The Unicorn's Gift - Part 8


Armed for myth with knowledge,
the younger leads the way,
sets our feet upon the path
we follow to this day

She who knows of suffering,
and peace that healing brings
Prizes love and mercy
above all other things

Hands so warm and gentle
that gift of love they bring,
and with the gift of knowledge
she heals our suffering
by

Sarah Lynn Morgan

The Unicorn's Gift
 
     The_Unicorn_s_Calm.pngPart Eight

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     “Calum looked up to see why his wife had not spoken when she’d entered the common room. What he found, was her staring at his friend Bryan who stood silhouetted in the doorway. It had been quiet, so Calum had not been paying attention.

She spoke to him first. “Bryan? Is everything all right?” Her voice was calm enough, but still her concerns showed at his appearing in the middle of the day like this.

“Did you not find the loaves I left for you?” She tried to be cheerful, but her thoughts were mostly for how terribly rundown and tried the man looked. Still there was something in his expression.

Bryan never really had the chance to answer her, though, because in that moment Syna stepped out from behind her father.

“Dyre!” Calum gasped, and made to move from behind the counter, but Dara was much faster.

She rushed across the room to embrace the child without ever having said a word, the two stood there holding each other, with Calum waiting his turn, resting a hand on each of their shoulders.

“Child, where have you been?” she asked, even while Syna’s feet had become estranged from the floor, so fiercely did she hug the child.

Behind Syna, Bryan was watching the woman closely for her reaction, and thus he saw it clearly when Dara’s tearful eyes suddenly flew open and she looked right at him. She was much faster than he had been. He knew that Syna was apologizing again, but it was obvious that Dara was not listening at all to what the child said. Slowly, Dara turned her face to the side of Syna’s head, and pressed it into her hair, and then rubbed her lips gently along the girl’s cheek testing the softness of her skin with her own cheek and lips...

Her face held no trace of the smile she had worn as she rushed across the room,just as the tears in her eyes had evaporated.

Dara raised her hands to Syna’s shoulders, and pushed her back gently so that she could look. Clearly deeply worried, she took Syna by the hand, and pulled her over by the door where she examined her from head to toe.

Calum cleared his throat. He too was quite happy, but also confused by his wife’s odd behavior.

“Dyre?” he said, which caused Syna to turn toward him with a smile that positively beamed. “Where have you been, Boy?”

His voice faded slightly at the last word, because standing as she was in the brighter light, it was not a natural choice of words. Never the less, he stepped forward to gently clasp the child with a hand that covered the entirety of Syna’s small shoulder. As for speech, however, he got no further than his first good look at her in the light from the door.

 

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          Scant minutes later, Syna found herself seated at the table in the kitchen facing Dara, where she was once more called upon to recounted all that she could of her absence. The questions were not surprisingly like those her father had asked, and Syna must have answered them four or five times before Dara picked up on something new.

It was not something the girl said.

Reaching out, Dara slipped her fingers under the lower hem of the girl's vest, and lifting it gently asked, “Did you do this?” All the while, she looked in awe between the flawless line of tiny colorful flowers that now ran around the margin of the garment, and the child’s equally beautiful face.

Syna simply shook her head.

The cook, who was busy picking up pieces of broken plates, and who had seldom done more than grunt or point for Syna to do things for her, let out a very uncharacteristic howl which startled Syna and the three adults who were gaping at her with open mouths.

“Asleep!” Cook bawled plaintively. “Asleep in the forest!”

Every head had alread snapped to her, and could see the woman’s red face puffing as she fought for words, even as she squinted her weak old eyes to better see.

“What mischief is this Boy? Do you know that the whole village was out searching for your body for days! No work getting done! Animals untended! Every soul traipsing about this valley…”

Everyone else just gaped at the woman, and was still doing so even as Dara lifted her by the arm, and all but carried her out of the kitchen.

It was several moments before they all turned away from the door where the pair had disappeared. but when they did, the only other point of interest it the room was Syna. She felt like she would melt under the look that both her father and Calum had fixed upon her. If she could have, she would have dropped to the floor and started burrowing right through the floorboards, but she could only sit and try to look as small as possible. It wasn’t hard to do.

Dara returned after far too many moments of silence, walking quickly into the room. “I put her at the table in the back with a large glass of spirits.” Dara said to Calum. “I also told her to keep quiet about what she heard, until we’ve gotten something reasonable out of the girl...” At which Dara came to a full stop, and looked worried at having referred to Syna as ‘The Girl.’

Calum and Bryan could understand, so said nothing, even as Dara dragged a chair around to face the girl, and seated herself there before speaking to Syna in a completely different tone of voice. It was a tone that showed much of the confusion and irritation that been building in Dara, and which she was letting vent now that she knew that the child was basicaly well.

Unfortunately, it was hard to look into the girl’s eyes because they shown so brightly and beautifully Dara felt it, even through the regret she felt at causing the child to shrink back into the chair. It was also hard to ignore the faint but very pleasant scent that seemed to be coming from the girl, but her consternation was so great that not even these could fully distract Dara.

“Listen to me now.” Dara began, as Syna stared at the woman’s face with ever widening eyes. “I have never known you to tell me a lie, Dyre. Now I need you to tell me the absolute truth!”

Behind her, Calum reached over, and placed his hand on his wife’s shoulder, stopping her before she had fully raised her voice.

“Listen, boy.” Calum continued softly, taking over to give his wife time to breathe.
She was still irritated at having to deal with the silly cook. “Whatever has happened, we need you to tell it all. Dyre, we can’t have children disappearing from their homes at night. If there is something wrong, no matter what it is, you can tell us.” Then he began raising his voice, which was even more unusual than when Dara had done so, “But whatever happened you must tell us the truth!”

Syna could understand why they were getting angry, even when they had been so pleased to see her, but she could only shake her head slowly in the negative at them. For their part, the adults could only stare back with disbelieving eyes. Perhaps, they might have felt even more anger at her obvious refusal to speak, but her eyes had begun to sparkle with rapidly collecting moisture as she responded very softly.

“I’m sorry.”

Calum’s voice was softer, but still filled with wonder. “Syna, I don’t believe you’ve ever lied to me either, but I can’t believe what I’m hearing. What is the truth of it boy?

The tears, so pregnant in her eyes, instantly spilled onto her cheeks at the uttering of the word ‘lie.’ How could she tell them that she had never lied to any of them, about anything? She’d never had need to; and now they didn't believe her. She could not tell them
any more than she had.

Dara in particular needed to comfort the child, so raising her chin, she dabbed the child’s eyes with that same cloth that all mothers are magically endowed with, and then silently covered Syna’s small hands where they lay tightly entwined on Syna’s skirt

No one spoke before Syna finally did herself.

“Calum?” She asked quietly.

“Yes?” He answered back in surprise at the calmness of her tone.

“Please don’t call me that.”

“Call you what?” The man asked, clearly not having the first notion as to what the addled-brained child was referring to. “I never said you were lying, boy. No one really thinks that.”

“Boy.” She said even more softly.

The adults were still staring at her, dumbfounded when Keely burst into the room, quickly followed by the cook.

On seeing her friend back safe and sound, Keely was inconsolable, and in fact not much better off than Syna herself just then.

Seeing the futility of trying to separate the pair, Dara turned toward the cook, who simply shook her head and motioned for Dara to come close for a whispered conversation.

Glancing through the door to the common room, she could see that it was rapidly filling up with villagers who had heard the news of Syna’s return.

“Damn!” She swore bitterly, causing everyone to look at her.

“Well Calum,” she spat out, “the charm of running an Inn is visited on us once more! We need a few moments of privacy for family matters, and our neighbors have descended on us en mass!”

“How many?” he asked, as Calum stepped to the door, and could see that the front room was rapidly filling.

“All of them.” Cook answered.

“Let them wait.” he said at first. Then looking back at the girls, he realized that he could probably do more good keeping the crowd under control “You deal with this.” He said simply, and stepped through the door to the common room.

Cook had gone to the hearth, and had begun to stoke the fire to bring the ovens to temperature. Habits are hard to break. Old ones most of all.

Dara suddenly decided that a little work might be just the thing for her as well - at least, for the next few minutes. “I’m going to go and check on our Healer.” She announced much to Syna and Bryan’s surprise.

Looking at the confusion on their faces, Dara explained.

“The old idiot is not well, poor soul. The Elder asked if we would keep him here for a few days.” She frowned before continuing in a gentler fashion, “Mostly to keep him from poisoning himself with his various concoctions, as he has so many other poor souls of late.” Then smiling with some genuine humor. “Besides, Tad’s wife is still not over the rash his last potion caused, and she is itching so furiously, that the elder is somewhat fearful that she’ll come and feed the rest of the potion to him!”

