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Chapter 3

Duncan awoke suddenly, with the lingering feel of fingers touching his forehead. He opened his eyes to see Lorana with arm outstretched toward him. After a moment, she lowered her arm. He didn’t know how long he’d been out, but she looked weary to him.

The youth looked down at his arms and stared, transfixed. The sword on his right arm was no longer an outline, but a red and gold creation with flames washing out to either side of the edges of the blade. If he looked closely, he could see the cuts made by the very fine-bladed knives that Lorana would have pulled from her satchel. The cuts were reddened and a little puffy, but somehow the ink that she had inserted through them had been spread throughout his skin into a work of art.

The left arm was nearly as stunning. The owl’s mask and body had been fleshed out, and his wings lifted and curled around his arm for almost a span. Again, the fine cuts could be detected, although with greater difficulty under the deep blue of the ink used. And again, the spread of the mark was far more than the cuts and ink would have seemingly provided.

Lorana rose to her feet in a slow and controlled manner. To Duncan’s eye she appeared to be almost exhausted. She looked to Nial. “In three days’ time I will come to you,” she said in a barely audible tone of husks.

“In three days, I will look for you,” Nial replied, with a slow inclination of his head—not a bow, Duncan thought—perhaps more of an acknowledgment.

The woman turned her entire body to face the healers, as if she was so sore that she couldn’t twist. “Mind what I said,” she husked to them. “Keep him swaddled for a week.”

“As you say,” Llewass said. Neither of the healers said any more. Lorana turned toward the tent entrance. She gave a definite nod of respect to Duncan’s mother and aunt before she passed through the open door flap.

Samara and Guenmara drew close to Duncan, standing beside Nial. Duncan looked to his mother, and was surprised to see a tear from each eye trickling down her cheeks. He started to lift both hands to her, but the flare of pain in his left arm stopped that. She caught his right hand as he lifted that, though, enfolding it in both of hers and holding it against her breast. “What?” he asked. Samara shook her head, saying nothing. Guenmara put her arm around her sister’s shoulder.

Llewass moved to step between Duncan and the others, taking Duncan’s hand and laying it back on the board. “It’s growing dark,” he said in a quiet even tone. “This is done. Go take your rest, and let us tend to Duncan. He will be asleep again shortly anyway.”

Nial gathered the two women and urged them ahead of him to the tent entry. There they all stopped and looked back for a moment. Nial urged the women again. They moved through the entry. Nial raised a hand to his son, then followed his wife.

Argus turned to Nial. “Don’t move. We have work to do on you.”

Llewass took a large bowl and set it on a stool nearby. Nial watched as the healer poured a fair amount of water into it, then pulled a vial out of his pocket. It took Llewass a long moment to carefully work the stopper out of the vial. The healer’s nose wrinkled. “That is a strong decoction,” Llewass murmured. He poured it into the bowl. The scent of it wafted to Duncan’s nose, which wrinkled on its own in sympathy with the healer. It wasn’t unpleasant, he thought. But . . . sharp, that was it; there was an acidic element to the scent that made his nose hairs prickle.

Argus brought several pieces of cloth over and dropped them in the bowl, then laid other strips out on the board that still straddled the chair arms. Llewass swished the pieces in the bowl around in the liquid with his hand, then lifted one piece up out of the bowl. As best Duncan could tell, it was a strip of cloth maybe two-thirds of a palm wide.

Argus stepped around and lifted Duncan’s right hand and arm up. Llewass laid the end of the strip on the inside of Duncan’s wrist directly atop the tip of the blade limned on the inner skin of the forearm. The healer then proceeded to wind the strip around and around the arm, each successive layer overlapping the preceding one. Duncan could feel the wrapping progressing up his arm, not tight, but a firm compress on his skin.

Llewass tied off the bandage, for that was what it was, just below the elbow. Argus laid the arm down on the board, and moved to stand on the other side. Duncan swallowed. If they were going to wrap his left arm, he suspected that it was going to hurt.

And so Duncan proved to be a prophet of the obvious. The healers waited for him to take a deep breath, then Argus lifted the left arm with as gentle a touch as he could manage. Duncan still hissed at the resulting spike of pain. Llewass wrapped as quickly as he could, duplicating the wrapping of the right arm. Duncan was still light-headed by the time the second bandage was tied off.

Argus lowered the arm even more gently than he had picked it up. The two healers stood side by side and watched Duncan as his breathing steadied and slowed. Duncan could still feel the increased throbbing in his arm once his breathing was back to normal, but it was still less than it had been just moments before.

“We can’t tie your arm back down until we swaddle your chest,” Argus said after Duncan had sagged against the back of the chair. “So we need to get that done so you can get some rest.”

Duncan dropped his jaw to look down, but all he could see was a dark blur across his chest. “What did she do to me?” he said, his voice raising.

“What your mother and father asked,” Llewass said in a hard tone. “Let us get you wrapped so you can lie down, and we’ll tell you what we think.”

