Plague was more common in Albain than it used to be. A result of the Burning, some people muttered, just like the Ashen. Whatever the cause, when plague struck a village there was no chance of escaping it, not without leaving the spell circles that surrounded them protectively, the only defence that any of them had against the bandits and Ashen that trawled the land.
Sarah’s father had fought viciously against the suggestion that they simply block up those with the plague in their houses and leave them to live or die; he was a healer, and he refused to be separated from his patients until their very last breath—or his. Night and day, Sarah struggled to follow in his footsteps, but she was only fifteen, she didn’t know enough, the medicine was running out…
Sleep was not an option, and she didn’t know how long she’d been running on energy spells and manic dedication to her job when she finally caught a glimpse of relief.
The houses in her village—Appleton, named for their orchards—were built right up to the edge of the spell circle, at least on the north side of the river. Beyond the wall there were the ruins of houses that had once been part of their village, before they’d retreated behind the defence that Lord Ghato had created for them. The rotting husks of those houses, some of them partially destroyed by rampaging Ashen, were an unpleasant sight, and most people with houses on the edge had blocked up any window facing out. Sarah’s father had insisted on keeping theirs, though, because, he’d told her, not all that roamed in the dark was evil.
The figures she’d glimpsed moving between the ruined buildings weren’t Ashen, and bandits rarely came so close to villages, preferring to stake out the road where their brands wouldn’t hold them back. There was a chance it’d be bandits, looking for an unbranded hostage who could let them into the circle, but she had to take a chance. People were dying and she didn’t have enough medicine.
It was difficult to slip the watch of the soldiers patrolling the village, but not impossible. Most of them were regular soldiers, who got bored and lazy with their repetitive patrol routes, and had given up stopping Sarah when she had to move about at night to tend to her patients. It was the Sgain Dubhs that were the problem, the faceless knights who were always hidden under steel armour and helmets stamped with the crest of King John. There were four of them in Appleton and they did their patrols unwaveringly, night and day. They rarely spoke, and when they did so it was to shout orders or reprimand and sentence criminals, always the same sharp barking yell that sounded more or less the same in all of them. Some villagers joked that they weren’t really people, just armour animated by Lord Ghato’s magic, or duplicates of the same faultlessly loyal knight, although these jokes were never told around the Sgains. They didn’t have a sense of humour. They didn’t get sick. They were simply there, in service of King John, to protect his subjects, and they had a strictly inflexible definition of what that meant. Nobody was to leave the circle, except for criminals, and they could not come back. But people still managed to slip in and out when they had to.
It helped, in a horrible way, that the night was not quiet. The air was filled with the moans and cries of the sick and dying. Under that constant, terrible sound, footfalls were more easily disguised as Sarah crept towards the north bridge and, choosing her moment, slipped beneath it.
The river ran through the middle of the village, and two bridges crossed it, the runes of the circle floating just past the bridge in lines of light. The water was freezing cold around Sarah’s calves, and she had to move slowly so as not to be heard splashing but quickly enough that she was in the shadows before one of the Sgains’ patrol paths brought him past the river. Beneath the bridge, right at the edge of the circle, Sarah waited until a second shadow joined her.
“Sorry I’m late,” Fiona whispered. “One of them nearly spotted me. I had to hide and wait it out until he decided that he’d imagined it. Or forgot that I existed when he didn’t see me for a few minutes. I don’t know that they have imaginations…”
Sarah giggled a little, her hand pressed over her mouth. Jokes were dangerous, but she couldn’t deny that she needed one. “Thanks for doing this, Fiona.”
“If you’re right and they’re out there, you might be able to save my mum,” Fiona said. “Of course I’m happy to help. I’ll be waiting right here to let you in.” She crossed her arms over herself, shivering. “Although I’d appreciate it if you come back while I still have feet.”
Sarah smiled and, taking a deep breath, stepped out of the circle.
It wasn’t the first time she’d done so, but it always felt odd to her for the lack of oddness. She thought that she should have felt something when leaving the protection of the spell, but the only way to tell was to lean backwards and feel the invisible wall pressing against her. She glanced back at Fiona, then from side to side to ensure that no Sgains were watching, before taking another breath and slipping underwater.
