Nessa sized up the Tolinese girl. They were about the same height from the hips up, which was not only impressive, but helpful. "What if I rode in your stead? We won't make it out of the second round anyway and that way you don't have to withdraw." It wasn't ideal. Some might consider it cheating, but Nessa was aware what a withdrawal would signify—that she couldn't handle the pain. That wasn't the case. Head injuries are something you don't mess with and Nessa couldn't very well march over to the masters and explain Miran's situation.
Miran nodded her assent.
As Nessa stripped off the girl's armor, Miran's condition appeared to worsen.
She seemed woozy.
The redhead wrapped Miran in the clothes she discarded as she prepared to climb into the armor. Because she had more experience with it, she suffered less of a debacle strapping herself in. When Miran's name was announced to ride against the man from Magen, Nessa strode out of the tent, leaving Miran behind, disguised in cloth, just in case someone happened upon her body.
Nessa pulled herself onto the horse and demanded a lance from a bystander. They obliged.
As she held the lance, waiting for the herald to wave his flag, she eyed her competition.
She'd read his name on the lists, but she hadn't been able to associate him with one of the bodies she'd seen. Miran had assured her that he was an imposing figure.
That description was not wrong. They were going to win these competitions based solely on their brawn, which was another reason Nessa hated the Entry Games. The skills that test mental capacity are too few.
"Your entrant from Tolin looks pretty good considering she took a lance to the face almost an hour ago," Master Pagano remarked to Muski.
"Girls don't hit hard," Master Mikhail responded.
Muski was going to disagree, having been punched by many a young Trainee after she'd panicked and lost her weapon. The reason he didn't was because he got distracted. He watched the Tolinese girl roll away from a hit, her lance glancing the shoulder of her opponent. That was the move of a practiced fighter. There was no way she should have been able to pull that move after coming off a head shot.
What did Miran of Rakesh know about jousting?
Muski gave her his full attention. The girl rode twice more, taking two brutal shots to her torso, but she refused to be unseated. She also made two hits, square in the chest. In the end, she was narrowly defeated with a score of 3-2, the Magen trapper emerging victorious.
"Guess she's tougher than she looks," Master Yoshi noted with a grin.
Nessa dropped her lance after they declared her the loser and rode back to the tent that held Miran. With a groan, the redhead rolled out of the saddle and onto unsteady feet. That beast from Magen sure packed a punch. The girl pushed into the tent and lay on the ground beside Miran, catching her breath.
She felt as though she never would. She was sure her ribs were broken. Each intake of breath sent a flare of pain throughout her chest.
When she accepted that the feeling wasn't going away anytime soon, Nessa began to take off the equipment.
It wasn't until she collected her things back from Miran that she noticed the girl's condition had worsened.
Miran was unconscious.
It took a solid bout of shoulder shaking to rouse her, and when she opened her eyes, she spouted gibberish.
This wasn't good.
Nessa escorted Miran to the river submerged the girl, hoping that might reduce whatever swelling was happening in Miran's brain.
The shock of the cold water didn't do much.
Nessa blew a breath out. She'd seen her share of head injuries at the Academy. She hadn't had to deal with any of them. She didn't know what to do.
Panicking and raging about how much she hated the joust weren't going to solve anything. It was a stupid and dangerous sport. Rookies could easily kill themselves on accident. The professionals still did.
Not helping, Nessa scolded herself and looked wildly around for some form of assistance. She couldn't do anything to help. She needed someone who could.
She needed a Medic.
The best Medics were inside the walls of the Academy.
Nessa knew who she needed. There was only one Medic for the job. They said he had the healing Touch. He was a Magus with a knack for healing. Because of his rare gift, there was no guarantee she was going to be able to find him. He was a man in high demand. People from all over the country asked him to save their loved ones. He liked to stay in the capital during the Entry Games because young people would do desperate things to try to get into the Academy.
He had saved more than one life.
Nessa needed him to save Miran's.
Leaving the Tolinese girl by the water's edge, propped up against a tree, Nessa sprinted to the infirmary.
A young boy noticed her just inside the door. "Do you need help?" He asked, his attention drawn by her breathlessness and wild eyes. She stood out with her headwrap.
"I need Medic North. Do you know where he is?"
"He just sat down to lunch-"
Nessa was off and running. She knew where North liked to eat his lunch. When he was in town, she was a frequent visitor.
