Crossing the Wilderness

 

 

Part I

It had been a difficult birth, taking almost all of Sabina's telepathic healing skills and physical strength to save Bridie and her new baby. She leaned wearily against the door frame now, watching mother, father and son, feeling a deep seated ache in her skull that told her she had over stretched herself. She would have to rest for several days before she could do any healing again after the exertions of the past day and night, but just to see the expression on the faces of the new parents, it was worth it. Jakob, her fellow healer for their settlement area, would come up later and check on Bridie and the newborn for anything that she might have missed, or was too tired to see.

Bridie lifted an exhausted face to look at Abi, her eyes glowing with joy, her labour pains forgotten,

"Thank you, Healer." The words were simple, but a world of gratitude lay behind them and Abi managed a tired smile in response,

"He's a fine little boy, Bridie, a fighter."

"A tough little character," murmured Lachlan fondly, touching one large finger to the tiny fist that peeped out of the blanket.

"Do you have a name?" Abi asked curiously.

"We thought James," Lachlan glanced at his wife and saw her approval, "James Lachlan." Abi nodded,

"James Lachlan," she repeated, "and Cheya Bridget," she added, referring to the couple's daughter. "Where is Cheya?"

"In bed at this hour, I should think," Lachlan barely took his eyes off his new son, "she stayed up so late last night hoping to see this new one that she was worn out." Something tickled at the edge of Abi's overworked senses and she pushed herself into a more upright position.

"I'll go and wake her shall I?" she offered casually, "she'll want to see her new baby brother." Hearing an odd note in her voice, Lachlan looked at her more closely,

"No," he said slowly, rising to his feet, "I'll go. You must be tired too, healer." Abi smiled reassuringly at Bridie and followed Lachlan out of the door, only to collide with his chest a moment later.

"She's not there," he hissed softly, his face pale.

"Check the rest of the house," Abi instructed quickly, her mind coming up with a horrifyingly long list of things an active four-year-old could get into. "I'll look outside." Nodding tightly, Lachlan hurried to search the rest of the rooms. As Abi swung out of the front door she heard Bridie calling a query and hoped that she would have the sense to stay in bed.

"Cheya!" A quick scan of the area in front of the house showed no sign of the little girl. She made a circuit, but found no sign of Cheya. Lachlan met her at the door, his face drawn with worry and she shook her head.

"Nothing inside either. I've told Bridie to stay in bed and look after the baby."

"Is there anywhere that she would go? Somewhere that she isn't normally allowed, or that might attract her?" Lachlan ran a hand roughly over his face,

"I can't think of anywhere," he groaned. Abi rested her hand on his arm,

"Calm down, Lachlan," she murmured soothingly, despite her own growing fear, "you won't be of any use otherwise."

"Right. Right. Look, what if you were to go up the hill and I'll go down and look in the forest. She likes to climb, maybe she's scaled a tree and can't get down." Abi nodded and strode quickly up the slope, on which the house was built, scattering chickens in her rapid departure.

"Cheya!" Down the hill she heard Lachlan echo her cry, adding the news of her brother's birth as an enticement. She could see no sign of the girl at the top, though the view was extensive and she scrubbed a hand through her short hair in frustration. Pushing away her apprehension and the irritability that came with her tiredness, she concentrated on thinking logically.

As a healer she was sensitive to all kinds of injuries, often detecting an illness in someone before they did. If Cheya was not answering their calls because she was hurt she should be able to sense it. The ache in her head increased at the thought of what she was about to do, but she pushed it aside and carefully dropped the mental shields that she used to protect her mind, trying to relax and make herself receptive.

The tickle at the back of her mind that she had felt earlier developed into a full-fledged itch and, as Abi slowly moved down slope, a definite pull in one direction. She allowed her mind to direct her steps in this fashion until the sound of a stream could be heard. Cold fingers clutched at her insides and, abandoning her telepathic scan, Abi pushed swiftly through the bushes to the water's edge, stumbling in her haste to find Cheya. She gave a shout to alert Lachlan when she came across the little girl, face down in the stream.

Finding a reserve of strength she lifted the little figure from the water. Cheya's face was deathly white, her lips blue. She wasn't breathing.

"Cheya!" Panting, Lachlan erupted through the undergrowth. Abi held him back with an imperative gesture, and, taking a deep breath, established a healing link. At the back of her mind a panicked voice was informing her that she didn't have the energy for another healing, but she pushed it aside, all her concentration on the fading life force of the little girl.

She grabbed this fading light before it disappeared completely, buffering it with her own, wrapping herself into it until she and Cheya were linked, but far from the reality of the outside world. She felt the immense weight of her fatigue pulling her down, as did Cheya's mind.

No. Up. Out. Her training came to the fore as she faltered and she broke the link.

Sobbing, Abi dropped to the ground, instantly curling into a fetal ball against the agony in her head. She knew that she had succeeded, that Cheya was alive, safe. She also knew that she had gone too far. Her mind had protected itself automatically from the trauma she had inflicted, throwing up an impassable barrier after her retreat. She had burned out her talent and was left with the certain knowledge that she would never heal again.

 

Part II

"I'm sorry, Mr. Sinclair, but you have arallis." Kierney stared at the doctor in disbelieving silence. Despite the warnings, despite the dread, he had somehow managed to convince himself that his symptoms weren't that serious.

"Arallis," he repeated, his voice sounding odd through the roaring in his ears.

"Yes." The doctor briskly began to recite the results of the tests that proved his diagnosis, but Kierney didn't hear him. He watched the doctor's lips move; he saw the businesslike demeanor, he could feel the rough surface of the chair arm under his spasming fingers, but he could hear nothing. His world had stopped.

"Mr. Sinclair?" A tiny spark of worry broke through the doctor's bland features and Kierney blinked as the world resumed its turning.

"Yes?"

"Are you all right?" Kierney stared at him. What a stupid question. Of course he wasn't all right. He had just been given a death sentence. "Is there anyone I can call for you? Family, a friend?" Kierney shook his head as the pain sank deep inside allowing him to take control of the surface,

"I have no family."

"A friend, then?" The doctor sounded quietly desperate now and Kierney wondered what he must look like to finally destroy the brisk, impersonal man that had been dealing with him for the past few weeks.

"No," he replied absently, rising to his feet, "no one I want to call." He didn't want to see anyone just then. "Thank you, Doctor," he finished as he opened the door.

"Mr. Sinclair, wait, your prescription." Kierney took the proffered piece of paper and stared at it a little blankly. "We can only offer palliative care, painkillers and the like, for the headaches," the doctor continued awkwardly, his awareness of failure written all over his face now. Kierney thought that it made him look more human. "These are strongest we have, the dosage will be noted on the bottle."

"Thank you, Doctor," Kierney repeated. He was vaguely aware of the man following him as he left the small room and crossed through the reception area. He turned and gave him a smile that felt somehow stiff and unnatural and then left.

Outside, the air was still and cold, people hurried up and down the street as if everything was normal. Kierney watched them for a moment and then, picking a direction at random, he walked on. A bus drew to a stop and he boarded, flashing his season pass at the driver who gave him an odd look.

The seat was lumpy, but he barely felt it, his eye caught by an abused poster stuck to the window.