The middle of the stream was deeper, enough that she could submerge completely, and though she was going against the flow, the river wasn’t fast-moving and she was a strong swimmer. She got as far as she could, until her lungs felt ready to explode, then dared to come up for air, looking back quickly. The village was a tall, dark lump in the landscape, with the orchard trees that took up half of the circle’s space in a rustling mass across the river. Judging herself to be far enough away from the village that she couldn’t be seen in the dark, and also on the edge of hypothermia, she hauled herself out of the river. Teeth chattering, she set out among the overgrown paths and rotting buildings to find the hint of movement that she’d spotted around sundown.
The circles had been in place since before she was born, and she’d never seen Appleton when it was large, when the dilapidated buildings around her had been homes and shops. She peered through dark doorways and windows, part wondering if she knew anybody who had once lived there, and part fearing the angry ghosts of those who had refused to leave and fallen prey to bandits and spirits…
Hands suddenly grabbed her shoulders, pulling her behind a building. Oh, crap, she thought, her heart hammering. I was wrong, it’s not Redcheeks, it’s bandits, closer to the village than normal, they’re going to rape me and kill me and—
“Be quiet,” the woman holding her hissed. “We saw you coming. You’re not far enough out. Despite those stupid helmets, Sgains have pretty good vision. The one crossing the bridge might have caught you moving.”
Sarah gasped in relief. “Sorry,” she whispered. “Are you…?”
The woman took Sarah’s hand and traced it up onto her left cheek. Sarah felt the ridges of burned skin; a brand. The brand. “You’re a Redcheek,” Sarah whispered in relief. “I was hoping so. I need your help.”
“C’mon,” the woman said, leading Sarah carefully along the back of the building. “You looking to trade?”
“I need an apothecary, or a healer, something like that,” Sarah said. “I just need help…”
“You want Rita,” the woman said. “This way.” She led Sarah among the buildings, flitting along like a shadow. She was wearing a dark hood pulled close over her face, so even when she passed through a patch of moonlight, Sarah couldn’t see her face.
The woman ducked into a house that seemed mostly intact; it even had all of its roof. Inside was pitch-black, but Sarah could hear a woman faintly whispering spells.
“Rita,” the woman who’d fetched Sarah said, “this girl’s in need of your help.”
“I don’t have much with me, but I can get more, as much as you want,” Sarah said, opening her dress and pulling out the fruit she’d brought, kept in wax bags to protect it from the water. She felt Rita reach out and take it, feeling the firm apples, the soft peaches. “We grow eight different kinds of fruit. I can get into the stores and get the really good stuff, the ones we’re supposed to save for taxes. Apples and oranges the size of your head. And Mr and Mrs have really mastered preservation spells, so these won’t go off for nearly a year.”
“What do you need?” Rita asked. Even as she spoke, Sarah could still hear spells being whispered, so someone else had to be in the room as well, helping create medicine. She couldn’t see Rita or the other person, but imagined that they looked like all Redcheeks; somewhat ruddy from travelling in all weathers, hair dyed dark brown or black to make them harder to spot at night and in shadows, any exposed skin similarly covered in dark tattoos if they were too pale.
“Consumption medicine,” Sarah answered. “I’ve got eighty patients, probably more soon because it keeps spreading, and I’m out of medicine and I don’t know how to make more. I need as much as possible…”
“I thought this village had a healer,” the woman who’d led Sarah in said. “A man named Matthias? Or am I remembering wrong?”
“No, you’re right,” Sarah said over the lump in her throat. “He was our healer, and my father. He caught it himself, caring for patients, and died a week ago. He was teaching me about medicines and healing spells, but he didn’t get a chance to teach me everything… right now I’m the only healer we’ve got and I… I can’t help anyone…” She wiped frantically at her eyes, trying not to cry. It wasn’t working.
“I’ll get to work right away on your medicine,” Rita said gently. “It’s a tall order, but I think we can fill it before sunup. Daisy, why don’t you take her and give her something warm to drink while she waits? Poor girl’s chattering teeth can probably be heard in the village. If you’re Matthias’ daughter, you’re Sarah, right?”
