Three moons since the Mark of the Other One blossomed. The moon of Fading Frost has come.
“Hold him still, Layla!” Cynric scolded her.
“What do you think I am doing?” Layla was desperately trying to sit on the northman’s legs.
It was clear from the beginning that the unconscious man was healing well, but nightmares and intense spasms had come soon. At nights, the man would wake up and then scream and cry. Yet there was still no sign of him being fully conscious. The man slept, most of the time, Cynric assured Layla. Although it did not feel like it to her. Sometimes they could make him drink.
“Sethian! Sethian by the Makers get in here! Seth, by the Makers!” Cynric was bellowing throughout the house.
“She is out! She went out to Yorstam. She won’t be back until tomorrow!”
The nightly attacks were mild compared to what could happen during the day. Layla could not look after the northman alone any longer. One of the healers had to stay in the village at all times. No one was happy about this. If there was no other way Iorgen or Layla’s mother would come to help out, Leyla, too if it was absolutely necessary. No one else dared enter the healer’s house.
Cynric and Gaven, the village elder, were openly arguing, at times yelling at each other in the middle of the street. The elder had always had little tolerance for the healer. Gaven demanded the northman be sent to Shadowwatch over Tristen, but Cynric had overruled the village elder with some sort of edict. Layla was not too sure what it meant.
“Iorgen then! Get him! Go and get him!”
“How are you going to...” Layla started, but she was cut off by Cynric.
“Just run and get the boy!” Cynric shouted. Before Layla left the room, she was treated with the sight of Cynric straddling the northman and slamming the man to the mattress. “Hurry!” The man hissed through gritted teeth.
By the time she had returned with Iorgen, Cynric was still wrestling with the northman.
“How is he not awake? How is he standing up when he is not awake?” Iorgen stopped at the doorway and stared at the scene. Layla had to push the boy inside.
“Help, you idiot!” Cynric raged at Iorgen.
By the time Cynric had stuffed a sedative herb into the northman’s mouth, the sun was shining high in the sky. Winter would not let up for a few tens, but spring was on its way.
“How is he standing up?” Iorgen panted.
“It’s the bloodseal. His mind is ailing, something clearly happened. Or sometimes even binding with the bloodseal causes enormous mental stress. People have talked about losing their thoughts and so on. At least that’s what I have heard.”
“Explain it in short, mage.” Iorgen grumbled.
“It’s that thing on his arm or some traumatic experience combined with the fact he fought with an entire pack of demons and possibly an awakened one to his utmost limits.”
“Explain to me again, why can’t we send him off to Shadowwatch? You do not have the means or the knowledge to treat that man.” In spite of being younger than Cynric and a year or two younger than Layla, Iorgen showed no fear or hesitation when talking to the healer.
“Because he is still not healed enough! If we move him too much, those attacks will get worse, it might damage his mind.”
“He is standing up, walking around. How is he still not well enough?” Layla said this time.
“How is it that inside us there are demons? Our minds are the most complex achievement of all creation. Add to that the flow that courses through us and the possibilities and endless.” Cynric smiled defiantly at Iorgen.
“Looks like you need another mattress.” Layla felt embarrassed at Iorgen’s words. This was not her house, but she was sick of having to clean after the man. It soon became obvious that there was no use constantly changing mattresses. So they used hay, lots and lots of hay so the floor would not be ruined. Now that Iorgen had said it, she could feel the pungent smell fill the room again.
“It’s not the only thing I need. I am running out of dreampipe.”
“Dreampipe?” Iorgen said sharply.
“If you want to tattle to your old man, then go ahead. It’s the only herb strong enough to keep him down like this. But spare me from your damned lecture, boy.” Cynric lost his composure and Layla groaned quietly.
“Hey! I came here to help, again. Watch your tone with me, mage!”
But Cynric ignored Iorgen. “This needs to be cleaned up. I think it’s time we change the mattresses. And hay.”
“Oh no! I am not cleaning this crap up by myself!”
“I have work to do. Layla, please.”
“This is your work too. You always dump this chore on me or Sethian.”
“I understand! We will do it together then. I will get the hay...”
Layla interrupted Cynric. “No. I am going to get the hay, you will gather that old rag up and burn it and then we will clean him together!”
Layla followed Iorgen who had already left the room and was ready to step outside.
