12. The Healer's Touch
Chapter 11 The Healer's Touch
The rain continued. Lightning flickered and thunder rumbled from far off. The wizard dismounted stiffly. He gripped his enemy's sword in his right hand; blood poured from his left. He had caught the brunt of the last blow on his hand. He tucked the hilt of the sword into his belt and leaned with a grimace into Rubeo's neck. In a moment, his head rose. He tugged the cuff of his sleeve downward to cover the wound and strode into the crowd, gripping his staff in his right hand.
The four mules bucked and brayed in their traces, oblivious to the efforts of the two drivers trying to calm them. Everywhere he looked, people were shouting, or weeping. Some gestured wildly while others clung to one another. The noise was hardly less than it had been in the midst of the worst fighting. He scanned the ground.
Five men lay dead in the road. Four were their attackers. The other was Ahmed.
"What happened, did anyone see?" Incanus asked as he approached the body. Ahmed's chest was darkened with a wide stain where a sword had pierced him through. His sightless eyes stared blankly upward.
"I got that one," said Mobasu hoarsely, pointing to a dead man whose neck had been cleaved by an axe blow. "The rest were pulling away, calling for retreat. But one of the bastards wouldn't leave until he'd taken revenge. I didn't see him coming after me..." Mobasu groaned. "Ahmed leaped between us... It is my fault... It should have been me..."
"Don't be a fool, Mobasu. It is not your fault," the wizard said. Mobasu covered his eyes with his hand and shook his head.
Incanus stepped toward him. "It is an honorable way to die, to save the life of a friend. I have no doubt that you would have done the same for him." He placed his hand upon Mobasu's shoulder. "Is anyone else hurt?" he asked, glancing around.
Kutumi stood behind him. "A few scrapes and bruises, nothing serious…." His voice trailed off as he suddenly noticed the wizard's left hand as it lay upon Mobasu's shoulder. He gasped. Mobasu's eyes opened and he looked down. He shrugged himself free of the wizard's grip and gaped.
Suddenly every eye was staring at the oozing red slash. Incanus looked around. On every face, he read the same expression: shock, and fear. So, he thought grimly, they thought I could not bleed. They thought I was not human. Several men looked up, but not, as he noted, at his face. They were staring wide-eyed at his shorn hair.
Incanus took in a breath to speak. But at that moment a wailing cry rose from the forward wagon.
"Ei! Suli! No, no!"
It was Farased's voice.
They hurried toward the sound. Nelika and another woman crouched on the floor of the wagon, leaning over someone lying flat. Farased knelt nearby, his raised hands clenched in fists and his face contorted with grief.
"Curse them, the murderers!" he cried. "Villains, to shoot a defenseless girl…"
Suli lay on the boards, panting heavily, her face stiff with pain. An arrow protruded from just below the right side of her ribcage. Her thin gown, stretched over her growing belly, was stained with red. Incanus stared in horror. Had he evaded this same dart, only to allow it to find this poor young woman?
Nelika, ignoring the gathering crowd, gripped Farased's hand. "You must calm yourself. She needs you, Farased."
He nodded and wiped a hand across his eyes. "What should I do?" he whispered.
"Kneel there, above her head, and hold her still." Nelika turned to Suli. Her palm caressed the younger woman's cheek. "Suli, be brave. We must remove this ugly thing. I cannot lie--it will hurt terribly. But you are strong, and young, and you have a child to bear." She smiled, and Suli nodded. Her expression remained unchanged, but slowly, tears began to flow from the corners of her eyes.
Incanus reached over the edge of the wagon and placed his hand lightly on Nelika's arm. "Before you proceed, may I speak to you?" he said.
She frowned, but rose and stepped away from Suli's side. She clutched the wooden rail and leaned down.
"Well?" she said in a sharp but hushed tone. "What is it? I have work to do."
"I will keep you from it for only a moment. But perhaps her wound is not as bad as it seems," he said quietly.
"Not as bad as it seems!" she hissed angrily. "What do you know of it, Incanus? This wound may be deadly, no matter what we do!"
"I know a little of such things," he said. He gazed upward into her eyes. "Allow me to help, Nelika." His voice dropped to a whisper. "Please--trust me."