Why go to a Wilderness when Paradise is on your doorstep! It proclaimed boldly. Below, a picture of a desolate wasteland was neatly contrasted with blue seas, white beaches and waving trees.

Cheap fares! Call in now! First stop after the Sport's Centre. Kierney read the wording below and then the first line again.

"Wilderness," he mumbled, his gaze fastened on the bleak desert.

"Sir! End of the line, sir." The driver tugged at his sleeve and Kierney's attention was abruptly brought back to the present.

"But there are twelve stops before the terminus," he said vacantly. The driver shifted uneasily,

"Yes, sir," he agreed finally. Kierney glanced out of the window; the row of buses proving the driver's words. He shrugged, rose and exited the bus. Behind him, the driver swung off and shook his head to a colleague.

"Weird one, that one, Pete."

"What's up?" The driver shrugged and shook his head again,

"Did you see his eyes? Dead, I tell you, absolutely no one there. Weird."

Without conscious thought, Kierney caught three more buses and finally stepped off at an old stop just outside a practically abandoned village.

"Here," the woman driver, a little kinder than her previous colleagues and with only an empty vehicle to worry about, came after him, "there's nothing out here, son. You don't want to be out here, surely."

"I'm going to the Wilderness," Kierney told her. She looked startled,

"There's nothing there," she said, a frown knitting her brow, "people don't go to the Wilderness. Come on, get back on the bus, I'll take you back to the terminus shall I?"

"No, thank you." Manners were habitual and Kierney nodded to acknowledge her care, "I want somewhere to think." The woman opened her mouth and then seemed to think better of it.

"Well, there'll be another bus in a couple of hours," she said, handing over the responsibility with an air of relief. "Be sure you catch that one."

"Thank you," Kierney replied neutrally and waited until she had re-boarded and driven the bus away, a cloud of dust obscuring his vision. It took only a few steps before he was standing at the wire fence that marked the beginning of the Wilderness, the end of civilisation. He stared out across it.

He recalled a school trip from many years ago. Supposedly educational, but all it had done was bore him at the time. He heard a childish voice, one of his friends, asking the long-suffering teacher,

"Miss, what's on the other side?"

"Nothing," the reply had been snapped, the teacher hadn't wanted to be in charge of the trip, "nothing is on the other side, it's all like this. No one can walk in the Wilderness and live for long."

"But why not?"

"The ground is too rough for a sled, you can't carry enough water," the woman had explained, a little impatiently, "but there's nothing out there, nothing to find, so why bother?" He had based the requisite story after the trip on hidden, mysterious treasures and liberally sprinkled the landscape with skeletons. Now, he rather thought that the only skeletons were from old vehicles and furniture, pushed over the edge of the escarpment. A handy rubbish tip.

He climbed easily over the fence and then slithered down the slope on the other side. As he started to make his way over the uneven ground a little voice in the back of his head spoke chidingly of giving up, of suicide. He ignored it and walked on.

When night fell, he stopped where he stood, sat slowly on a rock and waited patiently for the stars to come out so he could continue. When the dim light of these eventually faded towards morning, he paused again, waiting until the sun had risen enough for him to walk on.

By the end of the second day, grazes adorned his hands and knees and his tongue felt glued to the top of his mouth. A wind had come up, throwing dust into the air and into his eyes until he could barely see. Still he walked, deaf and blind to everything except the pain inside. The little voice inside was heard with regularity. It spoke of cowardice, of weakness, of desperation, of returning, of a second opinion, of the worst thing of all. Of hope.

Kierney collapsed as the third day dawned and with a vast effort, managed to push himself onto his back.

He wanted to see the sky.

 

Part III

Abi adjusted the scarf she had tied around her nose and mouth and picked her way slowly down the edge of the windswept wilderness, her eyes searching for the elusive gray leaves of the hamii plant. The little plant almost vanished into the gray of the stone on which it grew, coated with the dust that blew in from the Zone a few feet beyond her.

With a sigh, she straightened again and eased the pain in her back. She probably had enough of the leaves for her dye, but she had wanted to gather more in case something went wrong with her concoction.

A flash of colour caught her eye as her gaze drifted over the Zone. She blinked and rubbed at them, trying to dislodge the speck of dust that had caused the it. Sure enough, when she looked again, the colour was gone. Shrugging, Abi moved to return home, but something tugged at her mind and her steps took her further into the Zone rather than towards her little cabin.

"Seeing things, just a mirage," she muttered, but the sentiment was half-hearted. She wasn't sure what it was, but for some reason she couldn't dismiss the ripple of colour from her mind.

"It's probably just a piece of cloth, caught on a sharp rock," she told herself, "or something in my eye. I'm seeing spots." Her words became firmer and her head took control of her heart, halting her progress.

Further. Go further. Abi froze before slowly looking round in the direction of the telepathic command. A large canine was gazing at her, it's brown eyes fixed unwaveringly on hers, it's blue roan coat silvered with the dust coming from the Zone. For several long moments Abi didn't move, then finally, she managed to move her feet so that she faced the Akichan.

The natives of the planet were reclusive and rarely showed themselves, preferring mostly to choose humans to act as spokespeople for them. Abi's dealings with the Akichans had been limited, since they preferred to keep to the southern forests, rather than the northern pastures where she had been born and brought up. She had been aware that those humans who lived further south had more interaction with the Akichans, but she had kept herself fairly isolated since she had moved here a year ago and hadn't even caught a distant glimpse of one. This one was very large, much more so than she was accustomed to and she realised that she was staring,

"Hello," she managed.

I am Kaveran. He greeted her briefly; you must go further, Healer. Abi opened her mouth to protest the title, but the Akichan continued, he is a little way ahead.

"He?" she asked blankly.

Yes, the one that you are seeking.

"I saw a ... it was just dust in my eyes."

No, Healer, step on, find him. There was a brief pause and Abi had the odd impression that his eyes softened kindly, he needs you, Healer. She took a deep breath. Best to end any false impressions now,

"I'm not a healer," she said, though her voice wavered as her heart stumbled over the pain of the words, "not any more." Kaveran watched her silently for a time.

As you say, he allowed finally, still, he needs you. Without another word, he crossed in front of her, paused briefly to look over his shoulder and then continued. Abi hesitated for a moment and then, releasing a shuddering breath, followed.

"Ah sha," she breathed in horror as they came across the man. Her tender heart ached at the state he was in and she dropped onto her knees next to him, her hand reaching to push his hair away from the cut on his forehead. The Akichan pressed forward, leaning against her, startling Abi with the feel of his soft fur on her bare hands and the warmth of his body against her side.

Help him, Sabina. He needs the comfort of a kindly touch, to be cared for. Abi opened her mouth to ask how he knew her name, but he preempted her,

Your surface thoughts are transparent, Kaveran said, amusement lacing his words, when you deny what you are, your name comes to the surface. Abi stared at him, wondering at how easy it was to feel the emotions he projected, how he could read her mind when her thoughts were so scrambled to herself. Kaveran touched her cheek lightly with his nose, making her jump at its cold dampness.

I read only what is on the surface. Our Code allows us to go no deeper without permission. Your head is busy, he added, definite laughter colouring his words. Abi's lips responded to his amusement, curving unconsciously.

