Tom hurried towards the causeway that linked the two sides of the city of Dargon. He tried not to worry, but he could feel the tension in his muscles with every step he took. He looked up at the cloudless early evening sky as he turned onto the Street of Travellers from Merchant’s Way. His eyes still up cast, he collided with another man going in the opposite direction.
Tom stood stunned for a moment, blinking into the bright orange light of the setting sun, and rubbed his chin where the top of the smaller man’s head had hit him. He tasted blood in his mouth: he had bitten his tongue. The other man was lying in the street on his back, with a slight cut above his eye.
Tom knelt at his side. “Are you hurt? I’m so sorry. I was hurrying –”
“To the causeway, I’d guess.” The other man, whose graying hair suggested that he was at least a decade older than Tom, managed a weak smile as he propped himself up on one elbow. “Straight, son, I’m fine. Today has been a day of confusion for everyone. Since that barge crashed into the causeway, nothing has been normal for any of us.”
Tom nodded. “I’m sorry. I’m going to look for my neighbor’s boy.”
“I understand. I just found my nephew. His arm is broken, but the healer says that he’ll be fine. I was running home to tell my wife. She’s been sick with worry.” The man sat up, moving his neck gingerly. “Sounds like you’d best be on your way. I’ll be fine.”
“Can I help you up?” Tom offered an arm muscled by years of working in the gardens of Dargon Keep.
“Yes, thank you.” The man used the assistance to lever himself back to his feet. Then he shook Tom’s hand before letting go. “Good luck, son.”
Tom continued on his way, thinking of his beautiful neighbor, Sian, who took in orphans and provided them with a home. There were only three of them living with her now: Finn, Briam, and little Kerith. Two others, Aren and Oriel, had found apprenticeships.
A few menes ago, he had seen Sian walking towards her home. Her tearstained face and dazed expression told him instantly that something was wrong. When he had approached her, she had told him that Oriel had come home that afternoon for a half day and she had sent the girl with Finn, Briam and Kerith to market. Somehow, the children had ended up on the causeway instead. Briam, along with many other onlookers, had fallen into the river during the barge accident. Sian had spent a few bells searching for him and had returned home unsuccessful when evening approached. When she finished telling him this, Tom had told her to look after the rest of her children and that he would continue searching for Briam.
He reached the causeway, catching his first glimpse of the devastation, and he had to blink to make sense of the image. The bridge had originally spanned the Coldwell River and connected the two sides of Dargon: the southwestern side where the keep and Old City were situated, and the northeastern side where the seaport and river port were located. When the barge had hit the causeway, it had partially collapsed lengthwise across the middle, with only a narrow section connecting both banks of the river still standing.
From where he stood, the part that remained upright looked barely wide enough for two people to cross abreast, and its sturdiness seemed highly questionable. The Dargon town guard had blocked access to the bridge so there was no activity on the normally busy byway. As Tom watched, a raft on the river began to cross from the other side.
Dusk would arrive soon and he could hear distant wailing from the riverbanks. The thought of what it meant made him shudder. The damage had not been confined to the causeway, for it had been filled with a crowd when the accident occurred. Briam was one of many lost, injured, or killed. Since Sian had already searched all along the near side of the river, Tom’s destination was the far side. With the bridge closed, the only other way to get to the Old City and the keep was by barge, so he approached the guard who seemed to be in charge.
“Hello, sir. My name is Tom Madden. I need to get to the keep side in order to look for a lost child …”
Tom expected the guard to deny his request immediately, but the man surprised him. “You’re not the only one. I can’t let you cross the causeway, but there are some people waiting for a ferry to return.” The guard motioned tiredly towards a crowd standing just upriver.
“Thank you.” Tom joined the group. He didn’t think that he would have to wait too long, since the raft he had seen departing the other side was approaching from upstream, and he realized that it wasn’t a raft but a small barge. As it came abreast of the group, two crewmen jumped off to tie her down. Tom waited until some of the people around him had clambered aboard before he moved, but soon he was standing near the bow, with little space to himself amid the throng, wondering at the greed people sometimes displayed. The price that he had been charged for passage was twice the normal fare. Luckily, he had not had to wait for a barge; he supposed it was because it was so late in the day.