Everyone smiled at that. They knew that the healer had never been very good with anything but the simplest remedies, which any mother might manage. Sadly, he was not actually as good as most of them; but of late, he had gotten downright dangerous. Most people knew this all to well. The villagers all knew to steer clear, and when they were found to be ill by the healer, would usually just take his ‘medicines’ from him before quietly burying them in the forest where they could do no harm.

The small payments they gave in return were just a kindness to make sure that the old man had enough to eat.

Lassa must have been itching very badly, the poor thing, Dara thought, if she had actually tried to sooth it with anything the old healer had provided.

It was Syna who spoke over the gently knowing chuckles from around the room.

“Is he very ill, Dara?” She asked without humor.

“I’m afraid so.” Dara said, suddenly sorry for having found humor in the old man’s misfortune. Even though his constant complaining, and his constant attempts on their lives probably deserving of far worse, it was hard to feel any ill feeling toward the kindly old man.

“The poor old soul is having pains inside, and is unable to eat now. I’m afraid he’s just old.” She said regretfully, before continuing.

“He’s been friends with our Elder, Keene, since he was very young. Had it not been for that, I’m sure they would have taken his potions away from him long ago. It was The Elder who asked that we try to do what we could for him” She finished softly “He’s really too weak to be that much trouble, anyway.”

The look in her eyes left little doubt that the Braelan had only a little time left.

Dara Turned to the cook “Speaking of which , I need more broth. I’ll send the boy to
you to fill the fire box, and you can start on the bread and pies… Bryan would you help us by firing the roasting pit? I’ll have someone set the…”

 

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          While all the adults were more or less occupied with current business, Keely pulled Syna into the far corner of the kitchen, and into the cupboard area . It was only then, and after Syna had repeated what little she could tell of her story, that Keely had begun to question her more earnestly.

She finally asked while looking at her friend “Are you a girl?”

Syna could not help but giggle a little the silliness of the remark.

“I’m just like I always was.”

Keely resented her laughing a little, and continued even more earnestly, while still trying to keep her voice low. “But?” She sputtered, “You’re supposed to be a boy!”

“You thought I was a Boy?” Syna seemed to think this remark was very funny for some reason, and was chuckling now all the way to her belly, at Keely’s demented behavior.

Keely did not know whether to laugh at her friend or strangle her. She did know, that, when Syna cocked her head to the side like that, and grinned at her, it made her feel very strange inside. Keely had never seemed to notice before that she had eyes that flashed like the sun off of the water on a windy day.

Keely would have probably denounced her right then and there as hopelessly deranged, had it not for the beautiful shimmer of her hair, or her beautiful green eyes, that seemed larger and brighter than they had ever been. The perfume of her, which seemed to make Keely’s head swim, especially now that she had her back in the confined corner of the room, did nothing to help. Neither did the softness of Syna’s hand, as she reached up and stroked the side of Keely’s pretty face very gently.

In the end, it was the most natural thing in the world for Keely to reach out and draw Syna into an embrace. It was just as natural for her to bury her face into Syna’s hair, to inhale the wonderful scent of her, and to kiss her first on her temple, and finally on her lips.

When Keely opened her eyes, they were almost as wide as Syna’s own, but not quite.

She would have said she was sorry, but was too shocked. And then, a frightening thought struck Keely, as she looked about the kitchen until she was relieved to realize that no one else had noticed what she had done.

Looking back at Syna’s face, she was amazed to see that rather than the horror that she had expected, Syna was smiling warmly at her. Keely flushed crimson, from breast to the top of her head, which Syna could clearly see.

“Keely?” Dara called from the door to the common room, which made the poor girl jump a foot. Syna’s smile did not fade at all.

“Yes mother?” Keely managed to stammer, somehow, her voice clearly not working at all well.

“I’m sorry, but I need you now. You’ll have to catch up later. Syna, you can wait here for me”.

Keely’s eyes found Syna blushing now as well, before they looked down at the floor.

“Sorry.” she whispered weakly, and took a pace to pass between Syna and some shelves, to go to her mother’s aide. Just as suddenly, however, she felt Syna’s hand on her neck, to stop her. Barely had Keely turned back to Syna before her soft lips were once more pressed to hers.. It was not the kiss of one friend for another, even thought it lasted only a moment. Syna reached for a clean apron that hung beside her head, which she then quickly fastened about Keely’s waist with a large and extravagant bow.

Keely still had not caught her breath, as she virtually stumbled toward the common room door that had swallowed her mother…

 
 

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     Almost every table in the front room was occupied, with more still coming in. It seems that this was to be a gathering of both celebration and speculation.

“Are you well, girl?” her father asked Keely as soon as he set the cask he’d been carrying in place.

She nodded, and reaching for an apron began to put it on over the one she already wore, before realizing her mistake and throwing the old apron back on the hook, much to the amusement of several of the patrons.

“Over there.” her father gestured, where she could see that one of the stable hands was trying to serve tankards to a table that had too many people around it for him to actually reach the table. With long practice in negotiating crowded rooms, and far more grace than a boy could manage, she quickly reached his side and relieved him of the burden before he even saw her coming. Quickly serving the drinks, she released the boy to go and tend the stable, which must surely be overflowing with animals needing care. Given how quickly the crowd had arrived, she could imagine the poor animals wandering the road, forgotten in their master’s haste to get inside.

In moments, her thoughts were lost in the buzzing of the room; answering all questions, save for those dealing specifically in food or drink, with a smile.

Her mother, she could see, was placing food on a table on the other side of the room, from a large tray carried by one of the boys. She took instant notice that the portions looked smaller than normal, which meant that cook was doing everything possible to see that none went hungry. If Keely concentrated, she could just hear above the din in the room, the voice of the cook as she ordered the kitchen boys about like some lieutenant during some great battle. The thought made her smile, as she wove her way back to the counter for more, where her father was busily filling glasses and tankards with all manner of drinks.

 

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          Dara was closest to the door, when Jada stepped through from the bright afternoon sunlight. The first two days he had been back, he had spent searching about the valley for the missing child. The last two, he had spent wandering about the inhabited parts, talking casually but incessantly about all manner of silly common things. How were the cattle doing, or how many lambs had been born in that season? At another farm, he might ask if weren’t the fields too small for a family of five children, only to be told that the fallow portions were not left that way out of need to rest the field, but rather more that the planted portions were yielding quite enough for a family of even larger size. They would have enough to sell to any outsiders, or those who did not till land of their own.

When Jada would ask them if they were not taking some risk, in relying on such a small plot, lest something go wrong, the valley folk would simply stare at him in incomprehension. It was a good time to remark on the warmth of the weather, this late in the season, Jada had found.

Unfortunately, Dara could not reach Jada, before she saw him bend an ear toward another patron to enquire what had happened, only to then watch as he quickly rose up, and began to scan the room rapidly and methodically. Thus it was, that he probably had the first view of Syna as she appeared at the door of the kitchen, while fastening an apron about her skirt.

Syna looked about the room calmly. It seemed strange, but somehow a room full of hungry and thirsty villagers held no concern for her now. She smiled faintly at the very thought, as she remembered that as often as she had helped, she had always felt a little nervous when serving in a full room. Then she spied Jada, staring at her open mouthed from near the door, as she began to step further into the room.

Behind Syna, Dara made a sudden movement toward the girl, as if she fully intended to drag her back into the kitchen, but was stopped by a firm but gentle hand on her shoulder. Looking back, she came face to face with Bryan, who only shook his head while watching his daughter intently.

Syna had only lasted through two frantic trips by Keely into the kitchen, and one by Dara, before she had to help. Reaching for a cloth and the small carrying tray resting on the edge of the counter, she had still only just stepped into the room, when the loud buzz of conversation began to die off all around the room.

In the space of two breaths, the din had grown into a full silence, as Syna looked about the room at the many faces she saw staring back at her. She also stopped, and simply looked back, from face to face. She knew them all, but she couldn’t understand the shock and amazement she could see in them. Some of the patrons were actually backing away, while a much smaller number, all women, seemed to be stepping in for a closer look. But moving or no, almost to a person, they simply stared in open mouth amazement, as drinks hovered motionless everywhere, half way to either their owners lips and tables.

The silence had lasted far too long for comfort, when Jada took several steps into the room, and spoke to Syna without fully breaking the spell.

“Syna?” He asked with wonder in his voice. “Are you well?”

