Suffice it to say Bactine didn’t sleep for the rest of the night. It wasn’t so bad, she thought to herself, because all of that mess only happened just a few hours before morning. The light would come soon enough, and even if Xylic didn’t return, she’d be able to see, anyway, and then she’d just go on.
Before she could go on, though, she smelled the smoke from a fire, and realized in the wan pre-dawn light that Xylic had built one nearby. Hesitant to approach him, but too curious not to, she did it anyway.
Sidling out from behind a tree, she saw that he’d gathered a remarkable amount of wood for the fire he was now kindling. Looking around, she wondered why he’d bothered to build a fire at all. It wasn’t cold, and she didn’t think he planned to do any cooking.
“Hi,” she said.
“Hello,” he said, fully intent on tending the fire.
There was no more added to the conversation for at least an entire minute, which really made it feel like ten.
Bactine cleared her throat, thinking to say something, but was unclear as to what. Xylic talked instead.
“Are you ready to go?” he asked.
“I think so,” she replied.
“We should be there by this afternoon, and then I’ll leave once you’re settled,” he said, snuffing out the fire he was so carefully tending just a moment earlier. There was something stiffly casual about his behavior, as if it was forced, but he was doing a good job of nearly masking it. Bactine felt the best course would be to follow suit.
“That sounds good,” she said, instantly feeling like her reply was ridiculous and moronic. It had to be obvious to him that she wasn’t at ease. If it wasn’t before, it surely was now. She huffed and pulled her cloak more tightly around herself in the dawn’s chill.
Xylic rose, picked up their things, and walked. Bactine followed.
For the rest of the morning, they made a few painful attempts at small talk. The problem was, there were quite a lot of things they should have talked about, but neither one was courageous enough to broach the subject. Bactine recalled a few hours into the morning that they’d forgotten to eat breakfast, but she surely didn’t feel like eating, and he didn’t seem as if his mind was on food, either. At last, around noontime, they reached a moor.
It was the sort of moor where everything hangs limp in the lack of breeze, and there’s a constant miasma skulking for the first few feet from the soggy ground. Bactine’s boots and half of her skirt were entirely hidden, and she looked over at Xylic, who seemed to be hovering in the air, since anything beneath his knees was lost to the mists. He was looking at her, and she wondered if he was thinking the same thing she was.
“How in the world are we supposed to keep from falling in the bog in this mist?” Bactine asked incredulously.
Xylic looked around, thinking deeply. He walked over to a nearby tree, and broke off a
“You’ll have to stay near me,” he said, as if he thought she would recoil at the idea.
“That’s fine,” she said, and moved near him immediately to show her vote of confidence.
It was nothing if not awkward, but she made a very strong attempt to act professional about the whole situation. Slowly they traversed the moor, as he used the staff to test the ground before them, and she stayed close behind so as not to stray into a sidelong dip. Eventually, through equal parts him and her, she was holding his arm as he used the other to search the fog. As there is only so long awkwardness can continue in the face of basic necessity, in due time she was completely comfortable holding onto him, and standing in such close quarters. He seemed to have lost his unease in the task at hand as well.
At last they reached something in the center of the moor, which seemed to be an area of more or less sturdy earth. Upon this piece of earth was a shack, built upon stilts and slightly leaning. There was a rope ladder which led from the ground to the front precipice, which in turn led to a door.
If you could call it a door. It was a piece of fabric strung across an opening.
Xylic and Bactine exchanged glances, quite aware of each other’s thoughts.
“Mum did say this particular teacher was…um… affordable,” Bactine mentioned.
She was fairly certain Xylic was about to offer his condolences, when the cry of a crow echoed in an absurdly loud manner from the direction of the shack, startling them both. Following this outcry, the heretofore unseen crow burst from behind the fabric door and flew to land at Xylic and Bactine’s feet. It looked at them both. Really looked.
