Santhim felt like she might burst open at any moment. The baby growing inside her was dangerously close to coming out right there on the side of the mountain. Tyrim held her hand, steadying her as they moved down the rocky path. The other children followed them down the mountain trail in pairs.
Crossing the mountains was hard on Santhim. But the entire last year had been hard on the pretty thirteen year old. Her mother and father died when a spotted plague burned through their tribe. In the space of three weeks, a tribe of nearly fifty Lataki plainsmen was reduced to just eight survivors. Santhim's boyfriend, Tyrim, was the oldest of them, and he was just a year older than her.
They had suddenly gone from carefree children to being responsible for the lives of themselves and six younger kids. Approaching another tribe for help was out of the question. The Lataki were brutal people. Any other tribe would have killed the boys, and the girls wouldn't have been so lucky. So they had avoided other Lataki and moved west toward the mountains.
After a few months of wandering, the group of children found a crystal blue lake at the base of the mountain range and made a more permanent camp. By the time they settled at the lake, Santhim's belly was already starting to grow. They planned to stay at the lake camp, at least until the baby came.
They were there for four months before the Komisani soldiers appeared on the far side of the lake. All Lataki knew about the Komisani. The Komisani wore clothing that turned away arrows, and they carried weapons that could cut off a man's arm or head. And, the Komisani always killed Lataki.
When the children saw the Komisani across the lake they abandoned their camp in a panic and ran for the mountains, hesitating only long enough to grab water skins and spears. Two exhausting weeks later, they were over the mountains and there was no sign of the Komisani.
Santhim held tight to Tyrim's hand as she walked. She hummed a tune that she had learned from her mother. She knew the baby would be coming very soon and she was starting to hurt. Humming the tune made her hurt a little less. Having Tyrim there to help her made her feel better as well.
The trail eventually leveled out and the forest became thicker around them. It was evening when the forest thinned and they came to a wide beach facing a lake so wide they couldn't see the other side. Santhim was having regular pains and couldn't go any farther. It was time for the baby to come.
Their water skins were almost empty and they were relieved to see the water. But they quickly learned that the water in the strange, restless lake was salty and not good for drinking. Tyrim collected all the water skins and jogged south along the beach to look for good water. Two miles down the beach, he found a small freshwater stream and filled all the skins before starting back to the camp.
Half a mile from the camp, while skirting the edge of the forest, Tyrim stepped in the wrong place and startled a snake, which then bit him on his lower leg. The bite hurt terribly, but Tyrim continued walking toward the camp to bring water to Santhim.
By the time Tyrim arrived at the camp he was dizzy and feeling weak. He dropped the water skins and sat down hard on the sand where he immediately passed out.
The stars were coming out as Santhim gave birth to her son on the beach. One of the girls cut the umbilical cord with Tyrim's flint knife, wrapped the infant in his mother's blanket and laid the infant next to his mother. When Santhim wouldn't stop bleeding, the frantic kids didn't know what to do. She bled to death on the beach surrounded by six helpless and terrified children.
One of the girls picked up the infant and laid him in the crook of his unconscious father's arm.
The remaining six children sat around the fire they'd built, and had a talk like the adults of their tribe did when there were important decisions to be made. The Lataki were superstitious, and all of the kids agreed that the baby was bad luck, probably cursed. The child had killed Santhim, and Tyrim was also dying. The kids decided they had to leave the baby with his father and hope that the curse wouldn't follow them.
They buried Santhim in a shallow grave in the sand.
One of the girls covered Tyrim and the baby with Tyrim's blanket and then followed the others up the beach.
Then the children walked north along the beach, away from Tyrim and the cursed child. Fifteen miles up the beach they were found by a Komisani patrol and killed.
Anin pulled at the oars, moving his little boat steadily through the water. He had been on the water since dawn, stopping once at midday to eat a chunk of yeasty bread, and several times to stretch and drink from his canteen. He made this trip to the mainland twice each year, spring and autumn, to collect plants that grew wild along the shore and up the rivers.