"I won't be able to carry him on my own, he's too heavy," she pointed out practically.

I shall summon aide. Will you help him, Sabina? Abi looked back down at the broken man and realised that her hand had never left his head, that she had caressed most of the dust from his hair. It was a light brown, golden highlights gleaming when the sun shone through the clouds. The healing instincts that she had been suppressing for over a year sprang to the fore and she nodded, knowing that her aide had never been in doubt.

"Yes, Kaveran, I will help him."

 

Part IV

The aide that Kaveran summoned was not a group of men from the nearby human settlement, as Abi expected, but three other Akichans and a woman. Abi watched them approach, noting the different sizes and colouring of the Akichans, as varied as humans in appearance.

"You are Sabina," the woman smiled a tentative greeting, her curiosity equally divided between Abi and the stranger on the ground. Abi rose to her feet,

"Abi, yes," she replied, quickly giving her preferred name, conscious of a little shyness under the scrutiny of five pairs of eyes.

"I am Sheya," the woman informed her, and Abi heard echoes of Kaveran's greeting in its simplicity and directness. "I am the Speaker for the Akichan tribe in this area. Kalix," she gestured at an Akichan that was nearly black in colour, only a white patch on the top of his head lightening the dark hue, "is my companion. We walk together." Abi was silent, not knowing quite what to say in response.

I have brought aide. Kaveran rescued her, we shall take him to your home.

"My home?" Abi started, her gaze flickering between him and Sheya.

He needs your care, Healer. Sheya's eyebrows rose at these words,

"You're a Healer?"

"No!" Realising that her tone was excessively emphatic, Abi repeated quieter, "no, not anymore."

"Not anymore?" Sheya looked from her to Kaveran in confusion, "but Kaveran has said that you..."

"I'm not," Abi interrupted her firmly, "I'm not a healer anymore." She couldn't keep her voice completely steady, despite her best efforts and Sheya's frown deepened, but to Abi's relief she just nodded,

"I see. Then, Kaveran, perhaps we should take her into the village. Merrin should probably take a look at him."

Merrin is not a healer. We will take him to Sabina's home. Sheya glanced at Abi apologetically, but directed her words to the large Akichan,

"Kaveran, if she isn't a healer..."

We will take him to Sabina's home. Even Abi, unused as she was to the Akichan telepathic mode of communicating, could detect the note of utter finality in Kaveran's mental voice. Sheya had taken a step back at the forceful message and shot a quick look to where Kalix was sitting. Abi watched them, certain that something passed between them even though she heard nothing, because in the next moment Sheya nodded,

"Very well, as you wish." The four Akichans positioned themselves, two at the head, two at the feet and Abi felt her jaw drop as the man slowly lifted into the air.

"Amazing, isn't it," murmured Sheya. Abi felt that to be a masterly understatement.

"How do they do it?" she asked, lowering her voice in awe.

"Telekinesis. Power of the mind." Abi felt Sheya's eyes on her, though she couldn't drag her own from the sight of the man floating free in the air between the four Akichans. "I've lived with the Akichans since I was six years old and I've only ever seen them do this once before." How was she to respond to that?

"I'm honoured," she replied finally. It was the right thing to say, for Sheya's expression, when Abi managed to turn away from the Akichans, was approving.

"Do you know who he is? Why Kaveran is so insistent on taking him to your home?" Abi halted, surprised by the questions,

"No, I don't know him. I thought that you might, or at least, that Kaveran did." Sheya gestured her to keep moving,

"I've never seen him before and I know everyone for miles around." Abi frowned thoughtfully and noted,

"His clothes are odd. Different."

"Maybe..." Sheya trailed off, "no, silly idea. It isn't possible."

"What isn't? That he's from the other side of the Zone?" Abi's thoughts had been running along those lines ever since she and Kaveran had found the man, but Sheya shook her head,

"It isn't possible to cross the Zone. He wasn't even carrying any water," she stated conclusively.

"He'll be dehydrated if he did," murmured Abi to herself.

"Only if he is from the other side and I don't think for a moment that it's possible," Sheya said authoritatively.

Abi kept quiet, keeping her own opinions to herself, not wanting to antagonise the Speaker and, possibly through her, the Akichans. She may not be a healer anymore, and couldn't telepathically scan the stranger to discover the extent of his injuries, but she knew dehydration when she saw it. This man had been without water and probably food for several days, and why would anyone from this side of the Zone get themselves into such a state? There was no reason for anyone to enter it, nothing there for them to see or do or find. And why had Kaveran been so insistent that he be taken to her home, when he had never met her before? Who was this man that the Akichan was so interested in him, was there a reason or was it just altruism on his part?

The questions churned endlessly in Abi's mind, but after her last statement Sheya had stayed quiet, obviously feeling that the matter of the stranger's place of origin had been decided. She made no further reference to Kaveran's decision and Abi considered asking her about it, but the words that emerged from her mouth were rather different to the ones in her head,

"When Kaveran said that he would summon aide, I thought that he meant human help." Sheya made a soft noise of surprise,

"I hadn't thought of that," she mused, "normally it would be same species help. As I said, I've only ever seen them do this once before and that was on an injured Akichan." She shrugged easily before adding, "I'm sure Kaveran will tell us when he's ready." Abi hesitated before nodding in agreement as the Speaker clearly expected her to.

Maybe it was just her nature, or her much longer experience with the Akichans that enabled Sheya to accept the situation so calmly, but Abi was determined to ask her questions of Kaveran at the first opportunity.

 

Part V

The cabin that Abi called home barely merited such a label. It had two rooms. The bedroom, kitchen and living area in one and the bathroom in another. Abi had made it as comfortable as she could, using what little she had brought with her when she had left the northern pastures over a year before and what furniture the previous occupant had left behind. One of the latter items was a very large double bed, set just inside the room on the left-hand side, raised, for some indefinable reason, on a wooden platform. Abi had fallen down and tripped up the little step several times before finally creating a barrier at the edge.

The Akichans floated the man over the bed and then held him there. Abi swiftly moved to pull back the quilted cover, deftly spreading a blanket under his booted feet before he was gently lowered onto the mattress. Turning to the Akichans she nodded gratefully,

"Thank you for your help."

It was our pleasure to aid you, Healer. One of the two unnamed Akichans spoke, though Abi couldn't detect which. She bit back her automatic response to the title, pushing down the pain his words caused.

Speaker, Kaveran addressed Sheya, his tone formal, you will talk of this matter to no one. I shall speak to Ronan. This command was evidently unusual, for Sheya's consternation was evident on her face,

"Not inform the human leader?" she asked shocked, "but why, Kaveran? Who is this man? Why are you taking such a personal interest in him?"

I shall answer your questions later, Speaker, Kaveran replied, his voice stiff, your help has been gratefully received. An unmistakable dismissal. Sheya opened her mouth to argue the matter further and then shut it again.

"Very well. It was nice to meet you, Abi, I hope I see you again soon," she finished meaningfully. Abi felt amusement twitch at her lips and maintained a grave expression with difficulty,

"Thank you, Speaker, I should like that."

"Call me Sheya. Later, Kaveran?"

