Authors: Karen Miller
Tags: #Fantasy, #Epic, #Magic, #Paranormal, #Science Fiction
Nix led the way to his book-lined, herb-infested office. The chamber’s air was thick with hints of potions past, reluctantly swallowed. Cheerful flames leapt in a small fireplace; the room was stiflingly warm.
“Right then,” he said, planting himself between desk and scarred workbench. “Now that we’re beyond sight and sound of nuisance, let’s see the truth of the matter, shall we, Your Highness? Time to strip, please, down to your skin.”
Too battered and weary for further protest, Gar let Nix and Asher between them ease him out of his hasty bandages and ruined, bloodstained clothes. With memories of his own past hurts resurfacing, Asher was as gentle as he could be, wincing as the full extent of Gar’s injuries were revealed. Breathing unevenly, Gar cradled his left arm with his right hand and waited for the ordeal to end.
“Hmmph,” said the pother, inspecting the prince like a man at a horse auction. A frown pinched his bushy gray and yellow eyebrows together as his blunt fingers
skimmed the surface of Gar’s insulted body, marking each cut, each scrape, each ripening bruise. Air hissed between Gar’s clenched teeth as Nix’s fingers lightly traced the irregular line of the broken collarbone.
He felt Gar’s skull, took his pulse, listened to his heartbeat and breathing, checked the coating on his tongue and the clarity of his eyes. “Any idea how long you were stunned out of your senses?”
“No,” said Gar. “I remember—I think I remember— flying through the air. Hitting the ground. I know I woke twice. Tried to get up, go for help… I couldn’t even stand.”
“It were mid-morning when you left,” said Asher. “And dusk when me and Matt found you.”
“Hmmph,” said Nix. “A goodly brain rattling, then. You’ll need a day or three in bed, to guard against conniptions.”
“Bed?” Gar pulled a face. “I think not.”
“Did you know I’ve an excellent cure for an argumentative patient, sir?” Nix asked, eyes narrowed. “It involves needle, thread and meals sucked through a straw.”
“Spare me your dubious wit!” retorted Gar. “Your king is dead and his heir with him! It falls to me now to continue his legacy. Do you tell me I can do so from my
Suddenly pale, and with tears in his eyes, Nix jabbed Gar’s chest with a pointed finger. “I tell you, sir, that as Royal Pother I am charged with the gravest responsibility: the care of this kingdom’s physical well-being in the body of its WeatherWorker. With Borne’s death, may Barl keep him, that body is now yours. From this day forth you belong to Lur, first and foremost. And in the pursuit of my sacred duty as your pother I will allow you no secrets, grant you no privacies, spare you no shame and brook no argument. If I say you must rest you
rest. For upon your health depends the welfare of Barl’s Wall and the kingdom it protects. The lives of every last man, woman and child. Because of this your health is
kingdom and in this room I am king. Do you understand?”
As Gar stared at Nix in silent shock, Asher sighed. “He’s right. And no, you didn’t ask me.”
“I didn’t have to,” said Gar. His voice was a strangled whisper. “Of course he’s right.”
Gentle again, Nix lightly touched Gar’s shoulder. “Sit, sir, while I collect what’s needful.”
There was a chair close by. Asher helped Gar into it, then stood back. More than anything he wanted to drape himself over the desk or lean against a handy stretch of wall, but protocol dictated otherwise. And Nix would probably throw something at him for making a mess.
The pother went to his office door, pulled it three inches wide and barked through the opening: “Kerril! Fetch me a quarter-cup of janjavet with two drops of dursle root essence added after pouring. Also a measure of bee-blossom. Quickly!”
While he waited for his subordinate to bring him the requested potions, Nix rummaged in a cupboard and withdrew four cork-sealed pots, a bluestone mortar and pestle and a small clear vial of something green and viscous. After depositing them on the crowded bench he rolled up his dangling sleeves and got to work. The smell as he pounded each ingredient in the pestle was vile.
Gar stirred. Looked up, his expression apprehensive. “You expect me to swallow that?”
A tap on the door indicated Kerril’s return. “No,” replied Nix as he pushed the door shut and handed Gar one of the cups Kerril had given him. ‘This.”
Gar sniffed the liquid suspiciously. “What is it?”
“Something to dull the pain while I fix that broken collarbone,” said Nix, standing over him. “Bone-knitting’s not the gentlest of healing magic.”
The pother’s expression was sympathetic but unyielding. Gar spared him a single burning look then shuddered and tossed the potion down his throat.
