The Price of Healing

First appeared in the January 2017 issue of Kzine. Copyright 2017 Kristin Janz.

 

Meka scanned the crowds along the riverbank with a growing sense of desperation, searching in vain for a familiar face, a familiar anything. It wasn’t the City she remembered from her last visit. No neat rows of spacious, whitewashed houses, no peaceful flower gardens built around pools fed by channeled river water. The water smelled like a latrine, with the smoke of what must have been hundreds of cooking fires hanging low in the air, making them all cough.

Djereb and Hori used the paddles to start pushing the reed boat from the River into the crowded canal. That was familiar, a Grand Canal cutting inland from the river to aid in moving large quantities of grain, brick, reed thatch, and all the other supplies that such an unnaturally large settlement of people needed in such quantity. And yet…

“This can’t be the City,” she told the others. “Either we passed it along the way, or it’s farther downriver.”

“What else could it be?” Enedju lounged in the curved bottom of the boat near Meka, while Djereb and Hori took their turn at the paddles. He made a show of pinching his nostrils shut with all five fingers of one hand. “Only Old Folk could make a place stink so badly!”

“Enedju,” Djereb warned his nephew, his voice mild.

“I see plenty of Young Folk here,” Meka said, pointing to the banks of the canal, where short, brown-skinned men and women resembling her three Young Folk companions mingled with taller, paler Old Folk. “Maybe the stink comes from them.”

Enedju only glowered at her. Meka looked away, irritated with herself. At one hundred and thirty-two years, she was by far the oldest of the four, even if she didn’t look much older than Enedju; she shouldn’t let a child’s comment bother her.

Besides, they had all traded enough insults and accusations the first day of their journey. Short-lived Young Folk grazed their sheep and goats in wheat and flax fields, ruining crops. Old Folk like Meka hunted tame herds, apparently, easier prey than gazelles. When they weren’t stealing Young Folk children.

That was the claim Meka found most unbelievable, that a magician or archmage from the City had stolen Djereb’s daughter. Meka’s mother didn’t find it unbelievable though. And so here Meka was, accompanying Djereb and his two kinsmen to find the woman responsible and to negotiate for the child’s safe return.

“Which tent is your brother’s?” Djereb asked. Young Folk called all dwellings tents. “We’ll let you off there and come back for you tomorrow morning.” This was why Meka had been sent instead of someone more imposing: her younger brother Sekiu was one of the archmages who ruled the City. Since Meka had practically raised him while their mother managed the affairs of the village, she supposedly had more influence over him than anyone else did, and would be able to convince him to help.

“What do you mean, you’ll let me off?” Meka grabbed the edge of the boat to steady herself as a larger, heavier boat jostled theirs aside. The Old Folk man standing in the bow spat into the water as if the sight of her and her companions left a foul taste in his mouth. “I thought we were all staying together until we found your daughter.”

Djereb shook his head, dismissing the idea. “The City isn’t safe for Young Folk. And I don’t want to risk meeting the witch who stole Mernet. You stay with your brother and see if he knows anything, we’ll spend the night downstream where the Young Folk camp.”

“I told you,” Meka said, “I don’t recognize anything.” Sekiu had lived in a large house with the City’s three other archmages, and she remembered being able to see one of the date palms shading the entrance from the edge of the Grand Canal. But there were so many more houses now. How could a settlement change so much in only fifty-one years?

“He can’t be too hard to find,” Enedju said. “If he’s running the place.”

Meka ignored him. The Canal narrowed as they moved away from the River but it also became less crowded, until theirs was the only boat. The houses were larger too, and the ground between the levee and the walls of the houses had been planted with sycamores and grapevines. But none of the houses looked familiar.

Meka was about to suggest that they might have gone too far when a voice from the Canal’s edge shouted, “Stop! Come no further.”

Three Old Folk men stood atop the levee. Two carried hand axes and slings.

“Great Shepherd piss on them,” Djereb muttered. “Turn the boat around.”

The nose of the boat began to swing to the side as Djereb and Hori adjusted their paddling. Then the entire craft tipped precariously as an invisible force started pushing the boat riverward.

“Hey!” Meka waved at the three men. “We’re leaving! Stop pushing us.”

Either the men didn’t hear or didn’t care, because the boat kept skimming back along the surface. Djereb and Hori drew the paddles in and clung to the sides, wide-eyed. Enedju, abandoning his usual slouch, grabbed Meka’s axe from the bottom of the boat and brandished it as if the Old Folk men were within striking distance, a snarl contorting his face.

Meka had no magical ability of her own, but her mother was a magician, her brother an archmage. She’d seen plenty of magic, and having her boat pushed along the surface of a canal wasn’t going to intimidate her. “Put that thing down!” she told Enedju. “It isn’t even yours.” The rare bronze axe head, a gift from Meka’s brother, stood out among the polished stone weapons belonging to the three Young Folk men. Meka had often caught Enedju eyeing it.

“Do what she says,” Djereb told the youth, who obeyed, though not without making a disgusted face. Then, addressing Meka, he asked, “Now what?”