Indeed, Speaker. Sheya trailed the three Akichans out of the room and Abi watched them go, a polite smile on her lips. She closed the door after them and turned to Kaveran.

"I think that he has crossed the Zone," she began without preamble, "and he will be badly dehydrated. He really does need to see a healer."

You accept his origin without difficulty, Sabina? Abi frowned,

"Should I not?"

Many would be... prejudiced against him. Abi was silent for a moment considering this, and then shook off her thoughts, moving towards the kitchen area to gather some supplies to deal with the man's hurts.

"Even if I were, I would still give him the best possible care."

Which is one reason that I have had him brought here. It is regrettable that Keefer had to inform Kalix and through him, Sheya, but it appears that she has convinced herself that he could not possibly be from across the Zone, so I hope to keep the knowledge quiet for the moment.

"Is he in danger?" Her hands full with a bowl of water, soft cloths for bandages and a pot of salve, Abi suddenly realised exactly who she was talking to so easily. She felt Kaveran's amusement at the abrupt change in direction of her thoughts, but he made no reference to it,

Not with my protection. Abi laid the supplies on the little table she had positioned by the bed. Kaveran was obviously used to command and obedience. She wondered what position he held in the Akichan tribe.

I am Leader.

"Do you read my every thought?" Abi asked, chagrinned.

You think everything on the surface, Sabina. You are not used to our companionship, are you?

"No, not really. I think that I've only spoken with two Akichans in my whole life, and then only very briefly." She began to undo the layers of clothing the man was wearing.

You are from the northern plains, the tribes are sparse in that region. We prefer the forested lands. You are a healer, Sabina, you have only to guard your mind as you would in a link.

"I was a healer," Abi murmured under her breath. A cold, damp nose made her jump as it pressed against her hand. He had padded, silent footed up to her side and she hadn't even noticed.

You will always be a healer, Sabina. Have faith in yourself. Abi bit back the immediate denial and was silent; the conversation was too painful. At least with the information Kaveran had given her she could try and hide her thoughts from the sharp telepathic ears of the Akichan. Gritting her teeth against the expected agony, her hands stilling in their work, she pulled up barriers that had lain dormant since she had linked with Cheya. The ache that came though, was more from the memory of the past than the physical throbbing that she expected. She had no chance to examine this change in her abilities however, the man's injuries demanding her whole attention.

Very good. You remember. She realised that Kaveran was referring to her successful raising of her mental shields, but grimly ignored him, pushing aside all other thoughts except those needed to care for this man.

 

Part VI

He couldn't be dead. He hurt too much to be dead.

Kierney forced his eyes open and found himself staring at a ceiling. He frowned and then shut his eyes with a wince as the ache in his head made itself felt with a blinding stab behind his temples. So, it had begun then and he had walked out of the doctor's surgery with none of the painkillers offered to him. Fool.

A cool hand pressed lightly against his forehead and he turned his head instinctively in the direction of this comfort when it was lifted away, seeking the slight relief the touch had given him.

"You're awake then." A woman's voice, soft and clear. He opened his eyes halfway, peering through his lashes rather than risking another stab of the torturous pain. He had a brief impression of grave brown eyes and short dark hair. Unremarkable features. He quickly shut his eyes again and fervently wished for the painkillers he had left behind.

"Hurting? Here, drink this, it will help." She slipped a hand beneath his head, lifting it slightly and pressed a cup against his lips. She tipped the liquid in quickly and he had taken several swallows before he tasted the bitterness of it and choked on the rest.

"Sorry," she murmured, though he had the impression that she had known exactly what she was doing. His mouth was wiped and she lowered his head back down against the pillows.

"Where?" he gasped out, even as he drifted back into sleep, the pain fading into the distance with the light.

"Safe," he heard her say, "sleep now, you're safe." But safe where?

When he woke again the light that had filled the room was gone, though it wasn't quite dark. The pain was also still held at bay and he wondered what had been in the bitter liquid that it was so effective. Or had she fed him some more and he couldn't remember. Was memory loss part of arallis? His mind twisted away from this possibility and he concentrated on examining the ceiling again. He had enough troubles without thinking about what had gone before.

The ceiling was made of rough, wooden beams. Kierney stared at it as this slowly sank in. All the houses he knew were made of brick and plaster, not wood. Where was he? Certainly not in a hospital. Carefully, he turned his head to take in more of his surroundings. The hut, for no one could call it anything more and call themselves truthful, was tiny. His living room in the house he had left behind was larger. A slender figure caught his attention and, through the railing that isolated the area around the bed from the rest of the room, he examined her. This, then, must be his nurse.

She was sat at a table which was positioned between a grouping of soft padded chairs and the kitchen, her hands curled around a cup, her profile lit from the window to her right. She sat perfectly still, no twitching or fidgeting, apparently lost in her thoughts. For several minutes, Kierney allowed himself to just watch her, appreciating the peacefulness she projected. It had been a long time since he'd had the opportunity to just sit and reflect. His life had become so madly hectic, from the constant tests and hospital visits and from his own desire to escape his thoughts. He hadn't realised how much he had missed having a period to just allow his mind to quietly drift.

As if aware that she was being observed, she turned her head. A slow smile curved her lips when she saw that he was awake and Kierney felt his breath catch in his chest at the transformation this wrought over her features. The angles of her face softened and her eyes kindled with an inner warmth. Such a simple gesture, yet it changed everything about her. How could he have found her unremarkable?

Unhurriedly, she took another sip from her cup and then made her way over to him. No, there was definitely something special about this woman, he decided, admiring her feminine grace. She projected an air of quiet confidence that he found reassuring. It was a quality he had noticed in the very best of the doctors at the hospital and something inside him relaxed at the thought. She seated herself on the edge of his bed,

"How do you feel?" Kierney considered this for a moment, before admitting,

"I don't know."

"Any pain?"

"No, no pain." That at least he could be grateful for. "Are you a doctor?" For some reason this caused her eyes to shutter and he felt instantly closed out. He reached for her, finding that he wanted to erase that expression and then his hand dropped as he remembered that he didn't even know her.

"No," she replied, her voice quiet, an underlying pain not quite hidden in her tone, "I'm not a healer." Her choice of words distracted him from his reflection on what had caused her to sadden.

"Healer?" Her eyes met his evenly as she nodded.

"On this side of the Zone, we call them healers."

"Zone?" he whispered in confusion, "I don't..." he trailed away and a new voice entered their conversation, it's tone subtly different, though Kaveran couldn't immediately work out why,

The barren wastelands where we found you, the voice explained, we call it the Zone. Kierney watched the woman blink, as if as surprised by the interruption of this new voice as he was.

"Kaveran..." she started.

The door was open, I hope you do not mind. I came to see how he was. Awake, clearly. The woman took a breath,

"No, I don't mind. Sir," Kierney glanced at her and then followed the direction of her hand as she gestured, "may I introduce Kaveran, Leader of the local tribe." Kierney stared.

"An Akichan native," he breathed. He had seen pictures in ancient records, had read books, both fact and fiction, but he had never dreamed... "I thought that they were..."

