The Healer’s Rune Sample: Chapter One

The Healer’s Rune Sample: Chapter One

The Healer’s Rune

Chapter One


Sabine huddled in a window niche, her knees pulled up to her chin and her teary gaze not quite focused on the dark ruins around her. She knew it was time to go—lingering would certainly mean capture—but she could not force herself to rush to her friend’s death.

A stone’s throw in front of her, a shower of brick dust rained onto the floor. Sabine started, her muscles tensing as her thoughts ratcheted from mourning to high alert.

Straining to hear beyond the thump of her pulse, she concentrated on identifying the sounds that surrounded her. Crickets and frogs chirped in the grass … an occasional bird chittered drowsily overhead … a breeze rustled leaves nearby … all normal sounds, characteristic of the forest just before dawn.

She pulled her cloak closed around her.

Probably a mouse, she reasoned as she scanned the shadows for a safe explanation. Or a night-cat stalking one last meal. Still …

The air felt heavier, as if another presence stood close by.

But that was silly. The Dryht castle was long abandoned and was not haunted by its former inhabitants. Sabine stood to leave. Whatever had just happened, she didn’t appear to be in immediate danger. That would change, however, if she were late to the execution.

Before she took a step, a quiet noise scraped the darkness across from her.

She peered into what was left of the ancient Dryht temple. The moon was still high enough to illuminate small patches between the oak and cedar saplings that grew among the grass-lined floor stones, but it wasn’t full enough to show what moved among their needles and leaves.

Sabine tried to swallow, her mouth suddenly dry, and to reason through her fear. Although it was possible she had been discovered breaking curfew, it was not likely. All of the Rüddan stationed in her village were busy preparing for the execution.

Sabine shifted her weight, angling for a better view. An explosion of snapping twigs and flapping wings made her jump, a surprised shout catching in her throat. She flinched as a raven the size of a large cat landed nearby.

Sabine relaxed.

Just a bird.

Still … why did she feel as if she was not alone?

Cocking its head, the raven focused on Sabine. Intelligence gleamed in the blue depths of its eye. The directness of its avian inspection felt sinister, somehow, as if confirming local rumors that the birds were used as Dryht spies.

Stop it! Sabine chided herself. Just because her neighbors mistrusted the birds, that did not make the rumors true. The villagers of Khapor told many stories of hauntings in the woods, but Sabine had yet to experience one.

The raven stared, showing no signs of moving.

“Whoever you are looking for,” Sabine said to the bird, “is not here. No one has been here for a few years, since the plague that wiped out most of the Dryht race. Well, no one except me.”

As if pondering her inconceivable flaunting of the law, the bird cocked its head to the other side, leveling a green eye at her this time.

This difference in eye color unsettled her.

“I am pleased to have met you, I’m sure,” she stammered, attempting to mask a growing sense of trepidation with a show of wit and bravado. “However, the sun is rising, and I am expected in the village.”

A sudden vision of ravens feasting on her friend’s body after the execution silenced her. Turning away from the bird, she hurried out of the temple.

More unnerved than she cared to admit, she picked her way carefully through the dead Dryht castle, the crumbled ruins of their city, and their memory-haunted wood. Outside the forest, she passed her house and continued along the road to the point where it dropped down the side of a hill that overlooked the village of Khapor.

She paused to remove her cloak before descending. The sun had risen and the air was warming quickly. Draping the cloak over one arm, she squinted through the white glare of the autumn sun, surveyed the narrow smudge of ocean on the distant horizon, then focused, with a complicated mixture of pity and disgust, on the village below.

Typical Human village. Sabine pursed her mouth. From this vantage point, Khapor did not look so bad. She could hardly see the slump of ramshackle hovels squished together as if huddling for protection. She could not yet discern the stench of salt and mold eating at wet, rotting wood, either. But even from this distance, she could see the Tower.

The Tower of the Rüddan rose above the village, its black stone bulk hovering over the enfeebled huts like a vulture waiting for something to die, patient and at ease, certain of the outcome. Sabine shivered, chilled by the view despite the morning’s warmth. Most humans looked upon the Towers in their villages as symbols of peace and protection, but she knew them to be links in the chain of human enslavement. And people wondered why she lived so far away.

Sabine sighed. Directing reluctant steps down the steep hill, she plodded on, to the village of Khapor and to the execution of her friend.

Humans hurried along dirt roads, radiating a hushed sense of urgency. Clustered in groups of twos and threes, they kept their heads bowed in the proper gesture of humility, avoiding the attention of pale-skinned Rüddan guards posted at every other corner.