Anin was an apothecary. Most of the plants he collected on these trips would be used to make medicines for the people of his village, or traded to apothecaries in nearby villages. He also collected some spices and other non-medicinal plants that he could sell.
It was starting to get dark and he needed another break. He docked his oars and stood up. He'd been rowing for several hours and it felt good to move around. The sun had slipped down behind the curve of the earth and the clouds along the horizon were shades of pink and orange. Anin clasped his hands together, raised them over his head and stretched from side to side. Stretching felt good.
He turned toward the front of the boat, his eyes skipping along the horizon and picking out familiar mountain peaks, dark against the stars that were just starting to peek at him from the deep blue sky. This was Anin's favorite time of day. The sea was calm and the sky was clear. It was a beautiful evening.
Anin sat down and picked up his canteen. He took a long drink; it tasted good. He'd added a bit of lemon and mint to keep it tasting fresh. He turned toward the front of the boat, kicking his legs up over the bench seat, and faced the bow.
There was a little wooden box in the front of the boat that held enough food for a week. He hoped to be home in four days, but always brought extra in case bad weather delayed his return. He tore a chunk of bread from one of the loaves he'd brought, and dribbled a little honey over it from a small jar.
Anin enjoyed his simple meal under the stars. The cool autumn air felt good after a sunny day of rowing across the sea. As he ate, he gazed across the water at the shoreline. He could tell by the familiar landmarks that he had drifted a little south of his target, a place where a large patch of vivid purple berries grew wild along a river bank. The berries had no medicinal use that he knew of; they were, in fact, extremely poisonous. He would sell them to an artist friend who used them to color his paint.
His eyes picked out a fire on the beach, which was unexpected. He had never come across any people in his many trips to the mainland. He knew there were tribes of nomadic people living on the plains beyond the low mountains that skirted the shoreline, but he had never heard of the Lataki crossing to this side of the mountains. Most likely, he thought, it was a King's Legion patrol.
He finished his bread, pulled a strip of dried beef out of his food box and stuck it in his mouth. Then, he reached over the side of the boat and rinsed his hands in salty sea water.
Anin stood and stretched again, then stepped back over the bench seat, undocked his oars and started rowing in the direction of the fire on the beach.
His body settled into a rhythm and his mind settled into its familiar rhythm as well. As he pulled the oars, He silently chanted the words of rejuvenation. The simple magic replenished his tired muscles and added strength to his effort.
• • •
Anin pulled his boat up onto the rocky beach, a hundred yards from the fire, and looped a rope around a large rock. He took a long knife from his boat and walked up the beach. It was dark, but there was enough moonlight for him to see that a group of people had walked along this beach not long before.
He moved along the beach toward the fire, expecting to find a group of Komisani soldiers. What he found instead was a sleeping boy. He moved closer to the boy, peering into the darkness around him as walked. There didn't seem to be anyone else around.
As Anin approached the boy it became apparent that things were not right. The boy was a Lataki. He was pale and clearly very ill. There was a baby cradled in between the boy's body and right arm.
Anin clutched his knife in one hand and knelt next to the boy, laying his hand on the boy's shoulder. The boy opened his eyes and, seeing Anin, tried to move, but lacked the strength.
"Let me help you," said Anin. He pulled back the blanket and found the festering snake bite on the boy's right calf. Anin bowed his head and frowned. He could have treated the bite when it first happened, but it was too late, the poison was going to kill the boy. The only thing he could do was ease the boy's suffering.
He examined the baby, and found it to be in good health.
"I'll be back in a moment," he said to the delirious boy and then jogged up the beach to his boat. He grabbed his canteen and a stiff leather bag from the bow of the little craft, and jogged back down the beach.
Anin pulled a small mortar out of his bag and pushed it down into the sand, twisting it until it was firmly planted. He began measuring out pinches of various powders from small glass vials that were tucked into pockets inside his bag. As he finished with each ingredient, he carefully returned the vials to their proper place. Then he pulled out the pestle and began to grind the powders together.