Extinct? There was definite amusement in that single word, shocking Kierney both with his ability to recognise it and to hear such a human emotion in another, alien being. On your side of the Zone perhaps, but not here. We have left the humans on your side to live their own lives. You are welcome to what you have. It was a carefully worded speech, designed to insult no one and wash away any guilt that Kierney might have felt. The ache in his head was returning and he felt suddenly very tired.

Will you give us your name, Searcher?

"Kierney," he replied.

Kierney. You are most welcome here. Kierney flicked a look at the woman and found her watching him with concern.

"My name is Sabina," she told him, "though I prefer to be called Abi. You should try and get more rest, Kierney." More rest. A sudden fear gripped at him and he shook his head, fighting off the exhaustion,

"No, I'm fine, I don't need to sleep." Her brown eyes softened and she touched his hand lightly,

"It's all right," she said, deep understanding in her voice, "you will wake up. The progression of your disease is not far enough along yet for that to worry you. You are just very tired from walking all the way across the Zone, and dehydrated as well."

"You know?" She smiled,

"That you have arallis? Yes. The symptoms... well, they're easily recognisable." He shook his head, finding it hard to take this in. He had spent innumerable weeks going through tests to determine what was wrong with him and she identified it without even being a doctor?

It seems that humans on the other side of the Zone have forgotten much, Kaveran noted. He turned his head towards the Akichan,

"I don't understand," he said wearily, "it makes no sense."

"Not now, no," Abi told him calmly, her poise back in place after her earlier distress, "but it will. Later, when you're feeling better, more rested." He tried to fight off the blackness that close in around the edges of his vision, but failed.

"It's all right, Kierney," he heard Abi say. He thought that he felt her hand, gentle on his forehead as he slipped into unconsciousness, but couldn't be sure.

 

Part VII

There was such confusion and distress in Kierney's gray eyes that Abi couldn't stop herself from comforting him, trying to relieve his worry with words of reassurance and a gentle hand. She sat beside him until she was sure that he had fallen asleep, a wry smile twisting her lips. It seemed that Kaveran was right, she always would be, at heart, a healer.

She brushed her hand over Kierney's hair, feeling the softness of the short strands under her fingers. It was shorter than the local men kept it, though that couldn't quite explain away her need to touch him, to provide such a personal comfort. Had she lost all her objectivity in the past year? Or was it because this was the first sick person she had come across in that time and her natural empathy was rushing to the fore?

She recalled the admiring look in Kierney's eyes when she had approached him, something she had barely noticed earlier in her endeavour to make him comfortable, and felt her cheeks colour.

He sleeps? Grateful for this distraction from her thoughts, Abi absently straightened the covers, smoothing them over the sleeping man before turning to face the Akichan. Now was her chance, she thought.

"Yes, he sleeps. Kaveran, I have many questions." He looked at her for a long moment before she was aware of an assent in her mind, more felt than spoken.

It is a fine evening, Sabina, come share it with me. She followed him outside and made herself comfortable on the stone step just outside the door. Kaveran lay down onto his stomach in front of her, but instead of starting straight away, Abi took the time to appreciate the beauty of her surroundings.

"It's lovely here," she murmured.

You like the forests? Prefer them to the plains? Abi considered this,

"Both have their own beauty," she allowed slowly, a little wary of where he was leading, "their own sights and sounds and smells."

Could you live here, Sabina? The question startled her,

"Live here? Why would you ask..." she trailed off, bewildered by the intensity of the look Kaveran was directing at her.

Could you live here, Sabina, he repeated, could you stay? We have no healer of our own in this territory. Abi shook her head, carefully ignoring his last reference.

"I'm not sure I understand exactly what you're asking. I already do live here." The Akichan heaved a sigh, his ears flattening slightly,

No. Your body resides here, but your heart was left behind in the north when you found you could no longer heal. Abi opened her mouth to deny it, but no words came. Kaveran finally broke the silence, you had questions? With difficulty, Abi broke out of her contemplation of his words,

"Yes. I... It..." Giving herself a mental shake, Abi began again, "you told me that one reason you had the stranger, Kierney, brought to my home was because I wasn't biased against his birthplace, but there are other reasons, aren't there?" He was silent for a long time and Abi fought the urge to jump in with more questions until she had received at least one answer.

There are. You have an acuteness of mind, Sabina. He sounded appreciative and Abi wasn't immune to the compliment, colour pinking her cheeks. She had been commended for her skills as a healer, admired for her lithe grace when she danced, but no one had ever praised her intelligence before.

"What reasons?" she requested, when Kaveran stayed quiet.

I should start by telling you that I have been watching you for some time now, Healer. Abi frowned. He never lost an opportunity to refer to her that way. It pained her, scraping a raw hurt that had never healed, until her insides ached from the misery.

"Please, stop calling me that," she almost snapped.

But it is what you are. Kaveran's mental voice was very gentle.

"No. Not anymore. Please, Kaveran, I don't want to have to think about it."

But you will need to.

"What do you mean?" Even as she asked, Abi thought that she knew the answer. "Kierney," she said flatly.

He needs the help of a healer.

"But I am not a healer anymore, Kaveran and I don't appreciate being manipulated. That is your other reason for bringing him here, isn't it. You hoped that I would heal him..." she trailed off, "but how could you know that he was sick? How did you know that I was a healer?"

As I said, I have been watching you. I knew you were a healer, even before you arrived. Akichans may prefer to live in the forests, but some tribes do make their home on the plains in the north. I was alerted by them of your departure and your recent history. Abi gazed at him in shock.

"I didn't even think they were aware of my existence."

On the contrary, your healing talent meant that all Akichans in your area could identify you on sight and smell. You are a precious and highly valued gift to any community you choose to live with, and a grave loss when you leave. It was my honour to personally watch over you. Abi felt her cheeks heat with an inner fire and pressed her hands to them,

"Oh," she said weakly.

Indeed. Kaveran's response was alive with kindly laughter.

"Then, the real reason you had him brought to my home..."

I did not know that he was sick, I thought only that he was ill from his time in the Zone and thought to... push you into at least remembering that you once were a healer. In my observations I saw that you had closed yourself off from that part of you.

"You must have been watching me very closely," Abi said weakly, trying to find the strength to be irritated at the idea. She couldn't, not in the face of his obvious concern.

Yes. For a long time you were shut off, physically and mentally from your surroundings and I thought it better not to approach you. The discovery of Kierney in the Zone gave me a valid reason to introduce myself. Abi turned this over in her mind, and a subtle loneliness inside her eased as she realised that, even without knowing it, someone had been watching her, concerned for her, ready to help her if she needed it.

You were never alone, Sabina, Kaveran interjected quietly.

"Thank you, Kaveran." She let the feelings of this new friendship wash over her, lightening and filling the dark empty spaces in her heart, before turning her mind again to her search for information.

"Then, you really don't know anything about Kierney, or why he was wandering in the Zone. It was just a coincidence that I was there when you saw him."

I have never met him before, this was not prearranged, Kaveran confirmed. As to his presence in the wasteland, I have many assumptions, but no facts. Abi nodded,

"Is he really in danger from the other humans because he is from across the Zone?"

Who can ever say for sure? Humans and Akichans have that much in common; an unpredictability of manner.

"Is that why you used Akichan aide to bring him back here? Why you told Sheya not to inform Ronan of his presence?"