“Take me to the edge,” she said. “I’m going to ask what they think they’re doing.”

Djereb looked doubtful. “Don’t you think we should wait until we’re farther away?”

“If anything happens to me, they’ll have to answer to Sekiu.”

“Your brother’s vengeance won’t help me get my daughter back.” But Djereb dipped his paddle back into the water and pushed the boat towards the edge. The sentinels watched but made no move to stop them.

Meka hesitated before clambering up the levee, wondering if she should be taking her axe. But what good would it do against a magician? Besides, she trusted Djereb with it. She decided to leave it in the boat along with everything else she’d brought—excepting the clothes she wore—and went to meet the Old Folk “welcoming” her to the City.

One of the men had a length of cloth draped around his arms and torso and his skirt reached almost to his ankles, but the men with axes and slings wore knee-length skirts like Meka’s. The postures of the two armed men indicated deference to the other, so he was probably the only magician of the three.

Meka forced herself to calm down before she reached them, taking long, deep breaths and slowing her pace. “My brother is an archmage here. His name is Sekiu. Can you tell me where I can find his house?” She avoided looking back over her shoulder at Djereb and the others, paddling the boat back towards the river.

The magician’s face turned uneasy. “It is not proper to refer to a Great Father by his true name.”

Great Father? What was the man talking about? “Sekiu is my younger brother, not the Ancestor in the Heavens. I used to wipe his bottom when he soiled himself. I’ve come a long way to visit him, and I want to know where he is.”

The man looked her over as if she were Young Folk, his eyes lingering on her dusty skirt, her broken and dirty fingernails and toenails. His linen garments and those of the two men accompanying him were as spotless as if they had come off the loom that morning.

Finally, he gave a slow nod and said, “Come.” He and the others turned and descended the dry side of the levee to a narrow path invisible from the Canal, without waiting to see if she followed.

***

They stopped in front of a wall so high that Meka would have had to stand on the shoulders of one of the men to see over it. At first she thought it was constructed of mud-brick blocks so enormous that they should have crumbled under their own weight. Then she realized that the entire wall was made of stone.

Her heart pounded as she tried to imagine how many people it would take to lift even one of the stone blocks. Then, as if in answer to her question, the largest of all, a huge slab that could have crushed an aurochs, rose soundlessly into the air until it had left an entrance high enough that even the men could enter without stooping.

At first Meka assumed that the magician had lifted the stone and that he must therefore be one of Sekiu’s fellow archmages, a newer arrival whom she hadn’t met during her last visit. She didn’t think any ordinary magician could have lifted such a stone without help. But the magician glanced up uneasily as he passed under the stone, quickening his pace as much as Meka and the two armed men did.

The wall enclosed an expanse of level ground that could have held all twelve houses in Meka’s village. It dwarfed what she remembered of the old House of Archmages. Several Young Folk women and girls, clad only in loincloths, sat in a group grinding grain, while others tended steaming pots and roasting geese over glowing coals, or spun flax into linen thread. Two handsome hunting dogs sprang to their feet to bark at the intruders, while a lounging pig and two cud-chewing goats glanced once in their direction before dismissing them as unimportant.

Stairs led to a large house built over the rear of the courtyard, standing on posts like a flood platform. At the top of the stairs stood the strangest Young Folk girl Meka had ever seen. Like Young Folk from the north, her face and bare chest and arms were as pale as Meka’s, her long, braided hair was the color of sand instead of black, and her eyes were the blue of a cloudless sky at midday. But her legs and feet, visible through the side opening of her linen skirt, were as brown as Djereb’s.

“The Great Mother will see you,” the girl announced.

The strange girl led them to the roof of the house, which was flat and covered with baked mud instead of reed thatch and seemed sturdy enough to walk on. Low walls surrounded the roof and linen curtains rose above those, so that Meka could see only the occasional flash of the surrounding City when a breeze caught one. A reed canopy shielded the far half of the roof from the sun, and under the canopy, on a platform covered with animal skins, woolen rugs, and pillows, lounged a handsome Old Folk woman with strands of white hair mingled through the black.

Meka recognized the woman from her last visit. She stepped forward, but almost immediately, an invisible force like a strong wind caught her shoulders and prevented her from approaching any closer. The woman’s face betrayed no sign of recognition.

“Great Mother,” the magician said, bending from the waist and touching his hands to his knees. “This one was paddling up the Canal with three Young Folk shepherds. She claims blood ties to one of the Great Fathers.”

“Sekiu,” Meka said. “My brother. I stayed with you and the other archmages when I last visited the City.” She wished she could remember the woman’s name.

The woman’s face brightened and at once she rose from her bed. “Of course! Forgive me for not remembering.” She gestured with one hand to the magician, and immediately the force holding Meka back was gone and the woman was catching her in an embrace, kissing each cheek. She was about a hand’s width shorter than Meka but still towered over the Young Folk women standing at either end of the bed with palm frond fans. Instead of a skirt, she wore a single garment that reached from shoulders to ankles, like a linen sack with holes cut out for her head and arms, cinched at the waist with a length of tooled leather. “I hope you will accept my hospitality this evening.”