“Yes, m’m,” Sarah said, standing up. “How much…”
“We’ll talk payment later,” Rita said flippantly. “Go warm up. Go on!” As Sarah left she heard the grinding of a pestle on mortar and Rita’s voice joining the other, muttering spells to increase the potency of the medicines she made.
“I’m afraid we don’t have a fire,” Daisy said, leading Sarah into another house, this one without a roof. “Too risky. But I’m sure someone’ll be willing to do you a spell to dry you out.” More Redcheeks were in here, eating dinner—or possibly breakfast. Redcheeks often travelled at night and slept in shifts during the day. The faint moonlight deepened the shadows, and all that Sarah could see of most of the people within were the fragments of pale skin among dark tattoos that seemed to blur together whenever their owner moved, tricking the eye into seeing nothing but darkness. Some of them had their most intricate designs on their left cheeks, elaborate lines concealing their brands, but others displayed their mark proudly, usually the sharp, crossed mark of traitors and kin of traitors. I stood against King John, or someone I loved did, and I am not ashamed, they said.
Of course, standing against King John meant that they had stood for the late King Charles, the madman who had sought to wipe elves out of Albain, but Sarah had been warned a long time ago that pointing this out would not be kindly received, and an offended caravan of Redcheeks might not come back to the village. And while it was very illegal to trade with or even converse with Redcheeks, who were supposed to be driven away by the Sgains when they got too near a village, people were still often happy to see them. They carried news between villages, traded wild plants and meat hunted from wild animals, components for spells and things traded from other villages. With taxes ever increasing to feed the soldiers that were, so it was said, waging a long and difficult war against the bandits operating from the eastern wastelands and hunting Ashen across the land, as well as of course protecting their border with Dracain against invasion, a little black market trade was never unwelcome.
“Anyone got something for a drying spell handy?” Daisy asked, looking around. “Or something warm for this girl to eat? This is Sarah, the healer for this village. She’s a little overworked right now.”
“You’re the healer? How old are you, kid?” a man asked, holding out his hand. It had a small flower in it. Sarah reached back to touch his hand, he muttered something inaudible, and in a flash the flower was gone and Sarah’s clothes were warm and dry.
“Thank you,” she said. “I’m fifteen. I’m… not really a proper healer yet. My father died before he could teach me everything.”
“I’m sure Rita’ll teach you a lot before she goes anywhere,” the man who’d dried her out chuckled. The dark, flowing lines across his face made it hard for Sarah to make out, but she’d felt thick calluses and deeply carved wrinkles in his hand. “Seems like she knows everything there is to know, and she likes to share. Those peaches I smell?”
Sarah felt that feeling warm and dry was worth a peach. She handed one over and sat down to wait.
The sun was not yet rising, but the stars were beginning to fade, when Rita came for Sarah.
“Come along, then,” she said, hefting a sack into Sarah’s arms. “My daughter and I are coming with you. We should have enough medicine for everyone in your village.”
“You’re coming with me?” Sarah said in surprise, shifting the sack into a more comfortable grip and getting up to follow Rita out. “But you’re—” she gasped as she stepped outside and saw Rita for the first time, in the soft amber light of the Fey Moon, which often got brighter as the night wore on. “You’re normal!”
Rita was by no means a delicate woman, somewhat stout with large arms and legs, a strong jaw, and thick eyebrows that rose slightly as she stared at Sarah. The young girl next to her—who had to be her daughter, sharing the same thick eyebrows and, though moonlight was not right to see colours by, they seemed to have the same shade of dark hair and brown skin—giggled, smothering the giggle behind her hand. Their skin looked just a shade dark enough not to necessitate the dark tattoos that the paler-skinned Redcheeked wore, but they weren’t just lacking in tattoos—their faces were unmarked in any way.
“I mean,” Sarah said quickly, “you’ve no brands. You’re not Redcheeks!”
“That doesn’t matter,” Rita said diffidently. “Come on, then. Let’s get to the river so we can be in the village before dawn breaks.”
