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by Sharon Gerald
**a fantasy novel written purely for sport.
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Miranda and Robert walked long enough for her legs to work off the cramps of having ridden too much, and then long enough again for her legs to find new aches in other places. It was an entirely novel experience. Miranda had never been without the company of other Daughters who could mend her aches for her. She did not know in this case whether it would be better to use her magic for self-healing or to conserve it all for the real job ahead of protection. She did not know how much these human pains might drain her. She had never felt them before. And still she and Robert walked. They walked until they established a kind of rhythm that meant for the first time they were working together toward their own common good. They walked until she could not remember why she had been upset with him or nervous of him or afraid for him and her life with him. They walked their way through the night. When they came to a river, they stopped and allowed the horses to drink while they sat to rest. There seemed little need to discuss the stop, but Robert was up and moving again before Miranda could even truly catch her breath. She did not understand where he found the energy. He did not rest at all for as much as she knew, yet she who had napped at least intermittently earlier in the night felt drained of nearly all strength by this time. He brought her some water and a piece of cheese. She took them gratefully, but some fear that they might not make adequate progress on their travels stopped her from eating. “Should we save the cheese for later? There are nuts and berries aplenty here.” He glanced around, his brow furrowed as if he could not see what she saw. He probably couldn’t. She had her own ways. “Gather as much as you can while I determine how and where we 2
will cross.” Miranda decided not to make an issue of his phrasing the request as an order. She forced herself into motion wondering what the words “as much as you can” meant to him. She could gather well more than they could carry if she were so inclined. Instead she gathered what she considered a reasonable amount for a meal. He went first one way and then the other along the river bank before returning to her and sitting on the ground in front of the stone where she laid out what she gathered. He ate a handful of the nuts that she cracked open and cleaned of their shells, and he seemed to be studying the horses. “There isn’t an optimal place to cross, and we need to reach the other side here at the trail if at all possible. We’ll need to swim. How well do you swim?” “Fairly well.” She wouldn’t drown. She knew that. She’d been taught to swim in the calm bay near the House of the South Crown. She’d spent many days wading in the shallow waters along the ocean shores on the other side of the peninsula where her House sat. None of this necessarily prepared her for a river crossing, but what she lacked in strength, she could make up for in magic. She did have to clear her mind a minute, though, to remember the spell to stay afloat. Did she have enough energy left to wield it for them all? “I might be able to keep us afloat by magic, but I’m concerned about our guest.” She’d checked the prisoner only minutes earlier, and the entrapment appeared to be holding. She still wondered if she’d only imagined that it broke earlier, but regardless, she couldn’t send a woman incapable of her own movements across a river secured to a horse that would only care about keeping itself from drowning. “Don’t be,” Robert grunted. He took a handful of berries. “Can you make tethers that will assure the animals follow us?” Miranda sighed and nodded. She could, but she didn’t know how much strength remained in 3
her. She was already maintaining several spells at once and had kept them up for many hours. She didn’t know if she could add several more and keep going. The spell to hold them above the water would take a great deal out of her. “You are too worried. What are you thinking?” Wearily, she reached for some nuts before trying to answer. “If I take us all across the river, I will require some sleep.” Her concern seemed to engulf them both then. “You don’t have to take us across. We’ll take each other across. Then you will go back to riding. You’ve been on your feet too long. You aren’t conditioned to this kind of traveling.” “I can do it. I must. We'll cross more securely if I do it.” “Are the tethers too much for you?” “No. That is a simple thing. It’s the other, the holding us above the water, that will be difficult.” “I wouldn’t ask you to do that.” Robert scooted over and reached for the ring hanging from her neck which he fingered briefly before letting it drop again. “I didn’t even know there was such a spell. I’m a strong swimmer. Winter and Thunder certainly are. The only person you are responsible for helping across is you, and if that’s too much, I’ll carry you.” “No.” She shook her head. “I can’t let you…” “You can. You will.” She shivered and leaned her head into her knees where she just let herself droop. A stab of fear hit Robert as he seemed to comprehend exactly how tired she was. He put a hand on her shoulder. “We won’t try it. We’ll put you back on Thunder, and we’ll travel down river until we find an easier place to cross.” She forced herself to lift her head. “That will put us off the path toward the troops?” 4