Smiling back, Syna said softly, “I am, Jada. Quite well. Thank you for asking.”

Jada was stunned at the change. Gone was the shy girl, who although he could see that she was quite clearly blushing, had none of the trouble meeting his gaze that she had suffered from the first time they had met. He would have spoken more, but he was so infatuated with the vision that stood before him.

“I’m told you and Mr. Balderdash search for me for many days.” Her soft sweet voice carried clearly to every corner of the room. “I’m ever so grateful to you, Jada, and” looking about the room as a whole, “I’m so very sorry for all the trouble and effort I put everyone through.” She finished sincerely.

The room was fully silent again, and she could only look from person to person with that sweet apologetic smile. Her eye managed to catch Keely’s, who was staring at her with almost the same expression she saw on everyone else. Keely’s expression, however, reminded her of someone else’s that she had seen a few days before, and her own sweet smile brightened perceptibly as she gazed back at her for a moment.

The silence was once more well beyond uncomfortable, when Jada found a voice that was much calmer than anything that someone with a face that looked as bad as his just then, should have been able to muster.

“Where were you, Syna?” He asked.

Turning to him once more, which seemed to invite him closer to inspect her even more closely than before, she was forced now to look slightly upward at him. “I was walking in the forest and I lost my way. I had walked a long way, and when I realized I was lost, I sat down to wait for the daylight so I could find my way again. Unfortunately, I was suddenly so very tired, Jada, that I can’t really describe it. I fell asleep.”

Her voice held no humor, or deception of any kind, and none that heard her words could doubt their sincerity as the simple honest truth. But then, nor could they reconcile them with a person who had gone mysteriously missing for a fortnight, and then returned so utterly changed.

In the far corner, one not so wise man whispered “Enchantment. A sp…” He never finished, because his wiser friend elbowed him firmly. “Stop that…” It was only by the purest chance that the woman standing near them had another thought. “The rock. His head.” That thought had already been repeated by several others, before Syna spoke again.

“I am very sorry,” Syna said more softly still to the room as a whole, before turning back to Jada and finishing “When I awoke this morning, I only paused to bath, and eat a little, before I came strait home. I really did not mean to worry anyone.” Then taking another look about the room, as if expecting that to suffice, she moved to the table closest to her, where the patrons were gawking at her just like everyone else.

“Did Keely help you yet?” She asked them sweetly, only to have half the table nod their heads, while the other half shook them no Smiling still, she heard someone on the other side of the table say, “That can’t be him!” in what was obviously supposed to be a whisper. She quickly found the speaker with her eyes by simply finding the reddest face. She smiled kindly at him before looking back to those before her. She told them, “I’ll just bring you some wine, and ale for now, and when you’re all ready, I’ll find you something to eat.” This time over half nodded, less the one poor fellow whose head seemed to be lolling about in a circle, so Syna was mildly confident that they had agreed. She had walked all the way to the bar and back, before any sound other than her own footsteps, and the kitchen of course, could be heard.

Somehow, they found a chair for Jada, at a table that was tucked in the corner next to the serving counter, right beside her father. On seeing him seated, Syna walked to the table with ale for each of them. As soon as she got close enough, though, Jada reached out to capture her elbow in his hand. Usually she would just dodge such a liberty, but with him she simply stopped and smiled at him expectantly.

Jada leaned close to whisper, which Syna willing reciprocated. For a moment, Bryan thought they might be going to kiss each other, but instead the boy spoke quietly to her. It was hard, because everyone could see that all eyes were fixed on Syna, not least of all Keely.

“You look different.” Jada said earnestly.

Perhaps this was because he had never really seen Syna dressed any other way, that the shock of it all had slightly less of an effect on him than on so many others. It was also in his nature and position to seek the truth, even when he himself was under and emotional strain. True, he had seen Dyre, serving in this very room, but at that time, he had believed them to be two different people, and what he saw before him was doing nothing to shatter that illusion.

She was quite frankly, the most beautiful young woman he had ever seen.

“I know.” Syna whispered back softly. “Don’t you approve? Don’t you like the way I look, Jada?” She rejoined with the smile that is ubiquitous amongst all the most beautiful of young women when speaking to handsome young men.

Bryan almost choked on his ale, to see his son so openly flirting and turning the tables on this worldly young man. Jada actually began to stammer, and his head began to swim the moment she came so close. “No. No!” He gasped. “You are beautiful…, Syna.” he struggled with the fact that he could actually feel himself blushing. It was something he had rarely experienced in his very self assured adult life.

“Thank you, Jada!” She said, smiling fully, and patted his shoulder. Then, in impulse driven by the look on his face, she quickly bent to just barely touch her lips to his cheek. The poor young man was not up to much further conversation after that, and just sat there, and quietly sipped whatever Syna brought to him. Her father was somewhat less well.

Jada had decided that the crowded common room was not the place to question Syna. If only for his own self preservation.

 

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          For a while things went more smoothly, even though the crowd that had jammed the room had spilled out into the yard of the inn. The comfortable routine of watching Syna, and Keely, in between bites of scarcely noticed meals and quiet conversations, was broken only by the arrival of Bram and Braun.

“Someone said the little freak was actually wearing a dress!” Bram chuckled as he walked in the door. Most people were in fact eating at that point, so the rude remark he’d spoken conversationally to Braun, had carried like the caw of a raven. The pair were obviously unprepared to have garnered so much attention, so quickly. For those short moments, every eye in the place was fixed on them, which was bad enough. More specifically, it was the looks they were receiving from Jada, Bryan, Calum, the Smith, and half a dozen others that stopped them in their tracks as efficiently as a kick from Mr. Balderdash. But that was as nothing, compared to when they caught site of Syna.

It was Keely who moved first, to stand slightly in front of Syna, who drew their eyes to her. Even though it was the first time she had ceased to smile all evening, the lovely vision she put fourth was more than enough to leave them both gaping stupidly in front of the whole room. The scene lasted long enough for Braun to drool on himself - dolt that he was.

“Boys.” Calum said softly, “I’m sorry, but we’ve no more room in here tonight. If you like, you can wait outside by the stable, and I’ll have one of the boys bring you something when they get a free moment.” More specifically: Never, and they all knew it.

Bram, true to form spoke without fully sizing up the situation. “There’s more than enough room for both of us, Calum.”

Bryan stood up so quickly, that Braun actually banged the back of his head into to the door frame, which would have brought a laugh from the patrons had it not been for the eminent homicide that they were sure they would witness as soon as Bryan had crossed the room.

Jada tried to hold up his hand, to slow the man, but Bryan simply reached down, and picked up Jada’s chair, Jada and all as if he were a toddler, and placed it out of his way as he purposefully walked over to stand a pace away from Bram. Who was visibly recoiling from the man even before he had reached him.

“I heard what you did to my son,” Bryan said quietly “and what you’ve been saying. You are never to do either again.”

Everyone was stunned that he never even raised his voice.

Both boys knew that they were once again in very dangerous spot of their own device. Still, they could not just walk away without some show of foolish bravado. Bram never mustered the smile he hoped for, and only looked like a frightened punk as he nevertheless began to speak “Well fortunately…”

Half the crowd said Bryan moved very slowly, and very deliberately. The other half said that he moved with a speed of a cat. Both were right, because in fact, before anyone could have moved to stop him, Bryan had grabbed Bram by the throat so hard that the punk actually squeaked only a little before Bryans fist cut off all of the blood and air flowing there .

“Bram.” Bryan began just as slowly. “I’ve lived in this valley all my life. I’ve never had cause to have any trouble with anyone that couldn’t be settled over a drink in this very inn.” Bryan paused to take a very deep breath, a luxury his grip had denied Bram, and when his voice came out again, it had a steely quality that none had ever heard from him before. “But you tried to molest my son. Now you’ve insulted my daughter. You won’t do either again. If you do, there won’t be any trip in front of the elders. If I even think you pose the least threat to her, I’ll pull your head from your body, and leave them both wherever they fall.”

Bram face was crimson, and although he still struggled weakly, the unnatural angle at which Bryan was holding his neck, made it impossible for him to do more than clutch ineffectively at Bryan’s wrist, and perhaps wiggle his feet in mid air.

“Boys.” A readily recognizable voice said from the door. The elder’s face appeared a moment later. “Bryan.” he then said softly, apparently more in greeting than admonition, but it must have steeled Braun, because the fool actually mad an effort to grab Bryan’s wrist where he held Bram. The wrong arm it turned out, as Bryan’s open hand quickly connected with Braun’s forehead only an instant before the back of his head connected much more solidly with the door frame, leaving him on his knees staring blankly at Bryan’s knees.