The last bell of day tolled as they cast off. Tom looked at the wounded city, using his height to his advantage. He could see the commotion dying down, and the gawkers leaving, probably to their homes for dinner. The city was going to take a long time to recover.
Tom stared in awe as the barge floated past the damaged section of the causeway. The huge rent in the stonework made the whole structure look unstable. The fallen masonry lay piled above the waterline. One rescue barge was still anchored in the gap, but all of the men on its deck seemed to be moving at half speed. Tom was not sure if it was from despair or exhaustion, but it occurred to him that it was probably both.
The barge passed under an intact arch and landed just downriver from the causeway. Tom hopped off the craft and made his way down to the banks. He hurried, since dusk was turning to night, and searched one aid station after another with no success. Although a few healers were still working on the few remaining injured, he did not find Briam. Finally Tom realized with a sinking heart that the only place left to check was where the guards had been laying out the dead on this side of the river. Would he have to return to Sian with the news of Briam’s death?
Earlier that day, a reverberating crack had woken Joliana from her nap. She lifted her aching head off the pitted table when she heard the sound. It was loud enough to intensify the pulsing behind her eyes. She let her loose and stringy hair fall over her face to try to shield it from the light that filtered through the closed curtains. She guessed from the angle of the sun that it was a little after midday and she had another four or five bells of sitting around their small house before her husband, Aviato, would return from his work at the docks.
Joliana gazed around with little interest in the cause of the noise, although she was reasonably sure that it hadn’t come from inside. Everything in the room looked in order. The cabinets and countertops near the door of the room were lined with the jars of liniments and ingredients she used in her work as a healer. She couldn’t keep herself from searching the labels for the one substance she knew was not there. Two days back, she had run out of ardon, kept in a small jar on the corner of one shelf and marked only with a picture of a sun and a moon. With her thinning business, she had not had the money to purchase any more.
Deciding that the noise wasn’t worth her interest, Joliana laid her head back on the table and tried to drift back to sleep. It had become her normal way of passing the innumerable bells of the day. Immediately a knock at her door startled her. This time the pain was like a knife being shoved in her temple. She groaned.
The door opened at her audible but wordless response, and a young boy pushed his head into the room. Eyes wide, he looked surprised at the scene before him, as if he had expected something else. Joliana recognized him as the son of one of the other healers living along Atelier Street. She stared at him, the longing for a child still raw in her heart after all these years. If she had been able to have a child, would he have been like this fresh-faced boy?
“Mistress Joliana.” His voice rose with excitement as he spoke. “There’s been an accident. The causeway broke and fell into the river. The guard has sent for every healer that could be found. My pa said to knock at every door.”
Joliana sat upright languidly, processing the boy’s comments. “Thank you,” she drawled, as much a dismissal as a confirmation. The boy read what she put into her tone and hurried out the door, shutting it loudly behind him.
She rubbed her temples and sat for a moment. All it had taken was the one boy to remind her of her deep, open wound, the scar that she had yet to heal within herself. The only cure she had found was ardon, and that was a temporary — and expensive — salve at best.
Without knowing why, Joliana stood and walked over to her counter, pulling her leather bag, already stuffed with medicines and bandages, from the cabinet. The thin layer of dust on top affirmed the length of time that had passed since the bag had last been used. She stared inside it at the equipment of her trade and wondered if she could really be of any help.
A good part of her wanted to go back to sleep and forget the strange interruption. Curiosity got the better of her. She had been born and raised in Dargon, and the causeway was an integral part of the city. The bridge crossed the Coldwell River, connecting the keep side and the port side of Dargon. Many citizens crossed it every day. She simply could not conceive of the causeway falling into the river. It was true that, in the past, barges and sailboats had hit it, causing minor damage. However, those cracks had usually been repaired at once. This time the boy had made it sound serious. She couldn’t imagine a disaster in which they called upon every healer in the city.