Sabine slowed to avoid one such group—an unchaperoned trio of sisters gossiping in a loud undertone. She was in no mood to deal with people right then. Especially not those three. Even so, a moist breeze reeking of dead fish blew their words to her ears.

“They say Mariel can read,” the oldest murmured. “The Rüddan found scrolls covered with writing in her father’s house.”

Sabine tensed slightly. It was not hard to hide the ability to read; she had been doing it for years. But to actually possess anything with writing on it? Why would Mariel take such a foolish risk?

“What was she thinking?” Danelle, the village dairywoman, exclaimed in a tone too light to be genuinely surprised. “I don’t know what could have possessed her.”

Although she hated to admit it, Sabine had to agree. The ban on reading was the Rüddan’s most strictly enforced law. If Mariel was truly guilty of breaking it, she risked exposing Humanity to the one thing that could destroy their alliance with the Rüddan. As much as she despised the Rüddan for enslaving her people, the alliance was the only reason Humankind still existed.

Danelle’s younger sister gasped. “Oh, do you think that’s it? Could she be possessed? Maybe she learned to read so she could practice magic? What if she was trying to summon a Dryht? Or, worse yet, an Aethel?”

“Idiot,” the oldest sister sneered. “The Aethel are extinct.”

“I know that,” the younger girl snapped. “But she could summon their spirits. That’s why they’re called daemons.”

Danelle nodded. “Could be. In that case, it’s a good thing they caught her. If you ask me, they will end her torture too swiftly. If she was trying to summon an Aethel, they should make it last for years.”

An image of her friend languishing through years of pain ambushed Sabine’s imagination. Tears rose in her eyes.

Sabine blinked the tears away. She had already spent the night crying at the temple in the forest. There would be more tears later, to be sure, but now was not the time to indulge. Her grief would only draw attention.

“I wonder if her friend Sabine knows magic, too.” Danelle’s younger sister shivered, her tone of scandalized delight carrying clearly to Sabine’s ears. “Elise says she talks to daemons.”

She says what?

“Elise says she does more than that,” Danelle said. “She told me her sister goes into the haunted wood almost every night. Mark my words: it is Sabine’s execution we will be attending next.”

Sabine’s pulse quickened. If her sister was already spreading this idea, then it wouldn’t be so easy for her to hide the fact that she could read, after all. Seething silently, Sabine resolved to be extra cautious for a while lest Danelle’s prediction come true.

The prevailing breeze stilled for a moment, allowing a miasma of sewage and mold to collect between the small, crowded houses. Breathing in measured gasps, Sabine could not decide which was more unpleasant, the smell or the conversation, but she was ready to be rid of both.

Danelle pressed her hands to her hips and arched her spine, as if to stretch her lower back, then twisted from side to side. Using the motion of her twists to look behind her, she noticed Sabine. Her expression changed to one of facetious delight as, touching an arm of each sister, she brought the group to a halt. Since avoiding them would raise suspicion, Sabine was forced to join them.

“Welcome, Healer,” Danelle said when Sabine reached them.

“Dairywoman.” Sabine returned the greeting but did not stop walking.

Danelle and her sisters separated to let Sabine pass, then flanked her.

“Beautiful day for an execution,” Danelle remarked casually, matching her steps to Sabine’s.

Sabine glanced sideways. A faint glimmer of challenge sparked like green fire in the dairywoman’s eyes.

“What’s it like to be the only remaining healer of Khapor?” Danelle stared at Sabine as if watching for a reaction. “Think you can keep up with it?”

Sabine set her lips in a line, trying to control her expression. “I am not the only one.”

“You will be in a few hours.”

“There is still Auda.”

Danelle snorted. “Ha! That old invalid? She can’t even stand straight. Auda may be a master suited for teaching, but her healing days are over.”

Sabine stiffened, stung by the deliberate jab at her friend. “Even if that were true, you need not worry.” Sabine slowly dropped her gaze to Danelle’s distended belly. “I’ll be by to check on you and the baby next week, just like I said.”

Danelle covered her abdomen with both hands as if to protect the unborn child. Her eyes narrowed. “We’ll see.”

Resisting the urge to spite her patient, Sabine quickened her stride, forcing Danelle and her sisters to scramble to keep up. Matching their steps to hers, they rushed between two corner shops and into the village square.