“Ior! Thank you.”
“What for?” The boy looked at Layla suspiciously.
“For coming to help out, again. Thank you!”
“Why do you bother with this?” Iorgen asked as he held the door open for Layla. The bright sun blinded the girl for a moment as it reflected off of melting piles of snow and ice. “Why do you bother slaving after a criminal and a lazy mage who barely knows what he is doing?”
“The northman is not a criminal, Ior. We know nothing about him!” Although saying that Layla sighed.
“Come on, Layla. I can see it in your eyes, you are fed up with this.”
“I am tired, I am not fed up. It is difficult sometimes, but what I am learning from Cynric and Sethian will be useful for the village.” She tried to sound more optimistic.
“Do you want to be stuck in a room full of sick people and buried with work all the time? You barely have time right now to talk with your friends.”
“I have enough time.”
“Is it the mage? I thought you were one the few girls in the village not taken with the show-off.”
“No, it is not because of Cynric. And I am not forcing myself to do anything.” Layla sighed again. Her friends had nagged her to death to introduce them to Cynric. They had been angry when Layla had refused them. She did not want to keep the mage to herself no matter what anyone in the village said. She did not want to give Cynric the attention.
“You are forcing yourself. If you want the mage that bad, admit it already. I can’t imagine you doing all this for the dirty criminal.” The boy would not shut up.
“Remind me to never thank you again, Ior. You are annoying me to death.”
“Then tell me why are you doing this.” Can’t this idiot take a hint, Layla thought? I do not want to talk about it not with you, not with anyone. “Layla, I am worried about you. The man is dangerous. You were there when that stalker wandered near the village. Why do we have to take care of something like that?”
“He is not a thing! He has a name, I am sure. I am doing this so I can learn. For the sake of the village.” But even from here Layla could see the wall of dirt and broken trees on the edge of the forest. The result of the northman’s nightmares.
Iorgen looked Layla straight in the eyes but she did not respond to his gaze. His pale yellow eyes were uncomfortable to look at. So the boy sighed and turned away, shaking his head. Layla could not help, but feel irritated at it. Stop pitying me, she thought. It had been difficult to convince the people in the village that the northman was not a danger to them. It had been difficult to even convince most of the people that there had been a stalker near the village borders. A few moons ago everyone would have believed it at once. Even Layla was not too sure what had happened. The only ones to actually see the demon were Iorgen, Sethian, Cynric and a girl Layla barely knew. Loretta? Was that her name?
One evening Cynric got anxious and told Layla to stay inside. It was one of the rare times when both he and Sethian had been home. The two of them had left after some urgent whispering. The next thing Layla knew was that the northman had stood up. She was not sure how long the two healers had been gone, but the northman stood up. It was not as if she expected him to be well back then. What with all the nightmares and attacks. But that time had been different. First, the man had looked at her. The only thing Layla saw were his dark inky eyes. Someone had poured a deep, black ink into them.
The man had walked out of the front door, completely naked, in the middle of the winter. Layla ran after him in case. But the man had already reached far across the open fields and was nearing four figures near the forest. Layla yelled at those ahead moments before the northman knelt and conjured a blood red sword from out of nowhere and sunk it into the ground. A blinding firestorm erupted near the four figures. By the time Layla’s eyes had gotten used to the dusk again there was a massive impact crater that stretched far into the forest. And the northman had fainted, still kneeling in the middle of the field.
It had been difficult to convince herself to continue taking care of the man, despite what Cynric and Sethian had said. They were convinced he was after the stalker. Iorgen was doubtful, and those doubts had infected Layla’s mind. The man was dangerous. The power that man held inside him was beyond many. Cynric himself had said so right after the incident. Why did she continue with this, Layla thought to herself while gathering hay.
“Hey! Wake up lazybones!” Layla wanted to smother Sethian with a pillow. Sometimes the woman’s lively attitude was too much. She did not remember falling asleep last night.
“Let me sleep. Just leave me here.” Layla had fallen asleep, sitting at the table again. She glanced at the northman. He was in the same position as she had left him last night.
“No can do. Our friend needs a good scrubbing again.”
