by Lindsey Duncan
“Drowned?” I echoed, too desperate to feel numb. “What about his wife? I’m family.”
War had driven me to the city-state of Tycanae, headquarters of the Silver Order. One week of flight with other refugees, and then sleepless days over the hills alone, traveling at night to avoid bandits, weary and heartsick and wanting only one thing: respite.
Now, even that was out of my hands.
“She was on the ship with him,” the servant said. “His creditors have laid claim to all his goods. You’ll find nothing here.”
I retreated before his hostility, with no plan, but too tired to resist. I had never met my uncle; I had no idea if he would even have welcomed me. I wandered, unable to comprehend the vivid colors and sweet-spicy aromas. It was too much at once, when I had spent the past days in a wilderness as grey as tombs. The rhythm of unfamiliar languages rushing past tripped up my feet.
I came to the marble archway by chance, staring at the fountain in the center of the courtyard: two hands held together, spilling water, and a silver chain binding the disembodied wrists. There were no guards within – no weapons were permitted in a Silver district.
The Silver Order were the most powerful healers in the known world. Their touch could even bring back the dead, but with one catch – one scrape, one cut, one crunched finger or twisted ankle, and their powers departed.
“Do you need sanctuary?”
I jumped. I hadn’t seen the woman approach. She wore white robes with a silver knot in the shoulder, her hair a tumble of wheat curls tinged grey. Later, I would learn the single knot meant she was a council member – the simpler the device, the higher the rank.
“I have no money,” I said. Nor anything else: everything I owned had burned. Not that much of my widow’s pension had been left before that.
She smiled. “We ask nothing,” she said, “only that you pay kindness to another when the opportunity arises.” Her voice was sweet, a plucked lyre. “I can see you are hurt and weary. Do you have a name?”
“Daien,” I said.
“I am Kelea.” Her hand touched my shoulder, and a hot-sun warmth flowed through me. Cuts upon my arms and legs, switches I had stopped noticing, prickled as the lines of red faded. Even my blood seemed to surge more eagerly in my veins. For a blissful second, I was free of it all, a woman without sorrows, and when she pulled her hand away, I almost collapsed.
“How did you do that?” I whispered.
“By the gift each Silver keeps with her always.” Kelea’s voice hummed with pride. “Come with me. We’ll find you a place to sleep. When you’re ready, this city is always eager for new hands and new ventures.”
But I was ready, or rather I knew my course. I thought of my home, its familiar scents smothered in ash. I thought of my family, scattered months before the attack, and the blood of a nameless fellow refugee caked under my fingernails … and now gone, I knew without having to look.
To never feel pain again. To help others escape theirs.
I would be a Silver.
“Are you sure?” Kelea asked when I broached the subject four days later. We stood in the flower garden, the ordered petals a symphony of color. There was something regimental about them despite their beauty, not a weed or thorn permitted. I had no idea how the gardener managed it without metal implements. A net overhead prevented the entry of stinging insects.
“We live with many precautions, and this is the least.” Kelea held up her gloved hands. “We cannot leave the complex without a minder to stave off potential injury. We do not use sharpened items of any kind. You cannot bite your nails or scratch an itch.”
She took my hands, turning them over. “I can tell by these calluses that you worked on a farm. You’re accustomed to labor. We do nothing for ourselves. The energy of Silver is ephemeral. The slightest nick allows it to escape.”
“I can live with that,” I said.
“It isn’t a life of luxury. It is a life of study and forced idleness – even for some very natural tasks. I have no doubt you are clever and determined, but I want you to realize this is a decision not lightly made. And you’re smiling,” Kelea noted. “Do you think I’m being silly?”
“I was thinking of my sister, Jila,” I said. “When we were young, she oversaw every decision I made. She thought everything was dangerous, even my late husband.” My heart turned. Another reason to continue on the path I had chosen, to escape the ache of recollection. Jila had joined the family business of weaving shortly after I moved to the north frontier to be with my husband. I had seen her only a handful of times in the past five years, but every time we met, it seemed we intuited everything that had happened between.
“Everything is,” the Silver said with a chuckle. “What shapes us is how we react when we encounter that danger. If you are certain, there will be a series of tests. You need not be concerned about your lack of formal schooling – the tests only determine if you have the discipline and the raw intellect. You will also be measured to see if you can contain the energy of Silver.”
“What is the energy?” I asked. “Does it come from the gods? Is it something one is born with?”
“Neither. But that is not a question for now.” Kelea offered me her hand. “Come with me, Daien.”