Told, Kaveran's voice rippled with mirth, yes, I believe I did command. I needed to impress silence on her. Also, I was displeased that she insisted on accompanying me. He shot Abi a glance, sometimes it is good to remind the Speaker that her importance is less than she thinks, and yes, I used Akichan skills in an effort to keep the knowledge of his presence quiet for the moment. Abi smiled, though she noted once again the easy arrogance about the Akichan leader. Habit of command. Sheya had something similar, but without possessing the wisdom and experience that came with age, to carry it off as effortlessly as Kaveran did.

"Do you think that Ronan will resent his presence?" she pursued.

Ronan, no, others, perhaps. I was being cautious merely. With our approval though, people will not dare to speak against him, indeed, he would probably be welcomed. The object of much curiosity and interest.

"But we know nothing about him, Kaveran. He might be a criminal..."

He is not a bad man, Sabina, that much I can tell you. His heart is as clean as that of the next man.

"On the basis of this you would speak up for him?" Kaveran considered this, his head cocking to one side,

A valid point, but at the moment not one I can answer. We shall wait until we know him better. Abi found the sentiment oddly disquieting considering that the stranger was in her bed, but said nothing more on the subject, mainly because she couldn't think what to add.

"When are you going to tell Ronan that he's here?"

Not tonight. He will immediately want to come and see you both. Tomorrow maybe, or the day after. Abi was grateful for this brief reprieve. Upon her arrival in the south, she'd had to go and see the village elder and gain his permission to stay. A courtesy more than anything else, but she'd also had to tell him her reasons and ever since he had been treating her as if she would expire at one harsh word. Eventually she had started to avoid him, meeting him only when necessary. Thankfully the rest of the village, though they must know by now what she had once been, were more natural in their manner towards her.

"Kaveran," one last question remained at the front of Abi's mind, "why did you call him ‘Searcher'?" Kaveran rose to his feet and shook himself vigorously,

Because at the moment, that is what he is. Just as you are a healer, he is a searcher. I felt it clearly.

"Searching for what?"

You shall have to ask him. He dipped his head in a very human gesture of acknowledgement and Abi watched him pad silently away into the forest, his roan shadowed coat acting as an effective camouflage in the twilight. It was only as she rose to her feet that she realised that once more, he had referred to her as a healer.

"He always does that," she muttered to herself, and then sighed wistfully, her next words barely more than a breath of air, "I only wish it were true."

 

Part VIII

Abi scrubbed wearily at her eyes, trying to cool the hot lids with her fingers. The previous night had been a bad one, Kierney's fever raging into a delirium that not even the fevermoss could control and even though she had eventually managed to lower his temperature with cold sponge baths, his lack of rest was showing in an increase of the headaches and crippling muscle pains that were the main symptoms of arallis.

"Abi?" His voice little more than a gasp, Kierney tossed against the restraining weight of the covers and she hastily moved to stop him from throwing them off completely.

"Easy, Kierney, lie still."

"Hot... so hot," he pushed against her hands, moaning softly. She hushed him, picking up the cloth from the little table and wiping it over his face. He turned his head into the cool fabric.

"Go to sleep," she urged gently, squeezing out the cloth in the water and applying it again. She had already given him twice the maximum dose of the painkilling herb mixture, but he was still fighting against the encroaching darkness. "Close your eyes," she murmured, moving the folded cloth down his face so that he had to obey. "I'm here, Kierney, it's all right, go to sleep." She felt him lose the battle, but continued to wipe the cool, damp cloth over his face until his breathing evened.

"Sabina?" She turned and blinked a little blearily at the figure standing in the doorway.

"Ronan," she rose to her feet.

"I knocked," he gestured at the open door, "but you didn't hear." Abi glanced at Kierney, giving one last tug at the cover to make sure he wouldn't throw it off and beckoned the leader to follow her outside, pulling the door to behind her.

"He's only just gone back to sleep," she explained, "I don't to wake him. He's had a bad night."

"And you," Ronan eyed her with concern, "you look tired as well. Perhaps it would have been better if he had been brought to the village." Abi shook her head,

"No, that won't be necessary. Besides, he isn't well enough to move just yet."

"Then maybe I should send Merrin up to help you. At least during the day, so you could get some rest." Abi prudently didn't point out that she only had the one bed,

"There's no need," she repeated calmly, though her heart suddenly beat a little faster at the though of Kierney being taken from her care. Healer's instinct, or something else? She pushed the thought aside and gestured for Ronan to sit on the step, lowering herself onto the grass to one side. He was frowning,

"If you're sure... I don't want you to overburden yourself." Abi shook her head,

"I'm fine," she replied firmly. He hesitated a moment longer before nodding, and though she could appreciate his obvious consideration for her health it irritated her that he treated her so carefully, refusing to continue the conversation when he obviously wanted to reason with her further. She knew by the respect he evoked from the people in this area, human and Akichan, that he must have a strength of mind and character, it was just a pity he felt and acted so uncomfortably around her.

"Kaveran came and spoke to me last night, informing me of his arrival," a quick glance told Abi that he hadn't been pleased at this delay, but his voice was calm, "he could tell me very little about him, however. Have you learned any more?"

"Very little," Abi admitted, "I know his name, that he is from across the Zone and that he is suffering from arallis."

"Yes, Kaveran mentioned that." There was an uneasy pause, "can you help him?" Abi caught at an in drawn breath as her stomach roiled. It took her a moment to regain her composure sufficiently to offer a reply,

"I can treat his dehydration," she said, her voice unsteady despite her best efforts to control it, "but not the arallis." Abi blessed the years of training as a healer that enabled her to meet Ronan's eye now, even through the grief and feelings of loss his comment had brought so quickly to the surface.

"I see. Kaveran seemed to think that he was a good man, at least, not a criminal." The subject change was awkwardly done, but Abi didn't mind.

"Until he is more coherent, we won't be able to find out anything more."

"You don't know whether he intends to stay here, or go back?"

"He's very ill, Ronan. It's unlikely he would survive another journey into the Zone. As it is, with the effects of the dehydration and his exhaustion from the walk..." she trailed away, "I was thinking that maybe Jakob might be able to help him," she finished abruptly, changing the track of her thoughts. Ronan was silent as he thought this over,

"Could he help him?" Abi shrugged wordlessly, finding herself unable to answer. Ronan got to his feet, "if he can, then... tell Kierney he is welcome to stay if he so chooses. The journey back across the Zone is a risky one. He should have the choice if he wants it." Abi looked up in surprise,

"That's very generous, Ronan." The leader gave her a wry smile, the first indication of a sense of humour she had seen in him,

"Did you think I would have him whipped and carried back into the wasteland?"

"No," she rose to stand in front of him, "but I didn't think you would welcome him so quickly."

"He will stand or fall on his own merits, as we all do. Since you have taken charge of his well being, Sabina, perhaps you could instruct him in our ways if... if it becomes necessary." Abi thanked him and watched the leader stride off, a thoughtful expression on her face. Perhaps she shouldn't have been so quick in her decision to avoid him. Kierney's presence had given her the opportunity to see the leader in a better light, and to have the benefit of his wisdom.