Bactine was a little unnerved. She didn’t even know crows liked hanging around in bogs. In addition, the crow looked very intelligent, and she didn’t like that at all. It cocked it’s little bird head sideways. Xylic shifted.
“Shall we climb?” he offered.
Bactine looked down at her skirts and said, “After you.”
They both moved, and as they did, the crow hopped to intercept them, standing between them and the ladder. They moved again, and the crow blocked them again. Bactine glanced over at Xylic, and she saw something in his eyes. It was something comfortable, and something she knew. They both bolted in opposite directions, confusing the crow, who became frozen in indecision. They made swiftly for the ladder once there was no hope that a simple crow could overtake them and met there, breathless.
Sure, it was exciting, even if all they did was outsmart a bird.
At the top of the ladder, Bactine tried to figure out how to knock on a piece of fabric. Instead she chose the vocal route.
“Hello?” she ventured.
The fabric curtain shot aside immediately, and a very small, wiry old woman was standing there, coiled and tight, ready to spring forth and scratch the eyes out of the world’s face, should it become necessary.
“Who are you?” the old woman demanded.
Xylic and Bactine had both unconsciously leaned back at the old woman’s appearance, sort of like one leans away from being too close to a spitting cat. Bactine realized what she had done, and corrected herself so as to not hurt the old woman’s feelings, which were surely very tender beneath that coat of horrible, horrible venom.
“Bactine Gallagher,” said Bactine, in a quiet, weak voice.
“What took you so long?” the old woman demanded.
“Um,” began Bactine.
“Don’t stammer around me!” spat the old woman.
“Yes, ma’am,” said Bactine.
“Don’t call me ma’am, either! It makes me sound like a matron,” the old woman said. “I’m no matron, not yours, or anyone else’s. So don’t go asking for it!”
“Yes…” unfortunately Bactine had to trail off here, because she had no idea how to address this old woman.
“Call me Namah,” she said.
“Yes, Namah,” Bactine replied.
“Now, come in,” said Namah, holding the fabric door aside. She gave Xylic an appraising look, then added, “Both of you.”
Once they were inside, Namah seemed to grow quite a lot more hospitable. She offered them seats; there were only two, and she set herself to making tea. Namah was undoubtedly abrasive and harsh, but her tea smelled wonderful. She unceremoniously landed two mugs of tea on the table, spilling no small amount of contents on the table’s surface as she did so. Xylic and Bactine took them with polite fear.
“So,” said Namah. “What do you want?”
“I want to learn healing magic,” said Bactine, unsure, since she thought this had already been arranged. Namah seemed irritated by her reply. She began chopping something that looked like yams with a very big knife.
“Is that all?” said Namah, chopping vigorously.
Bactine wasn’t really sure how to reply to that.
“Healing magic. Is that all?” Namah stopped chopping and looked over at Bactine pointedly.
“I think so?” Bactine replied.
Namah turned to stand in front of both Bactine and Xylic, still holding the large knife in her hand. She gave Bactine a long, hard look, one of those looks that old people use to evaluate the worth of youth.
“Fine,” she said at last. “I’ll show you how to heal.”
With speed unexpected in anyone beyond the age of twenty, Namah curved with unstoppable spry and plunged her knife into the depths of Xylic’s left arm. He cried out and dropped the mug in his hand, which crashed to the ground and broke into several pieces at the same moment Bactine screamed in shock and disbelief at the blade buried to the hilt in Xylic. Namah yanked the knife free with a smattering of blood and Xylic moved in defense, reaching for his own blade at his side. The old woman threw the knife to the floor and held out her hands, rendering Xylic impotent with an unseen force and he fell, clutching the chair beside Bactine with his whole arm, his breath haggard and his brow wet. Bactine’s own mug of tea fell and rolled across the floor as she knocked over her own chair trying to hold Xylic in a mindless attempt at stopping whatever mad dream this was. She cast a wild, agonized glance at Namah.
“Now, heal him,” said Namah.