*** edited Ch 21 end and Ch 22 added ***
Bactine leaned over the cot where Xylic lay feverish, wiping his brow with a wet cloth, and brushing his unruly bangs from his forehead.
“He’s gone gangrenous, you know,” said Namah impartially, as she busied herself with something entirely useless. Bactine suspected it was needlepoint.
“Yes, thank you for the update,” replied Bactine irritably, her attention focused intently on Xylic. It’d been several days since Namah had suddenly stabbed Xylic, and he’d gradually grown weaker until today he flitted in and out of consciousness. That must have been a filthy knife.
At first, Bactine had the initial thought to leave and find help, but realizing that she couldn’t drag Xylic through the moor and forest back to civilization in time made her feel helpless, and she also suspected Namah wouldn’t let her leave, anyway. Actually, she suspected highly that Namah knew exactly what she was doing, which made Bactine sick to her stomach.
So from the initial stabbing, Namah had begun her lessons with Bactine, and Xylic was her test subject. Right after, as Xylic was bleeding all over the floor, Namah had handed Bactine cloth and instructed her how to dress a wound properly. It infuriated Bactine to no end that Namah seemed to have no empathy whatsoever for Xylic’s obviously pain-riddled plight. She wondered if that’s what happened to healers after so many years of seeing pain. Regardless, Bactine followed her instructions as perfectly as she could, entirely forgetting to be embarrassed as she removed Xylic’s cloak, jerkin and shirt in her concern for his well-being.
Namah had used a powerful magic on Xylic, which rendered him completely useless. She later told Bactine it was a spell which increased the pain tenfold, precisely for the purpose of keeping a wounded enemy subdued. When Bactine objected, Namah mentioned that Xylic had been ready to attack her with his weapons, and she was only a weak old woman, after all. Bactine didn’t believe there was anything weak about Namah, but reluctantly saw her point. Besides, Bactine realized she was entirely at the mercy of Namah, in order to save Xylic’s life.
Following the instruction on wound dressing, Namah began to teach her how to see inside of someone physically, in a mental way. She started with merely touching Xylic, and trying to sense him. Bactine would put her hand on him again and again, seeing nothing, until finally Namah hit her on the back of the head and demanded she concentrate. Something about that angered Bactine to no end, and that anger focused her like a razor.
She put her hand on him, and slid inside, through her hand, sensing him. The blood coursing through his veins with heat; the stolid heartbeat; the rush of air through his lungs, like the wind in the tops of pines. She drew back in shock, pulled her hand away, and caught her breath.
Namah smiled, although when Namah smiled, it wasn’t a pretty picture.
Later that night, when Namah was outside gathering some kind of horrible substance, Bactine busied herself with changing Xylic’s dressing. The coverings were pulled up to his shoulders, but his arms were outside, and he looked weak, as his brow was consistently covered in a sheen of sweat.
“Does it hurt badly?” asked Bactine quietly.
“Yes,” said Xylic. Bactine sighed, looking equal parts angry and compassionate in two different directions.
“I’m going to figure out how to heal you,” she said, and then added: “Soon.”
“Well, either that or I’m going to die,” he said, not seeming entirely opposed to the idea. She gripped his arm in protest, causing him to wince, and then she jumped, yanking her hand from his arm.
“Oh, sorry!” she said, blushing. She then fell into a furious reverie.
“I hate her,” she said, and then she thought.
“I hate her,” she said again, more resolved. Xylic was quiet and resigned. Bactine looked him over, then moved closer, being cautious about not gripping his arm.
“I made a sort of breakthrough today,” she told him. “I was able to see inside of you.”
Xylic looked curiously disturbed for a moment.
“And what did you see?” he asked after a time.
“It wasn’t exactly anything I saw..,” she said, “It was what I felt.”
“Then what did you feel,” he asked, putting a bit more emphasis on “feel” than was necessary. She glanced wryly at him.
“Your heartbeat,” she said.
“You can feel that any time you’d like,” he said, and he took her hand and placed it over his heart in order to illustrate.
It was not meant to be a meaningful action, but something about it touched Bactine. There he was, looking up at her from his wretched state, entirely put into such a state due to his charity in bringing her here, and she felt his heart beat, again… and again. Again it beat, and the percussive, warm nature of it ran through her arm as she sunk into him without a thought, feeling him with another beat; feeling the coursing back and forth of the blood within him like the volley of sea grass courses with the tide beneath the ocean’s surface. She was caught; her eyes were locked with his, but her mind was in a million places; all of them belonging to him. Warmth and glow flowed through her hand into him, and she found it.