Before Duncan could object, the healers moved to stand at his sides. Each placed a hand on his shoulder, then reached down to do something on each side of the chair. Duncan hissed as his body sagged a little when the back of the chair fell away, leaving him supported by their grips on his shoulder. He sat up straight, holding himself stiff. Gradually the hands eased their grips.

“You’re going to have to raise your arms for this part,” Llewass said. “And yes, that’s going to hurt again. You put your right hand on top of your head and keep it there. Argus will support your left arm and I’ll wrap your chest.” He produced a strip of thick leather. “Here, bite on this. Take a couple of deep breaths, and nod when you’re ready.”

Duncan took the leather in his mouth, clenching his teeth on it. He took a deep breath, and placed his right hand on top of his head, wrapping his fingers over to the left side as an anchor. Two more slow deep breaths, followed by an inhale, and he nodded.

Duncan’s teeth ground into the leather and he grunted as Argus lifted his splinted arm away from his body, one hand on the swaddled forearm and another on the splinted upper arm. Llewass turned back from the bowl with a large dripping cloth in his hands. Next moment that cloth had been applied to his chest, cold drops trickling down his stomach. Llewass smoothed the cloth, then produced a roll of the narrow bandage strip and began passing the roll around his body rapidly. Duncan was getting light-headed again, and he gargled a cracked laugh behind the leather as the thought crossed his mind that Llewass’ hands with the bandage were almost like a weaver’s shuttle in their speed.

It wasn’t really an eternity before Llewass tied off the bandage on the right side; it just felt that way to Duncan. As soon as that was done, Llewass raised the back of the chair and reinserted the pegs to make it solid again. Duncan really sagged back this time as his right hand dropped from his head and Argus lowered his left arm slowly, gently, until it rested in his lap.

Llewass took the leather strip from Duncan’s mouth. The two healers let him just sit slumped in the chair, panting. When his breathing had returned to something approaching normal, Argus produced the wraps that had immobilized Duncan’s wounded arm to his body before and replaced them with care. After what he had just experienced, Duncan barely even noticed the twinges from his arm.

Once Argus was done, Duncan slowly straightened and looked at the two healers from under lowered eyebrows. “What. Did. She. Do. To. Me.” His tone was flat and hard.

The two healers looked at each other; Llewass nodded to Argus, who took a deep breath of his own. “We don’t know. I’ve never seen anything like what she did. Neither has Llewass.” Llewass shook his head in confirmation.

“What is she?” Duncan demanded.

Llewass ran his hand down his face, and said, “In the old times before the coming of the White God, she probably would have been a priestess of one of the gods or goddesses, maybe even of Rhaichannan. Now, they call her a lore-wife.”

“Lore-wife?” That was something Duncan had never heard before.

“A lore-wife is always a woman. She knows things that nobody else knows; some of it from the old gods, some of it from the world around us. And every once in a great while, she will do something that no one else can do.”

“What did she do to me?” Duncan asked again in a plaintive tone.

“Lorana gave you your clan markings,” Argus resumed. “We watched. She used very small, very sharp, very old bronze knives, and instead of making long direct cuts, she made very many small cuts, both along the length of the arms and branching out from the length. And she worked very fast.”

“Then Lorana pulled out her inks and dyes,” Llewass picked up the description, “and began to rub them up and down the arms, working them into the cuts. When she wiped the skin clean again, we could see the clan marks, strong and dark. Then . . . have you seen a child dabbing berry juice on a piece of bark? It was like that. She took her fingers, and began to run them over the surface of your marks, as if she were brushing or smearing something. And the ink under your skin responded. Lorana moved as if she was a potter, molding clay, only she was molding the inks. And when she was done, your arms were as you saw them.”

Duncan absorbed all of that. “And my chest?”

Argus took a deep breath. “She had us lay the chair back flat, and she did the same—only more so. The raven she drew with her hands looks to be launching in flight from your chest.”

Duncan shivered. “Why?”

Argus shrugged. “Obviously your parents asked for it. You’ll have to ask them. But I do have to wonder if they got more than they bargained for.”

“Bargained?” Duncan asked.

“Oh, yes,” Llewass said with a grimace. “Your father has agreed that she will have the pick of his foals: a three year-old, a two year-old, and a yearling from the herds now, and one each of the newborn colts from the next three foaling seasons.”

Duncan stared at him. Six horses? His father had given up six of his prized colts for these marks? He shivered again.

“Enough,” Argus said. The healers lifted the board off of the chair arms and helped Duncan ease himself out of the chair, then guided him to his cot. “Sit,” Argus said. Llewass stood alongside Duncan; to make sure he didn’t waver and fall off the cot, Duncan assumed. Considering how he felt at the moment, that was probably prudent. The tent was beginning to move in slow circles around him.

“Drink this,” Argus ordered, shoving a mug into his good hand. The healer guided the cup to his mouth. Duncan gulped the bitter liquid it contained. Argus took the cup from his lax fingers, and Duncan felt himself being guided to lie down as the lights went dark.

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