The winds whipped around me causing a few loose strands of my flame red hair to cut across my eyes as I made my way up the trail I had taken so many times before. It was not so much a trail as a small worn path up the mountain that existed because I travelled it so often, just as my mother had before me. This particular slope was the only one that telgan root grew. Telgan root was good for a digestive and I liked to have it on hand for Old Widow Mae. A short laugh slipped out of me as I thought of the unappreciative grunt she’d give me when she got the digestive next. Not that she was any different from the rest of the village folk. My laugh stopped and I gave a little huff of frustration.
My mother had been the previous healer and her mother before her. My great grandmother had moved to this village from far away. War had driven her search for somewhere peaceful. I couldn’t blame her. The drive to heal those gravely injured was powerful. And the consequences of too many healings was a danger. Living in a land during war must have been difficult at best. Agony from the need to heal was more like it.
I paused and took a deep breath as I let my eyes roam over this particular part of the mountain. My heart swelled at the beauty of it with the swirling wildflowers of yellow, red, blue and white dancing in the rough winds that always churned around Mount Caden. The air up there was cool, sweet and clean. Whenever I would arrive on this strip of land, I always felt both free and at peace. But that freedom and peace did not quell the spear of loneliness in my heart.
Purposefully striding further into the clearing, I turned to look down towards my village home. Nestled between two rivers, Vella’s red walls and roofs were a stark contrast to the rich greens of the area. The people believed the red protected them from the various so-called monsters and demons that dwelled on the mountains. If there were such things, they never once came out and bothered me. And though I would never say it to anyone, I very much doubted the deep red would save anyone. A sardonic laugh slipped out of my lips as I thought of the last time I had been called to heal someone. When I arrived, everyone in the house had worn dark red except the patient I was working on. And he had looked up at me with wide fearful eyes of blue. When his gaze had met my jade one, he had trembled violently as dread took his face. In the village, people only had brown or blue eyes. The green ran exclusively in my family, a so-called sign of our witch heritage. And then, of course, there was the flame red of my hair. When I was little, the other children would tease me that my true father was a demon and not the honorable Constable Jorn. Recently, when I’d looked into that young man’s eyes, I realized they still thought that.
Despite what I knew of their story, how my mother managed to get my father to marry her in this village of fools eluded me. At twenty-two, marriage was no longer an option for me. Girls in my village were all married before they turned nineteen. I had come to accept that my family line would end with me because even though I was sure there were a couple of men in the village who I could tempt for a night or two, I would not add being fatherless to the list of crimes any child of mine would carry. Besides, the thought of sharing my bed with a man who thought of me as a demon’s offspring was unappealing.
Shaking my head to clear my mind, I turned back to my task. The mountainside was full of numerous plants so I toiled meticulously as I gathered telgan roots, fae flowers and various other herbs and wild fruits that I used in the many items I sold as the town’s herbalist. Because of my heritage, the lofty term apothecary was denied me. It didn’t matter, because everyone knew my goods were the best. And those items, they were where I made the money I needed to survive. True healings I did for free. I felt compelled to save lives when I could feel their pain. The items I made as an herbalist complimented my healings as well as provided several beauty aids.
I labored for a few hours before I started to make my way down the mountain and across the small footbridge to the red walls of my village. Just inside the gates, I nodded to the Constable Kean. He was my uncle, my father’s brother. His gruff nod in reply showed he still had not warmed to me. My father had been away from the village when his horse had thrown him and he died. Kean blamed it on his association with my mother. A few months later, my mother took her own life in grief. She had done it while I was gathering herbs a few miles away. My mother, Aren, had been long dead by the time I had returned home. Even my gifts could not bring back the dead.
Although I couldn’t understand such a choice, I didn’t blame her. How could I? Not when such a rare bond had existed between their two souls. They had been True Mates and her grief more intense than she could bear. Even my love wasn’t enough to replace the loss of my father. A sigh escaped my lips. If my True Mate existed, he was not in this village. I would have known by now and even though it would be difficult to come together, I often let myself believe that we would have and that I would have been happy and not so alone.
Letting out a sharp breath, I shook my head. None of that wallowing, I warned myself, that path leads to madness. I had my work and it was fulfilling. Just the other week, I’d fixed little Eesa’s ankle. People bought my teas, potions, lotions and creams and even if they were not grateful, they were happy with the results. It was a simple life of genuinely helping people.