A large tract of land at the heart of Khapor, the square was outlined by Human shops on all four sides and pierced at its core by the Tower of the Rüddan. Fey soldiers stood at attention everywhere, spaced evenly in front of the shops and upon the battlements of the Tower. A small crowd of Humans already gathered on three of the four dirt roads that edged the Tower, separating it from the other buildings.

Sabine grimaced. She had planned to stand beside the window of the weaver’s shop, where she would not be able to see what was about to happen, but that was no longer an option since the fourth road was blocked off by guards.

Unwilling to witness more of her friend’s execution than she had to, Sabine claimed a position near the potter’s shop—as far away from the gallows platform as she could go without attracting attention.

The Tower soared before her, a thick column of obsidian shrouded in a dull finish that absorbed the light. It cast a pall over all that surrounded it. A solid gallows built from oak perched like a skeletal bird of prey upon a raised platform to the immediate left of the Tower’s entrance. Danelle and her sisters scurried across the square to claim a spot at its base.

Sabine scowled at their backs. What’s the use of saving life when the Rüddan can take it away so easily? Am I the only one who can see this is wrong?

Overhead, a circling gull keened mournfully.

“You look like you’re in need of company.”

Sabine turned toward the familiar voice. “Tayte.”

The old potter smiled, his lined face folding in small wrinkles that threatened to hide his eyes. “You seem to have found the best spot in the square. May I join you?”

“Of course, but I don’t think we’ll be able to see much once everyone arrives.”

“Perfect.” Tayte shifted his weight, positioning himself beside her with a sigh. They stood together in silence, watching the crowd expand.

“Lelia could never tolerate public executions,” Tayte commented as he scrutinized the growing mass of Humans. The square was almost full. “They made her sick for days.”

“Your wife was an exceptional woman.” Sabine watched Danelle laugh with her sisters, wishing they could at least show some reverence for the life about to be sacrificed. “She saw the truth of things in a way most of us cannot.”

“That she did.” Something about the tone of Tayte’s voice captured Sabine’s attention. “It is a burdensome gift, really. What do you do with the truth once you find it?”

Sabine glanced at the potter to find him studying her with a sideways look. Did he expect an answer?

Regarding the crowd once more, Tayte shook his head. “Some people see the truth but choose to ignore it. Others spend their lives fighting for it. Lelia was one of these. You remind me of her.”

Sabine nodded. She knew she should thank the potter for his compliment, but she was not sure she could trust herself to speak. She did not even have the courage to watch her friend’s impending death—how could she dream of fighting for truth?

Unwilling to follow that thought any further, Sabine returned to watching the crowd. Her attention was caught by her former betrothed and her sister, who pressed through the crowd until they stood in front of her and to the right. They gave no indication of having seen her, for which she was glad. The one thing she did not need was a public confrontation with Elise and Kenrick.

Sabine studied the two of them for a moment, frowning. Although it still hurt to think about how Kenrick had given her up and gone after Elise, that wasn’t what bothered her. Something else was wrong.

“Mother.”

“What?” Tayte glanced at her.

“I was told this is a mandatory execution.” Sabine kept her voice low.

“It is. Why?”

The village blacksmith pushed against Sabine, jostling his way through the throng until he could go no further. Stopping directly in front of her, he blocked her view of the gallows.

Sabine shuffled a step closer to Tayte. “Ever since my father’s death, my mother has been very careful to observe every aspect of Rüddan law. She even moved in with my sister and Kenrick before my father was buried, instead of using the sennight of grace given for finding a chaperone. I see Elise and Kenrick in front of us, but I cannot find my mother.”

“No time to worry about that now.” Tayte inclined his head toward the gallows.

Two large doors at the base of the Tower swung open, revealing a dozen Rüddan guards clad in black chain mail and burgundy surcoats, each emblazoned across the chest with a silver griffin clutching a boar. They moved forward in unison, a living box.

Instantly, the crowd fell silent, hushed by a sense of eager anticipation. As a single entity, it drew back, the front rows pressing together as if to let the soldiers pass, unhindered, to the gallows. More guards took up positions around the square, blocking all the roads to the village.

Sabine stood on tiptoe to peer over the blacksmith. What she saw drew an involuntary groan from her soul.

Bound at the wrists, gagged, and wearing only a soiled, ragged shift, Mariel was hardly recognizable. Her face was a swollen mass of bruises and blood. One cheek sagged in as if the bone beneath it were broken. Blue-black splotches covered her arms, crisscrossed by scabbed or bleeding welts. Her legs trembled as she approached the platform, but she held her back straight. Despite her mangled state, she drew near the platform with dignity.