“I mean,” Sarah said, leading them to the river, “why are you living in a Redcheek caravan? You could live in a village, or a town, or even one of the cities. You could stay here and be the new healer! We’ve got quite a few empty houses now, you could take your pick—”
“A kind offer, but no,” Rita said, striding past Sarah as soon as she spotted the river bank. “We are living in the caravan because we wish to. Leah, is the neck of your bag tied properly?”
“It is,” her daughter promised, clutching her sack tightly to her. “All of the medicine is in jars, so it doesn’t matter if they get wet,” she explained to Sarah, who had already guessed as much from the bag’s heft and weight. “We’ve wrapped them in rags to keep them safe, but be careful, alright?”
“Of course,” Sarah said, wrapping her arms tightly around the bag, “but—”
“Come on, then,” Rita said, stepping into the river, apparently unconcerned by the temperature as she strode towards the middle and disappeared underwater. Leah caught Sarah’s eye, grinned, and followed her mother into the water, shivering when she stepped in but not hesitating to slip under the water. Sarah followed as fast as she dared, knowing that if they swam into the barrier too quickly, they’d be flung away and exposed to the Sgains.
Swimming was difficult with a bag in her arms, though the current helped just enough that she could keep going by just kicking with her legs. Even so, she struggled to keep up with Rita and Leah, who were moving as easily as fish down the river. She put on an extra burst of speed, reaching one arm to grab and pull back first Leah and then Rita, when she spotted the first of several carved stone figurines that had been dropped into the river some years previously by Redcheek smugglers to warn that the barrier was approaching. Her lungs were bursting, but she moved slowly until she felt the invisible press of the barrier before she dared to surface.
“Fiona!” she hissed, barely managing to keep her head above water as she struggled to tread water over to the bank. “Fiona!”
“I’m here!” Fiona whispered, reaching out and managing to grab Sarah’s shoulder and pull her through the barrier. Sarah shoved the sack she was carrying up into her friend’s arms, then turned to pull Rita and Leah through where they floated patiently against the barrier.
“This is Rita and her daughter Leah,” Sarah explained quietly. “They’re with the Redcheeks. They made the medicine. They’re going to help us give it out.”
“Oh… great!” Fiona said, looking confused but too concerned to really care. “Can we take it to my mum first? You promised you would if I helped, Sarah…”
“Of course,” Sarah promised, trying to squeeze some water out of her dress.
Rita opened her bag and pulled out three of the little flowers that one of the other Redcheeks had used in a spell before, handing one to Leah and another to Sarah. “Repeat after me,” she ordered. “Tioram.” The flower vanished, and water stopped dripping from Rita’s clothes as she dried instantly.
“Tioram,” Leah said. “This way we don’t have to treat each other for the freeze, and it won’t look weird that we’re walking around dripping wet.”
“Tioram,” Sarah said, feeling the warmth flow from the flower in her hand and through her entire body as it dried her. They all held their breath as they heard the clank of a Sgain’s armoured boots on the bridge over their heads.
“My house isn’t far away,” Fiona whispered as soon as they peered out from under the bridge, watching the Sgain Dubh walk away among the houses. “This way…”
Sarah and Fiona were inclined to creep, but Rita and Leah walked quickly, forcing Sarah to almost jog to keep the lead. The strange healers walked past another patrolling Sgain without flinching or shying away, and the armoured helm seemed to take no notice of them at all. Without brands on their cheeks or any sort of nervousness in their step, the Sgains seemed to take them for locals, welcome to walk around freely now that dawn had arrived, and ignored them. They travelled from house to house without trouble, giving out carefully-measured spoonfuls of deep brown liquid and leaving behind a jar in each house, always with the instruction for the invalids to have a spoonful twice a day, at dawn and dusk, until the coughing stopped.
“Leah?” Sarah asked the smaller girl as they split off, leaving Rita to tend to the Oliphants (all fifteen of whom had fallen ill) to go see to a few other families themselves. In the dawn light, she could see that Leah’s skin was indeed a light, gentle brown, with much darker brown hair and eyes. Her slightly tatty skirt was similarly dark brown, and her loose shift above it dark green; the girl could walk into a forest and vanish forever.
