Artist : Joe Slucher
Author :Shona Kinsella
Miranya drifted in a dark sea. Every now and then she heard muffled voices, as if people were speaking somewhere below the waves, but she could never make out what they were saying. It didn’t seem important though. In fact, nothing did. She thought how pleasant it would be to just float here forever, the water bearing her weight and her cares.
She looked up at a sky glittering with stars, a cold light that called to her. It was said that the stars were the souls of the ancestors, guarding those they had left behind all through the night. As long as the ancestors stood vigilant, the creatures of darkness would be held at bay.
Miranya wondered if her mother was up there somewhere, watching her now. She found the thought reassuring, although she was sure that her mother would not approve of some of the choices she had made. Fetuh for example.
Fetuh. What had she been thinking? The water swirled around her, tugging at her legs, pulling her around in a half-circle. Why had she gone looking for trouble? The Onao were known to make only bargains that they benefited from most. It was hard, drifting in this cool, dark sea, to remember the fear and urgency that had driven her out of town and along the path to Elfrin’s hut that day. Maybe Fetuh hadn’t helped at all. Maybe the mountain was always going to stop by itself.
She didn’t really believe that.
A dull throb began in her shoulder and she glanced down. The tattoo there was glowing. She felt her eyes widen in surprise and snorted a laugh. I didn’t realise eyes really do widen when we’re surprised, I always thought it was made up for stories.
Fetuh’s mark had turned luminescent and was giving off a pale but breath-taking light. It began to swirl, pulsing in time with her heartbeat.
Miranya watched, captivated. The water around her seemed to caress her body, soothing her until she wasn’t sure where the water ended, and she began. It didn’t matter; she was dissolving, becoming one with the waves, her awareness washing out, stretching, dispersing until she knew no more.
When she awoke, Miranya found herself in a room she had never seen before. She lay on a narrow bed covered with soft white blankets. There was a rocking chair at the end of the bed, and in it sat a man she had seen around the village but had never been introduced to. She believed he was a healer. His eyes were closed, and his chest rose and fell softly.
What am I doing here? Fetuh, are you there? What’s going on?
‘I am glad to see you back with us,’ Fetuh spoke in her mind.
Miranya was surprised to discover how relieved she was that her connection to the god remained intact.
‘You collapsed. I do not know why. This man has been caring for you. Do you know him?’
No. Miranya did a mental inventory of her body. She felt weak, as if coming out of an illness, but otherwise she felt normal. Have you been here the whole time?
‘Yes,’ Fetuh answered. ‘You have been treated well.’
Thank you. Don’t you have other things to attend to?
‘I am not limited in time and space as you are,’ Fetuh said, sounding smug. ‘I can be in many places at once.’
Miranya mentally blew a raspberry at the god. Priestesses were probably supposed to show more reverence but he had pushed her into this, he could take her as she was.
The honeyed light of morning painted the healer’s face in gentle planes. He was attractive and Miranya remembered noticing him around before. She pulled her eyes away to examine the room. Against one wall stood a cabinet topped with empty bottles and jars, beside which stood a desk, piled with papers and scattered notes. On the other side of the room was a low table with chairs around it. Herbs hung from the ceiling in bunches, as did tokens of the various Onao.
The room felt inviting, safe, and Miranya was tempted to let herself rest here.
‘I’m glad to see that you’re back with us,’ the healer said in an unknowing imitation of Fetuh, his voice warm.
‘What happened?’ Miranya croaked.
The healer got up and poured a cup of water from a jug on the desk. He handed it to Miranya with an admonition to sip it slowly.
‘You collapsed in the street yesterday morning,’ he said, looking at her intently. When passers-by couldn’t wake you, you were brought here. How are you feeling now?’
Miranya paused before answering, taking stock of her body. ‘Tired. My muscles ache and I feel weak. What’s wrong with me?’
‘I don’t know.’ The healer looked uncomfortable at this admission.
Miranya sat up and swung her legs over the side of the bed. She was struck by a moment of light-headedness and paused. Perhaps she should stay where she was.
‘Did you eat or drink anything unusual yesterday?’ the healer asked, stepping back to give her some space.
‘No, just some fruit and bread when I woke, some water. Nothing I haven’t had many times before.’
‘What about over the last few days?’
‘Not that I can think of.’ Miranya yawned and stretched. She noticed the healer looking at her shoulder.
‘Is that a new tattoo?’
‘Yes,’ she answered with some trepidation.
‘Do you know which dye was used?’
‘No need to worry, we can visit the person who did the tattoo for you and ask. It could be that you’ve reacted badly to something in the dye.’
‘I really don’t think that’s it.’
The healer wasn’t listening. He had moved over to his desk and was rifling through things, clearly lost in thought.
‘If we can get the ingredients of the dye, I can do some tests to isolate whatever caused your collapse and then I might be able to work up a counter-substance to prevent any further episodes.’