Joliana walked out her front door and merged with the foot traffic heading towards the river, drifting off to one side out of other people’s way. Most of them were hurrying, while she could barely find the energy to walk, squinting against the painful glare of the full sun. It had been days since she had ventured out of her shop. Her husband had taken to bringing home food for them and leaving again for one tavern or another before she could even finish her half-hearted attempts at eating. He was away most nights now and Joliana couldn’t blame him. It was her fault; it had all been her fault. She’d destroyed his dreams, as well as her own.
After only a few menes, Joliana reached the riverbank and stared open-mouthed at the scene before her. The entire bridge hadn’t fallen into the Coldwell as the boy had claimed, but a huge span of it certainly had. From where she stood, she could see that rescuers thronged the fallen stone, and it seemed as if all of Dargon were in that small area where she stood, the best place to view the chaotic activity.
Before she knew what she was doing, she found herself pushing through the crowd of observers, mumbling, “Healer. Let me pass. Let me pass.” She was even more amazed when people moved out of her way.
A guard came up and led her down to the river where another man stood, directing the efforts of the rescuers around him. The guard who led her didn’t seem to realize how much she needed his strength to keep from stumbling with fright.
When at last the other man turned to face the two of them, Joliana’s guide said, “Sergeant Cepero, this here’s another healer.”
“Thank you, Rieqen. Come with me, mistress.” The sergeant turned and led her towards the beach and behind a small rise. “Already some of your compatriots are working at the causeway and barge, but we don’t have enough healers on the other side of the river near the Old City. Here’s a small boat ready to take you across.”
They had arrived at the water’s edge, and the sergeant helped her into a skiff. He gave quick orders to the guard manning the oars and pushed them off. The guard on the boat did not seem inclined to speak as he fought against the current, and Joliana was happy for the silence. She sat with her head down, staring at the fast-moving water that rushed around the boat.
Panicked, she realized that the safety of her house was falling away behind her, leaving her with no escape. Mixed with her turbulent thoughts, an odd clarity formed. This was it. She’d stand up, jump out of the boat, and be swept away by the current. She looked into the face of the guard across from her. He only looked at her with mild curiosity and the urge to move faded away. If she stood up the boat would swamp; she couldn’t bear to endanger this quiet guard. So she continued to watch the water eddy and swirl. It reminded her of her first experience with ardon.
A sailor she had treated had not had the money to pay her, and seeing her bleak face and exhausted eyes, he had given her ardon dust as payment. “You look like you could use this, lady. It will make the pain go away, but only for a while.” She had not refused his offer, although at the time she had never intended to use the drug.
She had stashed it away in the back of her ingredient shelf, convincing herself that she might need it some day to help treat a patient. She had let it rest there for two days; on the third day, she had been sitting in her room, her heart swamped with despair. Unable to bear the hopelessness for another instant, she had opened the container and sampled the ardon.
The colors, textures, and movements around her had awoken as the drug had taken effect. Her desolate existence had transformed into something new and vibrant. She had spent the day studying the wonders in the loops and whorls of her rough-hewn table, forgetting all that had occurred in her life. The entire day had passed without the painful reminders of her barrenness interfering. The problem, she realized later, was that when the ardon wore off, the world looked even more drab than it had before.
The bump of the craft hitting the opposite shore signaled their arrival. The guard hopped out and pulled the boat onto a small sandy patch, helping her out onto the grass. They had drifted a good distance downriver from the causeway. Joliana turned away from the river and looked around. A stone’s throw away, a healer tended a woman. Three people near the water were lifting more injured from another boat.
Joliana wandered down the shoreline, feeling lost. Then, her professional instincts coming to the fore, she knelt near a young man whose left arm lay at an awkward angle; he also had several cuts and bruises, but he was awake. She sighed as she opened her bag and began to extract items from it. She felt like a spirit watching her body perform of its own accord while her mind dully echoed its need for ardon and to crawl into its warm embrace.
“Drink this,” she ordered and held a small vial to the young man’s mouth. He drank.
“The bridge fell,” he said between gasps, with horror in his voice. “The barge … crashed …” His voice trailed off as the decoction took effect. It was a strong potion made from her mother’s recipe. The starter solution was ale, strengthened with a touch of the orangeheart flower. The berries of the orangeheart plant were poisonous, but the concentrated smell of the flowers could send a grown man to sleep for a bell or two. “… into the bridge,” the young man said dreamily. His eyes were huge globes of blue in his white face.