As he mixed the medicine, he relaxed his mind and began to silently chant a song of calm in his head. As his calm built, he focused it into a ball of light blue energy in his mind. He channeled the energy through his hands, and into the powdery mixture he was grinding. The grains of the medicine flashed blue for a moment, like water reflecting a shooting star.
Anin stopped grinding and pulled a glass cup and a flask from his bag. He poured a small amount of strong brown liquor from the flask, and then added two large pinches of the medicine and swirled the cup around to mix it. He lifted the boy's head and put the cup to his lips, spilling a little of the liquid into the boy's mouth.
Immediately, the boy relaxed and stopped shivering.
Anin put the cup aside and rested his hand on the boy's forehead. He closed his eyes and began a silent chant of strength. Anin could feel the strength of his body gathering in his chest. He channeled it through his hand and into the boy, whose eyes suddenly opened and stared at him.
Feeling fatigued from the magic, Anin sat back on the sand and looked at the boy.
"What happened?" Anin asked.
The boy looked at him. "Santhim," he said, "Where is Santhim?" He had a thick accent that Anin had a hard time understanding.
The boy suddenly realized that there was a baby cradled in his arm. He looked at the infant and tears welled up in his eyes.
"Is this your son?" asked Anin.
"My son," said the boy with a smile before suddenly wincing. The pain was coming back.
"You've been bitten by a snake," said Anin. "There's nothing I can do to help you. But I will not let your son die on this beach."
The boy slumped back down and looked at the baby. Tears streamed down his face.
Anin could see that the boy was in a great deal of pain, and his magic wasn't going to last much longer.
He held the cup to the boy's lips. "This will help you rest," he said. The boy took several large drinks and then relaxed and fell into a peaceful sleep.
Anin carried the baby to his boat and climbed in. He removed the lid from a large box that was built into the side of the boat near the rowing bench. The box was full of rope and nets. Anin arranged the nets into a makeshift bed for the baby, and gently laid him down.
He climbed out of the boat, untied it from the rock and walked it through the water to where the boy slept.
Anin pulled the boat up onto the sand and tied the rope to a tree at the edge of the beach. He noticed a trail of dark blood in the sand and followed it to a mound that was obviously a grave. He understood at once what had happened.
Anin returned to the boat. He unpacked some things and set up his camp next to the fire. He lifted the boy's head and dribbled another large dose of the medicine into his mouth, and then walked to the water and rinsed the remaining medicine out of the cup before returning it to his bag.
Anin made a quick foray into the forest and came out with an armload of wood which he piled near the fire.
He sat down and began mixing a new set of ingredients in his mortar. He had to stop several times and consider what ingredients to use, but finally he was satisfied and began to grind the powders together with his pestle. He chanted a spell in his head and put a generous magical infusion of his own strength into the powder.
When he was finished, he took a glass vial from his bag, poured most of the powder into it and then sealed it with a cork and stuffed it into his bag. The remainder of the powdery mix went into his glass cup, followed by water from his canteen. He mixed the solution well and raised the cup to his nose to smell it. He decided the concoction would provide the child with adequate nutrition until he returned home.
He pulled a delicate glass dropper from his bag, cradled the baby in his lap and painstakingly fed the child his first meal, one dropper at a time.
When the baby was fed and sleeping comfortably next to his father, Anin took a shovel out of the boat and walked into the woods where he dug two graves by the light of the moon.
When he was done, he checked on the boy, who was sleeping peacefully. Anin picked up the baby and sat down near the fire. With the sleeping infant in his lap, Anin closed his eyes and began to sing a song of rejuvenation in his head. He sat like that through the night, keeping a semi-conscious watch over the boy.
Tyrim died during the night. Anin buried him and then dug Santhim out of the sand and moved her to her proper grave. He spent an hour, with the infant child in a makeshift sling across his chest, gathering stones to line the graves.
Once the sad task was finished, Anin packed up the boat, placed the child in his makeshift crib, and began rowing back to his home on Komisan.
It was evening in the village of Port Billen. All the fishermen had come in and were either having dinner with their families or trading stories at the Rusty Hook Tavern across the village square from the docks. Constable Jelak was relaxing on his usual bench, looking at the stars over the water, when he saw Anin rowing in. He walked down onto the dock to meet his friend.