‘It wasn’t the tattoo.’
He didn’t even turn around when she spoke ‘You probably shouldn’t be wandering around yet but if you tell me who I’m looking for and where to find them I can go straight there.’
‘Still not the tattoo.’
‘I’ll be back as son as I can. You should try to get some rest, maybe eat something.’
Miranya put her fingers in her mouth and gave a piercing whistle. The healer leapt into the air in surprise.
‘What was that all about?’ he asked, looking genuinely confused.
‘Will you listen to me now?’
‘Of course. Sorry.’ He looked sheepish, almost like a child being told off and Miranya couldn’t help but laugh.
‘It’s not the tattoo,’ she said.
‘How can you be sure? Even if you’ve had other tattoos done by the same person, they might have changed the formula of the dye.’
Miranya sighed and rubbed her temples. What should I tell him?
‘How about the truth?’ Fetuh said inside her mind. ‘Why are you so reluctant to answer?’
‘It’s not an ordinary tattoo,’ Miranya said slowly, feeling her way to the right words. ‘This tattoo was given to me by Fetuh himself.’
‘I didn’t know the Onao were in the habit of tattooing people,’ the healer said, supressing a laugh.
‘I know it’s hard to believe,’ Miranya said. ‘But it’s true. It’s the mark of a promise I made.’
‘And Fetuh mixed up the dye himself, did he?’
‘Tell him to touch the tattoo,’ Fetuh said.
‘Just touch it,’ Miranya said. ‘You’ll see that it’s different.’
The healer gave her an amused look but came over and touched her shoulder, allowing his fingers to trace the pattern of the tattoo. The symbol began to glow and then a green spark flew from it to land on the back of the healer’s hand.
‘Ow!’ He stepped back, rubbing his hand.
‘I think you’d better tell me the whole story.’
By the end of her tale, the healer was looking at her in a way that made her uncomfortable. She couldn’t tell if he thought she had imagined the whole thing or if he was horrified by what she had done.
Eventually he sighed and rubbed his eyes. ‘It is possible that whatever Elfrin gave you has caused this collapse, although it seems unlikely given the amount of time that has passed. Still, you should probably pay her a visit when you are able and let her know what happened. In the meantime, there are some other things we should rule out.’
‘Have you been out at the hot springs recently?’
‘No, not for ages,’ Miranya said, frowning.
‘Have you been keeping your food covered?’
‘Of course! I know better than to leave food out.’ Even a child knew not to leave food uncovered, or the sprites would get into it and eat the essence of the food, leaving behind only a husk, not suitable for human consumption.
Does he think me a fool? Miranya thought angrily.
‘Rest easy,’ Fetuh said in her mind. ‘He is trying to help.’
I don’t think he believes me.
‘He believes that you were being honest, but he thinks Elfrin tricked you, that the potion made you see things.’
Miranya felt guilty, as if she was peeking into the healer’s private space. Please don’t share other people’s thoughts with me.
‘Have you been bitten by a brapin?’ the healer asked.
Miranya shook her head.
‘Seen any scorpions inside your home?’
‘Have you handled any pscyllian skin?’
‘No. Look, I’m feeling much better, I really just want to go home.’
The healer sighed and gazed at the wall. He ran his hand over his chin and Miranya heard the rasping sound of his fingers rubbing against the stubble there.
‘It does not sit well with me that I do not know what happened,’ he said.
‘Some questions are not meant to be answered.’
‘Hmmm.’ The healer sounded sceptical. ‘Will you come and see me again in a few days?’
‘If you wish,’ Miranya said, before having a sudden panic. ‘I do not have a lot of money…’ she looked at her feet rather than at the healer.
‘Don’t worry … I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.’
‘I’m pleased to meet you, Miranya. I am Malik Tehran.’
The healer clasped her forearm in the traditional gesture of greeting and she blushed at the tingle caused by his touch.
‘As I was saying, you don’t have to worry about payment. That has been taken care of.’
Miranya frowned. ‘By whom?’
‘By someone who wished to remain anonymous.’
As she walked home, the question of who had paid for her care still niggled at her. The only person she could think of who might be able to spare the money was Mistress Gabrone, the seamstress that she worked for a few days a week. So, she decided to drop into the shop the next day and offer her thanks. Perhaps she would take some herbs from her garden as a gift.
As she approached her house, she was so busy thinking of what she would say to Mistress Gabrone that she almost missed the fact that her door was slightly ajar, in fact she would probably wouldn’t have noticed at all if Fetuh hadn’t brought her attention to it.
‘I believe you have a visitor,’ he said in the space inside her skull.
Who is it?
‘I believe it is your mysterious benefactor.’
Miranya hurried to the door and stepped through without stopping to consider whether or not that was a good idea.
Seated at the work table in the main room, was the blue-robed merchant she had been trying to avoid the day before.
Support the project at patreon.com/miranyasoath