This story begins with bone and blood. It’s only fitting to begin there because our world is littered with the bones of those who came before and the blood? Well, blood is the soul, isn’t it? It flows through you, and it flows through me and through all the Father’s creatures.
Lys Rainwort went home to visit her parents. “Come home while you can, child,” her mother had written. “We want to see you.” Lys had just graduated, so the Order gave her leave for the visit. The journey from Lashand to Tremost had only taken two days because she was able to ride the first day with a merchant caravan. No one at the checkpoints bothered to look at her papers, and the merchants were happy to have a healer along. Before the caravan split off to head north, she’d kept busy curing small injuries. That night, when they set up camp, she was so tired that she only ate half a bowl of beef stew. Doing rounds at the Healing House had not prepared her for the exhaustion of real world magic.
Although walking the remaining twenty miles home on the second day was uncomfortable, and every Rhoshundar clerk wanted to spend a quarter of an hour looking at her paperwork, Lys was happy to be going home, even for a short visit. It was late summer, and the sun was still high in the sky when she arrived. Her father was leaving the barn with a sledge hammer and a saw. He dropped them, gave her a hug and then held her at arm’s length. “You look tired. And thin. Have you been eating enough?”
“I’m fine and don’t say that in front of Mother – she’ll try to fatten me up while I’m here.” Lys cocked her head toward the tools. “What are you doing now?”
Her father shook his head. “It’s Stone.” He blew out a breath. “I don’t know how it happened, but he broke a leg.” He bent to pick up the tools, “I have to put him down.”
Tears immediately came to Lys’s eyes. She remembered riding Stone as her father led him back from the fields. “I’m coming with you.”
“No. Go see your mother.” He gestured toward the house with his chin and started walking.
Lys kept pace with him. “I’m not a child anymore. I’m almost twenty; I want to help.” As the words left her mouth, Lys had an idea. “I could try to heal him,” she said softly.
Her father stopped walking. “That’s blasphemy, Lys. The sacrament’s not for animals. I won’t hear it.”
“You’d rather waste a life than consider something new?”
After a long moment her father said, “Won’t go to waste. He’ll make a fine stew. We might still be eating him come spring.”
Lys winched but didn’t answer. Instead she kept pace with her father, and as they neared the fields, she started to trot. She saw Stone lying on his side and pulled up short as she got near the ox. He could break her arm without even trying, if he swung his head around too quickly. She circled wide so that he could see her approach. “Stone. Hey there. I want to help you, OK?” He lowed and tried to move. Lys could see that his back leg was broken, and bone was poking through the skin. There was blood on the dirt. She took a deep breath and slowly laid her hand on his jaw. She relaxed her breathing and her mind as she focused on Stone. In a few moments the animal’s eyes began to droop, and his head dropped a few seconds later.
Lys suppressed a cry of joy, hiked up her robe and walked on her knees until she was by Stone’s back leg. She looked at her hands; the ring on her left hand glinted in the sunlight. “Your will be done, Father,” she prayed.
It was a beginning: a pebble that presaged an avalanche. How we live now began with one young woman kneeling in a freshly plowed field.
Walking to the house, Lys she realized that she’d have to go to Tolount. The Father Superior would want to know about the miracle. At dinner, Lys recoiled when her mother put meat on the table. “You used to like chicken.”
“I can’t eat them anymore, Mother. They have souls. They’re part of God.”
“You don’t know that!” her mother countered. “Just because you did your magic on Stone doesn’t mean—”
“Yes, it does. It most certainly does!”
“What happened to you at that place? I made your favorite meal, and you push it away? Why did you even bother to come home?”
“Mother, it’s not— Listen, please. For magic to work, you have to have a soul. I – I can’t tell you more than that, but trust me.”
Lys’s father slapped his palm on the table. “I will have quiet!” He shook his head for a moment. “Animals having souls? If it were true, we’d know about it.”
“But Dad! You don’t know—”
“Here’s what I know. You were born touched by God. When that Ray Brownleaf sat in that very chair and told us about you, you been eating animals your whole life!” His voice rose higher. “So if the Father didn’t want us to eat meat, we’d know about it!” He picked up his knife, cut off a chicken leg and put it on his plate. He gestured at the dead bird. “Are you going to eat?”
Lys remembered how Stone’s skin felt against her hand. She remembered the gentle way that her magic had flowed into him. She looked down at the ring that held her reserve magical energy. Give me strength, she prayed. After a moment, she stood up. “No, I’m not going to eat animals. Not ever again.”
“But Lys! For goodness sake, it’s already cooked. You have to eat something.”
“Not tonight, Mother. No. And tomorrow I need to head to Tolount. They need to know. I’m sorry.” She turned from the table as her mother gave a cry.
Her father grabbed her arm roughly and whirled her around so that they were facing each other. “I don’t know what they did to you at that school. You weren’t home five minutes but you disobeyed me, and now you’ve made your mother cry.” He peered into her eyes. “Who are you?”
“I am God’s servant, doing His will in the world.” She looked down to where her father was clenching her arm. “Can I go?”