"Surprised to see you back so soon, Anin" said the constable as he took a rope from Anin, and tied the boat to the dock. He caught sight of the infant laying in the net box. "Is that a baby?"
Anin told Jelak what had happened on the beach while he unloaded the boat. Jelak held the baby for Anin and listened. When the tale had been told Jelak looked at Anin seriously and said, "The King's law forbids Lataki on Komisan."
"I didn't see that I had any other choice, Jelak. I couldn't leave a baby to die alone on the beach." Anin had been worried about Jelak. The old constable was the King's representative in Port Billen and it was his duty to uphold the King's laws. But Jelak was more loyal to the people of Port Billen than he was to King Dannap. After more than fifty years of serving as Constable of the village, he was more a member of the community than a representative of the King.
"You did the right thing," said Jelak, much to Anin's relief.
Jelak carried the baby as the two men walked up the hill toward Anin's house. "What's the child's name?" asked Jelak.
"I was thinking about calling him Tanan."
"That's a good name," replied the Constable. He stopped, and looked at Anin. "People are going to ask questions about this baby. What are you going to tell them?"
"Well," said Anin. "I was thinking I might go talk with Soama about this. If Soama asked me to care for an orphan from another village I couldn't very well say no, could I?. And nobody around here would question the word of an Abbot, especially Soama."
They walked on up the hill to Anin's home, which was brightly lit and smelled of good food. Anin, who had never married, lived with his father, Lindelin, who was the doctor of Port Billen and a widower.
Jelak handed the baby to Anin. "I look forward to officially meeting Tanan after you speak with Soama tomorrow." The old Constable gave Anin a nod, turned and walked up the street.
Lindelin had been the doctor in Port Billen for nearly as long as Jelak had been its Constable. He was skilled in his trade, respected by patients, and he lived a good and comfortable life. His father had been the doctor in Port Billen before him and the two had practiced together for nearly twenty years before his father died.
His son's abilities were more suited to the creation of medicines than they were to diagnosing and treating illnesses. Anin was a gifted apothecary, but also a passable healer and Lindelin was proud of him.
Anin was fifty-three and had never married. He was a kind man, well liked and prosperous. But, much to the disappointment of the single women of Port Billen, he had always been more interested in collecting ingredients and creating his medicines than in romance or marriage.
Things had changed for Anin in the ten years since Tanan had come into his life. His obsession with work was still his defining trait, but he was no longer just Anin the Apothecary, he was Tanan's father. He loved being a father and Lindelin loved being a grandfather.
When Tanan suddenly appeared in Port Billen, few people believed Anin's story that Soama had asked him to adopt the child. Soama confirmed the story on several occasions, but it just didn't make sense to most people that a newborn child would be carried from a village on the other side of the island to a home in Port Billen. But everyone in the village liked Anin, and if Abbot Soama was sticking to the story, he must have his reasons. There was gossip for a while, but the people of Port Billen soon accepted Tanan as one of their own. Eleven years later, Tanan was as much a part of the village as anyone.
Tanan loved Port Billen. He loved the people and he loved living in the little stone house with his father and grandfather. Every morning and evening the three would gather around their big kitchen table for meals. Tanan listened to the discussions between the older men and asked questions about the parts of the conversation that he didn't understand. Lindelin and Anin encouraged the boy's interest in their work and patiently answered all of his questions.
Tanan had a true love of learning, but not a great enthusiasm for school. When he was eight, he simply stopped going to school on a regular basis. His teachers were annoyed at this but Tanan explained quite matter-of-factly to Lindelin and Anin that he was learning more by spending his time with the people of the village than from schoolbooks which, by the way, he had already read.
Another reason Tanan didn't enjoy school was a boy named Grapf. Grapf was two years older than Tanan and had been described by more than one person in the village as ‘dumber than a wormy stump'. Grapf was determined to make up for his lack of intelligence by beating up anyone he could catch that was smaller or smarter than him. He made it a point to punish Tanan for the crime of being ‘a smarty pig's ass' whenever he had the opportunity.