“Yes?” Leah asked, looking around for a door with a plague mark on it. Market Street was remarkably sparse with them, although not because they had been spared the consumption; the spread had started here, and most of the people on the street were already dead.
“How old are you?” Sarah asked.
“I’m fifteen,” Leah said. “Why?”
Sarah did a double-take. Leah was nearly a foot shorter than her, without any sign of breasts or hair on her legs. She’s my age? Sarah thought in shock. “Just… curious,” she said diplomatically. “You and your mother don’t have brands… have you always lived in that caravan?”
“Lowie says he remembers living on some kind of house, once, but not since before I was born,” Leah explained. “He said he thinks we stopped living in our house around the time our dad stopped being around, but he doesn’t remember much about him. I think he died, and that has something to do with why we’re with the caravan now, but Mum never wants to talk about it.”
“Is Lowie your brother?” Sarah guessed.
Leah nodded. “He’s eighteen,” she said. “He just left us to go squire for a knight, or at least a man who used to be a knight for King Charles. Lowie’s not got a brand either, so he can go in and out of towns and villages just fine. He’s getting paid pretty well for it, but I think Mum misses him a lot. So, if you’re about to ask if I’d like to live in a village like this someday,” she added with a grin, “I think I might. But I’m not going to leave Mum too, not so soon after Lowie.”
“I see,” Sarah said, leading Leah to one of the houses where, the last time she’d checked in, the Tailors were just about hanging in under the grandmother’s care.
By midday, they had rejoined with Rita and had only one house left to see to. “By the way, I should warn you,” Sarah said as they approached the last house on the street, “Sophie Baker is the most stubborn eight-year-old girl you’re ever going to meet.”
“I doubt it,” Rita said with a smile. Leah covered her face with her hand.
“She’s been refusing to let me treat her parents and big brother because I’m ‘not a proper healer’ like my father,” Sarah continued, “and I just haven’t had the time to spend arguing the point with her.”
“Well, we’ve got time now, and she hasn’t got anyone else to treat her parents for her, has she?” Rita said, knocking on the door and waiting for it to be opened.
Sophie Baker was a skinny, dark-skinned girl with curly black hair and a scowl on her face. “Who’re you?” she demanded, pointing at Rita. “I don’t know you.”
“They’re healers that’ve come to help,” Sarah explained. “They’ve made medicine that’ll help your family.”
“Mummy says not to take things from strangers,” Sophie said suspiciously.
“And your mummy is quite right,” Rita said, crouching down in front of Sophie and holding out a bottle of medicine. “For all you know, they might be a fairy trying to trick you and carry you away. But I’ve given this medicine to lots of other people in the town, and I’m sure Sarah would’ve noticed if I’d tried to carry any of them away to Fey, wouldn’t she?”
“I promise it’s safe to take, Sophie,” Sarah added. “I’ve seen them treating everyone else in the town. It’s going to be fine.”
“Can we come in?” Leah asked.
Sophie looked from Sarah to Rita, then slowly nodded and let them in, staring at them all the while. “You give it to them,” she said, pointing at Sarah, “to make sure, okay?”
“Okay,” Sarah said, taking a bottle out of her bag and going through to the bedroom, where Mr and Mrs Baker were lying in their bed, sweating and moaning, and Ross Baker was sprawled across the hideaway bed next to them, just as ill and uncomfortable-looking. Sarah started spooning medicine into his mouth first, watched fiercely by Sophie.
“What’s Fey?” Sophie asked, glancing at Rita once she was assured that her brother had settled down into a more comfortable sleep and Sarah had moved on to treating Mrs Baker.
“It’s the country of the fairies,” Rita said, sitting down next to her. “It’s a beautiful, colourful kingdom where fairies play with magic all day, forever. But they like to steal away children to play with, and if you eat their food, you never get to come home or see your family ever again.”
“Are fairies real?” Sophie asked, effectively distracted and enthralled by the story. “Have you ever seen one?” She looked from Rita to Leah.