“We’ll find another easily enough. We’ll get there in time.” “But not as quickly.” “It will be okay. Better another delay than to lose you in the river.” Miranda touched her hand to his leg. “I can do it. We won’t be delayed over this. I’ll be fine. I’ll take us across.” “You’ll take yourself across. The rest of us are on our own.” She nodded but said nothing. She knew what she had to do. He insisted that she would go first. He wanted to see if she had any problems. She agreed but convinced him to allow her to reach the other side before sending first Winter and then Thunder. One at a time would be the easiest way for her help them all across. Her own crossing was easy. It was when Winter, carrying their prisoner, started across that she began to feel a prick of something wrong. At first she thought the prisoner had broken her entrapment, so she took a step closer to the bank to attempt a better look. As the prisoner raised her head, Miranda realized the magic to free her came from another source. Quicker than she’d ever made any move, she spun to hit the new presence with both a spell to de-shield and a spell to de-cloak. In her fatigue, she reversed her sequence, though, missing the step of entrapping immediately after de-shielding. Her mistake meant that she was hit with a series of rapidfire spells, and her attacker was one faster. She felt her whole body freeze inside the traps the instant she also fell into the river. She felt relief when she hit the water that she was still under her own floatation spell, but the water was moving so quickly, and she could not control where she went. She felt Robert’s horror and fear followed by a determination that told her he had made some sort of decision. Her fear for what that meant on top of everything else she’d been through was too much. She hadn’t known it was possible to faint while caught in an entrapment spell, but that was apparently 5
exactly what happened. When she came to, Thunder was nudging her with his head as if wondering if she were alive. She knew she was no longer trapped only because her hand reached for his nose automatically. She seemed incapable of more movement than that. She closed her eyes and tried to locate Robert. He was moving toward her quickly, and his fear was overwhelming. She tried to fill herself with a sense of calm to send him the message that she was well, but she really didn’t know if that were true, so the calm was difficult to produce. Soon enough he was with her. She heard him pull himself out of the water. Thank the Mothers he was alive. That thought filled her with relief, and she felt the answering relief in him. When he picked her up, however, she realized two things at once. She’d still been halfway in the water until he pulled her out, and something had gone horribly wrong with her leg. She screamed with pain, and he set her down again after only a few steps. He laid her out on the ground and appeared to examine her leg. She didn’t need his diagnosis to understand that it was broken, yet she didn’t have the first notion of what to do about that. She could have healed him had he been the one injured. He couldn’t do the same for her, and she seemed incapable of doing anything. After a moment, he sat beside her and just held her hand. “Can you do something to help yourself? Can you cast a spell to block the pain while I work on your leg?” Could she? She reached for her amulet and couldn’t find it. She panicked. “It’s here.” Robert touched her shoulder and pulled the amulet back into place, setting her hand on top of it. She felt around again still in a state of distress. “The ring is caught in your hair. It isn’t lost. Don’t worry about it for now. Just do something to help yourself. Can you dry yourself or warm yourself? Can you block out the pain? I’m going to find something now that I can use to set that leg.” 6
She gripped his hand. “Don’t leave me. Please.” She had not begged anyone for anything in years, but she was more than prepared to beg to him now. He took his other hand and brushed at her hair. “Shhh. It’s fine. You’re fine. I have to leave you, but it will only be for a minute.” “What if she comes back? I can’t fight her. I don’t know what to do.” “She isn’t coming back. Don’t worry. Just let me doctor your leg. I’m sorry we have to do this the hard way. This is one time I wish I had my mother’s help.” Miranda tried to sit up, but the movement jostled her leg and pain shot through her. She also caught a glimpse of her own blood, and the world started going dark again. The next time she came to, her leg was confined to something stiff and scratchy, her body was shaking with cold, and Robert was in the process of starting a camp fire only a few feet away despite the fact that the sun was now coming up. “What happened?” He glanced up at her with a start. “You’re awake,” he smiled. “I began to worry. I’m trying to warm you up.” He gestured toward the small flames now popping up. “Your clothes are still wet. We don’t have any blankets. You’ve been trying to heal yourself in your sleep, but it doesn’t seem to be working, and I don’t know what else to try.” Frustration radiated from him. She pushed herself up on her elbows to assess her situation. Her leg was bound with wooden poles that had been cut from trees and tied together with vines. It was rudimentary, but the bone appeared to be somewhat straight, and the bleeding had stopped. Her side hurt, but she was sure the leg was the only broken bone. Everything else was simply bruised, or badly bruised rather, but only bruising nonetheless. Thunder grazed nearby. There was no sign of Winter nor of her passenger. “Where is the 7