She slowly went back into the cabin and sat on her side of the bed. Neither Kaveran nor Ronan had picked up on her diagnosis of the arallis. She supposed it was only to be expected that an Akichan wouldn't be familiar with a human disease, and, since it was a rare ailment now, the leader would have had very little knowledge of it also.

Only Kierney had seemed confused by her quick explanation, but then, she had heard that on the other side of the Zone the telepathic healing skills had been lost, so there must be no easy way for their doctors to explain why he was experiencing so much pain, no healing scan to ascertain the cause of his suffering. Certainly none of the easily recognisable symptoms that she had so glibly claimed to exist.

She had telepathically scanned and diagnosed him. The thought both thrilled and terrified her, hope and dread rising in equal quantities. Could she be recovering her healing skills? She had, after all, managed to raise her mental shields against Kaveran's listening mind and felt no pain. The barrier was still there, she was aware of its presence, but maybe she could break through it now. If she could, then she might be able to cure Kierney as well.

Abi glanced behind her, Kierney was sleeping and probably would for a little while. Now was the best time to try to destroy the barrier. She sat motionless for long minutes, rubbing her hands on her thighs as she felt a cold sweat break out all over her body. She felt torn between her fear of what might happen if she tried and the genuine desire to cure Kierney and bring an end to his suffering.

Lying back against the pillows she stared at the ceiling, acutely conscious of the warm body next to her. She turned her head to look at Kierney, noting the lines of strain around his mouth and eyes and the frown lines that marred his brow as he fought his internal battle with the arallis. She would try.

The barrier was in front of her immediately, a sheer wall that despite its lack of colour managed to convey a sense of solidity and permanence. She could feel her courage failing, the world outside tugging her back to safety and quickly thrust against the blockade before she gave in to her fear and retreated.

White-hot agony sliced through her as her own mind struck back against her assault, battering at her as she frantically tried to retreat. Her sanity began to crack, her escape disappearing as reality shattered around her. She was going to be trapped in this inner existence, neither in her own mind nor part of the world outside.

She lunged desperately after the vanishing light of her way out, grasping at it and relief washed over her as she felt the soft material of the pillow under her cheek, as her senses returned. Her head was pounding nauseously, her entire body shaking.

She couldn't break past the barrier. She wouldn't be able to help Kierney.

 

Part IX

Kierney fiddled with a piece of grass and tried to put the events of the past few days into some sort of order.

The doctor had told him that he had arallis. He had walked for two days and two nights through the Wilderness and collapsed at the dawn of the third, leaving him with a vague memory of a spectacular sunrise.

That had been five days ago and he had woken to find himself on the other side of the Wilderness, or Zone as the people here called it. That in itself was a little difficult to take in. He had lived all his life with the idea that there was nothing beyond the Wilderness. For all he knew, the world could have just dropped away or continued as a barren wasteland on into infinity. Instead, there was this green and beautiful paradise.

Breaking off from his inner musings, Kierney looked around him, finding a constant pleasure in the sights, sounds and smells of the forest. Abi's cabin was set a little way off from the rest of the village, in a tiny clearing that was mostly house and garden, but if he listened, he could hear the hum of activity that came from the direction of the human settlement.

Abi's cabin. He didn't think that he would be able to stay here much longer. The place was too small for two people to live in, or rather, for two people to sleep in one bed. Especially when one of those people was finding himself increasingly attracted to the other.

"You've gone twenty eight years without noticeably falling in love, and then you go and do it when you have a bare few weeks or months to live?" He leaned back against the closed door behind him, aware that Abi was at work in the kitchen behind him, considering his words and the feelings they evoked. Was he in love? He wasn't sure, not absolutely, but it felt close enough. Yes, he would definitely have to leave soon.

Abi had told him that the first time he had woken had been in the mid-afternoon of that same third day, after having been carried to her home late during the morning. The second time, when he had met his first Akichan, had been early evening. Today was day six and he had spent the most of the previous two alternately sleeping, drinking water to re-hydrate his system and choking down the vile herbal infusion that killed his pain so effectively.

Greetings, Searcher. It is good that you are up and awake. It is a fine day. Kaveran interrupted his contemplation with a cheerful greeting. Kierney gave him a small smile,

"Yes, it is a beautiful day," he agreed. He was conscious of the Akichan's gaze and realised that his tone had been rather flat. He sighed softly and tried for a wider smile, but couldn't find it. His depression may have abated, but it still lurked in the background, sometimes overwhelming him with darkness and misery and even when it stayed back, he could do no more than return a faint copy of the smiles that Abi bestowed on him, or raise his voice to the enthusiastic level that Kaveran did.

I think that it is time you spoke with the Healer, Searcher. Kierney eyed him curiously,

"Why do you call me ‘Searcher'?" he queried, in an unconscious imitation of Abi's question a few days previously.

Is that not what you are?

"Searching for what?"

That is a question that you must answer yourself. You have walked a long way, it would be a sad thing if you did not know why you have come here. Kierney said nothing for a moment,

"I didn't intentionally set out to come here," he said finally.

No. You sought oblivion. You and the healer have much in common. You both have thought to leave your past behind and yet, cannot. Kierney eyed the Akichan. Abi had told him a simple way to guard his private thoughts from the sharp mental powers of the native people, but this didn't seem to inconvenience Kaveran at all. Sometimes he could be too discerning, his judgement of a situation piercingly astute. Kierney supposed it was a good trait for a leader of a people to have, but it was discomforting to have it directed solely at him.

"Why do you keep calling her ‘Healer'? She told me that she wasn't one anymore." He tried to distract the Akichan from the uncomfortable delving into his past actions.

Sabina is a healer, though she has yet to allow herself to believe it. Kierney rubbed at his temples which were beginning to ache again. It had become something of a regular occurrence; whenever he became frustrated or confused the symptoms of the arallis rose to the forefront, and here, across the Wilderness, the emotions seem to rise more often, the headaches coming with greater severity. The disease was progressing.

"Is that how she managed to diagnose my symptoms so accurately?" Kaveran hesitated, his ears flattening in what Kierney had come to think of as a negative,

I do not know. When I asked, she would admit to nothing. At least someone was managing to keep secrets, Kierney thought. You must ask her.

"Me? But why should I intrude on her private life? Isn't it enough that she's shared her home with me these past few days, nursed me back to...well, a level of health?"

Ah. I begin to understand now. It seems that humans on the other side of the Zone really have forgotten much.

"Well I don't understand," Kierney snapped abruptly, the pain rising to a crescendo in his head. His fists clenched until his arms shook with the force of his grip as he fought against the crippling effects of the arallis and the effort not to scream.

"Kierney, open your mouth." A cup bumped insistently against his lips, a familiar voice cutting through the agony. A hand was stroking at his spasming jaw muscles and with an enormous effort, he relaxed his tightly clamped lips to drink the concoction in the cup that Abi held.

"That was close," she noted quietly, when he finally began to relax again. He felt her blot at the cold sweat that broken out on his face. "I'm sorry," she added, apology and guilt mixed in even quantities in her voice, "I lost track of the time."

