The Last Chance
The young woman’s family met me on the porch as I was wiping the blood and afterbirth from my hands with a towel.
“Hanno!” The patient’s mother, her eyes wide with fear and hope, asked, “Is she… and…?”
“Shhh.” The wooden planks of the porch creaking beneath my feet, I eased the door shut behind me and stuffed the towel into the bag of medical supplies hanging on my shoulder.
The rest of the family shuffled forward, surrounding me, all of them holding their breaths.
Exhausted, with eyes burning and my head aching, I smiled. “They’re both going to be—”
A baby shrieked in the room behind me, a healthy and hale bellowing that went on breath after breath.
Everyone relaxed, but the mother reached out and touched my forearm. “Is it a—?”
“She,” I said, smiling as the women in the family began shouting with joy and clapping as the men shook their heads. I held up my hands. “The delivery was difficult. There was an infection. If you had brought her to me sooner, there would not have been such a difficulty. They are both well, but they need their rest.”
“And chicken soup?” the mother asked.
I nodded. “Exactly.”
“Can we go in?” the father asked as the family surged forward, holding up rattles, tiny shirts, and colorful cakes. “We have many gifts.”
“Not yet,” I said, blocking the door. “The midwife will come out and escort you in, two at a time, when she deems that your daughter and granddaughter are up to it.”
The celebration began at that point, with people shouting and dancing, the jubilation spilling out onto the road and into the nearby houses and shops. Not wanting to intrude, I slipped away and walked out through the crowd, onto the dirt road.
One of the young men in the family, a nice-looking man, approached me and bowed. “Healer Hanno, could I escort you to your home? Or perhaps to get a drink?”
I touched the black band on my arm. “I’m still in mourning. But thank you.”
“Oh,” he said, backing away and bobbing his head. “I am so sorry. I didn’t notice.”
I sighed, relishing the satisfaction of a successful birth. I stepped to the side of the street to allow a man to pass leading a bull hitched to a wagon stacked high with bamboo.
A voice said, “The midwife didn’t think she was going to make it.” A young peasant woman with a boyish face lounged against a wooden post with her arms crossed. Her eyes sparkled with mischief beneath her straight bangs, and she held a half-eaten mango in her hand.
I nodded to her. “It would have been easier if she’d come to me sooner.”
“Give them time,” she said, pushing herself off the pillar and stepping toward me. “They’re not used to having a real, live healer all the way from the temple living among them.”
“I’m just here to help,” I said, shaking my head. I tried to remember her name. “But it seems like I have to wait for someone to get so injured that they can’t run away from me before they’ll let me check them out.”
The girl took a bite of her mango and chewed it as she stared at me, her eyes squinting as though sizing me up. After she swallowed, she pointed the fruit at me and said, “Everyone thinks you’re a spy sent by the Council to snitch on them, to make them pay their taxes, and to hunt down the Freedom Coalition.”
I rolled my eyes and smiled. “And what do you think?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “You’re a stranger, but I haven’t made up my mind, yet. Have you thought about selling good-luck charms and love potions?”
“Love potions?” I couldn’t keep the disdain from my tone.
She shrugged. “I’m just saying that most women who claim to be healers around these parts make a mint—and their reputations—selling those sorts of things.”
“I’m not here for profit,” I said, my voice colder than I’d intended.
She grinned. “And you wonder why we’re suspicious?”
I laughed and motioned for her to walk with me as I continued my way down the street, heading to my home in the jungle just outside the village. “Your name is Boka, right?”
“That’s me.” She took another bite of the mango.
I heard a sound, a sound I’d heard too many times in my life—the sound of boots, of soldiers marching. I’d come to Chufeng to escape that sound. I stopped walking and held out my arm to stop Boka.
She looked at me, frowning, and asked, “What’s that?”
A platoon of soldiers appeared out of the jungle, marching in precise lines with officers mounted on horses behind them, all of them wearing the green and gold livery of Gal-nya’s military, the livery my husband had worn when he’d died.
I moved off the street and into an alley to get out of their way, and I watched as they marched by. Their commanding officer, a captain, a dark-skinned eastern woman in glittering armor, glared at me as she passed, and then turned her glare elsewhere.
I relaxed and exhaled a breath I hadn’t been aware that I’d been holding. “What are they doing here?”
