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The Fisherman's Son

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Kaelyn took one look at the boy lying on the bed, his olive skin grayish and clammy, his lips blue, and marched right back out of the house. The door slammed shut behind her in time to cut-off whatever she was yelling.

William looked apologetically at the fisherman. "She is probably going to get the healer who travels with us."

***

The fisherman's cottage had been gloomy with the shutters pulled almost closed to ward off the cool breeze. Summer was rapidly running into autumn, and Kaelyn didn't want to think about how long it had been since she was last home. So for now, she squinted into the sunlight, trying to find the rest of their party. Aren was across the street digging around in somebody's vegetable garden, and Scott was stretched out on the grass nearby, head pillowed on his pack and his feathered hat pulled down low to cover his eyes.

The last three days and two nights had been spent stumbling around the forests southeast of Waterfork, trying to find a way to Ticoro that didn't involve the Imperial highway since all those bridges were blocked by thugs claiming to be defending against a potential Mehrat attack. (Kaelyn didn't buy that--the brutes at the bridge hadn't been wearing army livery and their reaction to William's "I'm the youngest son of the House of Escobar" schtick had been...off.) William had found them another way into Ticor--a rickety foot bridge over a broad, rushing stream that soon joined with the river that wrapped itself around the village of Waterfork--but it hadn't been wide or sturdy enough for them to take the cart across. They'd been forced to abandon it, and since Korellyn refused to ride the donkey (her backside wasn't padded enough for such nonsense, or so she claimed), their progress through the forest would have been slow enough, even if they hadn't gotten completely turned around. Not to mention the packs of gibbering, aggressive trerangs that liked to throw sticks and rocks and less mentionable things at passersby before attacking with their sturdy blue fists. The party had stumbled into Waterfork at midday after fending off first giant crabs and then inadvertently clearing up a maslith infestation along the riverbank. They were all exhausted, and Kaelyn was pretty sure she still had leaves stuck in her hair from where a trerang had knocked her into a bush the night before. It was a wonder the fisherman hadn't slammed the door on them as soon as he realized they weren't from the Circle.

"Aren, where's Korellyn?" she called.

Aren looked up from his digging, immediate concern at her tone showing plain as day on his face. Not an ounce of subtly to him, their boy Aren Cordelaine--he wore his heart on his sleeve for anyone to read--and Kaelyn was unreasonably fond of him for it. "She's still down at the Contuso house. Said she'd found a nice shady spot and wasn't moving until either we set out again or found someplace decent to sleep for the night."

Kaelyn took off for the modest manor house at a sprint. It was just around the corner from the fisherman's cottage, passed Riverside Pub, a large house built of gleaming white stone. Once upon a time, Kaelyn might have considered it impressively large, but that was before William had taken them to his family's estate in Panizo. A low stone wall enclosed the manor's front yard, and the old healer was perched on that, walking stick held between her knees while their little gray burro grazed nearby. "Where you going in such a rush, missy?" Korellyn wheezed as Kaelyn came skidding to a stop in front of her, boots sliding on the white gravel of the yard.

"We need your help, old woman. There's a boy in that house," she pointed back the way she'd come, "Who was stung by a spineray. It doesn't look like he's got much time left." She held out both her hands to help the witch down off the wall, and Korellyn took one and used it to steady herself as she slid to the ground. She'd been using William's folded-up cloak to pad her backside against the hard stone of the wall, but she just left it where it was.

"Spineray, you say? You'd see some stings now and again along the coast back home," the old woman mumbled. She hobbled slow enough that Kaelyn had to consciously watch her own stride so that she didn't race off ahead. "Once took a stinger longer than your first finger out of a pirate's heel. Poor fool stepped on it comin' ashore." One gnarled hand clutched her walking stick, but the other was digging through the myriad of pouches hanging from Korellyn's belt. Finally, she pulled what looked like a fern frond out of one and tore a leaf off with her teeth. "Fidali," she explained when she saw Kaelyn watching. "Don't suppose you got any ale in your pack?"

Kaelyn was sure the smile the witch gave her was supposed to be winsome, but with most of her top teeth missing and green leafy bits stuck in the bottom ones, it was more gruesome than anything. But she swung her bag around and pulled out the small clay jug that she'd take off the body of a dead pirate the week before. "I thought you preferred wine." The cork had mostly broken off, but Kaelyn dug at it with the tip of her knife as they walked. (Kaelyn let herself fall a step behind, trying to herd the old woman like a sheepdog...it didn't do a damn thing to speed up their progress.)

"I do...I do, but this ain't for me," Korellyn explained, accepting the jug once the cork was out. "This is for the medicine." Swishing the wad of chewed leaf around in her mouth for a moment, she then spat it into the ale. "Now, be a good lass and stick the cork back it. It needs a good shake before it's any use, and my hands are achin' from the damp in the air."