woman?” “We’ll talk about it later. We’re just working on healing you now.” She sank back down to the ground. Something was very wrong, but she didn’t know what she could do. She thought she could probably manage to keep them hidden for a time, but that might be all. Her spirit would be using its energies to heal her body. In other circumstances, she would just sleep, knowing that with enough rest, and barring any other complications, she would become completely renewed. “Where are we?” “You were swept downriver quite a ways. I’m not sure how far.” She closed her eyes and concentrated on gathering her thoughts as she pushed back against the pains wracking her body. “I’ll need honey and herbs. Sage and mint and willow bark. I’ll need water and river clay. And I’ll need your help.” He knelt over her and kissed her forehead. “I’m here,” he said, and all she could think about was her need for his presence. His strength would bolster her spirit so that it could do its job, but even so, self-healing was a long and arduous task. She would still need the herbs that would ward off infection and bring down swelling. She smiled and nodded, but she was so weak. Having never experienced pain without magical barriers before this journey, she had little tolerance for it. She knew she shouldn’t sleep again yet, even as she felt herself drifting off. She was aware of Robert gathering the items she mentioned, and she was aware of her own need to instruct him, but she couldn’t manage to bring herself awake enough to speak. She had developed a fever. What a silly thing to die of. Had she been home among the Daughters she would have never been allowed to have a fever. Robert would do what he could, but he wouldn’t have the means to save her life. He felt desperately worried when he removed her damp clothing and moved her closer to the 8
fire. It was the first time any man had seen her stripped bare, but she was unable to protest or to care. She was both hot and cold all over. She drifted in and out of awareness. At one point she woke to find that Robert, whose clothes had evidently dried faster with his moving around in the sun and wind had covered her with what she thought must be his undergarments and his tunic. He was stretched out next to her on the ground and holding her close against him, offering his own strength and warmth. His chest and arms were bare. She did not know about the rest of him, and she was sure she lacked the strength to check even if she found the nerve. He had done all he knew to do, and still Miranda couldn’t rouse herself enough to help him. She drifted into him and willed her spirit to protect them both. When she next woke, it was late in the day, and she felt wonderful. She felt much better at any rate. Robert slept beside her. She was dressed again in her own clothes that were now dry, making her wonder if she only dreamed being undressed or being wrapped in the undergarments of a man. Her body no longer pounded with pain and no longer shook with fever. She raised herself up on her elbows. She was aware of her bruised ribs, but movement was no longer unbearable. What had been excruciating was now reduced to a dull ache. She sat up and examined her leg with great curiosity. She did not recall giving Robert instructions, but her leg was now perfectly bound. The bones were now precisely in place rather than nearly in place. Her leg had been covered in the honey and herb salve that would fight infection. It had then been packed with clays to protect it and prevent the wounds from reopening. Lastly, it had been wrapped again with the wood and vines that would hold everything in place. What was more, she had the sense that though the spell was now wearing off, the leg had been magically bound together while all of these wrapping were put in place. It was possible she and Robert together had done this, but she had no memory of it. She felt her neck. The amulet that helped her focus her powers hung in its proper spot, and further down, the ring that said she belonged to the South King hung where it had always been. Nearby Thunder stood 9