Beside me, Boka grunted as she launched the remains of her mango in an impressive throw, and then shouted, “Freedom!”
She whirled around and sprinted down the narrow alley between buildings.
I stared after her, then turned to look back at the soldiers.
The captain had half-turned her horse toward me and was pulling mango out of her hair.
I decided it was best that I also run away down the alley.
# # #
My husband was a hero. That’s what everyone said.
I sat on my knees in my little garden. The bright sun overhead failed to chase away the darkness in my heart. My dirty hands fidgeted in my lap as my tears mingled with my sweat.
I missed his smirk most of all.
I stared at an arum lily bloom, white and joyous, but I didn’t see it.
A hero of the people. That’s what the priests I served with called him now, just like his father before him.
Someone shouted, “Healer!”
I fiddled with the black band of mourning around my arm.
Again, a young man shouted, “Healer!” and then mumbled something too low for me to hear. Feet stomped on the gravel leading up to my house. Someone was injured.
“I’m here!” I called. I scrabbled to my feet, wiping my tears from my eyes with the back of my wrist. “What’s happened?”
“Boka!” the voice called out, coming closer. “She’s been… gored.”
I ran then. Chickens squawked and dodged out of my way. I sprinted through the back door as I tied my curls back into a ponytail, darting through my kitchen past my dinner cooking in a pot, through my workroom where I prepared medicines and poultices, and into the great room where I treated my patients, rare as they were. Sturdy cots lined one wall while chests and cases full of the tools of my craft—herbs and compounds, slings and crutches—lined the others.
Doyutz, a young trouble-making village boy, carried Boka in through the door with her left arm draped over his shoulders and his arm around her waist. Boka’s boyish face was bloated and bruised, her mischievous eyes swollen shut. Blood drooled from her lips. Her shirt clung to her side, the white fabric now sporting a vivid red stain, growing larger as it spread out from her wound. She was breathing rapidly, her skin pale and glistening with sweat.
Doyutz appeared to be in better shape than the girl, with his hair mussed up, his face smudged with dirt, his clothing rent and torn, and his knuckles bloody. His wounds appeared more as though he’d been in a brawl, which wouldn’t have surprised me.
I snapped my fingers and pointed to a cot. “Lay her there, on her back with her injured side facing us.”
He stumbled over to the cot and flopped her onto it as I whispered the incantation to summon my magic. The brazier on the workbench in the middle of the room sprang to life, green flames rising and swirling, opening a channel to the realms.
Boka’s body arched as she gasped with pain. “Ah, damn the gods, it hurts!”
“Watch your tongue, lass,” I said, moving my hands through the green flames, first a prickling and then a relaxing. The cleansing fire killed the worst of the demons and invisible creatures that cause infection and disease. I moved to Boka’s side, chanting, forming holy symbols with my hands and summoning a magelight to hover over my shoulder as I siphoned power from the fire.
“Tell me what happened,” I said. “What has she done now?”
“That old bull— Kehbo’s old bull—”
I pried Boka’s eyelids open and directed the magelight to move back and forth before them. Her pupils dilated to differing amounts.
“It jumped the fence,” Doyutz said. “Damnedest thing. And it chased us. Boka was too slow and it ran her over, knocked her down, and stomped all over her.”
“A bull did this?”
“Yeah.” He nodded, staring at Boka with wide eyes. “That old bull was really angry.”
“What happened?” Boka asked. “Where am I? Healer?”
“Fine,” I said, arching a skeptical eyebrow at the boy.
Boka gasped with every other breath. She squirmed and clawed at the side of the cot with her right hand, but not her left. She kicked her feet, banging her heels against the cot as she moaned.
I ran my hands along her body from the crown of her head to her toes, using my healing sight to peer beneath her skin. Her brain had been sloshed around and had begun to swell. The tendons in the rotator cuff of her left shoulder had been torn, and she had a hairline fracture of her collar bone.
Something had punctured her torso—something that had not been a bull’s horn, but rather something sharp and long, like a sword. She was lucky that only her spleen had been lacerated, but it would have been a killing blow without immediate attention.
Her left leg and hip had a large contusion along with minor damage to her hip flexors, but nothing serious. The spleen and the concussion were the main things.
I bent over her and squeezed my eyes shut, concentrating on my magesight to show me her organs. I placed a block on her nerves, reducing her pain.