Medic North was seated beneath a tree in the middle yard in the infirmary about to bite into his sandwich. He was shorter than the average man, but limber, thanks to his work. His agility belied his age. He'd gone grey in his early thirties. Now, he was closer to seventy.
He heard footsteps drawing near him, and when he looked up, dropped his sandwich in shock. North's mouth moved but no words came out. He couldn't see her face and her shape was all wrong, but he'd spent too much time with those red eyebrows and amber eyes to not know who stood in front of him.
"I don't have time for explanations Old Man," Nessa barked. "I've got a head trauma that needs dealing with."
Slowly, North got to his feet and followed Nessa's wake. The girl raced out of the town and down to the river.
Laying against a tree was an unconscious girl of about eighteen with long dark hair tamed into a braid and almond-shaped eyes.
"This is Miran of Rakesh," Medic North panted, staring.
"I know," Nessa replied.
When North looked to her for more information, the girl shook her head, "There's no time for that."
"I watched Miran joust," North commented, kneeling down to better assess his patient. "I was surprised after that first bout that she went another."
"She's stubborn," Nessa grumbled, "she refused to withdraw. She didn't want to seen as weak."
"She's clearly been hanging around you for too long," North grinned at the redhead. He knew the masters' opinions on such a decision. "True weakness is not being able to say no when you know better."
Nessa shook her head at the man's attempt at bestowing wisdom. She didn't need that. She needed his healing gift. "I need you to fix her, North. She needs to finish the Entry Games."
North nodded and continued his examination. Recalling her second bout, North lifted up Miran's shirt, noting that there was no bruising, though there very well should have been. "What do you need me to fix?"
"Her head. I told you that to start," Nessa's tone was sharp.
Of all the Medics, he would be the one to notice what she didn't want him to see, however, he was the only one who could fix Miran.
"I was more worried about internal bleeding after her pummeling by that boy from Magen."
"You taught me that consciousness is more important than bleeding."
"I'm surprise you actually listened to me," North remarked, reaching out for Miran's face. He hesitated.
"Use your Touch," Nessa urged. "There's nothing that says you can't in the rules."
"There's nothing that says you can," North pointed out.
"You know full well that she can't finish the Entry Games with a head injury of this caliber. If she survives the night, she'll be in no condition to finish the week. The joust is deadly. It's murder advertised as sport. It has no use in a Peacekeeper's life. Nor is it useful smack dab in the middle of the Games. They should have put it at the end. Pagano probably planned the games this year. He loves the joust and would be stupid enough to put it in the middle of the week, after bow skills. Two exercises in upper body strength," Nessa made an unflattering sound.
"Settle down," North advised. "You know the point of the games is to demonstrate prowess."
"I do. What I want to know is what jousting demonstrates. How well you can take a beating?"
"It is a useful skill," North allowed. "Some can handle it better than others." The medic reached out and jabbed Nessa in the ribs.
She flinched as he renewed the flare of pain that had dulled in her attempts to save Miran's life. She didn't make a sound, but North knew from her reaction that she was injured.
"My point," Nessa continued, "is that it doesn't show a particular talent other than making getting beat up look cool. There's no real world equivalent in which a Peacekeeper would be jousting."
"Take that up with Muski."
While Nessa spoke, North placed his hands on either side of Miran's lolling head, his thumbs on her temples. At first, it seemed like he was continuing his assessment and then, his breathing slowed. His fingertips began to glow with a white light that flowed into Miran at their point of contact.
After a long breathless moment, Miran's lids flickered open.
When her dark eyes focused on the medic and the fact that she didn't know him or why he was touching her, she tried to get away.
Nessa jumped into her line of sight, "Miran, it's all right. He's with me. His name is Medic North."
Miran stopped squirming and put her fingers to her temples. "What did he just do to me?" They were cool to the touch.
"He healed you," Nessa explained with a shrug.
"How?" Miran wanted to know.
North stood, his work done. "I have a lunch to get back to. Do you want me to see to your ribs—?"
"No. I'm fine," Nessa said quickly.
"I have to tell Muski that I treated her," North nodded to Miran, who was getting to her feet.
"That's fine. Just leave my part out," Nessa replied.
"You think he doesn't already know you're here?" North eyed her warily. "After that first hit, there was no way she should have ridden again."