“I—I would be honored,” Meka said. “But I thought these men were taking me to Sekiu’s house. He doesn’t know I’ve come to see him.”

A brief frown creased the woman’s forehead. “It was better to bring you here. Your brother’s house is not well suited for guests.” A look passed between her and the magician. “I will have word sent, informing him that you have arrived.”

That night, Meka and the woman ate together on the roof by the light of dozens of oil lamps. Although none of the Young Folk in the household shared their meal, the sand-haired girl and two others waited on them as if they were too old or sick to get up and refill their own bowls. At Meka’s last visit, there had not been any Young Folk in the City at all and the archmages had eaten food prepared by other Old Folk. But those Old Folk had not lived with the archmages in their house or watched them eat.

“Have you a husband or children?” Meka asked, after answering question after question about her own family. She held her wine bowl out so the Young Folk woman with the pitcher could refill it more easily, trying to remember how much she had already drunk.

“Once,” the woman said. “My husband would not come when I wished to seek out other archmages with whom to learn, and our children were grown and married.” Meka nodded. Her father lived alone now and all agreed that he had wished to be head of his own household, impossible for a man married to a magician and village chief. “Now I’m mother to an entire City.”

Before Meka could think of a reply, the woman said, “Sekiu has come.”

The City had changed, but Sekiu had not. Even his smile was exactly as Meka remembered it, that smile that always made her forget how angry she had been. Only now, his smile was for Meka’s host. “Haya! Success! Two live subjects.” He dropped to the bed of rugs and skins that two of the Young Folk women hastily assembled for him.

“I’m pleased to hear it.” Haya’s voice was mild, but Meka could tell that something did not please her. “You neglect your sister, who traveled all this way to visit you.”

At Haya’s mention of her, Meka returned her full attention to the two archmages, trying to hide her unease. The sand-haired girl had drifted back into the shadows and was staring at Sekiu as if he were a cobra. One that had bitten her.

“No, never!” Sekiu drank half the bowl of wine handed to him in one long gulp, then held it up to be refilled. “It makes my heart glad to see you again, sister. We have to find you a house.”

“A house?” Meka glanced at Haya, who was frowning.

“Of course, and Young Folk to serve you. We’ll choose four or five tomorrow.”

Again, Meka looked helplessly at Haya. The older woman’s frown deepened.

“Sekiu,” Haya said. “Perhaps Meka has only come to visit you. Perhaps she does not intend to stay.”

It was Sekiu’s turn to stare as if he did not understand.

“No,” Meka said. For a moment she wondered if it would be better to speak of why she had come in the morning when her head was not cloudy with wine, but then the words were tumbling out. “Sekiu, Mother sent me along with some Young Folk men, men who trade with our village. One had his daughter stolen by a City magician or archmage, a woman…” She trailed off. What if that woman had been Haya? “He wants his daughter back.”

Haya’s expression was troubled but not, as far as Meka could tell, guilty. Sekiu looked impatient and bored.

“An unfortunate tale,” Haya said. “If it is true.”

“If it’s true!” Sekiu scoffed. “What does it matter if it’s true? There are five hundred Young Folk beyond the City, clamoring for food. Let him have one of their daughters and go back to his goats.”

“Enough!” Haya’s voice was sharp. Meka was too horrified to speak. How had her charming little brother grown into such a cold, unfeeling creature?

“Enough, indeed!” Sekiu stretched himself on the fur rugs, yawning. “Here I am with the two most beautiful women in the City and we waste our breath talking of Young Folk.” He turned over onto his side, took Haya’s bare foot in one hand, and started kissing her ankle.

“Please excuse me.” Meka stumbled to her feet, took a step forward, and almost fell. A Young Folk woman caught her. “I am tired and should sleep. I thank you for dinner, Haya.”

She turned and hurried to the stairs without waiting for either Haya or her brother to reply.

***

Meka managed to make her way down the two flights of stairs to the latrine trench at the rear of the courtyard and back to the guest room without falling or throwing up, even though the house seemed to be looping in circles around her head from all the wine. She had just fallen in relief onto the pile of skins and blankets when she realized that she was not alone.

“Who’s there?” she murmured. She could hear Sekiu and Haya on the roof, making no attempt to hide what they were doing together from the rest of the household. She still could not believe how Sekiu had started kissing Haya in front of her, as if he didn’t care whether she stayed to watch. She could not believe how casually he had greeted her, as if they saw each other every day, as if it had not been thirty-seven years since he had bothered to visit his family.

A small figure crept to Meka’s side. Enough light spilled into her room from the wasteful, blazing lamps on the rooftop that she could just make out the yellow hair of the strange Young Folk girl.

“Your brother has her,” the girl whispered.

Meka considered sitting up but decided against it. “What do you mean?”

Fearfully, the girl put one forefinger over her closed lips, looking meaningfully at the ceiling. When she spoke again, Meka had to strain her ears to hear.