Joliana searched around the beach for a moment, losing focus. Then, seeing a small piece of wood in the grass, she picked it up and slipped it into the man’s mouth. “Bite down,” she said disinterestedly. Remembering her training, she moved her hands to his left elbow, gripped, and pulled hard. The man groaned, and his discomfort brought Joliana back to reality. She frowned, puzzled; the decoction was supposed to dull all pain. Glancing at her hands, she saw that she’d pulled the arm even further out of alignment. She quickly tugged again, this time feeling it slide into place as a muffled whimper came from her patient.
Joliana sat back on her legs, wondering what she was doing. In barely five menes, she had already proved that an ardon addict made for a poor healer. All of her being screamed for her to return home before she did any more harm, but she had to finish her botched job before she could leave. She looked around and saw that someone had brought several sticks and had them stacked a few cubits from her location. Getting to her feet, she retrieved two suitable for her needs. Back with the young man, she placed them on either side of his arm.
“What … doing?” He had taken the bitewood out of his mouth, but his words were slurred. The pain of her setting his arm was still etched on his brow.
“I’m bandaging your arm. It’s broken,” she said, carefully wrapping the long piece of cloth around his arm. When she was done, she said to him, “Stay here until you feel a little better. Then go home, you hear me?”
Standing up to leave, Joliana realized there were now three other healers nearby. As she watched, two guardsmen brought more people ashore for treatment. Even with four healers, the injured were beginning to pile up. One of the guardsmen carried a body over to another area where there was a small row of corpses.
Joliana realized that she couldn’t leave. She went back to work. She tended people with torn and bloody limbs, and set and bandaged broken arms and legs for what seemed like days. She lost count of the number of people she helped. Although there were no more mistakes like her first case, each time she worked she had to force herself to concentrate. The patients seemed to take her shaking hands and pale face for deep emotion from the tragedy. Or maybe they were too much in shock to even notice the telltale symptoms of her dependence on ardon.
Every now and then, Joliana paused to pull her recalcitrant mind together. She glanced around, breathing deeply, watching the other healers involved in their work. The number of people being brought ashore was decreasing, but the guardsmen were still taking bodies away and lining them up to one side. As a healer, Joliana was familiar with death, but it was always hard to face the ultimate consequence of a healer’s failure, so she turned her gaze back to her work.
When at last there were no more new patients, she rose to her feet unsteadily, looking around. Two of the healers had already left, and the other one was helping his last patient stand. Near her, just outside the enclosure, corpses were laid in a row nearly on top of each other. When she looked at them, she wanted to weep. Suddenly, she saw a tiny form between a tangle of two other bodies, and her instincts took over. With reserves of strength she did not know she possessed, she rolled a body aside to get to the infant. When she pulled it free, she realized from its blue face that it was long dead, but still, she cradled it to her chest and began to cry.
All she could see in its rag doll form were her hopes and dreams. It was not her baby, but she mourned never having the opportunity to love a child. She had been cursed to never be able to bear children. Possibly it was the illness she’d had years ago or maybe she’d always been destined to be barren. That one fact had ruined her life.
Wiping her eyes, she put the baby down at the edge of the line of bodies and found a scrap of cloth to cover it with. None of the dead had been attended to, so she began to drag them aside and place them in a neater row, adjusting their legs out straight and laying their arms across their chests. After a while, she paused to wipe the sweat from her brow. Blinking her eyes, she realized that someone was approaching her.
“What are you doing, mistress?” It was the senior guard who had sent her to this side of the river earlier that afternoon. What was his name? Cepero, she remembered; it was Sergeant Cepero.
“The dead need respect,” she said shortly.
He nodded in understanding. She could see the exhaustion in his eyes, but still he began to help her move the bodies. Silence reigned for long menes as they continued to work side by side until a moan rent the air.
“What was that?” Cepero asked, his voice sharp.
“It came from there.” Joliana pointed to the far end of the row of dead bodies.
He hurried over despite his limp. They heard another moan, and the sergeant hastily rolled aside the corpse of a large man and reached for a small body underneath.