She relaxed. Her breathing slowed, and her kicking stopped.
I pieced her spleen back together, sealing the edges of the wound, coaxing the blood that had pooled up in her abdomen to re-enter her bloodstream, until I had it in a relatively stable state, so I wouldn’t have to worry about her dying.
When I opened my eyes, I found Doyutz staring at me. I rose and took a deep breath.
“She’s not going to die, is she?” he asked, backing away.
“You were saying she was gored?” I went to a cabinet, disabled the locking spell with a wave of my hand, and withdrew two vials of elixir.
Doyutz nodded. “Exactly.”
“Are you sure you want to stick with that story?” I asked. “Her father’s going to ask me questions, and I have to tell him the truth.”
Doyutz turned pale and bit his lower lip.
Returning to Boka’s side, I opened her lips and said, “Drink this.” I poured the contents into her mouth, first of one vial, then the other. Some of the liquid spilled to the side, sloshing over her cheeks and dripping onto the cot to join stains from previous patients and other elixirs.
“But she’s been stabbed in the guts,” Doyutz said, his voice shaking. “Won’t that stuff just drain right through her?”
“Stabbed?” I asked, glancing at him.
“Gored,” Doyutz amended. He licked his lips. “She was gored in the guts. Yeah, that’s what I meant to say.”
“The first potion was to deaden the pain, so I can remove the nerve block I put in place,” I said, setting the bottles on the table by the bed and turning my attention to her side. “The second was for the swelling of her brain.”
Boka’s moaning stopped, her body relaxing even more, the beating of her heart slowing and growing stronger.
Taking the knife from my belt, I cut at Boka’s shirt and peeled away the damp cloth, lifting it with care to try to leave as little of the fabric in the wound as I could.
Outside, horses’ hooves crunched on the gravel and one horse nickered.
“More company?” I shook my head. “Today is shaping up to be a busy day. Think that bull of yours gored anyone else?”
“What?” Doyutz straightened up, his voice unsteady.
“Were you expecting someone on horseback?” I asked, just joking.
He ran to the door and peeked out. “Shit!”
I whispered a chant, directing my magic into the wound to gather up all the foreign matter I detected: threads from her shirt, a pebble, dirt, parts of a leaf.
“It’s the guard!” Doyutz said, whirling and glaring at me and Boka.
The foreign matter dribbled out of her wound, and I set to reconstructing the rest of the mashed and punctured spleen.
“A bull, huh?” I asked. “Is there anything you want to tell me?”
Doyutz bolted through the door to my workroom and out the back way.
Heavy boots stomped up my wooden stairs, which creaked in protest. Two sets of boots stopped outside on my porch, but one entered the room, thudding with each step, shaking the jars and cans in my cases and setting them to jingling.
I glanced over.
“Hanno Yunyoyaj, healer and priestess of Gal-nya?” A soldier stood in the center of my great room with a sword in one hand, a fierce demon mask hiding her face. “My name is Captain Thele. I serve Rector Beckat of Tuth-yoo.”
“Welcome, but I am no longer a priestess,” I said as I lined up torn vessels in Boka’s abdomen and encouraged them to stitch themselves back together. “You do not appear injured, so I’d appreciate it if you waited outside until I finish here.”
“That girl is a rebel, a member of the so-called Tesoran Freedom Coalition,” Captain Thele said. The floor creaked as she stepped toward us. “She and a group of her compatriots broke into the armory and tried to steal weapons. She is a wanted criminal.”
“She’s injured,” I said, continuing to work on her, “and I am a healer.”
“If you continue healing her, you will be aiding and abetting a rebel.”
“She’s a young woman, whatever else she may be.” I glanced back at Captain Thele, trying to find her eyes behind the mask she wore. “I am a healer. I heal people. All people. It’s in the oath I swore when I took up the robes.”
More boots stomped up the steps to my front door, and two more soldiers stepped in, holding Doyutz by his arms. Doyutz struggled, his eyes wide with fear as he pushed and pulled and squirmed, trying to free his arms from their grip.
One of the soldiers said, “We found him around back, sir, making a run for the jungle.”
Captain Thele turned her mask toward me and asked, “When were you planning on telling us about this one?”
“I wasn’t,” I said, crossing to my workbench, picking up a clean cloth and summoning water to dampen it. “You have your job, Captain, and I have mine. You hurt people, and I heal them.”