She stared back, frowning in exasperation. His eyes were a strange color, she thought, such a dull grey and yet oddly bright. She resisted. He was a sorcerer, it was true, but all she had seen of his magic were a warrior's skills. What use was that here? She had to clean up the mess left after the battle. Such work always fell to her, and to other women like her. Warriors could not be healers, and yet… She recalled the day on the platform, when he had knelt to embrace her, and other days on the road, when he had done things she had seen no man do, said things she had heard no man say before. Her anger began to fade. She had no reason not to trust him. What harm could he do, except to get in the way? And perhaps he might even help. Maybe he had skills she hadn't seen. She nodded, gestured that he should climb into the wagon and turned back to her task.
"Kutumi," Incanus said, "Ask everyone to step back. The healers need peace and quiet to do their work."
Kutumi waved both hands toward the gathered throng. "All right, move back! Give the poor girl some room. This isn't a festival, go on, get back…" The others moved away. Soon, only five remained on the wagon.
Nelika knelt by Suli's right side. The second healer, Januno, sat on her left, holding the injured woman's hands in hers. Januno closed her eyes and began to sing in a low voice. Farased was above Suli's head, his arms embracing her, his cheek pressed to hers. Incanus crouched behind Nelika.
"I will steady the wound while you withdraw the arrow," he said.
Reaching forward, he placed his right hand near the protruding shaft and pressed gently. Suli clamped her eyes shut.
"Are you ready?" Nelika asked. Suli nodded, stiffening in anticipation. Nelika watched the girl's face as she worked the dart outward. It was difficult and slow, for the wound was deep, and the barbs caught. Yet, Suli's face slowly relaxed. Her breathing eased. As she finally dislodged the arrow's head, Nelika stared in astonishment as Suli sighed and smiled wanly. The young woman's eyes fluttered open.
"Thank you, Nelika," she whispered. "You are so skillful…I…I hardly felt it…"
Nelika gazed at the arrowhead. It was thick with clotted blood. She looked down at the wound. How strange; the hole seemed smaller than she recalled from just moments ago. How could it be? Then she noticed the wizard's pale hand as it lifted and withdrew.
Nelika stole a glance at Incanus. His eyes were shut. He held himself in a rigid bent position: head bowed, fists clenched, but utterly still, as if he was unable to move. Then she saw the gash on the back of his left hand.
"Nelika, you are a wonder… Thank you!" Farased cried. Nelika turned back to the wounded girl. Farased held Suli's head in his lap. They were both weeping. The healing woman smiled and reached out. Suli grabbed her hand and squeezed it.
"You healed me…"
"Hush! You have a long way to go yet before you are healed. Lie still while we bind the hole." The women worked over her, sprinkling herbs on the wound and binding it with clean cloths. Nelika looked up and watched as Incanus stiffly climbed from the wagon and walked away without a word.
"Farased, stay with her," Nelika said. "She must rest. Januno, will you stay?"
"Of course," Januno muttered. The older woman's eyes were half closed. She swayed slightly as she began to hum the healing song again.
The rain had slowed to a drizzle when Nelika found him. He was directing the building of a large pile of sodden firewood. The others grumbled. What a waste of effort, for surely not even a sorcerer could light this soaking wet fuel. She watched from a dozen yards away as he raised his staff and muttered a few words. A green-blue flame burst up from the stack of wood, and soon a roaring blaze had caught. Everyone gathered eagerly, smiling and laughing now, minding not at all how the wood sizzled and steamed. The wizard turned away from the fire and wove through the crowd. But Nelika moved quickly and blocked his way.
"How is Suli?" he asked.
"She is well--remarkably well, under the circumstances. You were right. The wound was smaller than it appeared at first. She will be fine, and the child to be is unharmed." She tried to catch his eyes, but he looked down.
"I am happy for her, and for Farased." He turned his head and began to walk away. She moved in front of him again.
"Incanus, no one has tended to your injury. If you will allow me…"
"It is nothing." He stepped sideways, dodging her.
Nelika reached out to restrain him. "But Incanus, I…"
He shook her off. "It will heal."
"It will heal faster if it is tended." She stepped around to his left side.
"Will you not let me be, woman?" he snapped, pulling away from her.