“Great Mother brought a girl back. Young Folk like me but smaller, six or seven years old.” Meka thought the sand-haired girl might be twelve or thirteen; Young Folk and Old Folk aged at the same rate until they were around twenty. “She was too little to work and wouldn’t stop crying, so Great Mother gave her to your brother.”

“What did my brother do with her?” Meka whispered.

“I don’t know. I have to go.”

“Wait!” Meka’s loud, hoarse whisper caught the girl in the doorway. “What did my brother do to you?”

At first, Meka thought the girl wasn’t going to answer. Then, in a voice so quiet that Meka wasn’t sure she’d heard correctly, the girl said, “These are not my legs.”

***

In the morning, Sekiu was gone. Meka initially felt too sick from the lingering effects of last night’s wine to care, but Haya placed one cool hand on either side of her forehead and stared into her eyes, and instantly, the worst of Meka’s headache and nausea melted away. By the time she had finished a second bowl of the terrible-tasting infusion Haya gave her to drink, her appetite had returned enough that she was able to eat some barley porridge and a handful of raisins.

“I hope you will not judge your brother too harshly,” Haya said. “His thoughts are often elsewhere. But his work is important. We would not be able to heal so many people without his insights.”

Both magicians and archmages could listen in on conversations too quiet or distant for ordinary people to hear, but nothing in Haya’s manner suggested that she had overheard the sand-haired girl last night.

“Do you heal both Old Folk and Young?” Meka asked.

Haya’s eyes narrowed. Meka immediately regretted the question. That was why Djereb’s daughter had been taken, according to the story he’d told Meka’s mother. As payment for healing his son, when the Young Folk shepherd was unable to supply the two hundred sheep he’d promised.

“You must understand,” Haya said, “things have changed since your last visit. It isn’t like your village, where Young Folk come to trade leather and sheepskins for linen and grain and then go their own way. Here, they come because they envy our prosperity and want to be healed of all their illnesses and injuries. They pitch their tents downstream of the City, they wait for us to feed them, and they don’t leave. There are Young Folk children living in those tents whose parents were born there. I won’t let them starve or die of injuries we can heal. But if we healed everyone without asking for something of value in return, every archmage could work from sunrise to sunrise healing Young Folk and have no time left for their own people.”

Meka did not dare ask what sorts of things Haya and the other archmages asked for when Young Folk requested healing. If Haya really had taken Djereb’s daughter, as the sand-haired girl claimed, she seemed unwilling to speak of it despite knowing why Meka had come. The sand-haired girl said the child was now with Sekiu, though…

“Forgive my dull eyes,” Meka murmured, acknowledging in the manner of a younger person seated before an elder that she was ignorant on the matters of which Haya spoke. “I was wondering, do you think it will be possible for me to visit Sekiu at his house while I’m in the City?” She doubted that she would recognize Djereb’s daughter, but she could at least see if there was a Young Folk girl of the appropriate age there. And maybe in his own home, Sekiu would be more as she remembered him, the layers of callousness that the City seemed to have added set aside like an outer garment.

“Perhaps,” Haya said. “Although not today, I think. Your brother is untidy and I doubt that he will be prepared to receive guests.” A hint of distaste in her voice suggested, despite what had happened last night, that all was not well between her and Sekiu. “Would you like to see where we heal people instead?”

Meka was about to decline the invitation, making the excuse that her Young Folk companions expected her to meet them this morning. But hadn’t Haya said that Sekiu was the one responsible for their ability to heal so many people? A visit to the place of healing might help her understand what was happening with him, even if she was unlikely to learn anything about Djereb’s daughter.

“I would be honored to see it,” Meka said.

***

The House of Healing was one large courtyard inside, open to the sky overhead. People of all ages, Old Folk and Young, lay on thick reed mats under movable sun shelters. Men and women moved from bed to bed, tending to the needs of the occupants or staring at them in the intense way Meka’s mother or Sekiu would stare at an object when performing magic on it. Those carrying water or food to the invalids or washing them were Young Folk in skirts that reached their knees; the magicians were mostly Old Folk in long skirts and lengths of cloth draped around their shoulders.

One Old Folk man was dressed in the same sack-like linen garment Meka had seen only on Haya and Sekiu. Was this new garment the mark of an archmage, so people knew to show them proper respect? Magicians and archmages looked no different from each other or from anyone else, and no one without magical ability could distinguish between them. But they had not worn any special clothing when Meka last visited.

The Old Folk man rose and crossed the courtyard to meet them at the entrance. Meka recognized him from her last visit, but he frowned as if he could not quite identify her. Or as if he wondered what Haya could have to do with such an unimpressive person.

“Kialu,” Haya said. “You must remember Sekiu’s sister Meka.”

Recognition flashed on Kialu’s face, but no warmth. He doesn’t like Sekiu, Meka realized, as Kialu gave her a slight nod. He was a young man, probably no more than a hundred years older than Meka.

“Meka would like to see the results of her brother’s work,” Haya said.

Kialu responded with another curt nod. “Come.”

They followed him across the hard earth floor to the Young Folk man he had left behind when he rose to greet them. An ordinary magician, a grey-haired Old Folk woman, knelt at the injured man’s side, concentrating. The man appeared to be asleep.

