Artist : Joe Slucher
Author : Shona Kinsella
Miranya’s head pounded a staccato beat behind her left eye and a cold sweat prickled on her skin. Her mouth flooded with saliva. A moment later, she leaned over and vomited. Elfrin pressed a cool cloth to the back of her neck and she groaned her thanks.
‘It worked then.’
‘You could have warned me it would make me sick,’ Miranya mumbled, straightening up in the wooden chair by the hearth.
‘Would it have made any difference?’ Elfrin asked, handing her a wooden cup filled with fresh water.
She took the cup and sipped at the contents gratefully. ‘Probably not.’ She tipped her head back against the solid, cool wood of the chair-back and closed her eyes. The headache began to recede settling to a dull ache that coloured the inside of her eyelids red.
‘New tattoo, I see,’ Elfrin said, a hint of disapproval in her tone.
Miranya opened her eyes and peered at the mark on her shoulder. ‘It was part of the deal.’ For the first time since waking up, she thought of the reason she had gone in the first place. ‘Did it work? Has the mountain stopped?’
‘See for yourself.’ Elfrin gestured towards the door.
Miranya heaved herself out of the chair with a groan, pausing for a moment as light-headedness overtook her. When it passed, she crossed the room on legs that were stiff and tight. ‘How long was I gone?’ she asked, frowning.
Elfrin just waved at the door. Miranya reached out and opened it, letting out a little cry of surprise. It was full dark outside. She had been unconscious for hours. She looked towards the mountain where there was only a hulking shadow. The air tasted sweet, a gentle breeze carrying the smell of grass and flowers and not even a hint of smoke. Awestruck, Miranya looked up and for the first time in weeks, she saw the stars.
Her vision wavered, tears filling her eyes before spilling down her cheeks. Fetuh had kept his side of the bargain. The village was safe.
‘Have you seen your fill?’
Miranya turned around and saw Elfrin standing over the cauldron in the hearth. ‘We did it, Elfrin. Isn’t in wonderful?’
‘You achieved your aim. We’ll find out if it is wonderful in due course.’
‘What do you mean? Don’t you think it was the right thing to do?’
Elfrin shrugged, a gesture that looked difficult with her stooped frame and hunched shoulders. ‘I do not think it was the wrong thing to do, but then that doesn’t necessarily mean it was right, does it?’
A shadow of doubt crossed Miranya’s heart, but she pushed it aside with annoyance. ‘Would it have been better to let the village be destroyed?’
‘I did not say that, and you know it. Now, come and sit down. Have something to eat. You can sleep here tonight.’
‘I’d rather go home,’ Miranya said, crossing her arms over her chest and glaring at the old woman.
‘You should stay here, where I can keep an eye on you until I’m sure the after-effects of the potion have worn off.’
‘I don’t want to impose,’ Miranya said, her voice tight, ‘especially when you don’t feel the same way as I do about all of this.’
‘Oh, stop being a child,’ Elfrin snapped. ‘If I thought you were wrong, I would not have given you the potion, but since I do not know what you gave in exchange, or how this might change paths for others in the village, I will reserve judgement. Now, come and have something to eat.’
A flush worked its way up Miranya’s neck. She had been childish. She bowed her head. ‘My apologies, wise one. Thank you for your help and your hospitality.’
Elfrin held out a bowl of stew and when the fragrant steam found Miranya’s nose, hunger began to drown out the nausea in her stomach. She accepted the bowl gratefully and burned her tongue on the first spoonful.
‘Would you like to sit?’ Elfrin gestured to the chair Miranya had so recently been slumped in, unconscious.
‘No, thank you, Miranya said, blowing on a spoonful of stew to cool it. ‘My body needs to loosen up a bit.’
Elfrin nodded and settled herself on a low stool with her own bowl of stew. ‘Your tattoo tells me that you bargained with Fetuh, yes?’
‘What was the price for his intervention?’