staring into the distance. If they had been visited in their sleep, they had not been robbed. She eased herself back down and watched Robert as he slept. She knew she should wake him. They were now well behind schedule, and she was capable again of traveling. He was at peace, however, and she was loath to disturb him. She simply watched him and smiled. He was so handsome with his dark hair and sun-darkened skin. He was a man any woman would be proud to call husband. And sleeping like this, she could see a little of the boy he had been. Somewhere in there would be remnants of that boy who had been such fun, the boy who devoted himself to thrilling her heart with games and stories. They must have both slept for hours, and she knew he would not thank her for allowing him to continue sleeping, so with regret, she lifted her hand to his face and stroked at the whiskers growing across his chin. He opened his eyes slowly and seemed to take a moment to understand where he was. “Hello,” she whispered. He smiled and grabbed the hand touching his chin, bringing her fingertips to his lips. “You’re better.” “Yes.” They both smiled, and he seemed as reluctant as she to start moving. She lowered her eyes to his chest, embarrassed somehow to wake to what felt like a tender moment between herself and this man. “When did you dress?” He sat up suddenly and gazed down her body. “How did you do this? You were half dead of fever when I fell asleep. How could you have doctored your own leg?” He stood and started gathering his clothes, and she had her answer. He stripped himself to the skin to cover her. She shifted her eyes away in a hot flush. She expected him to feel awkward or embarrassed as well, but he was only amused. On the inside, he laughed at her. She wanted to hate him for this, but at the same time she did not want to give him further reason to laugh, so she decided to 10
put her attentions to his questions instead. Miranda sat up. “I don’t think I did anything. The last I remember is the fever taking hold.” “I don’t understand.” His attention shifted even faster than hers from amusement to perplexity. “I don’t either.” He touched a hand lightly to her leg as if assuring himself that everything was in order. Then he jumped up and took stock of their surroundings. A few minutes later he brought her some water. “We’ve got embers yet of our fire. While we’re stopped, I’m going to cook some fish. I know you normally don’t eat flesh, but you need your strength.” She shook her head. “You eat what you need. I’ll have what’s left of the honey and herbs. They’ll help me heal.” “You should eat the fish. In your hierarchy of rights and wrongs, staying strong enough to keep yourself and therefore me alive is a greater need than sparing the lives of the animals who would be your dinner.” She groaned. Men who existed primarily on animal flesh always thought their need of it was a matter of logic. She was disappointed to find Robert no exception. “I will eat the fish when it leaps out of the river and onto the fire of its own free will. Meanwhile the plants of the forest will keep me strong.” She felt more than heard his sigh. “You need more than honey and herbs. I’ll find something you deem acceptable soon. We have no more stores. Thunder went a little crazy to find you when you disappeared down the river. He lost the bags he carried somewhere along the way.” Miranda hunched forward feeling slightly guilty to put him to extra trouble when she knew he just wanted them to be on their way again. “Did you ever tell me what happened to Winter and the prisoner?” At first she thought he did not hear. He disappeared down the river bank without comment. 11
But she could tell from his mood that he consciously chose not to answer. Moments later he returned with two trout speared onto his sword. He knelt on the ground and quickly cut them open with his dagger. She turned her eyes away. “Robert?” “We’ll discuss it later.” “This is later.” “Much later.” “I need to know.” He tossed chunks of the dead fish onto the embers of their fading camp fire and hopped up to sprint into the forest like a man chased by wolves. “I’ll be back soon,” he yelled. “Don’t go anywhere, and don’t eat all of my fish.” He did come back soon. He returned with his shirt in his hands and filled with an assortment of salad grasses, mushrooms, and nuts. He tossed a few nuts her way. “I’d like to see how you did it.” “What?” “The nuts and berries we ate in the night were out of season, yet perfectly edible. These are the same nuts, but they are green and hard and bitter. How do you explain this?” She tried her best innocent look. “If this is a trick of the Daughters, it is one I’ve never heard of.” “There are possibly many wieldings of the Daughters you are not privy to.” “Possibly. But this is different.” She shrugged, reached for a nut, cracked it open and intended to pop it into her mouth to prove she was happy to eat it green. At the last second, he intercepted and took the nut into his own mouth. “Delicious,” he said. “Don’t ever do this where anyone can find out.” 12