“If you heal enemies of the Council,” the captain said, “you become an enemy of the Council. You do not want to that, do you?”
“Of course not.” I crossed back to Boka’s side, pulling up a stool and settling in. “I only mean to say that when I joined the priesthood, all of us vowed to heal the sick and the injured. All of the sick and injured. I take that vow seriously.”
“Well, then,” she said, nodding. “I’m going to have to order you to stop what you’re doing and come with us to Tuth-yoo.”
“I am needed here right now.” I swabbed at Boka’s wound, cleaning away the blood and the cells damaged too much to repair. I picked the spell back up, re-engaging it and aligning more of the vessels, healing what I could, removing what I couldn’t and pushing it out of the wound.
Captain Thele crossed the room to stand by my side. “Did you hear me, healer?”
I cleared the blood and waste seeping from the wound. Captain Thele put her hand on my shoulder. I finished knitting the exterior wound back together, getting it as close as I could, and then I glared over my shoulder at Captain Thele.
I said, “My work is here.”
Captain Thele said, “This is not a request, healer.”
I sighed. “Can I at least take my dinner off the stove and bank the fire? I’d hate to return home to a smoking pile of rubble.”
# # #
Two soldiers on horseback led us back through the jungle from Chufeng to Tuth-yoo.
Captain Thele rode before me with the reins to my horse in her right hand, guiding my mount forward along the winding road that meandered through the broad-leafed taro plants and swaying palm trees. Vines hung down like pythons. I sat on my horse, a bay colored gelding, with my hands bound at the wrists in my lap. My feet dangled, my stirrups having been taken away.
Two mounted guards followed behind me, guiding the horses with Boka and Doyutz, with four more soldiers behind them.
The wind shifted and changed from the comforting breeze to a gust of war, now carrying the acrid stench of an out-of-control blaze and the burning of flesh and hair. The sky toward Tuth-yoo was dark, black with smoke. I peered through the brush and the trees, trying to get a better view of the town. “Is Tuth-yoo burning?”
“Peasants,” Thele spat. “A more ungrateful lot I cannot imagine.”
I opened my mouth to speak, to come to my people’s defense, but thought better of it. I eased back in my saddle, thinking of things to say and then not saying them.
The smoke grew more dense and more vile, stinging my eyes. The trees parted as the jungle gave way to the coast. The road led down to the southern gate of Tuth-yoo where twenty or more soldiers stood guard. Gone was the usual line of merchants and farmers waiting for inspection at the gates. Not a single person who was not a guard or priest seemed to want to go into Tuth-yoo, a feeling I shared. My stomach quivered as I wondered what awaited us.
“Hurry!” One of the guards waved for Captain Thele to enter. “The rebels are attacking the port. We’ve been holding the gate open for you.”
“Thanks!” The captain whistled and spurred her horse to go faster.
My horse lurched forward, almost tossing me over its hind end. I grabbed my saddle horn and held on as we loped through into the town, a town I’d grown to know well. A few brave shopkeepers peered out through their broken windows, the mantles dark and smudged with soot. Red marks had been painted over some doorways, and those doors lay sideways, kicked in and splintered.
A peasant on a crutch hobbled out of the way, scurrying across the street. A splotch of fresh blood stained the bandage around the man’s head. He darted into an alley, swaying from side to side.
I glared up at Captain Thele. “We need to stop. That man needs help.”
“We don’t have time for that.”
And then a loud carumphing sound battered my ears. The world shook. Already damaged windows lost the remainder of their glass, the broken panes slipping free and falling to the ground, crashing and shattering. Someone screamed in fear and agony.
Captain Thele tugged on the reins of my horse, breaking into a gallop. I slid to one side as my feet searched for stirrups that were not there, and I would have fallen save for one of the soldiers behind charging up beside me and pushing me back into the saddle.
We charged past lines of soldiers blocking the streets, while other soldiers marched and yet more prepared to repel attacks from the area toward the docks. We stopped in the plaza before the temple beneath a blackened sky.
The soldiers jerked the three of us—Boka, Doyutz, and I—out of our saddles and guided us up the steps into the temple’s basilica. A cadre of priests chanted their spells and burned incense to please the gods. Captain Thele led us to the transept and ordered us to our knees.