‘Only my devotion,’ Miranya said, skirting the truth. ‘I must hold him higher than any of the Onao and act as his priestess.’
Elfrin looked hard at Miranya, eyes narrowed. ‘And?’
Sighing, Miranya told the old woman everything. All except the effect Fetuh had on her, the attraction that he stirred in her.
‘It is too much,’ Elfrin said when the tale was told. ‘Who is to say how many more lives you would have had! Now all that time, all of that potential, is tied to Fetuh.’
‘What else could I have done?’ Miranya asked. She wanted to be indignant, righteous, but all she felt was exhausted.
‘You could have let nature take its course,’ Elfrin answered gently. ‘It is not your responsibility to save those who will not save themselves.’
‘But what of those who cannot save themselves. What of the children kept there by parents who trusted the guild?’ Miranya’s eyelids were heavy and even as she spoke, she struggled to stay awake. It seemed to take an inordinate amount of effort to form words. She leaned back against the wall and knew it was a mistake as sleep tried to overpower her where she stood.
‘It doesn’t matter now – the path has been taken. We must all walk it to the end.’
Miranya blinked and suddenly Elfrin was at her side, holding her arm. ‘Come, let’s get you to bed, before you fall over.’
She tried to protest – there was only one bed in the hut – but all that came out were incoherent mumbles. Elfrin guided her to the bed and sleep took her almost before she was horizontal.
Miranya awoke the next day refreshed and keen to get back to the village to check on her friends and neighbours. Over breakfast, Elfrin told her about the fire in the sky and just how close things had been before Fetuh stopped it all. As soon as she could convince the wise woman that she was no longer experiencing any effects from the potion, Miranya left, promising to come back in a few days.
She hurried along the path, walking at a pace that was not far from a run. The sun shone down on her skin, a clean heat, that was so much more pleasant than the oppressive heat of the mountain they had all been living under. Birds flitted about, singing, and Miranya hummed along with them, smiling to herself. All would be well now. Life could get back to normal.
She passed through the centre of the village and noted that many of the houses bore signs of smoke and soot, some of them with damaged shutters and planks. She frowned. Things must have been worse in the village than Elfrin knew about. The streets were quiet, with fewer people around than Miranya had expected.
As she approached her own home, a small wooden house painted white, with blue shutters, she saw Agona, the woman who lived next door. Agona was sitting on her front step, crying quietly into her apron.
‘What’s wrong?’ Miranya asked, crouching next to her neighbour. ‘Agona, what’s happened?’
‘It’s nothing,’ she said, wiping her face with her apron and straightening up. ‘I’m being foolish, all is well.’
‘Tell me, please,’ Miranya asked, concern making her push. In all the years they had lived beside each other, she had never seen Agona being anything other than steadfast.
‘Yesterday, my daughter and her child were almost trampled when it looked as though the mountain would rain fire on us. The merchant, Nasarin, saved them.’ Agona let out a shaky breath. ‘Neither were hurt but I keep imagining what could have happened. My mind’s eye keeps showing me their broken bodies in the middle of the street. Like old Hyram – he was killed just around the corner from where my daughter fell.’
‘You all must have had a terrible fright. I am very glad they are both well.’
‘Thank goodness the Merchant’s Guild were right and the mountain went back to its slumber,’ Agona said, getting to her feet.
‘They were wrong,’ Miranya spluttered. ‘The mountain was going to destroy us all!’
‘Then why didn’t it?’ Agona asked.
Miranya just shook her head. ‘The guild was wrong,’ she said again. ‘They almost killed us all.’
‘I know you don’t like the merchants much, Miranya.’ She lowered her voice. ‘None of us do. But they were right. Sometimes you just have to accept facts.’
Agona turned and stepped into her home and Miranya watched her go, frustration turning her stomach sour. She had no great need for people to know what she had done, how she had saved them all, but she couldn’t abide the thought that everyone would carry on following the Merchant’s Guild as if they knew everything!
She stepped into her home, shutting the door behind her with a bang.
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