“No!” Layla said aghast. “Cynric and I cleaned him last night. He hasn’t had another nightmare, I would have woken up!” Layla stumbled off the chair and onto the floor. Her body was stiff and painful to move. Sethian was laughing. Realisation arrived quickly. “I hate you Seth.” Layla let her body fall to the floor. “Just leave me here to die.”
“Come on! It’s not that bad. This is another night our guest has slept without causing trouble. He will be waking up any day now.”
Layla did not bother raising her head from the floor, but talked into the floorboards. “You don’t know what Cynric and I had to go through yesterday. And you say that every time. The two of you keep saying it and all I can hear is another day of scrubbing and wrestling with an unconscious monster. What if he doesn’t wake up? And when he wakes up, he won’t be any stronger than he is now. Who will wash him then? Help him walk to the toilet?”
“You are unusually talkative today, young lady. If you have the energy to talk this much, then you have the energy for what’s next. Studying!” Layla groaned. She was not doing bad. She could read and write much better now. She understood much more than she thought she would. The more she studied, the more tedious it had become. She barely tolerated medicine and healing. She wondered if she did not already hate it. The only reason she kept going was to spite her mother. This was the reason she had not slept at home for many tens now. The healer’s house had become a second home for her. Many of her personal items and clothes were now in one of the empty rooms.
“And as for washing him. You’ve seen the northman naked enough times I would imagine. Without his permission, I might add. This way you can return the favour.”
“Over my dead body.” Layla mumbled into the floorboards.
“What’s that? You would love to. Then it’s settled! Now, get up.” Sethian nudged Layla with her boot.
“No! I will not go into the washing room with the northman, not clothed, not naked and I will not get up.” Layla turned her head, so the mage would hear her better.
Sethian hauled her to her feet with ease. She did not know the mage could do that.
“No more whining. You are turning into Gaven. Come on, the sun is high in the sky, you have slept long enough. Cynric is out doing his rounds today and I need you to pull yourself together. Get those clothes off, wash yourself and then get to eating.” As she said that Sethian was opening Layla’s buttons and would have undressed her if Layla had not pushed Sethian to the floor and marched out of the room.
All cleaned up and with the promise of food, Layla’s mood had improved a little. Sethian walked into the kitchen as Layla was about to eat.
“He is better. In significantly better condition than before. Usually when you shove this much dreampipe down someone’s mouth it will show. I think this is one patient we do not have to wean off the stuff. Cynric is using the stuff undiluted as well.” The old mage had her usual airhead-like smile on her face and she hummed lightly.
“I did not ask and I do not care.” Layla grumbled.
“Hey! Enough with the attitude!” Sethian slammed a cup on the table, spilling milk and sending droplets flying towards Layla. “What did you think this job was when we first talked to you about it? The healing part is brief, the patient does most of the work there. But to make sure they heal properly you have to take care of your patient. Clean them, change their bandages, keep their surroundings clean. A healer’s real job involves jumping headfirst into all the blood, pus, shit, piss and any other gooey substance most people are sure to throw up at first sight. So what if you happen to learn the exact shape and size of a man’s balls and how hairy his arse is? You are helping someone rise back on their two feet, you are helping them get their life back.”
“You helped me off my appetite.” Layla pushed the bowl of porridge away from her.
“Eat!” Sethian pushed the bowl back. “Honestly. I get why cleaning after someone can get frustrating, but this is not that bad. I could tell you stories of what it was like in Shadowwatch. Demon taint, rotting limbs, people alive with their stomachs wide open and intestines in multiple jars for cleaning all of that mess up. Some part of our guest seems to be resistant to the taint. And you are doing great in your studies. If you are doubting that this is the path you want to take why do you keep sleeping in the same room as the northman, why do you keep reading book after book after book Cyn and I throw your way?”
Layla sat and ate in silence for a little while. Sethian did not give up. She sat down opposite Layla and stared. The old mage was like a cat, Layla did not like cats. “Because I do not want the others to be right.” She grumbled.
“Whassat?” Sethian immediately sputtered and her brown eyes seemed to light up and turn orange for a moment.