The tests were a nerve-racking and sweaty ordeal; they passed in a blur. Kelea told me later I had passed with ease, but my only clear memory was shivering in a padded stone room – and suddenly realizing why not even being able to chew my nails might be difficult. I settled for toying with a loose strand of hair instead, and flinched when it came out.
Was even that enough to blemish me?
Two senior Silver, cords knotted once like Kelea’s, entered and ordered me to rise. One of them held a shard of smoky quartz. He pulled my hand out and pushed the point against my palm; I cried out as blood trickled from the puncture.
“You have the talent,” he said brusquely. “Welcome to training.”
I blinked. “That’s it?”
He smiled, a cynical expression. “That’s only the beginning. Follow me.”
My new quarters were in a room the size of my house, with hanging curtains dividing the space for eight –there were four other girls. I ended up in the back corner, with the nearest beds empty, and sometimes, when I awoke from a sound sleep, I reached out for a hand that was not there. Not my husband’s hand, but Jila’s, fingers that clasped mine for reassurance that the night was safe.
The strictures had already begun. Until I became a Silver, I wore not only the gloves, but veils and padded leggings. Tics such as rubbing at an ache or biting a lip were punished with harsh reprimand. All food was eaten with the hands, no utensils – one small advantage I had over trainees who came from wealthier families.
I needed it, for the course of study was intense. To heal, one needed to understand the anatomy and internal workings not only of humans, but of favorite animals, particularly horses and dogs. It required a study of acting as well, to adopt a serene and comforting manner – not only to soothe a patient, but to avoid riling someone who might lash out.
“One of the hardest parts of being Silver,” Kelea said. “No arguments. No insults. It helps to not even think them.”
“That can’t always be possible,” I said.
“Your training will also give you the tools to debate effectively when lives are at stake – to win without anger. But even if I were to say that your sister deserved to die -”
I could feel the color draining from my cheeks, but said nothing.
Kelea touched the side of my face. “You almost bit your tongue. Careful.”
“How do you do it?”
“Do you want to know how we teach it, or how I manage it?” Kelea’s voice was gentle. “The first is mostly platitudes and examples. As for myself … I have nothing but Silver. I never knew my father and have few good memories of my mother. I don’t miss the village I came from and I have no childhood friends I remember well. As for withstanding insults, I know I’ve never been a pretty woman, and I don’t need to worry about my intelligence.
“Take away everything that might hurt. The rest …” She offered a weary smile. “… is easy.”
Months passed. Time diminished the ache, and I was too busy to think much on my past. Kelea’s advice stayed with me: take away everything that might hurt. Hadn’t that been why I had joined in the first place?
It was almost a year from my arrival in Tycanae when I was recommended for the final tests. By then, the precautions were second nature. I scrawled each answer on a chalkboard, waited while an expressionless instructor took notes, and then began the next. It took the better part of a day, and I was wrung out by the time I finished.
Just after sunset, two senior Silvers with lanterns retrieved me and led me to the building at the center of the headquarters. I tingled with anticipation, as excited to see this mysterious source as I was to finally be recognized as a healer. My escape was at hand – I had earned it. I looked sideways to Kelea, hunting for answers, but her face was neutral.
They opened the door before me. A chill draft wafted up the stone staircase, tasting of mold and old wine. I hesitated, looking for an explanation – but the gaze of the other Silver sent me hastening down the steps, a trifle too fast, and then checked with the treachery of the descent.
The staircase spiraled around until I lost track of the turns. It became increasingly less hewn, more natural, and finally dropped away into a cavern floor. Water dripped, a soft tempo from somewhere the lanterns could not reveal. The stabbing shadows of stalactites cut through.
In the center of the cavern speared a towering crystal point, its facets cloudy. It was higher than I was tall, so wide a person could not put their arms about it, and it glowed with a trace of moonlit silver.
I turned to Kelea in confusion. “What is going on?”
“Touch the stone, Daien,” she said, her voice soft.
I advanced uncertainly, fingers lingering over the facets without touching. I did not remember, at the time, the smaller stone that the Silvers had used to measure my aptitude. I could only wonder at what might be in the depths, at what power might answer that touch.
Gathering my courage, I stretched out my hand until my fingers touched the cool stone. It warmed under my hand, the heat pouring up my fingers … my heart beat more swiftly in response, and my body twitched as if halfway through a hard day of labor. I was full and luminous with a force that made my soul race.
I turned to Kelea, the tide of warmth shifting within me. A tickle, a whisper – as if under my skin rested a layer of happy memories. Even so illuminated, however, I couldn’t ask the question on my lips.
“How do you feel, Daien?”