“By Ol!” Joliana straightened as if she had been whipped and said, “Get him to some open space where I can look at him.”
Cepero picked him up and walked away from the rest of the corpses. He laid the child on the ground, and Joliana knelt next to him. She cleaned the scratched, bloody face with a rag. It was a young boy, no more than thirteen. The man beside her gasped as he got his first full look at the boy’s face.
“You know him,” she said, touching the unconscious boy’s body gently, checking for broken bones.
“Yes. His name is Briam; one of the orphans that Sian cares for. She must be extremely worried looking for him.” Cepero rose anxiously and began to check the nearby bodies. “What was he doing here, in the pile of corpses?”
“Someone probably thought he was dead,” Joliana replied. “If we hadn’t heard him moan, we would have thought the same. His pulse is very weak.”
She concentrated on shutting out the guard’s concern so that she could focus on the boy. Her examination had brought her to the worst injury: his left leg. It was a broken, mangled mish-mash of flesh, with pieces of white bone sticking out between the darkening mess of what used to be a healthy limb. Her heart sank as she saw it and she knew what needed to be done.
There was another gasp beside her, and Cepero said, “Can you save his leg?”
She looked up at him, and all the fear, affection, and worry that he had carefully excised from his voice stared back at her from his eyes. It was not within her power to deny what his paternal feeling demanded of her. “I will try,” she said, forcing her voice to sound confident. “Get me some water.”
The sun was close to the horizon, and as she finished speaking, the town bell tolled the night’s beginning. She reached for her bag of medicines, pretending to look for something while she gathered her thoughts. All the hopes of this tough man and this young boy rested on her, an ardon addict, a wreck of a human being. To heal, to fix, to doctor this …
Maybe she should just find another healer to do the work. No, she knew that she was the last one present and, based on the boy’s shallow breathing, that he could not wait long enough for another to be fetched.
The guard cleared his throat.
Joliana realized that, lost in thought, she had pulled one small pouch from her pack and was staring at it. It was her bag of powdered orangeheart flower. She glanced around vaguely and found that the guard was handing something to her. She blinked and forced herself to concentrate. It was a small earthenware bowl with water. She dropped some of the powder into the dish, and immediately a pungent smell filled the air. It was the same substance she had used over and over all day; the amount she had just used would put an adult to sleep for bells.
“Don’t breathe the fumes,” she warned the sergeant. “Let this soak for a bit.”
Joliana looked down, trying to find the clarity of mind that she needed for the job. She saw that the leg was broken badly. Just below the knee, the flesh was torn and mangled, making her wonder if she could save the leg at all. With both hands, she tried to gather the skin and flesh together. The bones stuck out at an impossible angle, and as she tried to maneuver everything into position, the foot collapsed. It had obviously been completely crushed. Distantly, she heard someone gasp, but she couldn’t release her hard-won clarity if she had any chance of succeeding in her attempt.
Logically, she listed out her findings in her mind. The foot could not be saved because the bones were too crushed to knit together. The knee joint was fine, but the skin was torn — a minor problem that could be fixed with a few stitches. The leg was broken below the knee, not above, which was good. If the knee had been crushed, it would have been an even bigger problem. So her only course of action was to cut off the leg at the top of the shin, where the bone had broken.
Examination done, decision made, Joliana looked up. “Hold the bowl under his nose. Let him breathe the fumes.” Even though he was already unconscious, Joliana did not want to take even the slightest chance of him awakening; the flower’s scent would ensure that.
Darting her eyes around the area, she immediately found what she needed. She reached down and picked up a thick strip of bark from the grass by her knees and handed it to the sergeant. “Put this in the boy’s mouth, between his teeth.” If the boy tried to moan from the pain, she didn’t want him to bite his tongue.
Next she pulled out a clean strip of cloth from her bag, propped it under the boy’s leg, and then pulled out a rough leather strap. When she looked at the sergeant, he just nodded grimly. Placing the strap just above the boy’s knee, she cinched it as tight as she could. Squinting in the dusk, she reached into her bag for the last tool she needed and pulled out a small hand saw, slightly rusty on one edge. Sighing in exasperation, she took out a whetting stone, removed the rust, and sharpened the saw.