"No, I will not!" She reached out and grasped his elbow through heavy fabric. Before he could tug himself free, she twitched his sleeve upward and leaning down, peered at the wound. The sword had gouged across his wrist, from knuckle to forearm. The gash was over eight inches long, and deep: white bone and glistening gristle peeked through the red.
Nelika clicked her tongue. "It is well I persisted. This wound is hardly nothing! You might have been crippled, your left hand useless, if this wasn't bound properly." She released her grip on him.
"Go, over there, and sit on that fallen tree," she commanded in an imperious voice. She pointed to the edge of the road, away from the fire. "Wait for me there."
He stared in astonished anger as she walked away. How dare she take such a tone with him! He should leave, now, before she returned to pester him again. Then a shudder of pain passed through him, followed by a wave of regret. He had behaved rudely, and to one who was only trying to help. What was wrong with him? The scowl faded. He sighed and turned toward the log.
She returned with a gourd of water, a bag of herbs and some lengths of cloth. She placed her things on the ground and watched him in silence. His head was bowed. He clutched his arm close. His staff leaned upon the log beside him. She sat to his left, reached out and grasped his sleeve, and his head rose.
"Hold your arm up," she said, as she began to push back his sleeve.
His face flushed. "I can do it…"
"As you wish," she said curtly, releasing the fabric.
Nelika watched as he folded the sleeve of his heavy robe up to his elbow. She thought that she had grown used to the pale color of their guide's skin. But now she saw that the parts of him that could easily be seen—his face and hands--were, in fact, bronzed from the sun, while the rest was white as cream. Why, she could even see the blue of veins running beneath the surface! His skin must be as fragile as the lining of an egg!
Yet the apparent delicacy of his skin seemed only to accentuate the firmness of the sinews beneath it. His forearm was as well-muscled as any warrior's. And curiously, it was thick with hair, as dark and curling as that on his head. She found herself wondering what other parts of him were covered with such strange hair, so unlike the smooth-skinned men she had known.
Without her willing it, her eyes traced upward to the line of his shoulder, and tarried there. She had pressed her face into that broad shoulder once before, on the day they met. She thought of how it would feel to do so again, without the heavy robe as a barrier between them. She blinked, and felt warmth rise in her cheeks. How long had she been staring, imagining the strength of his embrace? She reached for a clean cloth and turned her attention to cleansing the wound.
Incanus stared dully as Nelika worked. Why had he agreed to this, he wondered? The wound was deep, but nothing serious, nothing that would not heal. Was it because he felt weakened by what had just happened with Suli? That had taken a toll on him, greater than he had expected. He had learned, centuries ago, of this strange power in his hands—and of its cost. What healing he could offer to others came at his own expense. If past experience predicted the future, this sword cut would close more slowly for his efforts with the wounded girl: for some of his ability to heal himself had been spent on her, and some of her hurt had been taken within him. Yet, the cut would close in time and leave no trace, whether it was bound by a proper healer or not. Why had he not been more firm with Nelika, and allowed the thing to heal on its own?
He watched as she bowed over his limb, drawing it toward herself. She was very close; her shoulder pressed into his. He felt her warmth against him. He looked at her head. Shimmering beads of water clung to her braided hair. A single drop trailed down the side of her neck. Her eyes were downcast, her lashes long and dark. Her full lips were pursed in concentration. His gaze wandered over the curve of her round cheek with its tiny knobs of shiny scar. In his mind's eye, he saw his fingertips tracing a line over those knobs. With a start, he realized that his right hand was moving upward--of its own accord, it seemed. He clenched it into a fist and brought it down again.
Nelika reached down for the pouch at her feet. From it, she sprinkled a powdered herbal concoction onto the tear in his flesh. He looked at the wound and frowned. It stank, he thought, not like Corli's herbs—and smarted.
"We have had to make do with whatever we can find, Januno and myself." Nelika seemed to be reading his thoughts. "We find none of our own healing plants in your northern fields. This is not very potent, and it smells bad, but it is the best I can do."
"Corli always says it is in the healer's touch rather than the healer's herbs where the real skill is found."
Slowly she wound a strip of cloth around his hand and wrist.
"It is true, what your woman says. It is the touch that carries the power." She fidgeted with the cloth. "Incanus, I wonder… What did you do for Suli?"