“I haven’t,” Leah admitted, “but Mum’s told me stories about them, and do mums ever lie to you?”
“No,” Sophie said, looking at her mother, unconsciously choking down the medicine, and then back at Rita. “Have you ever seen one?”
“Once, when I was very young, I saw an elf in Dun Eidean that had a bottle of wine that he said was a gift from a fairy,” Rita said. “He was offering a ruby the size of your head—” she patted Sophie’s head, making the girl giggle, “—to anyone willing to take a drink.”
“What’d it do?” Sophie asked, eyes wide.
“Nobody knows,” Rita said with a secretive smile. “Nobody drank it.”
“There we go,” Sarah said, standing up and coming over to give the rest of the bottle and a second, full bottle to Sophie. “Now, Sophie, you need to give one spoonful of this each to your mother, father and brother. Give it to them once in the morning and once in the evening. What do you do with this?”
“Give it to Mummy an’ Daddy an’ Ross,” Sophie said promptly.
“How much do you give them?” Sarah continued.
“One spoon,” Sophie replied. “Each.”
“And when do you give it to them?” Sarah asked.
“In the mornin’ an’ the evenin’,” Sophie said obediently.
“Good girl,” Rita said, patting Sophie’s head again. “Your family are going to get better thanks to you.” Sophie beamed.
“Come talk to me if anything happens, okay?” Sarah said as they left.
“’Kay,” Sophie promised, clutching the jars of medicine to herself like precious treasures and wiggling her elbows in lieu of a wave.
“There should be a few extra jars,” Rita said, folding up her empty bag and tucking it under her shift. “We can go put them in your house, since you’re the healer now.”
“Then lunch?” Leah suggested, looking up at the sky. The sun was high over their heads. “All that talk of fairy food made me hungry.”
“Sure,” Sarah said, leading them back to the house on the edge of town where, until recently, she’d lived with her father. “Can I ask something?”
“I can tell you a bit about making medicine while we’re here at no extra cost,” Rita promised. “Everyone deserves to have a good healer looking over them.”
“Thank you very much,” Sarah said, “but actually, I really wanted to ask… have you really been to Dun Eidean?”
“When I was younger,” Rita said wistfully. “Before it was burned, of course. It was a beautiful city. It looked like a natural part of the forest that it was built in.”
“So did you really meet a man with a bottle of fairy wine?” Sarah asked curiously.
“Well, I certainly met a man with a bottle of wine that he said he got from a fairy,” Rita said with a smile. “I don’t know what it would do if you drank it. Nobody would. None of the other elves would touch it, so I suppose they could feel some sort of magic coming from it, and so no human or dwarf would drink it either. It might not have been fairy magic, of course. Could have easily been some sort of elvish prank.”
“All the stories I heard about elves said that they were all wise and proud and beautiful,” Sarah said, pulling out the string around her neck that she kept her key on as they approached her door. “They didn’t sound like the sort of people to play pranks.”
“Beautiful? Oh, yes,” Rita mused. “And proud, certainly. And of course they all lived so long, and I suppose that anybody can be wise if they live enough centuries. But none of those things stop you having a sense of humour.”
“I wish I could’ve seen Dun Eidean,” Leah sighed. “Every time you talk about it, Mum, it sounds so amazing…”
“My father told me about it sometimes, too,” Sarah said wistfully, unlocking the door. “He said he studied medicine there when he was young, back before the Burning. He said he met my mother there…” As she stepped inside the door, she brushed her fingers over the table just inside the door, the little figurine of her mother that had been carved out of a stone from the river years before, and the rough stone that she’d picked out to carve into her father when she had time. Rita and Leah clasped their hands and bowed politely to the table.
“Why don’t we have lunch?” Rita suggested, looking around the cluttered house. Sarah immediately felt embarrassed for the disorganized way that medicine ingredients, notebooks and random pieces of food and laundry were scattered around the room. “Don’t be embarrassed, dear, a healer who has time to tidy their house is a healer who’s slacking off on their real job. Anyway, let’s unearth some food for now and talk business afterwards, hmm?”