We knelt there, an exit only a few steps away, waiting in front of Beckat’s office, shifting from time to time to find some sort of comfortable position on the hard stone. Eventually a priestess strode up, whispered to Thele, and then the two of them led us into the rector’s office. The priestess sat us down in a line on the floor with Thele on one end and a soldier at the other, near me.
And then we waited some more. When we tried to speak, we were silenced. When we moved, we were ordered to stop.
Tables and chairs and boxes of papers and books filled the rector’s office. A pile of paper on his desk at the far end of the room threatened to topple over in the slightest breeze, with a quill and an inkpot sitting on another shaky stack of pages, and a farseer scope acting as a paperweight on yet another mound. A painting of Beckat hung on the wall behind his desk depicting a much younger and slimmer version of the man with the walls of Nutath Behdoka behind him, his home city far to the south in the lands of the Nayen, the lands of Councilor Nof-ki.
The door flew open. Rector Beckat marched in, speaking to someone I couldn’t see, looking over his shoulder—a pudgy middle-aged man wearing impressive robes, his normally cheerful face clouded with stress and worry. “Send reinforcements then. I shouldn’t need to tell you how to do your job!”
Captain Thele motioned for us to rise. Doyutz shot to his feet while I helped Boka to hers before the other soldier with us could lay his hands on her.
Beckat slammed his door shut.
Thele bowed and said, “Rector, two of the Tesoran dogs from Chufeng and Hanno Yunyoyaj, the healer.” Then she stepped back.
“Healer Hanno.” Beckat sighed, but the worry and strain dropped from his face as he smiled at me. “I’ve been meaning to summon you. I’m glad you were able to make it here to safety. I had considered sending a squad to escort you, but it seems you found your own escort.”
“I was perfectly safe where I was,” I said. “In my home.”
“I’m surprised to see you bound, though.” Beckat turned to Thele with an eyebrow raised.
“She was aiding the rebels,” Thele said, her voice stern.
“I am a healer,” I said, holding my head high, “and they were injured.”
Beckat took my elbow and guided me to his desk. “Captain Thele, these restraints are unnecessary, don’t you think? As she says, she’s a healer, not a warrior.” He laughed. “She’s not going to suddenly become a hero or anything.”
“As you wish.” Captain Thele nodded to the soldier who had been standing beside me.
The man bowed and strode forward, sliding his dagger from its sheath. He cut me loose in one quick motion, and then returned to his spot.
“I don’t understand,” I said, rubbing at my wrists.
“Sit, sit.” Beckat eased me down into one of the two chairs before his desk. “I have spoken to Rector Ke-myal, and he has agreed to transfer you into my congregation. You answer to me now.”
I sat on the hard front edge of the chair and touched the black band around my upper arm. “But I’ve received—”
“Yes, yes,” he said, ducking his head and raising his hand for me to be silent as he eased into the chair behind the desk. “I know you are still in mourning for your husband and your honored grandfather, both true heroes of the people. I know that you are recovering from your abduction and mistreatment by those filthy Onei pigs who are no doubt responsible for the disappearance of both Lady Gal-nya and Lord Sissola, but time marches on. We must march alongside it.” He gestured to Boka and Doyutz. “I’m willing to forgive you some of your irresponsible acts and chalk it up to a momentary insanity that will cease when you return to your temple duties.”
“About that,” I said, bowing my head, choosing my words. “I’ve had a crisis of—”
He leaned forward and reached across the desk with his hands open as though expecting me to reach out and take them. I stared at them but didn’t move.
“Hanno, we live in precarious times,” he said, wriggling his fingers and grinning, almost commanding me to take his hands.
I gulped and put my hands in his, which seemed to satisfy him but made me sick to my stomach.
He continued, “Everything we know and love is in jeopardy. The commoners look to us, their priests, the shepherds of their souls, to guide them on the proper path while wolves of sin threaten to devour them. War has come to us. Rebels attack us even as we speak. Innocent blood flows in the streets. Now is the time when you are needed most by the church that has suckled, nurtured, and raised you.”
“Rector Beckat.” I breathed deep, calming myself, preparing myself, having worried often about this day in the months since my abduction in the Onei raids, about how I was going to leave my Order for good. “My life is healing and mending, helping and guiding. I have no desire—”
“Hanno,” the rector said, squeezing my hands, “this is bigger than our desires. This is our duty. We must fight back and turn the tide threatening to sweep civilization away. You are with us, or you are against us. Do you get my meaning?”