"Not your fault," he rasped, grimacing against the bitterness that still remained in his mouth, "I'm perfectly capable of looking after myself." He heard her sigh softly and opened his mouth obediently at her command as she gave him a sweet mint to take away the taste.

Sabina Kierney opened his eyes at Kaveran's imperative tone. You must tell Kierney about the healers. It seems that they have forgotten the talent on the other side. Kierney flicked a glance at Abi and saw that she had paled. It seemed that any reference to any sort of illness or healing caused her this unease.

"Yes," he added, recalling her earlier made promise, "you said that it would make sense later on. Tell me, please." Abi slowly adjusted her position until she was sitting comfortably. Kierney recognised a delaying tactic when he saw one, but waited patiently.

"On this side of the Zone," she began, picking her words with obvious care, "healing is done by the power of the mind. A few individuals have this gift, enabling them to cure disease, treat wounds and restore health."

"By the power of the mind," Kierney repeated doubtfully.

Watch. Kierney obediently turned to look at Kaveran and felt his eyebrows shoot up as, before him, a small pebble rose into the air free of any contact. A quick glance at Abi showed that she was watching as intently as he was as another pebble and then a third also rose. The piece of grass that he had been twisting and knotting rose from his slack fingers where it had been resting unnoticed and joined in this airy dance. Power of the mind, Kaveran said, as the pebbles and grass dropped back onto the ground. Unable to stop himself, Kierney reached out and picked up one of the pebbles, rolling it around his hand.

"Telekinesis," he murmured, "amazing. Can you do that?" He turned to Abi. She shook her head,

"No."

"Then, how do you heal?"

"I can't explain it. I just... do. Or did."

The mind is a powerful force with many mysteries, Kaveran added. Kierney eyed him, bridling a little at the patronising tone and felt a ripple of amusement from the Akichan. I speak only the truth.

"But how do you learn to do something like that in the first place?" He asked, deciding to ignore Kaveran's words.

"By example," Abi's shoulders slumped and she didn't raise her eyes from the ground as she answered. "A new healer is taught by another."

"Then who was the first?"

"I don't know. The records don't give a name."

Sometimes, people just know how to do something without having to be trained. Perhaps this is how we were given our first healer. Even now, each healer is unique, each has different talents within their gift and they discover this through practise, through use and sometimes, just through chance. Power of the mind.

"What does this have to do with me?" Abi rubbed the bridge of her nose before replying, a troubled gesture, showing her discomfort with the conversation.

"Arallis is an ancient disease. There are many notations of its occurrence in the records of our people. We still have isolated cases on this side of the Zone, though we have worked hard to eradicate it. Evidently it is still known on your side also."

"Barely," Kierney said flatly, "it took weeks of tests before they knew what was wrong with me." Abi looked up,

"Then, it's as rare on your side as ours."

"So it would seem," he responded somberly, "but that still doesn't explain how you diagnosed it in me so quickly. I was under the impression that no physical symptoms were visible until... the end. You told me that they were easily recognisable, but there's nothing there to see, not yet." He challenged her and a part of him noted how she lifted her chin in a defiant response to his tone.

You scanned him! Kaveran interposed, the delight behind his words easily heard. Abi jerked to her feet,

"That doesn't mean that I can heal him. Why can't you understand," she cried in distress, "I'm not a healer anymore!" She strode away around the side of the cabin and Kierney found himself frozen by the revelations,

"She could cure me," he whispered. He was instantly familiar with the sensation that flared within him and tried in vain to damp it down. Hope, however, was the stronger.

 

Part X

"Abi?" She shut her eyes at his approach, searching for control, calling on her training to present a calm face. She hated people to see her crying. He knelt in front of her. "Please," he said softly, "don't run away, Abi."

She loved the way her name sounded when he spoke it, forming the short syllables into something warm and tender, the way his eyes softened with something she couldn't yet name. Hastily she pushed aside this errant thought.

"I'm not a healer anymore, Kierney. Don't ask me, please."

"But I must," he insisted gently, "you're my only..."

"No!" She raised her hands to ward off his words, but he voiced them anyway, catching hold of her hands and gripping them in his.

"You're my only hope."

"I'm not your only hope," she returned firmly, "there are other healers."

"But not here."

"Not here, no," she allowed, leaning wearily back against the tree she was sitting under, "but I know of someone five days journey to the north."

"Five days." She heard the flat discouragement in his voice, he was well aware of the limitations the arallis put upon him. The journey would be very difficult for him.

"I'm sure that Kaveran would send a messenger on ahead. Jakob could meet us halfway," she offered quickly.

"And could he heal me?" There was no hiding the longing in his voice, nor the trace of doubt and Abi sighed,

"I don't know. I don't even know if I could, supposing I still had the gift."

"I see." He released her wrists and sat back on his heels. "Kaveran told me what happened to you." Abi's head shot up,

"Did he." Her voice was toneless. He touched her hands where they had knotted themselves together in her lap, her white knuckles betraying that her composure was only surface deep. This light contact affected her far more deeply than when he had gripped her hands and her eyes shot to his.

"He was only trying to help."

"No," Abi retorted, "he was seeking to interfere. He constantly reminds me of what I was. Tries to tell me that I am still a healer. He thinks that if I just try, I can open it all up again and that all I'm lacking is sufficient motivation."

"Ah," Kierney nodded, "and that's where I come in."

"Yes."

"Why is it so important to him?"

"Because healers are very much honoured here, especially by the Akichans. I didn't realise how much until Kaveran told me. He said that we are," she felt her cheeks colour at the memory, "a precious and highly valued gift."

"If what you tell me of your abilities is true, I would have to agree."

"Thank you, but they're not my abilities any longer." She could maintain a calm front only by retreating in stiff civility. She just wished that he wasn't being so understanding. It was hard be formal in the face of his obvious compassion.

"Then how do you explain that you scanned me?" When she didn't reply he continued, "perhaps you are getting better."

"No," she whispered, "no, I'm not."

"How do you know?"

"Because after I realised that I had scanned and diagnosed you after your arrival, I tried to break past the barriers that my mind had thrown up as a safety. I couldn't move for several hours from the pain," she finished, her voice shaking. She bowed her head to hide the tears that burned in her eyes and his hands move to cover hers again, gently easing her intertwined fingers apart and folding them between his palms.

"But if you can now scan and diagnose, maybe with time..."

"Kierney, no one has ever recovered from something like this."

"So your records say, but everyone is different, every mind unique. Kaveran was right when he said that, just maybe..."

"I don't need that sort of hope," she broke in, barely aware of how her anguish coloured her voice. "Every day I live with the knowledge that I can't heal people and yet I still have the desire to do so. I was a healer for over ten years, Kierney, sometimes the urge to help becomes so great that it's a physical pain and I can hardly bear the company of someone who is ill." He was visibly shaken by her words,

"Then...when you're around me..."

"It hurts. I want to help," she whispered, her words almost inaudible, "I want to help so badly, but I just can't." He released her and rose to his feet, pacing a few steps away from her and then back again, distress muddying the normally clear gray of his eyes. Abi looked away from him, unable to meet his gaze.

"I'm sorry," he said finally, though she wasn't exactly sure what he was apologising for. He took a few more restless steps and then walked away. Abi leaned her head forward and let the tears spill into her lap.

 

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