Bryan then dropped Bram, unceremoniously, who immediately slumped to the floor also, holding his neck, and fighting for air.

It was unlike the villagers to stand by and witness such acts and do nothing. Most folks around here took great pride in looking out for each other pretty well, even when the danger was from someone’s own stupidity. Unfortunately for the cousins, most of the room had heard the story of what they had tried to do to Syna outside the smithy, from the smith himself in this very room tonight. It was clear in their eyes that if anyone should find their head in the road, even if they were face down on one side and body up on the other, the best they would get was stepped over.

“Uncle…” Bram finally squeaked to the elder, “did you see…” but he got no further.

“Yes I did, Bram, and I have to tell you now that you had best do as the man says.” He looked flatly at the boy, his eyes very cold. “Because you see, Bram, if I were to come across your headless body lying in the road, I’d probably just call someone to remove it. I certainly wouldn’t waste time looking for whomever rid us of a man who would molest, or otherwise hurt another man’s child. Unless, of course, it was to thank him.”

The look on Bram’s face was one of singular shock and realization..

“And don’t ever call me ‘uncle’ again.” The elder finished, before putting his hand on Bryan’s shoulder, that felt as hard as a piece of stone, and threatened to rip through the shirt he wore. “Are you all right Bryan,” he asked in a much softer tone.

It took several moments for Bryan look away from the boy kneeling against the doorframe, but he did finally nod.

“Good,” the elder said kindly, as he stepped over the pair. “I came as soon as I heard. How is the child? Well I heard?”

Behind him, a few of the patrons saw the cousins stagger out the door, but only a few. Most dismissed them before they had even risen from the floor.

Bryan, his eyes cast down to the floor in his shame at having lost his temper so, allowed the elder to steer him back toward the table where Jada was resetting the chairs.

“Jada.” The elder said, simply nodding at the others present, and sitting down in the padded chair that one of the kitchen boys had brought in for him. “So tell me, where is Syna?” He managed, just before Syna suddenly appeared at her father’s side, placing her hands on his shoulders causing him to lift his hand up to cover one of hers.

Even with all his years, nothing had prepared him. The only motion he made was to follow Syna when she had returned with some wine for him, the kind he preferred for these occasions, at which he did at least nod in thanks.

A few moments later, Dara came down the stairs, and called out softly, “Keely, can you help me?” But Keely was busy feeding a large party who had been waiting for some time for more food to be prepared, and the meat was too hot for her to hold, even under a cloth.. So, Syna simply waved Keely on, and stepped up to Dara to find out what she needed.

“It’s the healer.” She whispered. I need to change his bedding, and I need a little help.
Behind her, the Elder had realized what was happening, and was moving now to follow them up the stairs.

 
 

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     Once on the small room, Syna could see the man was sitting in a chair, moaning softly, while two of the village women were trying to get him to eat.

“No!” The man said weakly, as he pushed the food away. “…sick.”

On her arrival, rather than moving to the bedding, Syna moved to the man’s side, and knelt down there. “Braelan?” Syna spoke softly to the old man, who moaned piteously once more, without lifting his head from the back of the chair.

One of the women made to shoo the child away, until she saw who it was. Syna ignored her anyway.

“Braelan? Can you hear me?” Syna said more loudly.

The old man lifted his head and looked at her before asking. “Who are you?”

“It’s me, Syna.” She said soothingly. “Can you tell me where it hurts?”

At first, it looked as if the miller’s wife was about to shoo Syna away too, but the fact was, that she was too much in awe of the girl. She was also far too hopeful that she might be able to do something to help stop his incessant and insoluble complaining..

“Braelan?” She asked again. “Show me where it hurts.”

For the next several minutes, the old man moved his hands about his upper chest, while Syna began to carefully examine him. Ever so gently, her small hands slipped beneath his shirt and probed his chest, and felt his pulse along both sides of his neck, and along his arms and wrists. Then she gently began to probe his upper abdomen, pausing whenever he winced.

“Does it hurt worse, here?” she finally said, placing her hand on his upper belly, but not pressing.

The old healer moaned slightly, and nodded his head.

Looking at the stew that the women were trying to feed him, she reached over and picked up the bowl, before telling the old man. “I’ll be back in a little while, Braelan.” reaching for the damp cloth, she placed it on his eyes. “I know some medicine that will help you, and it will only take a little while to prepare it. You hold on, and I’ll be back as quickly as I can.”

Then walking over to the bed, Syna picked up the pillow and to the amazement of the three other women present, began to examine it, and even pulled the case off of it, before finding what she was looking for. Then taking the food, Syna walked out into the hall, where the Elder, the Healer’s oldest friend, was waiting.

Dara quickly met her there also, and asked. “What are you doing, child?”

When Syna spoke, it was to both Dara, and the healer best friend. “His heart is old, Dara, and is surely ill; but there is another problem as well. He has a hole in his stomach, probably from taking his own medicines. That’s why there has been blood on his pillow. I can help him, but the first thing that we need to do is to stop feeding him meats and stews. Have cook make up some thin cereals, with a lot of milk. Other than that, he just needs some plain water. No wine, for any reason, especially for pain.” She finished, and turned to head down the stairs, leaving two very confused adults standing behind her.

Since none suspected her errand, it was a simple thing for her to turn into the kitchen at the bottom of the stairs, and to slip through to the back yard. There, she found one of the stable boys, who quickly agreed to help her. It had grown darker now, so that they would need torches, but Syna still quickly found the things she needed near enough to the inn. The most important was a soft root that people used to sometimes eat when harvests had gone badly.

On her return, she took them all inside, and took over a small corner to wash and prepare them. At first the cook did not like giving up even that much control, but was soon pausing frequently in her own work to watch.

Taking out several small vessels, Syna began to mince some of the herbs for mixing. Into one of them, she chopped up a root, and poured in some boiled water that she had to let cool down a little before adding a flavoring herb. That she let it sit before mashing the roots to a fine pulp. In another she mixed some leaves, some in only tiny portions.

“What it that you are doing?” the woman asked. “That looks like devil’s tongue. Isn’t that poisonous?” The woman stared incredulously at Syna

That was when Dara came in, hearing it all. “Poison?” Obviously very worried indeed, to hear that word in her kitchen.

Syna never paused, but said, “Yes. It is true that many medicinal herbs are very dangerous if taken in too large a quantity. In smaller proportions they are quite safe. The trick is knowing how much.”

Dara was just drawing breath to object when the girl smiled up at Dara.

“I’ve even learned of one that would be very dangerous if taken only in small quantity, but if you eat enough, will do no harm!” She told the two older women this, clearly intrigued herself by this oddity, and wondering just where she had learned it.

Then taking the roots she had mashed, she poured some of the juice into a cup through a piece of cloth, carefully measuring its volume, and began to move about the kitchen adding more common ingredients. A little honey here and some mild spices there; before she took two cups, and a small bowl to a tray. She then carefully cleaning the residue up, and tossed the remaining plants into the mulch pile in a far corner of the yard.

Then walking back in, and picking up the tray, she told Dara, “Come if you like. I think this will help”

Several voices pointed her out as she passed through the corner of the common room, but she did not pause, nor see, as Jada, her father, and Keely moved to follow her up the landing at the door of the small room she reentered.

Dara could hear the pour old soul moaning before she even reached the top of the stairs.
The Healer was obviously fairing far worse, having thrown up what they’d just fed him, and it was mirrored in the worried faces of the women present. Most of all, it was the elder who stole her heart. The two had been friends for more years than either could clearly remember. Children raised, and wives buried, and entire lifetime of experiences together, always as friends. It was clear that the elder was sure he was loosing yet another close friend tonight.

The idea of a girl Syna’s age being allowed to attend such a critically ill soul was unheard of. However, the specter of her beauty and the palpable aura that seemed to surround her held the adults in sway, even Dara, who was by far the most likely to act to save Syna herself from any harm.

“Perhaps, you should let him be.” The miller’s wife softly suggested. She had always loved Syna, and it was this child who had spent so much time with her when she had been feeling so miserably sad in the winter and spring. Now she was more than a little afraid of her, even though she simply could not imagine any intentional harm in the child. Everyone else could see it was Braelan’s time, and that the man should be left in peace. In the end, the Miller’s wife said no more, as Syna’s gaze seemed to hold some sympathy for her as well.

“Braelan?” Syna said softly, as she once more slipped her finger just behind his ear to feel his pulse. The old man opened his eyes slightly, and moaned weakly, but made no effort to look over at her.