“I am a peaceful person,” I said, removing my hands from his and wiping them on my thighs. “I’m a healer.”
“I am a peaceful person myself,” Beckat answered, raising his hands and grinning. “As are all of those who follow the Council’s teachings, but loutish brutes like the misnamed Freedom Coalition and the Royal Reformers—”
Boka shouted, “We will not be your slaves!”
“Shut up!” Captain Thele punched Boka in the back, knocking her face first to the ground.
“Captain Thele!” I shouted, jumping to my feet and taking a step toward Boka.
The other soldier lowered his moon blade—a spear a man’s height in length with a short curving blade at the end—pointing it at me.
“Silence!” Beckat slammed his fist on the desk, upending his inkpot and spilling ink on the pages, the dark stain spreading over the paper and rushing to the edges of the desk.
I reached out to right the inkpot, but he grabbed it first and tossed it aside. I drew my hands back and stared at the ink now dripping down the stone wall.
Beckat scooped up the now ruined top pages and set them aside. “As I was saying, with councilors missing, these rebel dogs have come slinking out of the shadows and are poisoning the minds and thoughts of the people. And now they seek to capture Tuth-yoo as another bastion for their poisonous lies.”
“Rector, I want no part of any war. I just want to be left alone in the country where I can heal simple people who live simple lives.”
He stood with pursed lips, shaking his head and pinching the bridge of his nose. He sighed and looked up at me. “I’d hoped you would be smarter than that. You have a duty to the Church, and unlike Ke-myal, I have no sympathy for a bull-headed idealist. Make no mistake, if you refuse me now, you will be treated as a traitor.”
I sighed. “Then I am a traitor.”
# # #
I led the way with a gag in my mouth and a cord binding my hands together at the wrists. I marched down the narrow, dark circular stairs that descended to the dungeon and the exorcism chambers beneath the temple complex. Boka and Doyutz followed me, their breaths ragged. The soldier brought up the rear with a moon blade in one hand, tapping the butt of the weapon on each step. Tap-tap-tap. The air grew colder and clammier with each step.
“I don’t get you people,” the soldier grumbled. “Everything is set up for you to have a perfect life, an easy life, and you just have to go out and screw things up, not only for yourself but for everyone around you.”
“I don’t get you people,” Boka said, her voice bright. “Since your life is fine, you can’t understand that other people are suffering, and you just wish they’d shut up about it so you can get back to— Ouch!”
“Shut your yap,” the soldier said.
I stopped and peered back at him, forcing everyone else to come to a halt, and I gestured to him, asking him to take the gag out of my mouth so I could say something.
“Get going and shut up.” He reached past the others with his moon blade and poked my arm with the point, forcing me to turn back around. Then he jabbed me between my shoulder blades.
I yelped with pain and stumbled forward, arching my back to get away. I wobbled for an awkward step and then threw myself down the stairs, hitting my shoulders, my knees, my back, even though I tried to curl into a ball to minimize the damage and protect my head. I hadn’t expected the landing to be as far away as it was, and I hadn’t expected the way down to be so painful, each step leaving a bruise.
“Dammit!” the soldier exclaimed, his boots clanking on the steps as he clambered down after me, pushing the others out of his way.
“Maegrith’s beard, what the hell have you done?” Boka exclaimed. “You’ve killed her, you asshole!”
He said, “Shut up or I’ll stuff a gag in your mouth, too.”
I lay there on my side with my back toward the guard for a heartbeat before I snuck my hands to my mouth and removed the gag. I whispered a spell.
“Healer?” he asked as he scurried down the last few steps and knelt beside me, setting his moon blade against the wall. He gently touched my shoulder and eased me onto my back.
I wrapped my hand around his as I spoke the final word of the enchantment.
“No!” He recoiled from me, yanking his hand free and falling back onto the steps, staring at me with eyes at first wide, but his eyelids soon drooped. He lunged toward his moon blade but fell asleep before his fingertips touched the shaft. He crumpled to the floor, snoring.
“Yes!” Boka hurried down the steps.
“Keep quiet.” I pushed myself to my feet, groaning like a grandmother, all my joints aching, each bruise protesting.