The Rüddan guards guided her up the steps to the stage in front of the gallows. She collapsed at the top of the stairs, as if what little strength she possessed had been spent on the climb. Sabine started forward, wanting to rush to her aid, but stopped when Tayte placed a hand on her arm.

The soldier nearest Mariel grabbed her by the hair, pulling her upright as she scrambled weakly to regain her footing. She stood, wobbly and unsure, but on her own. As regally as her disfigured body would allow, she crossed the platform in front of the gallows.

The squad of soldiers was dismissed by another Rüddan, this one bearing the three silver caltraps of a captain on his surcoat and a long sword on his hip.

Sabine held her breath.

The Rüddan captain spoke clearly, his heavily accented words projecting throughout the square. “Mariel, daughter of Brock, you stand accused of treason against the crown and kingdoms of the Empress of all Ceryn Roh. Confess your crimes here, before your people, and death will find you quickly.”

Silence fell upon the square, the entire village stilling to hear Mariel’s reply. She stood for a moment, as if in contemplation, then rose as tall and straight as her tortured form would allow and spit her defiance into the Rüddan captain’s face.

The crowd gasped. Shouts of indignation spread throughout the mob.

The captain struck Mariel in the mouth, snapping her head to the side with the strength of his blow. Blood erupted from her split lip, but she did not cry out.

Sabine closed her eyes and sank back onto her heels, using the blacksmith to obscure her view once more.

A few moments later, Mariel did scream, signaling that the torture had begun. Sabine squeezed her eyes shut, determined not to witness the atrocity. Somehow, though, her action felt like a betrayal, as if by not watching, she was forsaking Mariel.

Suddenly, Sabine regretted her decision to hide from the execution. She might not be able to help her friend, but she would not abandon her.

Wiping a tear from her cheek, Sabine stood on tiptoe again. Three guards surrounded Mariel now, shearing away jagged clumps of her long black hair while the captain moved to the front of the dais. “Mariel Brockselle has been tried and found guilty of magic use and conspiring with the Dryht. For these treasons, she is hereby sentenced to death by the Empress of all Ceryn Roh. Let this be an example to any who would emulate her.”

“Treason and magic use are easy to claim,” Sabine muttered, “and almost impossible to disprove. I wonder what she really did.”

Tayte shot Sabine a warning glance. “Be careful. The ears surrounding us are not all friendly.”

Sabine clamped her mouth closed. His chastisement stung, but he was right. Chagrined, she stared at the platform again, but her toes were getting tired. Glancing around the blacksmith, she noticed an empty space beside him where she would just fit.

“Excuse me for a minute,” she whispered to Tayte as she darted into the empty spot.

“Sabine!” Tayte hissed as she passed. “What are you doing?”

Now that she had a clear view, Sabine saw two of the Rüddan tying Mariel to one of the posts that supported the gallows. But Mariel could not see her, and she needed to. How else would she know she was not in this alone?

“I’ll be back,” Sabine whispered over her shoulder to Tayte. Something gleamed in the potter’s eyes—some emotion she could not identify, but it made no difference.

One of the soldiers turned away from Mariel, just beyond Sabine’s field of vision, then turned back to her, holding something that looked like a smooth stick about the length of a Human’s arm and the width of three fingers. He swung it, making a slashing motion across Mariel’s upper arm, but it did not seem to touch her. Even so, Mariel flinched, her face contorting with the effort of hiding the pain as several rips slashed the fabric of her sleeve, revealing pink, torn skin.

Magic!

The soldier swiped the stick at her again. This time Mariel screamed.

Somehow, Sabine had to get closer.

The next few moments were a confusion of pressing bodies and heart-wrenching sounds of pain as Sabine slid between people, working her way forward. She tried to catch her friend’s gaze whenever Mariel looked into the crowd, but she was still too far away.

Each time Sabine found a new opening to move into, her movement was accompanied by a new sound proclaiming Mariel’s pain. It became like a dance, almost. A sickening, terrifying funeral dance beating to the time of her heart. Scan the crowd (one, two) … fill the space (one, two) … Cue the groans (one, two) … and repeat.

Sabine had no choice but to participate.

She hesitated only once, when her next step would have placed her right in front of her former betrothed and her sister. Instead of that, she chose to wait, missing the next few thumping beats as she waited for the crowd to part in the other direction. As she did, she stared at Mariel, willing her friend to notice her, to look into the Human crowd and notice that she was there.