I took a deep calming breath and walked to the table where I worked. Sorting out the multitude of plants, I separated them by kind before I began to prepare them. Singing to myself, I tied the herbs I wanted to dry into little bundles to hang. Those I needed to use fresh, I placed in the various baskets I had. There was a sudden loud banging on my door that startled me. “Come in,” I called out. It was unusual for someone to come in the front door and my heart skipped a beat in worry.
Lidia entered in a rush, “Zianya! It’s Kiara! She just gave birth before her time! The baby is fine, but she won’t stop bleeding!”
Heart thundering with worry for the young new mother, I dashed out the door and down the lane. Kiara lived several blocks down and I put a rush into my legs wanting to make it in time. When I burst into the house, I could hear the healthy wail of a newborn. But I could feel the dark coils of impending death. I rushed into the room where the dark haired midwife glared at me. Senna never liked me because she thought I took business from her. I didn’t understand why because I never assisted in births. “There’s nothing to be done,” Senna said gravely, “You may as well leave, girl.”
As long as I’d known her, Senna never said my name. I growled at her, “For shame! You know that I can save her!”
Senna spat at me, “She doesn’t need a witch! She needs to die with her soul intact!”
My need to touch Kiara and heal her was overwhelming, but I fought it and that fight caused a little stab of pain to run through me. No matter how much I wanted to heal Kiara, I couldn’t do such a thing if her mother would not let me. Fortunately, Senna was not her mother. Turning my eyes to the wide ones of Jeen, I pressed, “I can save your daughter. Do you want your grandchild growing up without her because of foolish superstition spouted by an old woman whose biggest problem with me is that she thinks I take her business? I am not a witch! I’m a healer. You grew up with my mother, was she evil?”
Jeen met my eyes and then she nodded grimly, “Stand aside, Senna. Zianya can save my daughter.”
As Senna walked by me, her deep blue eyes pierced me as she snarled, “I still say you’re a witch!”
I brushed by her without another look and sat beside Kiara. My fingers tenderly stroked back her lovely blond locks. I made soft comforting sounds as I let my power sink into her and take her pain from her. She relaxed and everyone in the room took a breath. Kiara opened her brown eyes and looked at me with a fearful gaze. Putting reassurance into a gentle smile, I stroked her hair again. She relaxed further and I let the warmth of my healing spread down into her abdomen where the bleeding just didn’t want to cease. Pieces of me slipped away, weakening my body as they wove into her and knit together all the areas where she bled. I trembled as the energy left me. Finally, I relaxed. Her body was well and I knew she would live. Leaning back, I looked at Kiara who was softly sleeping. Sweat sprung out on my forehead as I pushed back my own need to collapse. I raised my eyes to her mother.
“Let her rest. She’ll need plenty of that and water. Her blood needs to rebuild, but she will live. Come by shop in the morning and I’ll get you a tea that will help promote new blood. If she takes it, she should not nurse the child for at least a full day after she consumes it. Perhaps a wet-nurse could be used during that time. I do recommend her taking it because her recovery will be much improved.”
“You just want to sell you wares,” Senna hissed. Ignoring her, I hardened myself and rose. Despite that, a shiver took me. Time was slipping away and there wasn’t much of it before I wouldn’t be able to stand.
“She’ll heal either way, but she’ll be stronger faster if she takes the tea.”
Jeen shook her head, “She won’t need it.”
That would have been it, but I’d seen that look in people’s eyes before. She said she wouldn’t come by now. But she would. Schooling my expression into one of neutrality, I gave a quick nod and made my way towards the door. A quiver ran through me and I faltered before catching myself on the doorframe because I knew no one else would. They all knew a healing took it out of me. One time after a healing, I had collapsed in the street. Everyone knew where my home was, everyone knew my door was always open. No one helped me back to my home. They left me there to wake in the morning, freezing and dirty. I’d had to drink a lot of cold-soothe tea after that.