She had been worried that the sergeant would react with anger when he caught sight of the tool, but he merely said, “Are you sure this is the only way?”
“Yes.” She was not sure, but all her years of training and her instincts as a healer told her that this was the only thing that would save this boy’s life. Yet a part of her doubted. Maybe her judgment had been tainted by her longing for ardon. Maybe the drug was still talking through her and convincing her of the wrong choice: to cut. Could the leg be saved? Or would the surgery kill him even quicker than just setting the leg? The inevitable bleeding could be fatal.
Joliana took a deep breath, deciding that she would do the best she could. She was glad that the guard had been content with her first answer and had not pressed her. She reached out for the bowl and poured the contents onto the area where she planned to cut. It would numb the pain some, although she was sure he would feel little.
“Hold him down,” she commanded the sergeant, “at the shoulders. I don’t think he will wake up, but he might still move.”
Joliana grasped the boy’s leg above the knee and steadied herself. She could not live with herself if this went wrong; but in a shining moment of clarity she realized that, as things were, she would not have lived with herself much longer anyway. For the boy’s sake, and for the fear in the eyes of the grizzled veteran beside her, she could not doubt her decision.
She set the saw against the raw wound of the boy’s leg and found herself breathing unevenly. Looking down at her hand and the instrument, she watched as colored spots danced in front of her vision. Everything was out of focus and she mistrusted her placement of the saw. She moved it once, found it too close to the wound, jerked it higher and found it nearly resting close to the edge of the leather strap. She shuddered and closed her eyes, trying to calm herself.
With her eyes closed, she moved the saw one more time and then looked down. It was finally where she wanted it. Using her training as a tether to keep her attached to the present and to dull her own pain, she began to cut.
The boy shook as she worked, moaning in his sleep, but he did not wake. She moved steadily, forcing every other thought out of her head. In only a few menes, she was done and began pulling thread out to stitch the torn skin. She looked up at the guard once. He was watching the whole process, his jaw clenched and his lips waxy white. She pulled out a jar from her bag and began salving the raw wound, hoping it would help prevent it from turning gangrenous.
Finally, Joliana leaned back and turned wearily to the guardsman. “I’ve done what I can. The rest is up to him. He will survive or not as his body wills it. We should take him someplace where he can rest, perhaps his home. Can you find some men to prepare a litter?”
“I’ll see what I can do.” Cepero turned and limped away.
She took the piece of bark from the boy’s mouth and tossed it to the side. She tilted the bowl, pouring the water on her hands, trying to wash the blood and grime off. The remains of the orangeheart flower made her hands tingle, but a moment of finger flexing brought all the feeling back. Then she looked down at the boy and began to bandage the wound with the last of the clean rags she had in her satchel. When she was done, Joliana sat on her haunches and stretched her stiff neck back, seeing the night stars above her for the first time. She wished life was as black and white as the nighttime sky.
Soon, Cepero returned with two burly guardsmen carrying a litter. Joliana supervised the lifting of the boy as the sergeant watched. He snapped but a single admonishment before shutting his lips tightly. “Gently.”
When they had arranged her patient on the litter to her satisfaction, Joliana rose, aching all over.
Cepero spoke to her as the others began to carry the boy off. “I’m going with him. Will you accompany us to help treat him there? His guardian lives on the other side of the river, and I can get us passage across.”
“There might be others here.” Joliana could not hide the weariness in her voice as she gestured at the grassy area, drenched in mud and blood.
“I think you’ve done what you can for today. Sian lives on Murson Street and will give you food and possibly a place to rest. You’ve worked tirelessly for bells. You can’t keep this up.”
She sighed. He had no idea how she felt. After the grueling day of healing, splinting, and now cutting off a limb, the futility of it all overwhelmed her. The boy’s injuries were so serious that even with his leg removed she had faint hope. She did not want to go and watch the child die, and she did not want to face the death of hope in the guard’s eyes.
Joliana sighed. “I should be getting home. There is little I can do now.”
The sergeant turned to face her. “Shouldn’t you watch the wound? You did the surgery. You know what the problems might be. What if he needs your help?”