"She won that first round on her own. We both know that."
"But not the second. Muski will know that."
"You can't prove anything," Nessa shot back.
"You've got the wounds. She doesn't."
"You bring it to a tribunal and I promise you won't find me. She came all the way from Tolin for a shot at the Academy. I wasn't going to let the opportunity slip through her fingers because of Pagano and his beloved joust. She deserves this."
"You shouldn't have done it," North said.
"What what were we to do? Withdraw? You know what the masters would have thought then. She's tough. She'll prove it to them in other situations."
North gave a curt nod of dismissal before walking away. He turned suddenly, "I didn't heal her a hundred percent. I stopped the swelling and reduced it. She's going to sleep well tonight. Hopefully she'll be ready for tomorrow. Find me if anything changes."
Nessa waved him goodbye and turned her attention back to Miran.
"What's going on?" Miran demanded, watching North make his exit.
"What do you remember?"
"Jousting," she answered. "Well, parts of it."
Nessa sighed and explained as they made their way back to their tent, "Because you refused to withdraw, I rode in your stead. When I returned to you, your condition had worsened, so I got the medic."
"How'd you do?"
"I lost on purpose. I figured it would look better than a withdrawal."
"Your medic friend seems to believe you sustained some injuries."
Nessa nodded that this was true and explained about the two unavoidable hits she'd taken.
"Are you all right?" Miran looked concerned, which Nessa found amusing. Moments ago, the Tolinese girl had been on Death's doorstep and she was more concerned with Nessa's well-being than her own.
"I'll live," Nessa said. "It's been awhile since I've been in pain. The experience is refreshing."
Miran shook her head at the redhead's curious statements. "Explain to me about that guy—"
"What did he do to me?"
"He has an ability to heal people. Some call it the Touch."
"What does that mean?"
"Magic," Nessa answered simply.
"Magic," Miran breathed the word. "I thought that-" Every hundred years or so, somebody got a bright idea to try to exterminate it. Miran thought it was all gone. There wasn't any magic in the Southern Nations.
"They say there's still some in the mountains—if you know where to look," Nessa shrugged.
Miran nodded, letting the idea sink in. Magic always had a stronghold in the Norchii Mountains. It made sense that there would still be some here. She turned to Nessa as a thought struck her, "Are you magic?"
"Why do you ask?" Nessa was making a face.
"Well, you said you can find magic in the mountains and if memory serves, I found you in the mountains."
Nessa realized that Miran was making a joke at her expense. She laughed.
"Where did you get that—medic?" The word was unfamiliar to her, but she liked it.
"He works for the Academy."
"Did he know—?"
"It was an emergency. You were hurt—possibly dying. I wasn't just going to stand idly by and let that happen. He's not going to rat me out. We've been through too much together."
"Maybe so, but he's probably not going to let you leave again."
"Don't worry about it," Nessa assured the girl.
They weren't going to have a problem with Medic North. Nessa wasn't in a mood to discuss the details of her relationship with the healer. What was important was he didn't think much of the High King.
They were kindred spirits, Medic North and Nessa. Their upbringings were too similar for them not to get along. Decades ago, North had been found in the ruins of an old village under the mountains. He was just a baby then. One of the mountain men who found him raised him up, until the family could no longer put up with the oddities he demonstrated on occasion. After getting kicked out and traveling the world, he found he had a knack for healing and became a Medic. One of the last known to have the Touch.
Nessa had been much older when they caught her and dragged her from the mountains. She was found speaking a dead language. Only Medic North knew it—perhaps because of his own unusual upbringing.
The pair spent many hours together, transitioning from Xenish to Lowlander. He knew her better than anyone. Better than Hokan. Had he been surprised when she ran away? Was he more surprised that she was back now?
He had to know she had no intention of staying. He wasn't going to say anything to anyone. If anything, he would return and find out why she was back.
Miran watched Nessa grow quiet. She was reflecting on something.
Miran wanted to interrupt. She had a hundred questions about healers and medics. She knew Nessa didn't have all the answers but the redhead knew someone who did.
Magic. The notion was baffling. There hadn't been magic in the Southern Nations in decades. There were rumors and stories of old about witches casting spells on people. She didn't know that you could use magic for good. More particularly that there were other kinds of magic than the kind you use to cast spells.