Stumbling along down the road, I wished Kiara had lived closer to me. The toll was chasing me and I wanted to make it back to my home before it took me. As I made my way, I wished the other midwife, Xel, had been there. The younger woman was more open-minded about my healing. I collapsed just outside my door. Fighting the urge to just rest in the street again, I pushed myself to rise and make my way into my home. Once inside, I stumbled along to the patient room on the first floor. My loft bedroom was too difficult for me to get to at this point. Crumpling onto the bed, sweet oblivion took me.
That night I dreamt of a man with emerald eyes. He was tall, powerful and even though I saw his eyes, I could not make out his face. I felt drawn to him and didn’t understand why. As I was about to ask him who he was in the dream, I awoke to the sound of banging on the back door. A deep groan escaped my lips as I tried to focus on waking. With great effort, I rose and made my way out of the room and around the large old farm table that housed most of my herbs. Opening the large red painted oak door, I was not surprised to find Jeen standing there in a red cloak, hood low, and looking around to make sure no one saw her. I smiled. “Come in.” She looked me over with critical eyes. I meekly said, “Sorry about my appearance, a healing takes it out of me.” My stomach took that opportunity to grumble loudly. Heat filled my cheeks as I made my way to the boxes of teas I had prepared just last week. There were certain preparations I always kept on hand and this tea for Kiara was one of them. Grabbing a large blue glass jar, I filled it with some tea from the box and then I went back over to Jeen.
“Ten anstals? Really?” She frowned at me. Some people thought that because I healed free, my herbs should be free or at least very cheap.
“I’m sorry, but it’s a lot of work to get those particular leaves and prepare them properly. This will help her recover faster.” If I didn’t hold to my price, word would get out and soon everyone would demand cheaper prices. I couldn’t afford to live like that. Besides, she knew my goods worked. Jeen had come to me a few years ago when Kiara’s face had broken out with acne. She was trying to marry off her daughter and she didn’t want to ruin her chances for a good match. My salve had her cleared up in less than a week. Since then, Kiara always bought creams and potions from me. Jeen was a little less willing. But she knew it would work. Grumbling, she handed me the money and took the tea. She opened the door, looking around as she yanked her hood lower on her head and slipped out, moving quickly down the back alley.
Shaking my head, I closed the door and made my way into the kitchen. From the icebox, I pulled out some cold chicken from the night before. Starvation won over my desire to make a sandwich and I devoured the entire remaining chicken strait from the container. Post healings two things occurred. A deep need for sleep and then a deep need for food. If I didn’t have both, I feared what would happen to me. Once the chicken was gone, I found myself still hungry, so I checked my large iron woodstove, which was still warm by the remaining coals, and added some fuel to it. I put a cast iron pan on the cooktop and grabbed my bread. I made it myself with wild wheat, seeds and herbs. Cutting into it, I covered one side thick in butter and set two slices into the pan. Then, I got a kettle going so that I could make some teilen tea, a restorative.
Once I was full and feeling like my usual self, I cleaned the kitchen and then myself. Dressing in my gray cotton skirt and plain white shirt, I got to work once again on separating the herbs. The day went by as it normally did. Every so often, someone would knock on the back door and buy one of my wares. I silently begged the Spirits that no other healings would be needed. If someone did come by, I wouldn’t be able to resist the need to heal them. I knew if I did, I’d exhaust myself at the very least. Too many healings were just unhealthy for me.
When the ninth hour of the day arrived, the bells of the Temple of Caden reverberated through the village and everyone was required to go because it was the fourth day of the week. Letting out a deep groan, I hardened myself as I put my work away. I loathed going to the Temple. The people of the village worshipped the Spirit of the mountain, but if he was truly some powerful Spirit, I didn’t understand what he wanted. Did he even care about the people of this village? He might have, but his priest was Senna’s husband and he often made his sermons about avoiding the snare of witches. He never said me, but I knew that was what he meant. The only people in the village who called me witch to my face were the priest Colm and his wife Senna. Every other person in the village either had experienced a healing or knew someone healed by my mother or me. So even though they feared us and avoided associating with us, they wanted us around to save them.
The Temple was the largest building in the village in the center of town and had a triangular layout with the podium taking up one point within. Not only was its roof deep red, but the entire exterior was. The point was that evil could not pass into a building that was red. For that very reason, my great grandmother had painted our doorways red to prove she was not evil. Sometimes I think those doors saved our family more than once.