The question finally came. “Is that all?”
“It’s only a stone, yes,” Kelea said. “We don’t know where it came from or who placed it there, or why it emits energy that allows us to heal, but the important thing is that it does. We’re very grateful to the founders of the Silver Order, who found out – the hard way – the restrictions on using its power.”
How could it be that simple? “Why can’t an injured Silver simply come back and touch the stone again?” I asked.
“The energy doesn’t recognize you a second time,” Kelea answered.
I looked over my shoulder and shivered. I was sealed to this life – one chance, and one chance only.
“Come,” said the other Silver, clasping my shoulder. “Time to show you to your new quarters.”
I spent the next three days light as flower pollen, floating and hardly aware of the cautions that now were real. On that third day, I was sent to a village close to Tycanae. “Farm injuries,” Kelea cautioned me, “they can be somewhat gruesome -”
“I know farming,” I reminded her.
It was a pleasant ride. I had the carriage to myself with a bodyminder at the reins. He made no attempt to speak, though his manner wasn’t unpleasant. He had a sweet smile and a crop of ginger hair. I could remember running my fingers through hair maybe just a shade darker, and speaking words that … it didn’t matter now. At least my husband hadn’t lived to see the war.
When I arrived, the village headman gave me a list of bruises, mishaps and summer maladies. “I imagine the first person you’ll want to see is the miller’s wife,” he said. “She slipped on the river stone and shattered her leg. I sent for a Silver as soon as it happened.”
“Take me to her.”
The bodyminder went ahead of me, testing the door first and then the beams inside the mill house. When he was satisfied that all was safe, he gestured for me to enter. It was a plain room, and smelled so strongly of home that my heart spasmed.
The miller’s wife lay on the cot, her thin face pinched with anxiety. “Silver?”
“I’m here.” I came to her side, following the script in my head. I introduced myself, assured her she would be fine, and knelt to check the leg. I had seen blood before, but I flinched – the bandage was rough and awkwardly done, the line of bone visible from beneath the skin. “This won’t hurt.” I slid my fingers under the limb; the warmth came to them instinctively, a trickle that bathed my hand in moonlight. I probed the bone by feel.
I laid my palm flat and concentrated. Heat, an overwhelming blaze, caught spark inside me and then rushed forward. Hard to describe that bliss, a moment of euphoria even more intense when I was the healer than it had been when I was the healed. It fled with the beating of imagined wings.
The miller’s wife exhaled – the gasp turned into relief, and she sank back on the cot. She gathered her courage, raising the limb slightly, then a bit more. I could tell by her eyes there was no pain, only the tingle I remembered so well. Her gaze flew to mine; a smile cracked her lips, and she looked as beautiful as sunlight. “Thank you,” she said.
My world unfolded again. I was, finally and completely, content. Nothing could bruise me, body or soul.
The war ended that autumn and – as in so many wars before – the trade of slaves began. With no allegiance to either side, Tycanae was considered an ideal place to display them. The ruling council voted to allow it by a narrow margin. The Silver Order was incensed. Anyone who purchased a slave in the marketplace, or even bid on one, was to be denied our services.
That did not stop the slavers. Those Silvers who were not posted elsewhere stayed close to headquarters and traveled only in groups. I should have obeyed those strictures, but even in sanctuary, I heard stories of how the slavers treated their chattel.
“Kelea,” I said, “we have to help them.”
We sat in a private solarium, Kelea with a book on her lap. Fading sunlight wandered across plush woven rugs. “We cannot,” she said. “It’s far too dangerous. Some of the slavers are even willing to kidnap Silvers.”
“We have the upper hand,” I said. “They can’t threaten to kill us, even hurt us, or they have nothing.”
She caught my hand in hers. The stifling fabric of gloves – hers and mine – removed whatever comfort the touch might have had. “We cannot interfere. The risks outweigh giving some small comfort to those who will only suffer again.”
I wanted to argue, but I had been taught one thing in training I think she did not expect me to use against them: to simply remain silent and do the right thing despite.
I snuck out at dusk and threaded my way through Tycanae to the marketplace. The sweat and grime from the prisoners assaulted my nose even before I reached the courtyard. Iron stakes driven between the bricks formed holding pens for the day’s commerce. Tearing my eyes from the bleak face of the woman whose virtues the auctioneer extolled, I studied the customers: a cross-section of foreign cultures, richly dressed, with faces impatient and eyes full of numbers. To them, this was only another business.
It took two sales to get close to the slats. The guards paid me no attention as I pressed my face against the wood. “Is anyone hurt?”
Dark eyes peered back. “Who are you?”