Nessa claimed that the magic came from the mountains and manifested in different ways. Were there more magic people in Cataire? How did they learn to control their skill, whatever it might be?
This last question, Miran asked out loud, once Nessa was paying attention.
"Magic is a rare gift," Nessa said, recalling North's own answer to the same question she had asked some years ago. "Not many people exhibit the ability outside of the mountains anymore."
"There are others?"
"North says so. Not that I've ever seen them."
"So how do you know?"
"I trust North."
"But how does he know?"
Nessa made a face, "He's seen a lot of the world. Back in day there used to be many a school for people to learn how to control their abilities. In the time of Jezebel and Jora, all of them were obliterated. Afterwards, Jora did her best to rebuild the university system. Since the last great war, they've disappeared entirely.
"North told me that he tried to teach himself because he didn't know who to learn from. Eventually, he found a hedge school and expanded his knowledge that way."
"What's a hedge school?"
"Exactly what it sounds like: people with magic sitting in a ditch, trying to learn magic from someone who knows a little bit more and trying not to get caught."
"They were afraid that if they were found to have unique abilities they would be persecuted or used." Nessa paused, "North told me that after attending a number of hedge schools, someone told him about The University. It's just a rumor, folks living in the mountains, shrouded by magic. They say that you can only get there if you've been there before. Non-magic people can't see it, and magi can sense that something is there—if they get close enough. They definitely don't advertise."
"North attended it?" Miran was flabbergasted.
Nessa shrugged. That's what she'd gathered from their conversations. "From what I understand, the hedge schools were a way of finding magi and bringing them to The University, where they don't have to live in fear, and they can learn their skill."
"So, there are other magi out there," Miran breathed. It still didn't seem real, but it had to be. North had definitely done something to her she couldn't explain. That's the definition of magic.
Miran was aware that the mountains in her own country remained poorly mapped because of all the nooks and crannies. It was entirely possible that there was a magical civilization hiding out there. They'd been persecuted enough times that removing oneself from society seemed smart. In doing so, people would forget they existed and there could be peace.
The Tolinese girl was uncharacteristically silent for the rest of the day. Nessa suspected that it was because of North and the idea of magic. It can shake a person's ideals to their very core. It was why so many magi were killed in the past.
Nessa remembered how she reacted the first time she encountered it. She could barely understand Lowlander. How was she supposed to comprehend the idea of magic? It was impossible to explain even when you spoke the same language.
She knew she couldn't say anything that would help, so Nessa whipped up a quick dinner. She intended to get Miran in bed early so the girl could have more time to recover from her head injury, though she seemed to be in decent condition, currently.
Tomorrow was going to be a day of written tests. It was going to be rough, after getting beat up by the joust. More than one entrant had taken a lance to the face.
It was to give their bodies a day to rest before the hand-to-hand competition.
There was no way to study for the written tests. Nessa had told Miran all the folklore regarding the origin of Peacekeepers and Coursers. Miran knew about the High King and how he was voted in. She knew about the hierarchy of the clan systems and about the panel of masters who decided where Peacekeepers got placed. She knew the difference between a Peacekeeper's job and a Courser's.
Nessa had done her best to make sure that Miran knew what she was getting herself into.
Miran slipped out in the morning and was exhausted when she returned. She didn't have any words to describe her day. Nessa didn't expect any. Wordlessly, dinner was prepared, and the pair went to bed.
Wrestling was the final event.
There was no way Nessa was going to miss that. She wrapped herself in cloth and clothes before heading out. A hundred lengths of cloth obscured her figure as Nessa found her way into the stands.
She arrived in time for Miran's first wrestling match. The man she was fighting was easily twice her size. She didn't stand a chance.
Right from the start Miran got penalized for not engaging her opponent. Nessa couldn't blame her. The guy had weight and arm reach on his side. Miran made herself memorable by refusing to tap out. It would get you points with the masters, if it didn't end up killing you.
Miran was on the receiving end of a choke hold. There was nothing she could have done to avoid it. The man wrapped her up like a pliable pretzel. Everyone could see that she was doing her best to make her body obey her commands and not her opponent's.
Nessa cringed as she watched. Hopefully, Miran remembered the impromptu lesson Nessa had given about headlocks. In her demonstration, she had turned her choke hold on Hunter into a sleeper hold. It could just as easily break a neck.
That's what Miran risked by not tapping out.