will help you deal with it. The gods want you to work together in this task. I have never been more certain in my life.”
He strode away and indecision, hotter than the fires they managed to leave, plagued him. Before he clasped the iron door handle, he looked over his shoulder. “I pray for once, my lady, your vision is clouded. I refuse to take her back there.”
“No, Mage, I am not wrong. You will discover what must be done,” she whispered.
Unable to face the notion, he hurried inside and down the corridor. He did not rejoin Nin, but walked from the confines of the castle and out to the edge of the lake. Here, he could breathe, well away from the crowds of refugees. In no need of advice, concern, or comment should anyone notice him, he shifted into the shadowy being none could see.
Firelight beckoned from one of the camps, but he turned away. He had no right to the light. His path remained one of the shadows. His Sparrow offered him the joy of her sunlight, and how would he repay her generosity? She’d only experience pain.
I cannot ask it of her.