Inside the Temple, wood beams painted red held up the massive structure. The walls were a bright white and the pews were a dark red. I sat towards the back in my usual spot. Silently I watched everyone else as they made their way towards the front, not daring to be seen with me. It didn’t matter because as long as I walked into this Temple and sat on these red pews, the priest could not point me out as a witch. After all, how did I get into the Temple if I was evil?
Colm started droning on. I tried not to listen to him. It was more of the same. Stay away from evil, praise the Great Spirit Caden for his protection and keep the mind and body pure. Today he added the importance of shunning witches, while not naming me specifically. No doubt at Senna’s prompting. Such a thing always occurred right after a healing. For a day, my sales would be low and then people would forget. Good thing most people did their business in the morning before Colm’s sermons.
As I took to my feet, a hush fell over the group and I didn’t need to look to feel the eyes of the people who had been talking after the sermon. But I did anyways and dipped my head with a soft smile and turned away, intent on leaving the Temple. There was a red framed painting of Mount Caden near the door. Letting a look of reverence color my features, I studied the painting before I placed my hand on the red frame. Behind me, there was a gasp, as if they expected me to burst into flames. When I did not, people started talking once more and I slowly left the Temple. I’d not hurry and look as if I was fleeing.
Outside, I took a deep breath and headed towards my home. I kept my head high as I made my way down the lane. Inside, emotions broiled inside me and I fought to keep them from my face. This village was all I knew and it was killing me a little each day. Sometimes I actually had a little understanding why my mother took her life. Without her True Mate, what was for her here? Only me, and I was slowly fading away from loneliness. I took a deep breath and tried to shove that feeling away. It didn’t work.
When I entered my home, I was sorely tempted to curl in my bed and let sorrow take me. But I was going to resist. Instead, I made myself a sandwich of cheeses and fruits and put on the kettle for tea. As I ate and drank, I took a mental inventory of what I had collected the day before. Tomorrow, I’d have a slow day sales wise, so I’d focus on replenishing what I sold. When I finished my meal and cleaned up, I pulled out one of my mother’s old books and curled up on the couch to read. Her books had been my great grandmother’s and she had bought them when she had first entered Renth in order to be able to learn our written language. I didn’t know the name of her homeland and I always wondered why she left. Had no part been free of war? I didn’t know about that. However, her books brought me on adventures set far away from my small village. I pondered how she could have been so strong to move here all alone. Could I ever make such a change?
As I read, my eyes grew heavy and I fell asleep on the couch. I dreamt of faraway places and eyes that were an infinite emerald. It was calming and for once, I slept deeply even though I had not done a healing.
The loud commotion outside my door drew my attention. Curious, I pulled open the large red oak door to find two men bent low under the weight of a third larger man. His head dangled forward, midnight black hair obscuring his face. Blood smeared over the shredded remains of his shirt. Behind them, a crowd of people followed, murmuring to one another. The closer they got, the more my need to heal swept through me. I looked back at the man and realized he was still bleeding profusely. “Quick, bring him in.”
Once they were inside, I directed them to the patient room I had downstairs. My eyes darted along his form, opening his stained shirt, I continued checking him over for wounds. There was a large gash across his chest and several stab wounds. “Who did this to him?”
Lane’s gruff voice told me, “I don’t know, Zianya, we found him down by the river. He looks almost dead, but…well we thought maybe…”
“I can heal him,” I said confidently, the urge to sink my power into him becoming more difficult to resist. “Leave him here and I’ll take care of him. Tomorrow, after I’m sure he’s well enough, I’ll send for Kean and he can question him. Right now, he’s too weak for anything.”
Lane looked me over with an eye that sent an unpleasant shiver down my spine, “I can stay, if you want.”
Despite my revulsion, I smiled up at him, suppressing the tremor within me and plastering my face with a professional cool. He never made any secret of what he wanted from me. However, what he wanted was fleeting, a onetime thing and I was not the type of woman who was willing to lay with a man without my heart in it. Besides, I had enough of a reputation in Vella that I didn’t need to add to it with reality. “I’m fine, Lane. Honestly, after a healing I’m so exhausted. And he’s so wounded. He’ll sleep soundly for a long time after.”