“Pardon?” “There will be rumors enough about you when you travel continuously in the company of a king. You’ll be under constant threat of kidnapping and the Mothers only know what else. If you become known as someone with powers beyond the knowledge of the Daughters, they will make you out to be an Earth Mother incarnate. You’ll never have another day’s peace.” “Don’t be ridiculous.” He sat back and removed a piece of fish from the embers with his dagger, sliding the blade under the fish and lifting. When it fell apart, he caught chunks of it with his hand. “I’ve known you best, Miranda. I held you when you were an infant. I held you when you were a frightened child. I held you when you were a sick and nearly dying woman. I know better than any that you are flesh and blood and capable of being hurt like any other, but you are, as you have always been, a complete mystery to me. Things happen to you and around you that can’t be explained. You might as well have been dropped straight from the Heavens for all we know of your birth. Yet for all this, you’re as innocent and naïve as I’ve arranged your whole life for you to be. There is only so much I can do to protect you. I need you to be careful.” “Careful of what? What are you saying?” He blew at the fish and took a bite. “You are the stuff people build their hopes on, the kind of hope they create religions around. I will have difficulty enough protecting you if you are known only as my companion. It will be impossible if they make you their savior.” Her hands were shaking as she pushed at the ground, nearly forgetting that her leg was bound, and she needed help to stand. “I don’t understand where you’re coming up with this or what you’re suggesting. Why would people make me out to be anything at all?” He took another bite of fish and stared into the embers. “When you were a child, and we used to dare you to eat the sour crabapples, we thought you were such a brave little thing.” 13
“Oh.” She blushed and buried her face in her hands. She never thought to be found out on that. At Robert’s bewilderment over it now, though, she began to freeze. Did he believe she had known what she was doing when she bound him to her? Did he believe that she had understood that if she was capable of one kind of magic, she was capable of others? It wasn’t true. She had never guessed. Ripening fruit was, after all, a far simpler matter than binding a man. Except that she had learned it on her own, and she had never met anyone else who did it. Still, it was a simple matter. “Perhaps this magic was merely a defense born of necessity,” Robert mused. “We did goad you into eating the worst things.” “Perhaps.” Miranda sighed. “But it could be useful to us and others. I don’t understand why…” He flicked his hand “Mystery breeds hope which breeds greater mystery. That’s all I’m saying. I’d appreciate it if you would keep your mysteries private.” “Who do you think fixed my leg?” “I don’t know. Do you?” “What happened to the woman?” He grimaced. “Our prisoner escaped with your mare. She is long gone.” “What if she is the one who helped me?” “She’s our deadliest enemy. Why would she have done that?” “I have no idea. Why would she?” He sighed and speared another piece of fish. “Eat, Captain. That’s an order from your superior officer.” She picked up a bunch of greens but only toyed with them. “What happened to the other woman?” “When you’ve eaten sufficiently, I’ll tell you.” 14
“Will I not like it?” “Not one bit.” She felt her whole body fill with dread. “You killed her.” When he didn’t respond, she covered her face with her hands and leaned forward. She thought she might be sick. “How?” “I shot her with an arrow, several arrows actually.” “My arrows?” She’d removed her weapons along with her jacket and her boots before swimming across the river. Robert was supposed to have packed them onto Thunder. “Yes.” “But they are only laced with sleeping draught. You’re to aim at the legs or arms with them to put your combatant at a disadvantage.” “They’re real arrows, sleeping draught or not. I didn’t aim at the legs.” “Why not?” “She was trying to kill you. I killed her first.” “You don’t know that. She might not have.” Miranda was overcome. She did not want to sob herself to insanity in front of him, but she thought she might not have a choice. Robert left her to cry as he busied himself covering the last of the embers with dirt and tying the shirt full of food she had not eaten to Thunder. He then picked her up and set her gently across the horse before mounting behind her. She was sideways on the horse now due to her injury, and she had no other way to stay in place as they began to speed along a new path than to hang on to Robert. She reached her arms around his back and leaned her head into his shoulder. She felt heavy with grief at the thought that someone died because of her. Robert killed someone because of her. “I would kill anyone to save you. If you want to go to war with me, no matter how it might go against your nature, you’ll have to learn to accept that.” 15
She wiped her eyes on his undershirt wondering if he would feel cold in the night after having given up his other shirt to wrap her food. She didn’t want to go to anyone’s war. She far preferred that there be no war, but her imperative was to protect Robert. Where he went, she would follow, whether he wanted her there or not, or whether he approved of her opinions of it or not. She felt weighed down with the loss of life, but she understood why Robert acted as he did. His own oaths did not prevent him from killing. He was allowed to value one life above another, and her life after all amounted to his own. She swallowed hard wanting to make peace with him somehow without outright condoning what he’d done. “The sleeping draught would have made her death relatively painless.” “It would have.” “You probably didn’t have another way to stop her.” “I didn’t.” “I’m still sorry she had to die.” “Shhh. I know.”
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