Then in a firmer, clearer voice, Syna spoke to him again, but still she sounded as if she were speaking to her own child. It only deepened the fascination the adults had as they watched her so intently.

“Braelan?”

This time the poor old soul looked over at her voice.

Gently slipping her hand to his cheek, Syna told him. “Braelan, don’t be afraid. I promise you that you will be all right.”

At her words, the old man’s eyes opened wider, but not as wide as the adults about the room, and standing at the door. Clearly the man had only a few hours to live at best. Everyone could see that. Better to let him go quickly, with brandy to ease his pain. The Miller’s wife would have plied him with it already; had not the elder stopped her.

“This is for your stomach.” Syna said. “That is where most of your pain is coming from.” She said softly, but firmly to hold his attention. “I’m going to let you sip it slowly. I will burn your stomach slightly for just a few moments; but you will feel better quickly.”

“Heart!” The old man said weakly, in his pain and frustration.

“I know your heart hurts too.” She said soothingly, “I’ve brought something for that as well. Your heart hurts because you are so tired and because or your stomach, but Braelan, with proper medicines your heart should last you many years. It’s strong and steady.” That caused something of a stir in the room, not least of all in the old man himself, who began to shake his head.

“Braelan…” Syna said in that soothing voice that seemed to mesmerize the man so easily. “Sip slowly.”

The old man began to weakly sip at the cup she held to his lips, probably thinking it was brandy. Syna slipped herself onto the side of the chair, so that she could lay her other arm about his frail shoulders to hold is head up better. It also allowed her to look into the cup as well.

“A little more.” she said, feeding him as much as she dared, lest he choke.

On the third such sip the man’s eyes winced, and his hands feebly moved to his stomach, signaling Syna to ease back on the cup lest the old man throw it all back up.
“It will only burn for a moment or two, Braelan.” She said soothingly, as she watched his face. A moment or two later the cup was at the man’s lips once more, as she poured a little in his mouth.

The burning frightened him obviously, because he allowed most of it to dribble out of his Mouth. “That’s ok,” Syna said, while gently tipping his head back, and pouring in more that he was thus forced to swallow down. “We need to get more in, and I’ve made plenty.” She said kindly. “Sip it down, now. You’ll feel so much better soon.”

The miller’s wife quietly suggested. “Perhaps a little brandy for the pain?”

“No!” Syna said softly but firmly. “Spirits will make the pain worse, and would probably worsen the bleeding. If he has spasms now, his stomach might bleed worse. No, spirits of any kind, - for now.” All the while she never took her eyes off the cup, nor did she stop slowly feeding the man the fluid.

This went on for several more minutes, and then to everyone’s amazement, Syna pulled the cup away and the old healer let out a soft sigh, and tried to raise his hand to hold the cup to his lips.

“Not all at once.” Syna said gently as she placed the bottom of the cup in his hand, and then holding her hand under his, continued to allow the man to sip the fluid more willingly. “Once we get enough into your stomach, the pain should start to ease... This will stop the bleeding, and help the wound to heal as well, so I need you to sip it a little at a time.” She soothed.

Finally, taking the cup away, Syna allowed the man’s head to lie back once more. Then she reached down for a small scrap of paper she had tucked into her vest. Carefully unwrapping it, she took a grape sized pellet of herbs that she had prepared, and then spoke softly to the old Healer once more.

“This is for Pain.” She said. “It will make you feel much better. Ordinarily you would just chew this, and swallow it, but I’d rather you not do that just now.” She looked at him, as his eyes began to actually focus on her face. “I need you to chew it, and suck the juices, but I don’t want you to swallow any of the stems. Can you do that now, Braelan?”

To the utter shock of all there present, the old man actually nodded.

Looking in his mouth, to find where he had the best teeth, Syna quickly shoved the pellet in beside his cheek with her finger. “Chew it, and suck the Juice.” she said, and quickly saw his jaw begin to move. Taking the cup again, she fed him just a little of that, even as he weakly reached for it.

“Your tongue may go a little numb, but that’s okay. Just try not to bite it.” She warned, with a kind little laugh, as she quickly put the cup in the miller’s wife’s hand, and shoved her finger back into his cheek to press the pellet back into place.

“You are going to be fine, now Braelan.” She said, pressing her cheek softly on his brow, before she once more took the cup and gave him a little sip. “Does that make your stomach burn again?” She asked him, only to have the man shake his head in the negative.

“That’s good news.” Syna said cheerily. “That means that your stomach is not as bad as I’d feared. I promise you will be all right, so I want you to try and stay calm. When you upset yourself, it will only make the pains worse, so I just want you to rest as quietly as you can for me. OK?” She said looking him in the eye and receiving a much better nod this time.

The elder looked like he would cry in relief, as some color began to return to his friend’s cheeks.

For the first time in hours, the old healer looked around the room, at the gathered people there.

“Do you want more privacy?” the elder asked, but the old man simply shook his head no.

“How does that taste now? Still very bitter?” Syna asked, and received a little shake no. “OK then, let me have it back.” she instructed, as she placed her hand under his lips.
The old man got most of it out in a little pellet that fell into her hand, and Syna’s finger got the rest.

All of it quickly wound up in Dara’s magic cloth, which the poor woman looked at for a moment after as if she’d never seen one before, before she pressed it back into the pocked of her apron.

Taking the cup once more she allowed him a few more sips, before handing it back to the miller’s wife.

Finally picking up the last small cup she told him “This is for your heart. It will help you breath and make your heart beat more normally. I need you to drink it right down, and then I need you to rinse out your mouth and swallow that too.” She looked at him for a few moments to make sure he was paying attention to her. She knew he was, because he held up his hand slightly, to indicate he needed a moment more.

Syna was happy enough to wait a few moments.

“Ready now?” Syna asked the few moments later, as he looked at her once more, only to have him surprise everyone by croaking “yes” very weakly. The change in the old healer was nothing less than miraculous already, as the color began to once more infuse his cheeks, and he could respond, albeit weakly, to those around him.

Syna put the small cup in his hand, and allowed him to lift it to his lips “Right down, and for goodness sakes, don’t choke!” She said in caution, knowing that to get this medicine in his lungs could be quite dangerous. On feeling the man suddenly lift the cup, she helped him, and then taking that away, quickly reached for the first one again, to let him take several large sips further.

Sighing, the man’s head once more rested back onto the back of the chair, completely exhausted. They did have a few moments to wait, but it was only a short time before everyone could see a definite look of relief spreading across the man’s face. Syna took a moment to wipe her fingers off on a cloth, before gently slipping her fingers once more behind his ear to feel his pulse. She alternate hummed a little tune, or spoke to him softly about unimportant things like an herb garden she wished to plant, while never taking her hand away. Then slowly, she reached out, and lifted his lids to look once more at his eyes, causing them to open on their own.

“What was that?” he croaked again weakly.

“Lots of things,” she said, with a little smile. Mostly it was a little Devil’s tongue that eased your Heart.”

Syna could not help but giggle a little as the old mans eyes opened wider.
“P, p-Poison.” He said with a worried look, and finished “Foot, itch.”

Syna actually giggled. “If you take too much at one time, it would be very bad, Braelan, but I only used a tiny bit. As for the feet, I bet it raised some interesting blisters.” She smiled at him genuinely as he looked as if he wanted to argue.

Standing up, she took the cup from the man, and set it on the side of a small table by the bed, while telling the miller’s wife. “He’s had enough of this for now. You can give him some a little later if his stomach hurts.” Syna smiled at the woman as she nodded back in awe.

“I’ll also make up another dose of pain medicine, which you can give him near midnight, to help him sleep.” Then taking a little bowl of the mashed root she gave that to her as well. “He should eat some of this.” Syna told her. “He can have as much as he wants, which shouldn’t be much, but it will help to keep his stomach calm. It tastes quite a bit better than the juices, so you shouldn’t have any problems. Just warm it with some boiling water, and mix it in long enough to cool before you feed it to him.”

Syna watched for a moment at the door, as the women helped the healer over to the fresh bed, and settled him there.

“Tomorrow, he needs to get up, and move about a little to help him…” she said, while rubbing her lower abdomen with the palm of her hand. “Good night, Braelan.” She finished brightly.

“Who?” The old man asked softly from the bed as they tucked him in.

“I’m Syna, Braelan. Don’t worry, you’ll remember me tomorrow when you’re feeling stronger.”

“Bryan’s boy?” the old man asked, turning his head and trying to focus through the drug she had given him.

Syna smiled kindly at the old man, and simply answered with a nod.