Boka kicked the soldier in the ribs, but he just grumbled and shifted position.
“Don’t do that!” I pushed her away from the sleeping man. “He could be roused, depending on how deeply the spell affected him.”
“Sorry.” Boka spat on him and then stepped back, joining Doyutz, who stared at me with wide eyes as though he’d never seen me before.
I used the moon blade to cut the bonds around the kids’ wrists, and Boka returned the favor, cutting the ropes from mine. I pulled the tie out of my hair, letting my curls fall free down around my face, hoping this would prevent people from recognizing me.
“What now?” Doyutz asked, taking the moon blade and testing its weight in his hands. “Fight our way out? There’s a lot of folk out there, but I’ll hold them back while you two escape.”
“We’re going to sneak out in the chaos,” I said. I took the moon blade from Doyutz and set it down beside the guard. “We have to be quiet. Keep your heads down, look respectful. We all have to look like we belong.”
“Will that work?” he asked in a breathless voice, pressing his fist into his hand and cracking his knuckles.
“Well, it’s what I’m going to do,” I said. I ran up the first few steps, then realized how many steps remained and walked the rest of the way. By the time I reached the main floor, I was huffing for breath, with sweat beading up on my brow and trickling down the back of my neck.
I turned to find them right behind me, and neither of them seemed nearly as put out by walking up the stairs as I did. “Fine. Well. Follow my lead, right?”
The door creaked as I opened it, and I winced, fearing it would draw attention to us, imagining every head turning to stare at us. In the din of people praying, of priests casting spells of protection and wardings, of soldiers barking orders, no one heard. I slipped into the small hallway running behind the back of the altar and headed to my left, with my head down and my unruly hair covering my face. The youths followed.
Boka walked with her head held high, looking around and studying everything like she’d never been in a temple before. Doyutz shuffled with his head down and his hands clasped before him, appearing about as guilty as I’d ever seen anyone look, keeping to the shadows like a sullen teenager. Which I guess he was.
I had intended to leave through the eastern transept, staying as far away from Beckat’s office on the western side as possible, but a frowning Beckat stood before the church’s library with his arms crossed over his chest. A group of priests pointed and shouted in what appeared to be a disagreement of some kind.
“Back this way,” I whispered. Averting my eyes and my face and raising my hand to my brow to shield myself, I cut across the center aisle and strode down the western side toward the main doors, winding my way through a group of young priests.
The main doors swung open and a squad of soldiers, rumpled and dirty, fell into the main entrance, with one of them yelling, “Healer! We need a healer!”
I stopped and glanced around, waiting for someone to go help them, but no one rushed to their aid.
“Healer!” A soldier waved his arms. “Is there a healer in here?”
“Yes!” I said, even though I had not intended to.
“What are you doing?” Boka whispered fiercely.
“Go on, I’ll meet you outside.” I didn’t wait to see if they followed my instructions; instead I rushed through the throng of priests and knelt by the wounded soldier whose armor and body still smoked from some form of fire attack, her dark skin over half her face and neck and left shoulder blistered, most of the skin devoured by flame, and to top it all off, she had taken a sword to the chest.
She looked up at me. “Hanno?” she croaked, her voice feeble. “You changed your mind? He said you’d break; I guess I lost that bet.”
I recognized her then: Captain Thele.
With my heart pounding in my ears and my pulse racing, I whispered an incantation and touched her forehead. Her eyes closed and her breathing deepened as she relaxed. I spoke another chant, connecting cells and vessels as I could, but only roughly, temporarily suturing the worst of her damaged organs, preparing her to be moved. Wiping my bloody hands on my pants, I grabbed one of the soldiers who’d brought her in, and I said, “She’s stabilized, but be careful. Get her to the healing rooms as quickly as you can.”
I backed away.
The soldiers lifted her and scurried into the church. “Make way!”
I turned toward the door, and behind me I heard Beckat’s commanding voice asking, “Who is that?” I straightened, holding my breath, sure he was talking to me.
“It’s Captain Thele, sir. She got caught by a fireball!”
“And you four?” Rector Beckat asked. “You all look healthy enough! Leave Captain Thele to someone else and get back out there!”
I swallowed and dashed through the door and down the steps away from the church, my eyes searching for Boka and Doyutz. I didn’t see them, and I didn’t wait for them to see me.