“His leg is broken,” Kialu said, facing the magician across the man’s body as he knelt on a pad of woven reeds.

Meka didn’t need magic to see that the leg was broken. It was bent at an unnatural angle with bone protruding through the skin in an ugly mess, beyond what she would have thought even an archmage could fix. And yet, Kialu put both hands on the leg, and as the injured man’s chest rose and fell, without any indication that he was in pain, the layer of dried blood around the wound lifted in a small cloud and fell away. The bone moved down into the tissue, Kialu exerting the gentlest pressure with his hands. Fresh blood started to well around the wound, although not enough to be dangerous.

“Your brother taught us to do this,” Haya said. “Reconnecting bits of shattered bone. There are few purely physical injuries that we cannot mend, thanks to him.”

“How did he learn to do it?” Sekiu had not known how to mend such an injury before coming to the City.

Haya didn’t answer at first. They watched Kialu and the magician, even though there was no longer anything happening that Meka could see.

At last Haya said, almost too quietly for Meka to hear, “He practiced.”

***

Meka waited a long time for Djereb and the others, pacing back and forth along the edge of the Canal. When they finally arrived and she had settled back into the boat, the first thing Djereb said was, “Where have you been? This is the third time we’ve come looking for you.”

“Did you find Mernet?” Enedju demanded. Hori merely whistled a tune to himself, paddling the boat carefully through the crowd of boats and rafts. Old Folk Men and boys were hauling nets of silvery fish, some still squirming, up the sides of the levees.

“I’ve been trying to find her.” Better not to suggest that she might be at Sekiu’s house until Meka was sure.

“I assume you at least found your brother,” Djereb said.

“Yes,” Meka said. “I found him.” She offered no further explanation, and Djereb looked at her curiously but did not ask for one.

As they entered the Great River, Enedju and Hori angled the craft to the left to pick up the river’s slow downstream tug. The shepherds were taking her to the Young Folk encampment, Meka realized, and although she had expected them to, she could not repress a surge of fear. Haya had warned her that the area was dangerous for Old Folk who lacked magic to protect them. But surely Djereb and his kinsmen would not allow anyone to harm her; Djereb’s son was a guest in the house of Meka’s mother until they all returned.

Meka frowned, troubled to catch herself relying on Djereb’s fear for his son to make her feel safe instead of trusting travel companions not to betray her. She blamed the City’s bad influence. It was unnatural to live among so many people, and it was making her heart sick the way the water in the Canal would surely sicken her stomach were she to drink it. Maybe that was what had happened to Sekiu. She couldn’t imagine him coming home with her, though, not after being called Great Father and having everyone who wasn’t an archmage rush to do his bidding.

Tomorrow, she would insist that Haya take her to Sekiu’s house, and if the woman refused, she would find it on her own and stand outside calling for her brother until he let her in. The sooner they found Djereb’s daughter, the sooner they could leave this terrible place.

They dragged the boat ashore downriver of the City’s mud-brick and stone, where dozens of tents covered the dry flood plain. Curious Young Folk faces watched Meka and her companions, many with hostility, but no one approached them.

As night fell and the air cooled, Hori lit a small fire and the four of them wrapped gazelle or sheep skins around their shoulders for warmth. Around them, other fires danced and sparked, all the way to the massive, dark bulk of the City houses. Hori told them how far he had walked to collect sticks for firewood and that he had seen two fights break out among other gatherers.

“See how they hold us here,” Djereb muttered. Not for the first time, Meka wondered how old he was. The scattered white strands among the black hairs covering his head and the lower part of his face suggested to Meka that he was between three hundred and four hundred years old, but his people didn’t live that long. Meka had never figured out how quickly they aged after reaching adulthood.

“No one’s forcing any of these Young Folk to stay,” she pointed out. She saw no fence, no Old Folk walking among the tents like a parent preventing the straying of unruly children.

“What does it mean, to force someone?” Djereb asked. “How do you think these people feed themselves?”

Meka had not considered that question. Most Young Folk ate the sheep and goats they herded or their curdled milk. Here, no tent had more than one or two animals tethered outside.

“There are too many here to live off the fish and river plants,” she admitted.

“The Old Folk give out grain and lentils,” Djereb said. “In return, they take what they want. Livestock, leatherwork. Children. When they have work they want done, they round up all the men and herd them like animals to harvest their fields or clean the canals.”

“Some men give their children to Old Folk,” Hori said. “They work in the City but can come back some days to visit. Children taken without their father’s consent don’t come back.”

“Mernet will,” Djereb promised, staring into the flames.

Meka remembered what Haya had said about the Young Folk who lived here. They envy our prosperity. “Why did they come? Did they not know what to expect?”

“I knew what to expect,” Djereb said. “I still came.”

“You didn’t stay.”

Djereb only shook his head. Meka couldn’t tell if his disgust was for her, or the situation.

“If we’d given all our sheep to pay for the healing,” Hori said, “what choice would we have had but to stay?” He gestured to the field of tents surrounding them. “To become as dependent as these. Or what if our clan had become destitute for some other reason? Drought, or raiders. You, imagine that your village was destroyed and all your food stores lost. Imagine that you had a choice between starving, and being fed by those who you knew would treat your family as herd animals. What would you choose?”