As if in response, Mariel looked up, the desperation in her eyes clear. She glanced in Sabine’s direction for a moment but gave no indication that she saw her.

The crowd shifted, as if agitated by the focus of Mariel’s gaze, and fell unnaturally still. Noticing the resentment on the faces of those she passed, Sabine flinched. Rather than growing silent out of respect for Mariel, they were snubbing her, divorcing themselves from her so as to not be guilty of any part of her death.

And she had very nearly done the same thing.

Chagrined, Sabine fought even harder to get close to the stage.

Another cry of pain splintered the silence of the crowd. Sabine jumped. Trying to not gag on the cloying scent of blood that now saturated the air, she looked to the sky. She found a group of swans flying overhead and began to count the birds in an effort to ignore the bile building in her stomach. She counted thirty-four before the next scream reverberated off the shops.

She was close to the stage now—so close that she could hear the ragged gasping of Mariel’s breath, could count the small, whimpering sounds that escaped her lips with each exhale.

I am here, my friend. Sabine stared hard at Mariel, thinking the thought so strongly that she felt it as a scream. Mariel did not look at her, she did not respond in any way, but Sabine kept thinking, I am here, and you’re not alone.

The Rüddan captain stepped up to Mariel once more, signaling to the guards to step back.

“As you are convicted of two crimes against the Empress,” he began, projecting his voice all of the way back to the shops, “you will be given two chances to repent. Do you have anything to confess?”

Ever so slowly, Mariel lifted her head. She studied the captain through swollen eyes, as if trying to focus through her pain, then shifted her gaze out over the crowd. At last, she looked directly at Sabine.

Sabine returned the look, staring hard at her friend and wishing that, by doing so, she could share some of her strength.

“It’s all a lie,” Mariel croaked as if speaking only to Sabine. The expression on her face grew stronger, more determined.

The Rüddan captain struck his hand across her mouth again. Once again her head snapped to the side, propelled by the force of his fist. Once again Mariel bled, and once again she screamed. Only this time, her screams were words.

“Everything you think you know is a lie!”

The captain hit her harder this time, aiming for her temple. She moved just enough for his fist to catch her cheekbone instead.

All around Sabine, people in the crowd started to grumble.

“Question them,” Mariel screamed, staring directly at Sabine again. “Question everything.”

The ring of a sword being drawn sliced the air, resounding over the growing mumbles of the crowd. Mariel’s words were upsetting the people. Was that because she dared to speak against the Rüddan or because the Humans believed her?

“Search for the truth!” Mariel screamed as the Rüddan captain raised his sword over his head. “Don’t believe everything they tell you.”

Bringing his sword down, the Rüddan swung at Mariel’s head. The swift motion looked gracefully languid, like a feinting motion meant only to scare, and at first it appeared to Sabine that nothing had happened. A moment later, though, Mariel’s head toppled to the ground and her body slumped in the ropes that strapped her to the leg of the gallows.

Instantly, the crowd stilled.

Sabine gasped. Unable to look away, she gazed miserably upon the bleeding, shattered form of her friend. Why was it suddenly so hard to breathe?

The captain signaled and, in a flurry of burgundy activity, Rüddan guards surged across the stage to attend to the remains of Mariel. Rather than watch them, Sabine looked down, inspecting the pebbles sprinkled upon the ground. The stones blurred and wavered as she choked on the sobs she tried to hide. Goodbye, my friend. May the Morning Star welcome you with open arms.

Two soldiers hung Mariel’s limp body upon the gallows, stretching the noose to fit under her arms while the Rüddan officer stepped forward once more. He glared over the Human crowd from the center of the platform. “The body of Mariel Brockselle shall hang on display for a sennight. Anyone attempting to remove it will be raised beside her.”

He scanned the group before him, as if seeking dissension, then nodded. The guards that blocked the roads moved aside, allowing the crowd to exit the square. People pushed past Sabine, sauntering like gorged wolves into the streets of Khapor.

Sabine watched them go, too heartsick to bother getting out of their way until Tayte was suddenly there, taking her arm.

“Mariel fought well.” Tayte spoke in an undertone, his tenor voice deep with reverence. “Her death was noble, despite their efforts.”

Sabine nodded. Powerful fists of nausea assailed her, accompanied by fury and the helpless hate she harbored for the Rüddan. At that moment, she could not decide whom she despised more, the Rüddan who butchered her friend or the Humans who allowed it, but one thing she knew for sure.

She had to learn the truth.

 

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