She shook her head. She knew what would happen, and she couldn’t bear to see it. Looking up at the dark sky, Joliana tried not to shake noticeably. She knew that some of her unsteadiness was from exhaustion — it had been a long and trying day — but most of her discomfort was from her increasing need for ardon. The constant stress and movement had blunted her need for the drug, or at least pushed it to the back of her consciousness. Now it was pushing itself to the fore again.
All her senses screamed for ardon. It was not the taste, the scent, or the feeling that she wanted; it was the whole bundle, the complete assimilation of the drug into her being to the exclusion of everything else, especially her pain.
She needed to focus on something else, and she wondered what her husband had thought when he had returned home from the docks near sunset to find her absent for the first time in months. Someone would probably have told him that she had been summoned to the causeway, but what would he have felt at her absence? Would he have been happy that she could help? Would he have been sad to not see her? Or would he have felt relief that he did not have to face her, at least for one evening?
Joliana looked at Cepero as they followed the litter to the barge. The guard was correct: she had to at least see the boy to his house. Then they could find another healer to treat the boy. “Sergeant,” she called to him. “Where did you say he lived?”
“Murson Street, ma’am.”
“I live on Atelier Street. I’ll accompany you as far as the boy’s house; it’s on my way home. But then I’ll turn him over to your care.” The last place she wanted to be was in another person’s house as his suffering unfolded in front of her, but she needed the passage back across the river. She had enough problems of her own without facing someone else’s.
Abruptly the gnawing need for ardon returned and she knew what she would do: after Murson Street, she would find someone who could sell her ardon on her promise of payment. Then she would take enough to staunch the flow of memories and dreams and sate the craving permanently.
Tom Madden looked around at the last aid station left for him to search. At the far end, he could see the line of bodies someone had pointed out to him. He stopped, fighting a battle with his emotions. He did not want to return to Sian with no news; at the same time, he dreaded the thought of telling her that her adopted son was dead.
Footsteps ahead of him caught his attention and he glanced up. From the light of the torch one of his friends in the ducal guard had given him, he saw Sergeant Cepero accompanied by two others carrying a litter, and a thin, bedraggled woman bearing a satchel.
“Sergeant!” Tom hurried toward him. “Sergeant!”
Cepero turned. “Tom Madden! What are you doing here?”
“I came to look for Briam. Sian said he’s missing …” his voice trailed off as he caught sight of Cepero’s expression.
“How about the other children?” Cepero asked urgently. “Are they well?”
“Yes, they’re fine, they’re fine. What about Briam? Did you find him?” Tom knew that his words had been brusque, but the way Cepero’s eyebrows drew together in a frown was alarming.
Tom sighed and shuddered. “Where is he?” Seeing the litter ahead of them, Tom ran forward.
The insistence in Cepero’s voice made new fear blossom in Tom’s mind and he increased his pace until he reached the litter. The boy’s face was as waxy and pale as Nochturon. His tunic was torn and bloody, exposing the scraped skin underneath. His breeches had been torn off, barely covering his groin. One leg was extended neatly upon the litter and the other … Tom stared, almost unable to understand what he was seeing: the other leg stopped just below the knee.
He had stopped walking, and the litter bearers continued on their way. The sergeant and his companion reached Tom.
“Tom,” Cepero said, placing an arm on Tom’s shoulder. “He’s alive.”
“He has no leg! Who cut it off? How dare they?”
“Calm down! He would have died if we hadn’t done something.” Cepero was frowning at him, while the woman was giving him a pitying look.
“No! Who gave you the right to cut it off? He wants to be a guard. You knew that, Cepero. How could you let a healer cut it off? We could have gotten a physician who would’ve used healing magic to fix his leg. How could you?” Tom sensed that he was losing control, but the thought of the boy with the cut off limb, and the thought of the pain that Sian would feel at the sight, was enough to push him over the line between civility and anger.
“I cut it off,” the woman said. “The boy would have died, otherwise. He could still die.”
She didn’t say anything else, but her words acted upon Tom like a dip in the Valenfaer Ocean in the cold of the month of Janis. Briam could still die.