“The Young Folk I saw in the City weren’t treated badly,” Meka insisted. “They didn’t seem unhappy.” She tried not to think about the way the sand-haired girl had flinched away from Sekiu’s gaze.

“Would you trade places with one of them?” Djereb asked.

It was Meka’s turn to stare into the fire without answering.

***

In the morning, when Meka approached Haya’s house, the entrance-stone hung in the air as if the archmage had been expecting her. She stepped under it into the courtyard. When none of the Young Folk women set aside their tasks to greet her, she made her own way up to the rooftop. The sand-haired girl looked up from the dough she was kneading in a long wooden trough, meeting Meka’s eyes but saying nothing.

“I am pleased to see you safely returned to us,” Haya said. She was lounging on her bed of rugs and skins, eating dried dates with delicate fingers. “I was concerned that the Young Folk in the tent city might harm you.”

“I’ve never found Young Folk any more dangerous than Old Folk,” Meka said, even though she had felt reluctant earlier to walk to the City through the thicket of Young Folk tents. Djereb hadn’t wanted to take her around by boat, arguing that their repeated trips into and out of the City yesterday had been making watchers suspicious.

“I suspect you’ve never had five hundred of them living next to your village for thirty years.” With a wave of her hand, Haya invited her to sit. “Will you have some dates or roasted chickpeas?”

“I’ve already eaten, thank you. My companions and I had plenty of food left this morning from what you sent back with me.” She moved closer but did not join Haya on the bed. “I was hoping to visit Sekiu at his own house this morning.”

Meka had prepared herself for another excuse about Sekiu not being ready for guests. To her surprise, Haya said, “Of course. I will take you there at once.” The older woman sounded almost eager, in sharp contrast to how she had reacted to an almost identical request made a day earlier.

The apparent change of heart made Meka uneasy as she followed Haya out of the house and into the paths of the City. So did the way the archmage stopped abruptly as soon as they were outside, her head tilted up as if she were sniffing the air, her expression blank. It was a posture Meka recognized from her mother and Sekiu, when they were using magic to “see” something others couldn’t. What was Haya looking for?

When Haya stopped again, they stood in front of a huge stone house without windows or doors. No houses stood next to it, nor gardens, nor trees. The surrounding dry brown grass looked as wild as the grasslands between the rivers.

“This is it?” Meka asked, hardly believing it. When Sekiu was a boy, their house had been surrounded by flowering plants he had dug up and replanted, using magic to help them recover from the shock of being moved. In the old House of Archmages, he had built a water garden.

A large stone in the wall slid out towards them, then moved to the right. It settled to the ground with a puff of dust. “You will not like what you see,” Haya warned.

Inside, Meka blinked against the dimness as her eyes adjusted. Two small oil lamps burned in wall niches on either side of the long, narrow room she and Haya had entered, but there was no other illumination apart from the daylight at their backs.

The far end of the room was smooth, mud-plastered wall, but doorways with rounded tops pierced the long walls on either side, all the way down, each doorway leading into darkness. A naked Young Folk boy stepped out of one of the farther doorways, then ducked back inside when he saw them.

It took Meka a moment to acknowledge what she had seen. From the waist up, the boy was an ordinary Young Folk child of perhaps eight or nine. His legs and broad feet, though, bore a thick coat of silver fur everywhere except his bare pink bottom, including the long tail hanging to below his knees.

Meka looked to Haya for some explanation, but the older woman’s attention was on a nearer doorway. “He’s in here,” Haya said.

Entrance to the room beyond the doorway was blocked by a black curtain of a woven cloth heavier and rougher to the fingers than linen. Within, three small oil lamps cast spheres of light and long, dark shadows. The air reeked of sweat and infected wounds.

Sekiu, his back to them, stood over a Young Folk man lying face-up on a massive stone slab. Only the man’s feet and lower legs were visible from where Meka stood, but she could see that his ankles had been tied to hooked pegs carved into the side of the stone.

“A moment,” Sekiu said, as if they had caught him at a delicate moment during the weaving of a new length of cloth.

Meka tried to step further into the room, but Haya caught her elbow. Although she didn’t seem to be using magic, the strength of her grasp surprised Meka.

The room had a dozen of the stone slabs, evenly spaced. Most were occupied. All those lying on the slabs were Young Folk, and all were either bound at wrists and ankles, or missing limbs.

A girl raised her head to see who had entered, then lowered it. A child whimpered quietly. Many of the Young Folk appeared to be asleep or unconscious, though. Or dead.

“What are you doing, Sekiu?” Meka heard echoes from years gone by in her voice. Why did you pull the legs off that cricket, Sekiu? What are you doing to that poor frog? Why did your dog chase our cousin up that tree? She would be so angry every time, but only until he repented with that wide, childish smile, with kisses and tears, with gifts, with promises of future good behavior.

When he turned, it was with that same smile, and again, her resolve to be angry started to waver.