She might have heard the old man say “Well!” quietly, or perhaps it was just a sigh. Everyone else who was left standing dumfounded in the room definitely heard: “Pretty thing… Thought an angel…” After which, the man fell into a restful asleep.

 

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          Keely was staring at her open mouthed, as she stepped into the little hall at the top of the stairs. Syna simply reached out to take her by the hand, and headed down the stairs. As she passed her father, she patted his chest affectionately as girls who have just reached womanhood will often do, and smiled warmly at a worried looking Jada.

In the kitchen, Syna showed Keely several more little pots of medicine for the old Healer, including three other pieces of paper in which she had folded up the same pellets of herbs she had used upstairs.

“I need you to put these in a safe place, Keely. Not too hot, and of course dry.” She smiled at the girl who still simply stared back at her.

“Syna?” Keely said with an amazed, but slightly worried look on her face. “How did you know how to do all that?”

Syna shrugged, not really understanding the question. She could recite a few of the poems that had popped into her head, but many of them were in strange languages that Keely could hardly understand. In the end, all she could do was to place her arm about her friend shoulders, for a quick hug.

“So, is the old healer gone yet?” The cook asked, wiping her hands on a cloth, as she came over to watch Syna mistrustfully. Clearly, she could not stop watching the girl in fascination.

Keely said proudly, and a little peevishly at the old woman. “He’s much better, now. Syna helped him. He’s sleeping.”

At that, Calum popped his head around the corner of the door. “I though I heard you two. Where have you been? I need some help.” He was gone again so quickly, that neither of them could respond.

Keely pushed Syna into a chair, and headed for the common room. “Wait for me here. They can’t need much.” as she dashed for the front room.

Syna was feeling tired, so that was where they found her, when the Elder, followed by Dara, Jada and her father, walked into the kitchen. The adults looked at Syna long and hard. None of the faces were particularly angry looking, but they did range from amazement to worry and even fear, as well as the whole range in between.

Cook spoke first. “Keely said the Healer is doing better?” the woman asked Dara incredulously.

“He is.” the Elder answered for her. “Very much better, thanks to our little Syna here.” Then shifting his eyes shifted away from Syna, and over to the cook, deliberately taking no notice of the ‘probably poisoned him’ mumble. A moment later he looked at Dara and suggested, “Perhaps there is a quiet place, where I could have a word with Syna?”

Dara walked over to cook and said softly. “You can go and have your dinner now, if you like? You did very well feeding everyone, and Calum and I are grateful for your work. Go and rest yourself now, and I’ll call you when it’s time to set the boys to cleaning.” Cook was not happy about it, but she had no illusions as to whose kitchen it really was. So checking everything quickly, she placed a bowl of stew on a tray with some other things she had finished for the front room, and walked out with as much dignity as she could muster. It wasn’t much.

The Elder moved a seat to place it directly in front of Syna, giving her the feeling that they thought she had done something very wrong indeed. Syna marveled that she felt so calm, as she confidently waited for the man to speak. She didn’t have very long to wait.

“I don’t know how to say thank you properly, Syna. I think you saved Braelan ’s life. I know he’s not well thought of, but we’ve been friends for over sixty years!” The elder said with a bit of soft nostalgia in his voice, as his eyes lost focus on her face for just a moment. “Most people have forgotten that he only took to Healing when the old healer got himself run over by a wagon as he staggered out of this very inn one night.”

The elder lowered his eyes slightly. Before continuing “The old Healer was much better than Braelan when it came to medicine, but he wasn’t half the man. It was Braelan who would ride across the valley in the middle of the night, when he heard that someone was ill. Even though the medicines he brought weren’t very likely to help much.” The elder shook his head. “So, although I may be the only one who is truly grateful, I do thank you, Syna.”

Syna nodded at him.

He was silent for a long while, as he watched her before he spoke. Then he simply said. “Tell me.”

Syna told him the story again. The difference was, that the elder seemed to listen to every word much more intently, if that was possible. He also waited for Syna to finish her sparse telling, before he asked many of the very same questions that everyone else had asked her already. Syna could not escape the feeling that the elder seemed to not only know that she had left much out, but also that he seemed to know how much she had left out.

“Who is Ayanne” the elder asked her.

For the first time, Syna felt a blush rising, in complete surprise at a question no one else asked.. “It’s me,” she managed, and hoped that would be enough; but for a time he just waited, as the Elder wanted more.

“It’s a very Pretty name.,” he told her as some humor reached his face. “What does it mean? I don’t think I ever heard it before.”

Syna’s knew that the color must have been rising to her face by now. “Beautiful Flower.” she almost whispered.

“It suits you, Syna. You even smell like one. Just like your mother used to, in fact.” As he said it, for the first time since he sat down, he looked more the grandfather than a judge. Syna’s eyes widened as she realized that her mother’s smell was something that she had never really forgotten, but had also not thought of consciously for years. She had always smelt wonderful.

“Who called you that, Syna?” He asked in his most kindly voice, as he leaned closer to her.

Syna could feel her eyes filled with tears. She wanted to tell him, and the others present, but she simply could not. Glancing at the faces around her, it hurt to see the same look of expectation there as well. In the end, even as the old man’s face blurred from sight, all Syna could do was shake her head silently.

She heard the Elder sigh slightly, and felt him take her hand in his, which were surprisingly warm for one his age. Dabbing her eyes on the back of her hand, she watched him lean close, as he whispered to her so softly that the others behind him surely could not hear.

“Does this have to do with the benevolent presence that resides at the head of his valley?”

He knew!

Syna was shocked, and not a little relieved that someone else would know. Faced with this fact, she fully realized how one who was so wise, and who had lived so many years in this valley, might have that knowledge. His understanding smile gave hint to the thousands of whispered conversations that he as the elder must have given ear. Conversations from sources far and wide, all heard but never repeated. He must know.

Syna was still terrified that she might be breaking her promise, which she could never willing do, but in the end she had known all her life, that this was a most honorable and trustworthy man. Every child called him grandfather, just as every young adult called him uncle, and he had always been a favorable presence in all their lives.

Syna slightly nodded her head.

Sitting back slowly, the Elder also pressed the backs of his fingers under her eyes again gently, even before Dara handed him yet another scrap of cloth for the girl.

Then standing, the Elder told her. “Would you please stand up, Syna?”

Syna looked at him confused for a moment but only just, as she quickly stood to obey the Elders ‘request.’

“I’m very sorry, Syna, but would you mind giving a tired old man a hug.”

Something in his eyes made her hesitate, even as his kind old voice caused her arms to raise up a few inches on their own. She had hugged him many times before, when she was younger of course. Most of the children in the valley had habitually done so whenever the kindly old man came visiting. He was a gentle old man after all, whom everyone loved, even though no child ever realized it was also how he kept track of how well they were being fed, and how well they were treated. A child too skinny, or one who flinched away..., but none of that was known to anyone but the elder.

Syna did not fully understand her own hesitation this time. It was just that for the first time, his eyes seemed to suggest — regret?

“Around my neck.” He told her softly, once more.

With that, Syna stepped a little stiffly toward him, as she raised her arms about his neck and shoulders.

“I’m sorry,” he whispered gently, as his arms slipped about her waist. As a prelude, his hands comforted and patted her about her back, and hips, and sides. Syna simply squeezed her eyes tight, as he slid his hand up to the back of her neck, and her hair also. He seemed to find more interest in her hips and waist, but then again, he had just as much interest in the softness of her skin and hair.

Sensing his grip finally loosening, Syna began to allow her arms to slowly fall from his shoulders, and on to his upper arms. She was surprised to see an even deeper regret in his face, when suddenly, as the Elder stepped back slightly, his hands slid from under her arms, and ever so gently but firmly along the sides of her breasts.

That brought Syna and Dara both up on to their toes.

Syna saw Dara’s face flush slightly out of the corner of her eye, and even heard her take in a breath as if she meant to speak; but she remained as silent as Syna herself, who just stared up at the elder, her eyes as wide as anyone had yet seen them.

Finally, his face returned to a warm smile, one that he usually reserved for casual and happy time with his friends and neighbors. “I am so sorry, Syna.” He said simply.

Syna smiled a little too. After all, the man had been most gentle in checking what he had. He might just as easily have ordered her into a room, with several older women, with orders to disrobe her. In the end, he had chosen a less invasive and more sensitive if more direct method. It had in fact been not much more than the casual contact that the fortunate person experiences from loved ones on a daily basis. So Syna nodded that she understood, which had as much effect in softening Dara’s expression, as it did on the Elder’s. He was, after all, a grandfather to every child in the village.