“Barl’s mercy!” he gasped, and started gagging. “Are you trying to poison me?”
“I’d advise you not to vomit, sir,” said Nix, returning to his mortar and pestle. He added the bee-blossom and resumed pounding. “You’ll only have to drink another lot and I’m told it tastes even worse the second time. Now just sit quietly while it takes effect and I finish this ointment.”
Still gagging, Gar dropped the cup and hunched over, fisted fingers pressed to his mouth. A few moments later, Nix was ready.
Eyes closed, words whispering under his breath, the pother laid his hands on Gar’s broken collarbone. At his touch a spark of light ignited. Became a flame. His fingers began to dance up and down the bone’s irregular length, drumming lightly, and the flame danced with them.
Asher had never seen a Doranen bone-knitting before, although he had friends who’d required it after a squall off Tattler’s Ear Cove rattled them like thrown knuckle bones from bow to stern in their fishing smack. “Hurt like blazes,” Beb and Joffet had told him with identical grimacing shudders.
Clearly, Gar would agree. Even with the pain-dulling potion his face was salty white and shiny with sweat, and his breathing came hard and harsh. Small grunts escaped him, and his right hand spasmed on the arm of the chair.
“Nearly done,” Nix murmured. The flame beneath his fingers was a furnace now; Asher imagined he could feel the heat of it in his own flesh, and winced. “Take a nice deep breath,” said Nix. “And hold—hold—hold—”
With a final burst of light and a sharp command the broken bone beneath the pother’s hands snapped back into place. Gar shouted, and would have flung himself out of the chair if Nix hadn’t restrained him. Flinching in sympathy Asher watched the healer cradle Gar hard against the magic’s tormenting aftermath, patting his back and clucking like an old hen.
‘There now, there now, that’s the worst over, I swear it.”
Slowly, Gar recovered. Straightened, and pushed Nix away. “I’m fine, stop fussing,” he muttered.
Nix returned to his bench and retrieved the mortar of stinking ointment. “Stand up for me, Your Highness. We’ll just test that arm first, then take care of your bumps and scrapes.”
His breathing still a little unsteady, Gar stood. Lifted his left arm above his head, waved it in circles, clenched his hand to a fist and pulled his elbow tight to his side.
“Excellent,” said Nix. “Another day and you’ll never know it was damaged. Now for the rest of you.”
In swift silence he daubed his pungent green concoction onto Gar’s hurts. Seconds after touching the damaged flesh it melted out of sight. The dried blood faded, and with it the ointment’s eye-watering smell. A thin protective film now coated each wound.
“There,” said Nix at last. “Better?”
Gar touched cautious fingertips to his cut forehead. Pressed them against his torn hip, thigh, ribs. “Better.” He let his hand rest on Nix’s arm for a moment. “My thanks.”
Nix nodded. “You’ll take the ointment with you. Apply it morning and night for three days. You’ll be healed by then.”
“Yes,” said Gar. “I’ll do that. But as for staying in bed, Nix . ..”
The pother heaved a disgruntled sigh. “I know. I know. The burden of kingship cannot be laid down.” He turned to Asher. “I charge you to keep a close eye on him. Send for me at the slightest suspicion of weakness, or collapse.”
Asher nodded. “I will.”
“And now,” said Gar, “I will see Durm.”
Asher looked at him sidelong. “Dressed like that?”
Gar’s reply was to close his eyes, frame four silent words with still-colorless lips, and with the fingers of his left hand trace in the chamber’s warm air a complicated sigil. Two heartbeats later he was holding shirt, trews and a weskit in his arms.
The effort dropped him back to the chair.
“You didn’t let me finish,” said Nix, reproving. “No magic for a week.”
Stippled with sweat, Gar shook his head. “I must. The WeatherWorking—”
“Will wait. Schedules can be adjusted. Performing magic in your condition could cripple you.”
It was a word laden with bitter memory.
“Fine,” Gar said curtly. Shakily he stood again and, with slow deliberation, began to dress.
Nix busied himself emptying the rest of the mortar’s ointment into a small jar. “And you, Asher,” he said. “There’s blood on your hands.”
Asher looked. True, there was. Not all of it his, though. Most of it not his. But how could he say that, in Gar’s hearing? He shrugged. “Scraped knuckles. I’m fine.”
He shoved his hands under Nix’s nose. The pother ran his experienced gaze over the cuts, dabbed them with ointment, then stoppered the jar with a cork and held it out. “There’s enough here for you, too. Both of you use it, or I’ll know the reason why.”