“Sister! I can’t greet you properly. My hands are bloody.”

Meka forced herself to look at the children bound to slabs of stone instead of at Sekiu’s smiling face. “This is wrong. You need to let these people go.”

“Not here.” Haya’s voice was so quiet that Meka had to strain her ears to hear it. “We can speak elsewhere.”

Sekiu washed his hands in the basin of water on one of the few unoccupied stone slabs, then flicked off the water in a quick gesture, probably using magic to make it dissipate into the air. Back in the long, narrow room, squinting against the light coming in from the entrance Haya had left open, Meka caught his wrist.

“You’re hurting those people.”

Sekiu’s brow furrowed. “They’re Young Folk. They would all be dead in less than a hundred years no matter what I did or didn’t do to them.”

Haya said, “Sekiu’s work is unpleasant, but without it we would be unable to heal the injuries you saw yesterday in the House of Healing. Or the broken neck bones of your Young Folk friend’s son. Healing techniques must be practiced before they can be applied.”

Meka stared at the woman, unable to speak. It was the first time Haya had admitted to any knowledge of Djereb and his son.

With his free hand, Sekiu pried Meka’s fingers from his wrist. “It isn’t possible for you to understand what we’re doing here, sister. You lack the ability.”

The words stung, as they were no doubt meant to, as similar words had stung so many times before. And Meka realized that she didn’t want Sekiu to come home with her, didn’t want to save him from the City’s malign influence. He had always behaved selfishly, always acted without concern for others. Now, after decades without anyone to restrain or deny him, the generosity and love of beauty that had made him likeable despite his flaws looked pitiable and withered next to them.

“Why don’t you show Meka something more cheerful?” Haya suggested, before Meka could answer him. “Your living quarters, perhaps those who serve you?”

Sekiu’s sudden laugh was one of sheer delight, as if he had forgotten all about their argument. “Of course! Meka, you won’t believe what I’ve been able to do until you see them for yourself.”

Haya’s expression revealed nothing as they followed Sekiu to one of the doorways near the end of the long room. Meka went along reluctantly, having lost any remaining desire for her brother’s company. She had promised to try to find Djereb’s daughter, though, and now that she was finally inside Sekiu’s house, she couldn’t leave without looking for the child.

The room beyond the doorway was tiny and bare, a second doorway in the adjoining wall hung with another of the heavy black curtains. Sekiu gave an extravagant wave with one hand to let Meka know he was using magic, and the curtain lifted and rolled itself to one side. “After you, sister.”

Haya caught Meka’s elbow; irritated, Meka pulled away and stepped through the doorway just as Haya said, “Since when do you let a non-magician test the safety of a room for you?”

Something in her tone prickled a sense of awareness that might otherwise have slept. A flicker to the left; Meka dropped to the floor just as the sling stone whistled over her head.

A large, bright room with most of the roof open to the sky, a pool of water surrounded by flowering plants in jars, beds of pillows and furs. All were a blur around the all-too-familiar figures of Djereb, Hori, and Enedju.

“Stop!” Djereb exclaimed, catching Enedju’s sling arm before he could fire again. “It’s Meka.”

They must have followed her. Was that what Haya had noticed, when she stopped outside her house on the way here?

Enedju was trying to pull away from Djereb. Then his eyes widened and he and Djereb went as still as stone figures. Hori wasn’t moving either, and just as Meka realized that magic must be holding them in place, Sekiu stepped through the doorway into the room.

“Is this what passes for Young Folk gratitude?” he asked. He sounded scornful rather than angry, and delighted by the opportunity to be scornful. “Look. He stole the axe I gave you.”

Meka hadn’t noticed that the axe in Djereb’s hand was hers, the one with the bronze head.

“I borrowed it,” Djereb said, still straining against the invisible bonds that held him. Sekiu had held Meka still the same way when he was a child, making her unable to control any muscles except those in her face and the ones in her chest that allowed her to breathe.

Djereb’s face changed when Haya entered the room. “Witch,” he said. “What have you done with my daughter?”

Instead of answering the shepherd, Haya said, “I suspect this man has not told you the complete truth, Meka. Did you know that he agreed to give me his daughter in exchange for healing the son?”

Meka wanted to accuse Haya of lying, but one look at Djereb stopped her.

She rose from her crouch against the wall. “Is that true, Djereb? You told me and my mother that you’d only agreed to give her sheep.”

Djereb’s eyes darted between her and Haya, who had crossed the room to the edge of the pool. “What kind of monster asks a man to choose between his children?”

“Was everything you told my mother a lie?” Meka asked.

“Have you looked around you?” Djereb demanded. “My people are being turned into animals. Can’t you see how wrong this is?” He grimaced as he tried once again to move his body. “Your mother is a woman of honor. I thought you would understand.”

Sekiu was shaking his head. “You thought my own sister would take your side against me? See what fools they are, Meka.” Turning to Meka, he frowned, then glanced at the doorway between them. “What are you doing here?”

A small figure had crept into the room, clinging to the edge of the doorway. Like the boy with the tail, she was Young Folk from the waist up; unlike the boy, she had the legs and tail of a black-haired goat.