There was a long pause. When he responded, it was to the dripping shade under the trees. "For Suli? I steadied the wound, that was all. You did everything, Nelika."
"But she felt almost nothing, and the wound that remained after the arrow was gone was small, and not very deep."
"Hmm. How lucky for her."
Her attention now was given to tying the bandage snugly. She leaned close again. He found himself comparing her scent to Corli's. Corli smelled of growing things: of flowers, of the spring, of soothing oils released as one brushed one's hand against a fragrant leaf. Nelika's scent was thicker, darker--like her skin, he thought. She smelled of the rich earth, of potent spice and things hidden, deep and secret. For a lingering moment of pleasure mixed with rising desire, he breathed deeply, drawing her smell within him. He relished the warm touch of her skin on his, certain it would be the last time he felt it. Then she was finished. Her hands withdrew.
Carefully he unrolled his sleeve. He felt her eyes on him. He wondered why it had never occurred to him that this might be one of the risks of his journey. He had never considered for a moment that he might find himself entangled yet again, and so soon. He spoke without looking at her.
"Thank you. You are a skilled healer, Nelika. You have the touch."
She sniffed. "I suspect I did nothing for you. I suspect your wound will heal as it will—swiftly, no doubt, with little help from me or my pouch of women's herbs." She hesitated. "You need not worry, Incanus. I will tell no one what happened when you touched Suli. I won't even tell Kutumi." Her voice was just above a whisper. "Though I cannot say what it was you did, I am certain that you did something…and that it helped her." She looked into his eyes. "And I saw what it did to you. I saw how it took something from you—how it pained you, to help her. So I will keep what I saw to myself. For if the others knew of this skill of yours, they would clamor for every little scratch to be healed, and your strength would drain away." She began to gather her things. "Now, I give you the same advice I gave to Suli: you should rest."
He rose to his feet. "Rest," he sighed. "Yes, I would very much like to rest. But right now, there is more work to do."
Their eyes met. Then he turned and walked away.
She waited, watching his figure move back toward the crowd of people hovering near the fire. He is every bit as strange as Kutumi says, she thought. Strange and powerful, and very interesting--and hardly ugly. She smiled to herself.
The clouds were finally breaking. The sunlight of the waning afternoon began filtering through the steaming forest as Incanus returned to where the others waited, gathered in groups of four or five. Conversation ceased, and all eyes were on him as he approached. He went directly to where Ahmed's body lay in the road, covered with a damp blanket. They had lit torches and set a watch by the body. Two men crouched nearby, Mobasu at his head and Mgeni at his feet. They rose when Incanus approached. Mobasu flushed. His eyes darted nervously back and forth from the wizard's newly bandaged hand to the dark hair that he had cut himself, not long ago.
Incanus noted the barber's anxiety. One brow rose. Later, he supposed, he would have to address their tiresome superstitions. But right now there were more important tasks to do.
"Does anyone know the proper rites for his people?" he said.
"He was from the country of the salt lakes, just east of my land," Mgeni said. "Men there are dispatched on boats of reed, brought out into the deepest water and returned to it, from whence their legends say all life comes."
They were a hundred miles from the nearest lake, a vast shallow freshwater sea called Rhur, and had no time for such a detour. They had no tools for a proper burial. In the end they decided to build a pyre in a clearing away from the thick trees. They stood back while Incanus bowed his head over the man who had rejoined the group instead of striking out alone. He placed his hand on the covered body. No one heard the words he whispered.
"Maybe you would have come at last to your own land, if you had left us that night. If I stopped you, and in doing so led you to an early death, forgive me. But if it was your time to die, I am glad you stayed so that we could know you. Go now, Ahmed, and have no fear. Accept the Gift as a free man."
He muttered a few words and thrust the end of his staff into the stacked branches. He leapt back. The wood burst into flame as if the fuel was tinder dry. They watched the fire steam and smoke as the sun went down. Some of the men chanted slowly, and a few women keened in a sorrowful high-pitched wail. At their guide's insistence they continued on their way into the growing twilight.
"He wouldn't have wanted us to linger. And the sooner we're out of this uncouth land, the better," he said in a rough voice.