“You’re not staying in my house, not with that attitude.”
“Fine. Glad I didn’t unpack.” Lys shook her arm free and walked to the corner where she’d stowed her pack.
“Lys! Albere! Stop this, both of you!” Her mother stood up. Lys shouldered her pack. “Albere!”
He ignored his wife. “You can sleep in the barn, if you want. Then you can leave come daylight.”
In those days travel was safer, if a bit bogged down by the Empire’s bureaucracy, and Lys made it to Tolount without incident.
Lys shrugged her shoulders to try to loosen the tight muscles. The bag her mother had snuck to her before she left home was lighter than it had been four days earlier, but she had to be close to the city, and she could buy more food there. Ahead Lys saw a woman in a kerchief pulling a small cart. As she got closer she heard the woman’s labored breathing. On impulse she said, “I can pull the cart for a while for you.”
The woman jerked her head up and then saw Lys’ robes. “I’m not a believer.”
Lys smiled. “I don’t care about that. Are you from Tolount?” She matched her pace to the woman’s.
“Yes,” the woman said curtly. She kept her head down.
“I’m Lys Rainwort and I’m going – I mean, you wouldn’t know where the Order Chapter House is, do you? I’ve never been to Tolount, and I’ll need a guide.”
The woman spat. “I’m not a Mote, so keep your money. Just fallen on hard times is all. My family name is as good as yours. Elba Greenleaf.” She jerked a thumb at herself. “I know where the Dead Tower is. Your House near there?”
“You mean the Hall of the Dead? I think the Chapter House is nearby, but if you can show me the Hall, I can get one of my Order to take me the rest of the way.”
They walked in silence for a few moments. “Cart’s not light, believe you me!” said Elba. “And you look kinda wispy; it’d be just my luck that you’d fall over and spill my goods all out on the ground.” She stopped walking though and pulled the cart handles up as though judging the weight.
“I was raised on a farm. I’m no stranger to heavy loads.”
“Oh aye? Farm girl with fancy robes? Here you go!” Lys took the cart, and they began to walk. Elba broke the silence a few minutes later. “Do your fancy robes mean anything special? I mean, I’ve seen the Hag’s people out and about, and they’re all in black, like crows.”
“I’m a healer. The rays of the sun,” Lys bobbed her head toward her chest, “represent the healing that flows from the Father to His people, through me – through all healers, I mean.”
“I’ve heard about you healer folk!” She scrunched up her face. “I’ll take an old fashioned apothecary any day. Nothing a good purge won’t cure! That’s what my mam always said. One I use, he was schooled in the Rhoshundar province, proper! He pronounces all the fancy ‘Dari words for me. I feel better just hearing him. But it does cost a bit. Everything does, these days.” Lys refrained from commenting about the horse dung, dried hay and sulfur that made up many of the traditional apothecary cures. “Why you going to Tolount? Reporting for duty or something?”
Lys smiled. “Not exactly. And what did you mean about ‘the hag’?”
“Oh you know! Her that’s his girlfriend – your heavenly Dad there.”
“You mean Zenbia, His Companion? You call her hag?”
Elba gave a half shrug. “Keeper of the dead – seems fitting. She ain’t complained. Not that I heard!”
“She’s at one with God. She’s, she’s—”
“Well, what do you call her, eh?”
“Uh, we – she’s His Companion! That’s what we call her.”
Elba sucked on her teeth. “Hag sounds better, I think, but you know best.”
“Yes, yes we do!” Lys picked up the pace. The cart was very heavy; obviously Elba was stronger than she looked. “What are you hauling to the city? Do you keep a stall or something?”
“I move stuff. A man wants something hauled, he can ask for Elba, and he knows it will get where it’s going.”
“Without fuss or fees, I bet.”
“You calling me a smuggler? You got some nerve, girl. Those fancy robes make you walk above the rest of us, do they?” She pushed up a sleeve. “Gimme my cart back. I don’t need your charity.”
Lys’ face turned red. “I’m sorry,” she said. “That was mean of me.” She kept pulling the cart. “I’ll pull it to the gates and beyond, if you want.”
Elba barked out a laugh. “Your faith big on penance, like the Bryndahl? You didn’t just add magic to Bryndic and call it ‘The Order’ did you?” Elba leaned over to look in Lys’ face. “You don’t even know where I’m going, but you’ll haul that heavy cart for me as far as I need?” When Lys didn’t answer, she said, “Now that’s a religion I could get behind, maybe.”
“It was mean of me to accuse you of being a criminal,” said Lys. “And it’s the least I can do to ease your burden for a few minutes. As an apology, I mean.”
“Had a Mote to help me for a while. I’m not as young as I used to be. But wouldn’t you know it, he ran off. Wanted a week’s pay in advance all of a sudden, and I was stupid enough to agree. Shoulda known. You can’t trust people – don’t matter their caste, either! I’ve had citizens do the same, and I’m not too grand to admit it. It’s different now. Not like the old days, you could trust people then.” They walked along for a few minutes. “So what are you doing going to Tolount?” asked Elba. “You ain’t said.”
…. to be continued.