“Somehow, Syna, I never thought I’d ever see a woman who was more beautiful than your mother.” He told her, warmly. “I guess when you live long enough, you eventually see everything.”

Syna was beginning to feel embarrassed at having stood so long, staring up at him with her eyes wide open. Somehow, she managed to sound almost normal, as she told him that she was grateful for his complement, even though it surprised her in the most curious way.

Then she hugged him again, which he returned warmly.

“I’m glad you came back to us, Syna.” He said warmly, while patting her back.

Turning away he said to the others. “I’m satisfied that there is no harm in the child.” He said to their faces, half of which looked relieved at his pronouncement, and the other half, Dara and Jada, just gaping like the lately departed brook trout of recent note.

“There was one thing, though, Syna.” He said, turning back to the girl. “Ayanne is such a pretty name. Do you want us to call you that?”

Syna thought about that long and hard. “No.” She finally said.

“Why do you think the new name was given to you?” He said, phrasing his words very carefully to omit any reference to exactly whom had given that name.

“How I got the name Syna was sad.” Syna said, and thought. “I think it’s suppose to be better for me, and prettier.”

The man nodded as he considered her for a moment or two. “So then, why don’t you use it?”

If the questions got this much harder each time, Syna thought, she had no hope at all of answering the next one. Finally she just had to try. “Syna is pretty too.” She told him. “It’s what I am.” She said this with a small frown, as she glanced about the room at the other faces gauging how this was received. “I just feel like if I tried to tell everyone to call me something else, that the mean people would just have one more way to hurt me. Syna is who I am. It’s what I am.” She finished the last of the thought slowly.

She continued before she looked up at him. “It’s taken me a long time to be me. It’ll have to just be good enough for anyone who doesn’t like me.”

The old man actually chuckled as he once more patted her cheek. “You will be all right Syna. You are wise well beyond your years. I think that people will find you just as likeable as we always have too. People too often judge by what they see. In your case, that will be just fine.”

Then chuckling at the blushing girl he turned, and followed by Jada, he walked out toward the common room.

Dara simply walked over to Syna, and wrapping her arms about the girl, held onto her for a long, long time while swinging her gently back and fourth in her arms. They were alone when they looked up once more.

 

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          As they passed the door, Jada took the Elder by the elbow, and steered him into the quiet stairs down to the cellar, causing him to turn and raise his brows at the younger man.

“That’s it?” Jada asked.

The elder simply nodded at him with impassive but compassionate eyes.

“That child was a boy? And now…?” Jada couldn’t find the words.

“That’s correct, Jada.” The man said finally. “Do you have a suggestion?”

“Do you mean to tell me that such a thing happens around her often enough to be of no concern?”

The old man shook his head, and pulled the younger man further down the stairs.

“No.” he said with a kind regard to the younger mans confusion. “Although I have heard of another child, who developed as the opposite sex when he grew older. There was also another child…,” he plucked his lip gently as he sought a bit of information from long ago, “Which died because its mother didn’t care for it I believe. But, No Jada. No, such a thing has never happened here before.”

Jada was Aghast at the man’s casual manner, but was not allowed to speak.

“But, Jada, I’ve never heard of anything like this, and probably neither have you.” The Elder smiled at him almost sadly. “I know your true mission here, Jada. I knew before you ever came.” He paused long enough to study the surprise in Jada’s face. Clearly, due to its fleeting nature, Jada was not a man who was often caught off guard. “You are not the first emissary of the crown to come and investigate our little valley. The kingdom does not send persons of your talent and abilities to discuss roads.”

Jada recognized this as a time to stand mute.

“Jada, do you believe in witches?” The man said.

Jada could not believe his ears. Surely this man was not one of the many foolish people who believed in such superstitious nonsense. Nothing he had said in Jada’s presence gave rise to that notion, but faced with the impossible circumstances they were, Jada wanted to draw the man out as far as possible.

“I have heard things.” Jada said very carefully.

The old man actually laughed at him. “I had never thought to catch you in a lie, Jada, especially not a stupid lie. You don’t believe in such nonsense, and neither do I.” the elder said shaking his head. “So, the point remains, what do you think our less enlightened friends will think now? You know, the ones up north and across the water who like to burn women who…”

 

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          Syna was helping Keely in the common room, when the Elder returned. She noticed that Jada slipped discretely over to the table inhabited by Calum and her father.

“Well!” He announced loudly to the room. “Tomorrow should be a busy day, with the harvest coming! I think I’ll take me of to bed. Even though Dara and Calum would be the worse for it, I think everyone else should do the same. Work tomorrow, you know.” and with that he looked about the room, and announced: “Good night everyone, and a restful sleep to you all.”

With that, the old man began to move toward the door, as if he meant to say nothing at all on the subject.

It was the smith who rose to his feet, and spoke. “Jarred!” He said, causing the elder to pause in his step. It was highly unusual for anyone to call the elder by his first name.

“Yes, Liam?” The Elder asked kindly.

The smith, who was usually so calm, looked like he wanted to scream at the old man!

“I’m sorry, Elder, but surely you’ve something to say about…” He stopped, since further words could not have made his question any clearer.

The Elder sighed, and turned to look all about the room, again. Then looking at the smith once more, he called out. “Syna? Would you come over here?”

Syna gulped, but placing her tray and cloth on the counter, she walked over and stood before the Elder, with her hands clasped nervously before her.

The Elder, turning her to face outward into the room, and then turning her about the room still further by her shoulders. “This is Syna. You all know her. Has anyone here ever seen or heard of her doing anyone any kind of mischief?” He asked the room, which with the exception of one or two murmurs in the negative remained silent.

“Is there anyone here that she has helped to carry a burden home, or run errands for when they were asked of her?” He asked the room pleasantly. “Or have any of you with children ever had her watch them for a few moments, or help to teach them their letters? Jasper! was it not Syna, who was the only person little Mae would come to when she was so frightened when your Lori passed?”

This time, there where were several Murmurs of ascent on every side of the room.

“Well, this is Syna. The same child you all know well, and I’m sorry to say, that a very few of you have mistreated in the past.” His smile faded slowly as he looked about the room, only to have several of those watching him turn away.

“You need know nothing more than that. This is Bryan’s daughter, who is still the same helpful and considerate child she always was. What is more, she seems to have the most remarkable talent for healing that I have ever seen. I’ve never even heard tell of one who is more adept than she seems to be, even in her youth. It seems, that as she played by herself in the forest all these years, she’s relearned some things that her mother taught her” He paused, with no trace of the smile lift on his face.

“And isn’t she beautiful?” he said flatly. There were no murmurs, but many nods before he continued. “She takes my breath away just to look at her, and I’m almost forty years past more than a casual appreciation of beautiful young women.” Several people laughed softly, mostly the older folk.

“So, I will only say this one thing more.” He smiled now, but it held no humor. “Syna is a woman now. Not really a child any longer. As such, I would take a very dim view of anyone treating her disrespectfully.”

His look, and his tone were quite different now. Every ear listened to every word as he repeated himself. “Syna is a woman now. Not really a child any longer. As such, I would take a very, very, dim view of anyone treating her disrespectfully.” He paused to let it sink in. “To my eye, she has shown you all a gentle, kind, and wise nature; often enough, in response to somewhat less admirable behavior on the part of many in this village. As a young woman now, she has earned your respect; and, her family and I will insist that she be treated accordingly.”

The Elder simply stood and looked about the room, catching many eyes before he released the girl

“She?” was all that the smith said, but it spoke volumes.

The elder simply nodded at the man, and then spoke to the room again. “Yes. She.”

Then he seemed to consider for a moment. “If some of you have never heard of such a thing, then I suggest you ask your grandmothers. Sometimes, it happens with children when they come of age, and I assure you that your grandmothers have whispered stories that they can tell you. All I can say is that it sometimes happens, and is part of the natural order of things.”

He was smiling at Syna now, who just looked so beautifully confused, but remained very respectfully silent while Keene spoke. “I’ve also been told, that her real name should be Ayanne. It means ‘Beautiful Flower.” The elder actually chuckled at that a little. “I think it’s much more appropriate than does Syna now, but I’ll just leave that up to her.”

For a long time there was silence. Then finally the Elder said, “Good night, Syna. Good night everyone. It should be a fine day tomorrow. We should all be able to get a lot done, so rest thee well my many good friends.” With that the man walked out of the room, leaving her standing there in the middle, gazing calmly from one person to the next.