The goat girl didn’t answer Sekiu. She looked unsteady on her feet, and no wonder, having to balance all her weight on goat hooves and legs never meant for walking upright. But there was nothing goat-like about the brown eyes staring desperately at the three Young Folk men bound by magic across the room.

“Mernet.” Djereb’s voice was raw. “What—?” He seemed too overwhelmed, too despairing, to say more.

“It’s an imperfect design, isn’t it?” Sekiu’s tone gave no indication that he knew or cared he was talking to the goat girl’s father. “She survived, which is its own accomplishment, but I think I have to abandon the idea of joining Young Folk to unmodified goat legs. The pelvic and leg structure are wrong. What I need to do is transform the legs instead of replacing them, but right now I can only work transformations on myself.” He held up one hand, and as Meka watched, it shrank and hardened into a goat’s hoof, then back into his own flesh and bone.

Meka glanced at Haya, who had moved even farther away from the rest of them and was shaking her head as if saddened. “How does this help you heal anyone?” Meka demanded.

Suddenly, Djereb was free and rushing at Sekiu with upraised axe. But before Meka could wonder how he had broken the magic bonds holding him, he was flying backwards through the air. He struck a thick wooden post in the wall with a sickening thud, then slumped to the ground.

Enedju cried out. His eyes bulged and his jaw contorted as he renewed his effort to escape. But whatever had allowed Djereb to defeat Sekiu’s magic was giving Enedju no help at all.

Sekiu clucked his tongue. “As if that was going to work.” He moved to where Djereb had fallen, stooping to retrieve the axe fallen from the shepherd’s limp hand. “Not quite dead, but unlikely to be a threat for the next little while, if ever.” He extended the axe towards Meka. “I believe this is yours again, sister.”

With a glance at Mernet, shrinking now against the wall as if she expected Sekiu’s wrath to fall next upon her, Meka approached her brother and took the axe from his outstretched hand. The haft was still warm from when Djereb had held it. She didn’t dare look at Haya. Haya, the only person in the room who could have broken the magic bonds holding Djereb in place. Who had neglected to replace the entrance stone, leaving the house open.

Sekiu knelt to examine Djereb. Meka took a step closer, then another.

Her brother shook his head. “I don’t think he’ll live much longer. Hm. The question is, will transformation work better on a body too weak to resist?” He extended a hand over Djereb’s legs, his forehead furrowed in concentration.

After, Meka always wondered. Had he known what she was about to do, and chosen not to stop her? Or had Haya done some magic to further distract him?

With both hands, Meka swung the axe down hard into the base of her brother’s skull.

***

Their third day on the River, Mernet finally ate, a handful of roasted wheat and a strip of dried aurochs meat. She still would not speak, but she clung tightly to Meka whenever Meka took a rest from paddling. Meka tried not to feel aggravated when the sharp edges of the girl’s hooves snagged threads of her skirt or scratched through to her legs underneath.

“They’ll follow us,” Enedju predicted, again. “When they see the girl, they’ll kill us to protect their secret.” The girl, not my cousin.

“If Haya wanted to kill us, she wouldn’t have let us go,” Meka said, again.

Meka had carried Djereb’s daughter from Sekiu’s house, her goat legs shrouded by a linen garment, through the paths of the City to a place upstream. Hori and Enedju met her there with the boat. While waiting, she feared that they would not stop for her, that she would have to stay in the City. But Meka’s mother still had Djereb’s son, and although Hori and Enedju did not want to take Mernet—she couldn’t keep up with the herds on those legs, Hori said—a healthy male child was apparently precious enough to go back for.

Or maybe they simply acknowledged Meka as one of their own now, and wouldn’t have left her behind any more than they would have left Djereb, had he survived.

“The Old Folk witch won’t send anyone after us,” Hori said. “She has the death she wanted and a corpse to stitch the blame onto. The other archmages, though, if they cared for your brother more than she did—”

“They didn’t,” Meka said, remembering the archmage Kialu at the House of Healing, how even the mention of Sekiu’s name had brought forth a contemptuous sneer. “They’ll be as happy to be rid of him as Haya is. Even though—”

She couldn’t defend Sekiu in front of Hori and Enedju. Haya hadn’t let them see the room with the victims stretched out on stone slabs, but they had seen a dozen other Young Folk children like Mernet and the half-baboon boy. Meka was unable to think about what Sekiu had done, though, without anger for Haya and the other archmages. For the way they had used him, profiting from his knowledge while despising him for how he found it. Even Haya, who had been as a wife to him, showed no grief at his death.

And yet, were Meka and her companions any better? Djereb had also profited from Sekiu’s knowledge, when Haya healed his son’s broken neck. Haya’s parting words haunted Meka. “You will come to us again,” she promised. “Someday, perhaps hundreds of years from now, someone you love will lie dying. You will remember what we can do, and forget the price.”

“Don’t let me forget,” Meka whispered in Mernet’s ear.

Perhaps the girl understood, perhaps not, but after a moment she answered Meka with a solemn shake of her head.