Only the memory of how still the boy had been lying when she'd run from the cottage kept Kaelyn from rolling her eyes when she accepted the jug back and did as instructed. "This is how you make fidali paste?" she asked, a bit incredulously.

"Normally, you get a cow to do the chewing, but we ain't got the time."

Kaelyn spared a thought to wonder who had been desperate enough (or drunk enough) to eat regurgitated cow cud and discover this, but then they were at the door to the cottage, and she was shooing the healer in ahead of her.

"This is Korellyn," she said to the fisherman as she handed the bottle of fidali paste to William, who was still seated at the boy's bedside. "Get him to drink this."

William made a face at the smell coming from the jug but maneuvered himself so the boy's head was propped up in the crook of his elbow so he could hold it up while pouring the paste into the child's mouth. The boy was still conscious enough that he made small efforts to swallow, though some of the paste leaked out of the corners of his mouth.

He was older than she'd initially thought, Kaelyn realized, maybe thirteen or fourteen, though short of his age. Like most of the folk in this corner of the empire, he had dark brown hair, currently soaked with sweat and plastered to his forehead. He choked a bit and started coughing, so William helped him sit farther up, murmuring soothing nonsense almost too quietly for Kaelyn to hear. No matter how many times she saw William interacting with children, it still seemed odd to her. He didn't get down on the ground to join in their games like Aren did, but he was still good with them, patient and willing to talk to them as if they were adults. Kaelyn, who didn't have any siblings or childhood playmates other than Raal, was never quite sure what to do with a child.

"Come on, boy, down the hatch," the old healer prompted as she tottered over to the bedside, her walking stick clattering against the wood floor. "Won't do much good on your face." She pulled a slightly stained handkerchief out of her sleeve and reached over William to dab at the boy's face. Already, the blueness of his lips was starting to fade.

He grimaced but opened his mouth to take another swallow.

"I can't thank you enough," his father said, turning to Kaelyn. He grabbed one of her hands and clasped it between his own. "I can never, ever thank you enough." The naked gratitude in his eyes was too much for Kaelyn to look directly that--it wasn't like she had done all that much beyond yell at people and herd them around like a bossy sheepdog. But to this man, she and her companions were doing an amazing thing in giving him back the life of his son.

She looked past the man's head (she had maybe an inch of height on him) to where William still sat by the boy's bedside. The youngest son of the House of Escobar had a smirk on his handsome face at her awkwardness, the kind of expression that made her want to slap him hard enough to leave a hand-shaped mark on his fair skin. As soon as the disgusting paste worked its magic on the boy and they were outside and on the road again, she was going to smack him so hard that it left her hand stinging. She had never met anyone with the ability to infuriate her with just a look before meeting William Escobar on the road to Balmestri. They saved her then--him and Aren--though, maybe, like she'd told them, she would have been able to save herself without their intervention. Three against one wasn't good odds, but the bandits hadn't been particularly skilled, and if she had managed to take one or two down with her bow first, then she would have been fine. Probably. Still, they had come to her aid, and that meant she owed them both a debt.

...just as this man was going to owe them a debt. She could tell the moment when William realized it too--his dark eyes went wide enough that a ring of white was visible all the way around. They needed another companion on the road like they needed additional holes in their heads, especially one as unskilled in combat as this fisherman would be. Korellyn at least made up for her lack of use in a fight with her healing skills, and the old witch knew hexes enough to keep herself safe.

"There has to be something--oh!" The fisherman dropped her hands and rushed over to a chest crammed into a corner of the cottage. He didn't open it but instead reached behind it and pulled something from between it and the wall. "I fished this out of the river a couple of months back. Don't have any use for it here in Waterfork, but folks such as your self might need it out on the road."

Kaelyn took the banded shield from him, turning it over in her hands. It was unremarkable, a little battered, but still sturdy enough to block the blow from a sword. "Thank you," she said.

"It's just what we needed," William added from his spot by the bed. He settled the boy back down against the pillows, all of the paste having been administered. Korellyn had the child's wrist pinched between her knobby fingers, muttering to herself in the sing-song voice she used when she didn't intend for anyone to listen in. "Korellyn says your boy will be fine. He should be back on his feet in a couple of days..."

Kaelyn let him take over from there, escaping back outside still holding the shield. Aren was gone, though his pack was still in the cottage garden across the road.

Scott sat up as the door bang shut behind her and shoved his hat with its plume of TrKaa feathers back on top of his head. "You have a shield," he said, sleep-dumb in the afternoon sunlight.

"If William plays his cards right, that's all we'll have," she assured him, spinning the shield between her hands.