“I’m a Silver.”
The response stirred sluggishly among the tired bodies pressed so close together. A young woman wobbled forward, fever in her rheumy eyes. None were badly injured or terribly ill – I knew what happened to those who were too weak – but I was able to relieve festering cuts, pulled muscles, and exhaustion.
“- hard worker with a good, strong back. Steady hands, too, for more delicate tasks -”
I don’t know why I looked up then. Behind the dust and the thin cheeks, familiar eyes sought escape. It was, oddly, the scar I recognized first, a dash just below her cheek.
It was Jila.
I couldn’t cry out, breath stolen from me. I stepped back, numb – just in time that the guard who circled the pen had no reason to notice me. The apathetic patter of the bidders burned. I heard the numbers and wanted to laugh. That was what a life was worth?
I knew no amount of noise would bring her eyes to mine, but I stood as a rooted tree, willing her to do so. I had the presence of mind to watch the bidders, keeping track of which ones stayed in the hunt, until the auctioneer brought down the gavel with a crash. The buyer was a man with thick golden curls and the pale complexion of the far north; he wore no cloak against the wind.
“Jila,” I whispered as they vanished into the crowd – and then I ran, heedless of treacherous footing, not caring if I collided with anyone. I spun off one body and then another, a whirlwind of motion. I remembered to slow down before I reached the complex, but my heart would not. I slipped through the back gate and almost slammed into my mentor.
“Daien?” Kelea said. She reached out, her fingers cupping my chin. Her voice changed, soft with alarm. “What happened?”
I stammered out the story in a rush. “We have to help her,” I said. “We have money, don’t we? We could purchase her freedom.” The pain was there as if it had never gone, making me dizzy.
“There are dozens of slaves in the marketplace now,” Kelea said, “and as many arriving before the month ends. How could we possibly free enough to make a difference?”
I stared, astonished. Had she missed I was talking about Jila? “Just one,” I said. “That’s all I’m asking. If we can’t save them all, then we have to save who we can. This is my sister, Kelea.”
A weary smile. “Do you remember when I told you how to survive as a Silver?”
I had no good response. “Please.”
Kelea studied me, her eyes intense. “I will talk to the seniors,” she said finally, “and see what I can do.”
Three days spent in agony that no use of my powers could relieve – even had there been a chance to do so. The Silver gates were closed and guarded against any departure. Finally, Kelea reported the purchase had been approved, and my heart rose. She assured me she would make the purchase herself.
“Let me come,” I said.
“That wouldn’t be wise, I think. If your sister recognized you, they might raise the price.”
I forced the words out. “I understand.” I spent that day as if walking on ice – slipping when I walked, unnaturally chill, my hairs standing on end. The few small hours before my mentor returned seemed forever.
She was alone, I noticed, suppressing the frisson of fear. “What happened?”
“He will not sell for anything.” Kelea took me by the shoulders, her grip perilously firm. “I tried my hardest, Daien-”
“How can that be? Why would he want to keep her so much?” Scenarios and rationalizations poured through my mind.
“I suspect the fact it was the Silver Order asking had something to do with it,” Kelea said. “Most who purchase slaves are not pleased with our stance. He is resolved now, and I fear … our hands are tied.”
My body rebelled. I swayed as if struck, and wished for an instant to be overcome by it – anything to cleanse those thoughts. “There must be something to be done,” I said.
“Daien.” She channeled a small thread of energy through me, but it left me somehow colder. “Do you remember what I said to you, when we discussed how to survive as a Silver?”
There was only one way to take away this hurt. “I remember,” I murmured, bowing my head. “Thank you, Kelea. For everything.”
Her look sharpened. If she heard the note of finality in my voice, she seemed to convince herself she had not. “Every person we lose hurts, Daien. We can’t save everyone. There are times when we can’t save anyone.” She squeezed my shoulders a final time. “But there are other times.”
I stole a change of clothing from storage so I would not be conspicuous, along with a small pouch of coins. I escaped the guards by climbing the courtyard wall. As a child, I had scrambled up anything that might be climbed, with Jila alternately chiding and laughing below. I knew where to go: the merchant had taken over the White Star Inn for his purposes, and word-of-mouth told me he had his purchases chained in the stable courtyard. I slipped into the front room of the inn.
“Send a round of drinks to the guards,” I said. “I’m paying.” I brushed up against one of the tables where the remnants of dinner still lay and, after a second’s hesitation, slid the knife off the table to rest against my hip. I had no idea how to fight, but I might need to cut a rope.