After a couple of months of trying in vain to persuade, bribe and order Tanan to go to school, Lindelin took Tanan to visit Headmaster Tews at the school. After a great deal of discussion, the three of them came up with a unique solution. Tanan was free to attend school on his own schedule as long as he showed up for tests, passed them with one hundred percent accuracy, and wrote essays about the things he learned while he wasn't at school. From that point on, Tanan went to school only on Fridays to take tests, hand over essays and borrow books from the school library.
Tanan's eagerness to learn and his willingness to work made him welcome everywhere in the village. He would sometimes spend time with his father learning about the medicinal properties of different plants. He often spent time in the kitchen of the Rusty Hook learning all the various ways to clean and fry fish, which was a staple food in Port Billen.
He usually spent one day each week working on Pessup's fishing boat learning to catch fish, tie knots, clean the boat and anything else Pessup could think of to keep the boy busy. Pessup treated Tanan like a little brother and taught him the fine arts of cussing, practical joking and friendly hazing.
Tanan would often spend an afternoon with Constable Jelak, who in addition to being the King's representative in the village, was also his grandfather's best friend. Port Billen was so quiet that there wasn't much for a Constable to do, and Jelak had long ago taken up the hobby of butterfly collecting. Over his sixty or so years at Port Billen he had built up quite a collection and he enjoyed Tanan's interest in it. Tanan and Jelak would have lunch together and then spend a few hours hunting and preserving butterflies from the woods and beaches around the village. Tanan was building a nice collection of his own, and Jelak adored the boy.
His favorite place in the village, however, was at the Port Billen Abbey spending time with Abbot Sweelin. Sweelin had been a resident of Port Billen since a couple of years after Tanan's arrival. He took over the Abbey when Soama transferred to a secluded mountain Abbey a day's walk from Port Billen.
Sweelin was tall and physically imposing, but soft-spoken and polite. Unlike Soama, who was an outgoing and involved member of the community, Sweelin was more introverted and content to spend his days in the Abbey library. Not only was Sweelin a voracious reader, but he spent hours each day sitting at his desk in the library making copies of books. Tanan spent countless days in the library of the Port Billen Abbey with Sweelin, reading anything Sweelin would give him access to. Sweelin enjoyed having Tanan around not only because the boy loved books, but because Tanan had a knack for bringing Sweelin a hot cup of tea just when he needed it.
One evening after dinner, Lindelin asked Tanan to join him in the small garden behind their house. Tanan followed his grandfather outside and sat cross legged on the ground.
"Tell me what you know about magic," said Lindelin.
Tanan thought about the question before answering. "I know that it comes from the songs that people sing in their heads, and there are different kinds of magic, and most people can't do it."
"Very good," said Lindelin. "The ability to perform magic requires a disciplined mind. To be able to focus one's attention in the way required to do magic is an uncommon ability. I think that you might have the kind of mental focus that it takes to perform magic. Would you like to try?"
To do magic like his father and grandfather was something Tanan was very interested in. But Tanan knew he was too young. Few people pursued magical training, and then only after they finished with regular school. Tanan was too young to think about magic.
Lindelin was amused with the look on Tanan's face. "You're thinking that you're too young to work magic, aren't you? That could be true, but I think we should find out for certain. Would you like to try?"
Tanan was very much willing.
"This is the most simple magic," said Lindelin, "and almost anyone who can do magic can do it. Sit quietly and try to calm your mind. Think about the sensation of cold. Imagine a ball of coldness in your stomach. For some people it helps to imagine a ball of white light in your stomach. When you think you have it, try to imagine that coldness traveling from your stomach to your right hand."
Lindelin leaned forward in his chair and touched Tanan lightly on the cheek. His hand was ice cold. "When you can touch your right hand to your left and feel the coolness, we will talk about this again."
"I bet I can learn this by tomorrow," said Tanan.
Lindelin couldn't help but smile. "I admire your confidence, but there is no hurry. Most students don't learn this until they are much older, and it often takes them months. Don't be disappointed if you can't learn this in a day."