The little girl wouldn’t stop crying. I didn’t blame her. She was dying, after all. Her lungs were so full of fluid she’d drown in another few hours. Tossing and turning on my thin mattress, I listened to her cries as they sawed through the floorboards and through my heart, cutting it in two.
One piece pleaded for me to save her, urging me to heal the girl with the bright smile and ginger curls. The other side pulsed a warning beat. Her family would thank me by turning me in to the town watch. I’d be hanged as a war criminal. No trial needed.
The horrors from the dark years of the plague were still fresh in the survivors’ minds. They considered those times a war. A war that had been started by healers, who then spread the deadly disease, and refused to heal it.
Of course it was utter nonsense. We couldn’t heal the plague. And we didn’t start it. But in the midst of the chaos, no one listened to reason. Someone had to be blamed. Right?
The girl’s screams pierced my heart. I couldn’t stand it any longer. Three years on the run. Three years of hiding. Three terrible years full of fear and loneliness. For what? My life? Yes, I live and breathe and exist. Nothing else.
Flinging my blankets off, I hurried downstairs. I didn’t need to change since I would never sleep in nightclothes or without my boots on. When you were on the run, the possibility of being surprised in the middle of the night was high. There was no time to waste when escaping, so I wore my black travel pants and black shirt to bed every night. The dark color ideal for blending into shadows.
Another trick of being on the run involved finding a second-floor room with both front and back doors and no skeletons. They were hard to find as most towns had burned the plague victims’ homes in the misguided attempt to destroy the disease. And many victims died alone. My current hideout was above the family with the dying child.
I knocked on my downstairs neighbors’ door loud enough for the sound to be heard over the child’s wet wails. When it opened, her mother, Mavis, stared wordlessly at me. She held the two-year-old girl in her strong arms, and the knowledge that her child was dying shone in her brown eyes. Her pale skin clung to her gaunt face. She swayed with pure exhaustion.
Underneath the sheen of tears and red flush of fever, the little girl’s skin had death’s pale hue. In a few moments, she wouldn’t have the breath to scream.
I held out my arms. “Mavis, go to sleep. I’ll watch…Fawn.” Finally, I remembered her name. Another rule to being on the run was to avoid getting close to anyone. No friends. But I needed to earn money, and I had to make a few acquaintances in order to keep up with the gossip. I’d stayed with Mavis’s children on occasion, which helped with both.
Panicked, Mavis pulled Fawn closer to her.
“The rest of your family needs you, as well. You should rest before you collapse or get sick.”
“I will wake you if anything changes. I promise.”
Mavis’s resistance crumpled and she handed me Fawn. Well beyond lucidity, the little girl didn’t notice the change in the arms around her, but my magic sprang to life at the touch, pushing to be released from my core. Fawn’s skin burned and her clothes were damp with sweat. I cradled Fawn as I sat in the big wooden rocking chair in the living room. The lantern burned low, casting a weak yellow light over the threadbare furniture. This family hadn’t looted from their neighbors, which said much about them.
Next to the window I had a clear view of the street. A half-moon illuminated the burned ruins of buildings huddled along a dirt road. Rainwater had filled the holes and ruts. The plague had killed roughly six million people—two-thirds of the population—so there was no one left to attend to minor tasks like fixing the roads or clearing away the debris. The fact that this town…Jaxton? Or was it Wola? They all blurred together. Either way, having a local government town watch, basic commerce, no piles of skeletons and a tiny—a few hundred at most—populace was more than many other towns could claim.
I rocked Fawn, humming a tune my mother had sung to me years ago. Tendrils of my magic seeped into Fawn’s body. Her cries lost the hysterical edge.
Mavis watched us for a few minutes. Did she suspect? Would she take her child back? Instead, she heeded my advice and went to bed. Waiting for Mavis to fall into a deep sleep, I rocked and hummed. Once I was certain enough time had passed, I stopped the chair. Concentrating on the girl in my arms, I allowed my full power to flow into Fawn until she was saturated with it. The release of magic sent a ripple of contentment through me. This was my area of expertise. What I should be doing.
Then I drew it back into me, cleaning out the sickness inside Fawn. My lungs filled with fluid as hers drained. I broke into a fever as hers cooled.
She hiccupped a few times, then breathed in deep. Her body relaxed and she fell into an exhausted sleep.
The sickness nestled in my chest, causing me to suck in noisy wet breaths. I couldn’t pull enough air into my lungs. Goose bumps raced across my skin as a sliver of fear touched my heart. I hadn’t healed anyone this sick before. Would I be strong enough? Had I waited too long to help Fawn? My own cowardice would kill me. Fitting.
The effort to breathe consumed my energy. Black and white spots swirled in my vision as I fought to stay conscious. Even though my body healed ten times faster than a regular person’s, I was quite aware that it might not be fast enough.
Luckily, this wasn’t that time. The crushing tightness around my ribs eased a fraction. I concentrated on the simple act of breathing.