“Because I do not want to get married, because I do not want to give up, because I do not want to be another simple village dolt. I do not want the others to be right about the passed out shitter in the room over! I do not want to take the easy way out, I do not want this!” Layla gestured wildly towards the window. “Oh! But so and so from the village over is so manly, he knows how to wrestle seven cows at once and his dick can span the distance between our two villages!”" Layla added in a mocking voice. “I am sick of this quiet, simple, boring life. It would be easy but I hate it. I hate having to hear every other day how all my friends are getting married and how I am destined for an empty life of a hermit if I do not act now, grab the nearest boy by the dick and jump on it.” Layla was panting with frustration. And Sethian’s satisfied grin only annoyed her more.
“This might be the first time I have heard you swear. I may still be able to raise you into a real human after all. I was beginning to lose all hope. I thought you would turn out like Cynric. Dry and boring and the only excitement in his life the admiration from countryside girls. At least he has had to act more like a grown up these days, thanks to the northman. There is no way that man has both feet on the ground.”
“That night, when we were done healing the northman, I was more excited about the future than I ever had been. Oh by the Makers. I am doing this out of spite.” Layla pushed her porridge away again and buried her face in her hands. Sethian pushed the porridge back again.
“I said eat! Spite is good. Spite is excellent. If you can prove those idiots around you wrong, no matter how many years it may take, it will be the most satisfying feeling ever. The present always ends up in the past and past achievements are meaningless. Well, hang in there. I am not saying this for nothing, trust me. The northman will be waking up any day now. Moreover, he is a man. They have pride, lots and lots of pride. Soon enough he will be crawling to the bathroom just to spite you. Hah!” Sethian slammed her hand on Layla’s back and nearly forced her face-first into her breakfast. “You spilled some porridge. And with the flow that man has he will be up and walking in a ten.”
Layla saw that odd spark in Sethian’s eyes again. Her eyes grew large and wide and a sheepish grin appeared on her face ever since the incident with the stalker. He killed it, Cyn, he killed it. He killed the demon! It did not go back; it is dead! She had shouted at Cynric the day after the incident when they were inspecting the aftermath.
Hesitant, Layla now entered the northman’s room. Sethian had given her ten questions and a new book. She took her time looking at the man. Colour had returned to his face, his cheeks had grown fuller once more. They were not as ghastly as they had been. And you could see large veins run across his arms, hands and legs. His face looked calmer. But his ragged breath still filled the room and every once in a while Layla could hear the northman toss and turn on the mattress.
Sighing, she opened her book and started reading. Talking to Sethian had eased her mind, but it was all still there. The anxiety, the exhaustion, the irritation at the northman. She had trouble concentrating today. Time and time again she found herself looking at the northman or otherwise distracted by his many sighs and grunts. Stop, stop, stop, stop damn it. Let me focus.
Again. When would he stop? The northman gasped several times and rustled the blankets. Please. Layla thought. Please wake up already. I am sorry for thinking like this, but I cannot take this anymore. Wake up! You are the most annoying thing in this world.
She had closed her eyes, and it took several moments for her to realise that an odd silence had settled into the room. Confused and alert she looked over to see the northman awake. His eyes were wide open, and he was staring up at the ceiling. He blinked a few times before turning his head and looking straight at Layla.
The ragged breathing had calmed and the gaze in his sea-coloured eyes was clear and sharp. Layla was paralysed and her heart was pounding furiously. It took even longer for her to realise that the man was saying something. His mouth barely moved, but a hoarse whisper reached Layla’s ears. She hurried closer and kneeling next to the man, she realized she could not understand a single thing he was saying.
His hand rose all of a sudden and Layla twitched backwards. The man pointed towards the table and made a gesture as if pouring something in his mouth. Water! Layla hurried to the table and grabbed the jug. Turning around, she saw the man sitting up. His eyes followed every move she made and there was something wary in them. She handed the jug to the man.
He drank all of it in one breath and handed the empty jug back to Layla. His hand shook a little. The man said something again.
“I am sorry. I don’t understand you.” The northman said something again, only it sounded different this time. Was that another language? “Stay here!” Layla said and hurried to the doorway. “Seth! He is awake!”
Layla heard the sound of a chair falling over and Sethian rushing like a lunatic out of the kitchen. She pushed Layla out of the way.
“Sorry!” Sethian stopped in the middle of the hallway and helped Layla on her feet again. “See if the mattress needs changing and find some clothes for him.”
“I am not going to the wash-room with him.” Layla declared.
“Exactly! I will be doing that, thank you very much.” Sethian winked at Layla and gathered her wiry red hair into a bun.