With a polite nod to her elders, she walked over to the counter and picked up her tray, before walking to the table where her family sat with Jada. Affectionately placing her hand on her father’s shoulder, she asked, “Do you need anything, Father? Did you get enough to eat”

Bryan shook his head that he needed nothing more, but slipped his hand on his daughter’s wrist, and squeezed her in both affection and admiration.

“Calum? Jada? How about the two of you?” she asked them warmly. Jada just shook his head, but spoke more like his old friendly self. “Food, and Wine, Syna, if it’s not too much bother. I’m feeling peckish, puckish, and parched.” Syna smiled at his returning silliness, and she got a nod from Calum as well. She had already decided to bring Dara some wine, since it looked like she needed it.

As she turned to go, Jada spoke softly. “Ahm, Syna?”

Turning she subconsciously placed one hand on her hip even as she raised both her eyebrows and smiled at him.

“The elder was wrong about one thing,” he said with none of his usual jauntiness, which convinced Syna she was to be the butt of another of his witticisms.

“Oh, Jada the puckish? I prey you sir, do tell?” She smiled and fluttered her lashes at him, which almost caused Dara to drop her cup.

“I think you are the most beautiful woman anyone’s ever seen.” He said with utter sincerity.

Syna’s hand slipped off her hip. She never said thank you, but nodded wordlessly and turned to hide the blush she felt glowing brilliantly on her face…

There were still many patrons left, when Syna and Keely finally got to sit down to have some dinner. It was often like that in the common room, where those who needed a quiet place to stay were always welcome. There were still far more than normal, when Bryan decided it was time to take Syna home to rest. Dara and Calum, along with Keely, wanted them to stay, but understood that Bryan wanted to take his daughter home.

Syna took a moment or two, to go upstairs, and check on the healer. He was again sleeping restfully; but, had at some point eaten a good portion of the root paste she had made for him. She could also see that the juice she had made from it was almost gone. His color and breathing were so much better. So, having sent Keely down for the pain medicine, and waking him up, had him chew out the juices, and got it down with the last of the root broth.

She could tell, from his relaxed position, and the languid tone of the muscles over his abdomen, that he was feeling much better. So, she and the Ferryman’s wife helped him to relieve himself, before allowing him to fall fast asleep.

Then wishing his stunned nurse a good night, she left.

Once in the hall, Keely said “here” very softly.

Looking down, Syna found that Keely had placed a small bundle, wrapped in a piece of cloth, in her hand. Opening it quickly, she found half a dozen coins in there. Syna’s eyes opened wider as she looked up at Keely in surprise. Keely often got actual coins from strangers passing through, and even from their neighbors on feast day celebrations, but this was a years worth of coins for her.”

Syna looked at her friend confused.

“They were leaving them all over tonight.” Keely said excitedly. “Mostly at your tables, so I gave you more than me, but it was amazing, Syna!”

Syna shook her head in wonder. “But we should split it evenly…”

“No!” Keely said firmly. “You are the one who always used to get shorted, even though you worked as hard as me. Don’t worry about it. I still do well enough.”

Syna nodded, and began to turn away, when Keely reached out to hold her back. She could see that Keely looked sad, and upset, and just stood there.

“What is it?” Syna asked, but Keely did not respond.

Looking at her, Keely looked like she might start to cry. Then it dawned on Syna why, so much had happened so quickly.

“I missed you too, Keely.” which was true, considering how she had wanted to get back to her family and friends while she was awake.

“I missed you so.” Keely said quietly, her frown softening a little.

Syna felt Keely’s hand on the back of her neck only a moment before their lips met briefly, but this time it was as friends who’d been suddenly and frighteningly parted. Even so, Syna found her lips were warm and moist, and as soft as they could be, but Keely quickly pressed her cheek into her own, and crushed Syna to her.

Syna’s head was swimming with the heady rush of unaccustomed affection, when she felt the girl slip her other arm about Syna’s waist, and pulled her tightly

Syna had no will to do anything other than to hold Keely tightly, and return her embrace. She was perfectly willing to hold Keely for as long as the girl wanted. Sensing this, Keely held on even harder.

When Syna finally felt Keely’s warm sweet breath move from her sensitive cheek, she whispered, “That was nice.” which caused the girl to giggle at the surprise in Syna’s voice, even as she pressed her own cheek into Syna’s, one last time.

“Oh Syna.” Keely whispered to her. “I’m sorry. I just can’t help it. I don’t know why.” She paused, as Syna could feel her still trying to catch her breath fully. “Ever since I saw you dressed like this, I couldn’t think of anything else. Now, that you’ve…” Keely simply hugged her tighter. “It’s all I can do to keep from doing that to you in front of everyone.”

Now that was an image that left both girls giggling freely, while trying to be quiet in deference to the guests who had already gone to bed in the rooms up here. “We may have to try that tomorrow.” Syna said through a giggle, as the image of Keely kissing her like that, in the middle of the room, with crockery hitting the floor on all sides, made it hard to breath.

“I have to go, Keely.” Syna whispered.

“I know, Syna. I’m sorry. Please don’t think I’m…” Keely was no longer laughing.

“Keely, look at me.” Syna whispered, with the understanding well beyond her years taking over. She understood Keely better now than anyone, and certainly for the first time in their lifetime together.

Slowly, and reluctantly, Keely look into Syna’s eyes. Syna could feel her tremble slightly, even as she felt her warm sweet breath against her lips and face again. It was intoxicating. Keely was still the most beautiful girl in the valley to Syna, and to Syna she always would be.

“Keely, don’t be afraid of me” Syna whispered as she looked into Keely’s eyes. “I’m just like you. I love you. I always have.”

The meaning of her words had only just begun to sink into the girl’s confused consciousness, when Syna leaned in to once more capture Keely’s lips with her own. Keely sighed so soft it was only felt and not heard, allayed any doubts that may have lingered in Syna’s mind about Keely …

“I have to go, but I will see you again as soon as I can.” Syna whispered, and took Keely by the hand, as they struggled down the stairs on rubbery legs, and straining for breath.

“Are you feeling all right?” Dara asked Keely, the moment she saw her face.

“Yes, Mother.” Keely said huskily, and then said with as much intention of covering the moment of awkwardness, as acting in kindness. “I’ll get Syna a cape to cover her for her walk , and she hurried to her room to bring down her best cape.”

It was hard to say goodbye, in front of all the patrons who remained, but they managed. Somehow.

 
 

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      On the walk home, Syna half expected her father to ask more questions, but in fact, just being together was enough. He reached out and patted her shoulder occasionally, as they each made little comment about nothing important, such as how high the corn was in Ladd’s field this harvest, but nothing of much more import.

Syna had long realized how tired she was, when they finally arrived home, and her father sent her to bed. He went back out to check the animals before doing so himself. Syna took some tinder, and lit some candles, the fire having long burned out. Taking one in her room, she opened the chest, and carefully began to undress.

Without even realizing it, she was watching herself in the mirror. Several times she felt as if she had forgotten something important as if she had something important yet to do, so she paused to watch whenever she removed her blouse, or skirt. She didn’t think about it, though she did move to close her door before her father came back into the cottage.

Standing there, she could see herself in the fine mirror, but…. She must have stood a long time, because the sound of the cottage door startled her visibly in the mirror.

Looking in the chest, which seemed to take up half of her small room, she found a pretty nightshirt, and slipped into it. Then taking another smaller ribbon, she made to tie her hair, but had to stop to look at its luster in the mirror too. It was beautiful, and thinking that struck her as odd.

It was all so overwhelming, she just could not think anymore. Taking her mother’s brush, she lovingly brushed out any strands that hand been displaced by the night wind, before finally tying her hair securely for the night. Then opening her door, she quickly walked out to wash her face in the little washbasin in the common room. She was aware, that her Father’s eyes never left her.

“I’m glad you’ve the use of the clothes, Dy…, Syna.” he said quietly. She could only smile at him, as she thought that it had been her discovery of the contents of the chest, that had preceded so much. “It’s good to have you back.” he smiled warmly at her.

On impulse, she walked over, and leaned down to kiss his cheek softly. “Me too, Father. But I was only gone for one night.” She said while stiffening a huge yawn, that prevented her from seeing his expression. “I’m so sorry to have worried you all. It won’t happen again. I love you, father. Sleep well.”

His eyes followed her through the door to her room. The feeling of the mattress that her mother had made for her, and her pillow and blanket made Syna sigh out loud, as for the first time in years, she fell fast asleep without the heartbreaking images of taunts, and her longing for her mother filling her head. Tonight, the pictures her mind showed her were all of beautiful places, fairies, the occasional unicorn… and Keely.

 
 

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     -S.L.M.
 
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