It was filthy, wretched, and disrupted the flow within him. The rest of his body wrung against it, pushing at it, slowly trying to overwhelm it and subdue it, eroding it away until the time when he could be whole again.
But the filth was growing.
Bactine didn’t know what to do, so she lifted her hand from his chest. His hand fell away from hers and he looked away.
“I will heal you, Xylic,” she said. “I just don’t know how, yet.”
He looked back to her and spoke.
“When you do that,” he said, meaning looking inside of him, “It doesn’t hurt as much.”
“Do you want me to do it again?” she asked.
“Please…” he replied simply, after hesitation.
Bactine was relieved that there was at least something she could do, which was positive, in this sordid situation. She put her hands on him and thought deeply, and then he sighed.
It wasn’t long at all before Xylic fell asleep. Bactine sat in concentration, realizing the pain had deprived him of sleep for some time, at least of the deep sleep one requires for recovery. He hadn’t complained, she noted. At least, not much. Most of his complaint was channeled into some unpleasant and choice things he had to say about Namah, when she was out, of course.
She took this opportunity to clandestinely regard him in detail.
As he slept, he looked different. Normally he had a consistently brooding look upon his face, combined with a look that was sharp, causing anyone who thought to get more than a glance at him not to linger. He pushed everyone away with his countenance, like an invisible barrier. Now, though, his face was calm, peaceful, resilient. His features were fine; his mouth was delicate; his skin slightly golden, and his hair brilliant blonde. He was… Bactine suddenly realized… beautiful.
She wondered why she’d never noticed it before.
She continued looking inside of him for as long as she could manage it.
Namah entered plainly, and glanced to the pair near the end of the room. The young man was sleeping deeply, it looked like, and the young woman was asleep too, her arms folded over his chest, and her weight in a precarious-looking angle as her weight was balanced between stool she was sitting on and him.
“Young love,” said Namah to herself, taking on a silly grin.
Nothing better to teach the girl with, she thought to herself. Her eyes swept over them again, this time more calculating, and she moved towards them with her theories on her mind.
From the instant that fellow walked out of the moor to her front step, she had sensed something different about him, but if what she thought he was turned out to be correct, she wondered what he was doing here. She hadn’t seen one of his kind of many years.
As she approached them, she knew his features were just slightly too delicate to be human. However, she was a woman bent on proving her theories, and so she put her fingers into his unruly hair, feeling until there it was; his ear was long, and as her finger touched the point, he woke with a start.
He gave her a look so fierce and threatening that she recoiled, even though in a practical sense she knew fully well he was too weak to do anything but stare. His body was instantly stiff, and his whole arm was wrapped around the shoulders of the girl, as if in protection.
Namah dropped her hand to her side and fixed him with a stern look. He obviously didn’t want anyone to know what he was, but Namah couldn’t fathom why what would be. She found herself wondering why an elf would be an outcast, and integrated among humans. Why he would fear anyone should know? In the way he held the girl and shook slightly, Namah realized the girl didn’t know, and he didn’t want her to find out. So be it. She raised her chin slightly.
“I will keep your secret,” she deigned.
He gave her no reply.
“But she will find out on her own,” she continued. “Very soon.”
His glare shattered and he glanced upwards at the ceiling, his breath shallow. Namah watched this odd fellow curiously, with his changing moods and roiling storms. She felt compassion, although she resolved not to show it. Besides, it was somewhat amusing, the idea that this fellow was an elf and under this girl’s nose for, oh… she judged it’d been quite some time they’d known each other, and the girl had no idea what he was. Either she was supremely dense, or he was a master at hiding it, or a little of both.
“I can make it so she doesn’t notice… for now,” she said to him, and lifted a magical hand.
The elf’s eyes widened, and she pondered their color. Sea-green. She hadn’t seen that color in a long time. She took the fact that he wasn’t glaring at her any longer as affirmation for her to continue, and so she did, weaving her hand and drawing it back.
A trail of white mist fell from Namah’s hand, shifted, and blew back and forth like dandelion seeds until it gradually fell upon Bactine. She sighed against Xylic’s chest and slept on.
“Now, let her sleep so she can save your life in the morning,” said Namah to the elf, and she turned swiftly away to focus entirely on her roots and globules.