The courtyard was dank and mossy, the footing treacherous in the half-light. Instinctively, I suppressed the leaps of fear that followed each wobble. The guards had finished their second round – working on their third, with my help – and seemed more interested in their gambling and discussion of the local shady district than in their charges. The half-dozen slaves crouched in the corner; one slept against the wall, another pillowed with her head in the lap of a wiry boy.
Jila – my Jila! – curled against the stable wall, toying with bits of string. I watched the familiar twining with a whisper in my heart. I remembered playing string-games with her; she had always been much better at them.
I put my back to the wall and crept closer. The five were tied together, the ropes joining at a stake in the courtyard. That was all – with the guards, did they need more?
Her head whipped around. She sucked in a gasp, but remembered not to turn it into a cry. “Daien,” she said instead, “how did you – I thought you were dead.”
The explanation welled up in me and drained away. I glanced anxiously towards the guards – roars of laughter as someone folded in response to what had turned out to be a bluff. “I’m getting you out of here,” I said, fumbling for the knife.
The young man with the girl in his lap looked over. “Is that a dagger?” he said. “Let me fight them.”
I looked at the guards again. Was he mad? But another study of his eyes told me a different story.
I hesitated with my fingers on the rope. “Be very quiet,” I said, “and I’ll cut everyone free.” I flinched as the knife cut through a strand, passing within an inch of my thumb.
The young man reached out and took it from me. “Let me do that.”
He moved to the end of the line, which meant Jila was last. My eyes flicked frantically over the guards as I tried to melt into the shadows. If they did a headcount, saw the bend of the wiry boy’s back, got bored and decided to hassle the slaves …
Rope snicked. Jila’s body crushed against mine. “You shouldn’t have risked it,” she said. “Thank you.”
“Done.” The boy started to hand me the knife, blade first. “We have to -”
“What’s going on over here?”
He yelped in surprise. I jerked, but not fast enough. The blade slashed my palm. I cried out, instinctively drawing on the energy inside me.
“Daien!” Jila shouted. “Run!”
I rose just in time to crash into the first guard. He reeled back, cursing as he reached for me. I dove past him. The slaves fled for the shadows – all but the young man, who braced himself, clutching the knife hilt.
“Come on,” I said.
He shook his head. “Go. One of us doesn’t make it, or none of us do. You came here to save us.”
Had there been time, I would have argued. He had already turned away, bracing the guards with a yell and a wild sweep of the blade. I spun on my heel and ran, the stones slick under my feet, Jila scrambling in my wake. Darkness reached out her hands and pulled us close.
A few streets away, I fell against a wall, breathing hard. Jila embraced me, burying her head against the back of my shoulder. “You’re injured. We should get you to a healer.”
I was a healer, my mind told me, not thinking of the rest. I focused on the injury, summoning the well-remembered light … and there was nothing. I felt empty, drained out like a drought-season stream. I stared at the blood, watching it trickle down my hand.
“The Silver Order,” I said. “We need to take sanctuary.”
The junior Silver on duty received us calmly. He hustled Jila off to the dining hall – “Nothing wrong with her that a hot meal and rest wouldn’t cure.” – and set me down on a chair. “Hold out your hand.”
Bright light gathered, and I felt a gentle tickle under the pain. The injury did not mend; the bleeding didn’t even slow. The junior looked up at me, his eyes wide. “How -”
“She’s a Silver herself,” Kelea’s voice said, “a blemished one.”
I jumped, twisting to face her. Had I not been surprised, I would never have looked at her face – disappointment, regret, resignation. “I had to do it,” I said. “I couldn’t leave her.”
“You’ve exchanged one person for dozens you would have healed.” Kelea sighed. “But the choice was yours to make. Bandages,” she directed the junior, “she will have to heal on her own.”
Yet even severed from that warmth, I felt cheered. I had come to the Silver Order to escape, only to find I could not. I didn’t know where Jila and I would go from here, but I knew we would figure it out. We would have no bodyminders, no ritual precautions, let bumps, bruises and scrapes happen where they would. I would not regret a blemished life.
I limped into the dining hall a short time later and sat down beside my sister. “So what have you been doing with yourself without my guidance?” she asked. “Making a mess of things?”
“No,” I said, “I think I got this one right.”
LINDSEY DUNCAN is a chef / pastry chef, professional Celtic harp performer and life-long writer, with short fiction and poetry in numerous speculative fiction publications. Her contemporary fantasy novel, Flow, is available from Double Dragon Publishing. She feels that music and language are inextricably linked. She lives in Cincinnati, Ohio and can be found on the web at http://www.LindseyDuncan.com