Fortunately, Lane and his brother left after that. Chewing my bottom lip, it took me a moment to decide to do something I rarely did. I locked my doors. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust Lane…No, I wasn’t going to fool myself, I didn’t trust Lane. Just the other day, I had overheard him talking with some of the other men and it had me worried. His comments made me wonder just what he was truly capable of.
Returning to my patient, my eyes roamed over him for a long moment, which was unusual for me to do. He was tall, taller than the men of the village were. I probably would have only come to his mid-chest. And he was well formed, muscular, with shoulders wider than I had ever seen. It was the body of a warrior, I realized. I’d never met one before. The few constables of our village rarely had anything to do and they often had a paunch. Not like the flat planes of this man’s stomach. Biting my bottom lip, I felt a flutter of heat run through me. Shaking my head, I tried to clear it as shame burned through me. This wasn’t like me. This man was a patient. Softly stroking his midnight hair off his face, I tried to get a sense of all his wounds. Instead, I found myself realizing he was ruggedly handsome, which was something that I just never allowed myself to realize about my patients. I growled to myself, “Stop thinking like this.”
I focused again. When I understood the extent of his injuries at last, I let my power seep into him. As I did, I found each wound and knit them together. When I was done, I took a deep shuddery breath. Going to my work area, I grabbed some tealeaves, which would strengthen him. I rocked back and forth, trying to stay awake as I brewed the tea. Once it cooled, I slowly let it trickle down his throat. When I was done, I collapsed onto the couch and fell into a deep sleep.
As I awoke, before I opened my eyes, I realized I was swaying gently from side to side. I moaned as my eyes finally fluttered open and looked around. It was then that I noted I was on a horse riding deep in the mountains. It was late in the day and the air was fresh. The next thing I noticed was an arm around my waist and a warm body at my back. I struggled to get free and off the horse.
“Relax, lass, I’ll not harm you.” A slightly accented voice, that was warm and rich like dark honey, spoke in my ear.
“Who-who are you?” I asked, my heart wildly racing and my voice stuttering in fear.
“I’m Torric.” I gathered my courage before I finally glanced up at him. The warrior that I had healed seemed to now be my captor. His eyes were like deep emeralds and they looked down at me with a warm smile, which soften his striking features. I frowned, which just made his smile widen as amusement twinkled in his eyes. “Don’t worry, lass, you’re safe with me.”
“Safe?” I cried in alarm, “You took me from my home! What do you want?”
“Your services are needed. I can’t go back without you.”
I blinked and looked ahead, trying to find an excuse to be returned to my home I said, “I’m useless without my herbs and potions and the like.”
He laughed, “Look behind you to the right.”
Sure enough, there was another horse loaded down with two large intricately carved dark stained wooden boxes, which looked suspiciously like my great grandmother’s, in fact I knew they were because I’d recognize those flowers anywhere. I sighed and looked forward. A wave of dizziness came over me.
“I need to eat,” I said softly.
“You can eat when we stop for the night,” he replied absently.
“No, I must eat now,” I wearily muttered.
“Lass, you need to wait.”
My stomach growled loudly and I trembled feeling another wave of dizziness take me. I gasped, “You don’t understand. After a healing, I require two things, rest and food in that order. Your healing was particularly difficult and so I’ve slept a lot later than I normally do, and now that I am awake, I must eat. Please.”
He turned my face to look up at him. Emerald eyes examined me thoughtfully. Then, he smiled, “Very well. But if you try to run, lass, I’ll catch you before you get home.”
It hit me then that I would have to bide my time. If I were to flee, it would have to be when he did not expect it, not to mention when I was not weak with need for sustenance. He slowed to a stop and dismounted, and then powerful arms picked me up as if I weighed nothing and set me on the ground. I’d never seen so many muscles on a man’s arm before. My knees went weak and I almost collapsed but he swept me into his arms to steady me, our eyes met and something in that look caused a flow of heat to run through my veins and pool low in my belly. The intensity of his gaze filled me with a sense of yearning and I wondered briefly how different things would have been if he hadn’t kidnapped me. Yet that was the thing, he had.
A wicked light gleamed in his eyes as he smiled and I turned away. Softly I said, “I need to sit.” Holding onto my arm, he guided me to an overturned log and sat me down. I waited while he reached into his saddlebag and brought me some bread and cheese. I tore into it hungrily. I could feel him watching me as I ate. Glancing up at him, I spoke in a low tone, “I’ll need more. After a healing as big as yours, I’ll need a lot more than this. I most definitely need meat.”