Asher looked up from his tingling hands. “Yes, sir.”
Behind them Gar fastened the last button on his weskit. “Durm,” he said. His face and voice brooked no opposition. “Now.”
Pother Tobin was waiting for them in the reception area. When she saw Gar, she bowed.
“Your secretary is resting comfortably, Your Highness. He’s been given a good strong dose of heartsease and should be well enough for visitors come the morning.”
Gar nodded. “My thanks.” As the pother bowed again, retreating, he turned to Nix. “Where is Durm?”
Nix nodded at the reception area’s crimson door. “In there. But before you see him, I must caution you. His injuries are grave, his appearance … unsettling. I have done all I can for him. What happens now is up to his constitution, and Barl’s mercy.”
Gar didn’t reply immediately. His gaze wandered round the hushed reception area for long moments, touching on the bright-painted doors, the windowless walls, the potted plants. His expression was distant. Unmoved. “Will he live?”
Nix pursed his lips. “I’m a healer, sir. Not a soothsayer.”
There was a pother in Dunn’s room, seated in a chair beside the patient’s bed. She stood as they entered the windowless chamber. Glimfire sconces threw small shadows onto the cream-colored walls and a fire kept any chill at bay. At a signal from Nix she left them, closing the crimson door behind her.
Supported by mysterious pother magic, Durm floated some eight inches above a high, wide platform fitted on all four sides with wooden railings. To Asher it seemed there wasn’t a single square inch of the man’s naked skin that wasn’t stitched or stained or stretched with splints. Indeed, the massive head wound was embroidered so thickly his hairless scalp looked infested with caterpillars. His eyes, once as cold and piercing as spears of ice, were now invisible, consumed by the bloated purple flesh of his face.
Gar checked when he saw him, one hand coming up in a fierce denial. “Barl have mercy,” he whispered, a small wounded sound in the silence. “If I didn’t know it was him.. .” He managed a step closer. “Why haven’t you knitted his bones, Nix? You can’t leave him broken like this!”
“Bone-knitting would most likely kill him,” said Nix. “We’ll get to that, in time.”
If he lives.
The words hung unspoken between them.
“His stupor … ”
“A result of the head injury. It is … severe.” “Will he wake?”
“With his wits?”
Nix shrugged. “Unknown.”
“How long? Before he wakes? Before you do know.”
Nix frowned, but answered. “Days, certainly. Most likely weeks.”
Reluctantly, Gar dragged his gaze away from the monstrosity hovering over the bed. “But not months. It can’t be months, Nix. The WeatherWorking. My succession. This kingdom needs him! I need him!”
“I know that,” said Nix. “And if he can be healed, sir, I will heal him and return him to you.”
Nix sighed, and clasped his hands behind his back. The unspoken words would have to be spoken. “You must forgive my plain speaking, Your Highness, but I see no point in prevarication. To be blunt, I hold little hope.”
Gar’s face was chilled and chalk-white. Staring wide-eyed at Durm he said, “But little is not the same as none.”
“No,” Nix replied after a cautious pause. “No, it’s not.”
Asher watched as Gar moved to Durm’s bedside like a man entranced. When the prince spoke, his voice was the merest thread.
“I loved him once, and then I hated him. Now I don’t know what I feel…” He fell silent, struggling for words. “Except fear. I’ve known him all my life. He is as much my family as my father, my mother, my sister. If he dies … I am truly alone.”
He sounded bereft. Knifed to the soul.
Nix stepped forward and rested his hand on Gar’s shoulder. “No, sir,” he said, his voice rough with tears. “Not alone. Never alone while there is breath in my body.”
Asher cleared his throat. Banished tears of his own. _Da. Da. _”Nor mine,” he added. “Gar. .. let’s go. There ain’t nothing you can do for Durm … and you need sleep.”
Gar’s stricken gaze continued to feast on the unconscious Master Magician. “No. No, I can’t leave him.”
Nix’s fingers tightened. “You can’t stay,” he said gently. “Indeed, your presence might well hinder, not help. I will send for you the moment there is any change.”
For a moment Asher thought Gar would fight them. Then the prince—the king—sighed deeply. Touched two fingertips to his lips and pressed them lightly to Durm’s cheek.
“Come back to me, Durm,” he whispered. “I can’t go on without you.” Then he let Nix shepherd him to the chamber’s crimson door.