He frowned, “Why is that?”
I had never shared this with anyone and I wondered if I should with him. However, he needed to know. Obviously, since he packed up my medicines, he needed me to be his healer. He said he would not harm me and for reasons I didn’t understand, I trusted that to be true. The trouble was people seemed to think I was a never-ending supply of healing power. Exhaling softly, I came to a decision, “When I heal, I give some of myself to my patient. There are limits to what I can do. If you had been any closer to death, I would not have been able to heal you for fear of my own death. Although, it would have been extremely hard for me to ignore the need to heal you, I would have also felt a need not to touch you. I know that’s confusing, but that is probably the best explanation. When I perform a healing, I need a lot of rest and then I need to eat. A lot. If I don’t eat enough food, my body consumes itself and I lose weight. If that happens too many times, I can die. Because of that, between healings, I consume a lot of food, which is why I’m not as thin as the village girls.”
He grinned at me, “Lass, you’re small with the kind of curves a man wants on his woman. I’d not complain about that.”
Rolling my eyes, I tore another hunk of bread off and chewed. As I ate the seed bread, I let my eyes roam the area. We had travelled far, with no landmarks I recognized, I was actually unsure of where we were. He must of have left in the night and rode hard. Deep down, I wondered if anyone in Vella would miss me. I snorted, probably only when they needed a healing, no doubt they’d curse me for not being there.
“I’m serious about needing more food,” I met his emerald eyes with a level gaze. He stared at me long and hard. Then he nodded and headed into the woods. “Where are you going?”
He called back, “To look for small game.”
Sitting there, I nibbled on some cheese and contemplated the idea of running while he was gone. The trouble was I was lost. The other truth was that I was too in need of meat to get very far. Torric had been on the borderline of my abilities. For now, I would stay with him. If we passed any villages, I’d take a horse in the night and go. After I finished what food he left me, I felt drowsy again. Closing my eyes, I let myself drift. I knew I should be afraid of what was to come, but I wasn’t. Torric may have elicited a reaction out of me, but it was not one of fear. Lane’s gaze may have caused my blood to run cold with the idea he’d take what wasn’t his, but not Torric. His emerald eyes danced with the promise of heat, but only if I wanted it. I would not want it, I told myself. Shaking my head, I reminded myself that he took me from my home.
Sometime during this inner debate, sleep took me. I awoke to the smell of meat and the crackling of fire. Opening my eyes, I found him on the other side of the fire, a bird on a spit above it. His heated gaze was on me and my blood boiled. I closed my eyes again and doused that flame with the reminder that he stole me. Once again, I opened my eyes and then I sat up and stretched. Even at this distance, I could tell his eyes were lazily perusing my body. “You should not have slept like that, lass. Anyone could have taken you.”
I let out a short laugh, “Someone already did. You know, my powers have limits and healing you took a lot out of me as I said.”
He grew thoughtful, “How limited?”
I let my eyes fall to the cooking bird and carefully considered how much I would tell him. I needed to make sure he didn’t think I could be used as a healer on a battlefield. “One healing per day. And if the injuries are too grave, I have to wait several days to get back my strength. That is why I fell asleep. Also, if I heal too many days in a row, I’ll start to lose weight and grow weak, which can cause me to die. Fortunately, at home, I don’t usually have more than one healing every so often.”
He frowned as he took in that information. Then he asked, “Why do you think of that place as home? Beautiful lass like you and not one of those village boys married you yet?”
My cheeks ignited and indignation cause my voice to rise, “Why are you assuming I am unmarried?”
He frowned, his face twisting as if he didn’t like the idea that I was. He growled, “Are you?”
I tilted my head and met his eyes with defiance as I retorted, “That is my business.”
He smiled knowingly, and a flash of irritation filled me. Smugly he replied, “There were no signs of a husband in your home. Besides, on my way here, I encountered many people around here who took one look at my green eyes and they backed away in fear. I heard them speak of the red-haired witch of Vella and they wondered why they tolerated her.”
“I’m not a witch!”
His laugh was rich and warm. Surprise coursed through me when it soothed me. “Aye, I know that, lass. They’re superstitious fools.”