14. Leaving The Net
Chapter 13 Leaving The Net
Corli saw a flash of bright yellow hair above the row of hedges that lined the lane to her farm. She recognized Frin's apprentice, a young girl named Lira. Lira rode in on a pony, calling out.
"Mistress, Mistress! You must come at once, Frin says she needs you!"
"What is it, Lira?" Corli asked. She rose from the bench where she had been carefully separating tiny black seeds from the dried remains of deep red flowers. It was tedious work, but critically important. When dried, powdered and brewed into a bitter drink, the seeds made a potent pain killer: the same one she had used for the grey-robed stranger. The girl slipped from the pony's back.
"A firstborn labor, Mistress Corli. Madame Frin expects the worst. The woman has been sickly all along. She is so weak now, just when she'll be needing strength. The mother is swollen and her face has been flushed for two days."
Several years ago the women healers of the region had met and agreed on how best to help each other. The farms of Corli, Frin and Tessel were located within a day's slow ride from one another. Iorla lived three days away to the northwest; Zeta, the oldest, lived two days to the east. Corli was the youngest, and was the only one who as yet had no apprentice. But though she was unaware of it, the others recognized Corli as the most talented of all of them. She was by far the best at growing the healing plants and preserving their potency. She seemed to have a store of inborn wisdom and a healing skill in her hands that the others admired. When Frin or Tessel needed help, they sent for Mistress Corli. Even Zeta had sent for her, giving her plenty of time to arrive to assist at the birth of triplets. Only Iorla had never asked for help.
It was September. Corli was in her sixth month. Her morning sickness had passed and her energy had returned redoubled. She had realized that the animals were her guardians months ago, and had been wondering how she would fare when this day finally came. Would they follow her without being asked? Should she speak to the crows that perched above her head every minute of the day, or were they already aware of what was happening? And what would Lira think of Mistress Corli talking to crows?
Corli spoke over her shoulder as she headed into her hut to gather the necessary herbs and potions. "Does she bleed, Lira?"
"No, Mistress, no bleeding before I left this morning."
"And her water, does it make foam or smell peculiar?"
Lira shook her head. "She hadn't broken her water yet."
"No, I meant her piss."
Lira blinked, bewildered. Clearly, Frin had not yet taught her young apprentice all the signs of the swelling sickness. Cori would have to scold her friend later--but first things first. "Never mind, let's get going. No time to waste!"
She asked Lira to run to the barn and harness her horse to the cart. As the girl sped off, Corli looked up into the trees, wondering whether she'd gone mad.
"Well, my friends, here it is. As you see, I must leave the farm. I'm depending on you to tell the others and to follow and watch over me, as the Grey Man said you would."
The crows listened carefully until she was finished, then they creaked and cawed. Four flew off toward the woods; the rest hunched down on their branches, waiting.
The laboring mother's farm was four hours distant. Frin had sent Lira to ride for Corli at dawn. It was almost noon when they set out, Corli bumping along in her cart and Lira bouncing on the pony beside her. As they passed the end of her lane, Corli gazed at the floating net of blue. She shivered as the strands gently brushed her, as with a soft caress. It was the first time since she knew of the net's existence that she had passed through it. They rode hurriedly. Corli kept looking up and counting. Sixteen crows flew overhead, perched and waited for the slower humans to catch up again and again.
Frin, Corli and Lira worked together for the rest of that day, through the night and the following day. The baby had to be ever so carefully coaxed to leave the woman's womb, though its continued presence within her brought the mother closer to death each hour. The healing women used every bit of knowledge they had between them to increase the strength of the mother's labor but quell the frantic pounding of her heart and pulses.
On the second night, Corli brought out an old leather pouch filled with a slate-blue powder her grandmother had passed on to her mother, and she to her daughter. In it was a powerful concoction to be used only in the direst cases of slow labor and mothers sick with flushing and swelling. It was precious stuff, for the mineral in it could only be gathered between the snows in high mountain valleys, scraped from the sides of certain rocks. Corli had never been able to replenish her dwindling supply. It was a dangerous poison as well as a medicine; a pinch too much and the mother's heart would beat slower and slower until it stopped.
Her hand trembled as she measured the powder and stirred it into warm milk. They held the woman's head and forced her to drink.
On the morning of the third day the feeble cries of a newborn boy were heard. The woman smiled at last, her face now pink instead of beet red, her husband weeping beside her as she nursed for the first time.
Corli and Frin stood together in the sunlight, rubbing their eyes and stretching their limbs. Neither one had slept much in the last few days.
"How are you faring on your farm?" asked Frin. They'd been so intent on their task that they hadn't exchanged the least news until that moment.
"Oh, well enough. It is hard, though, with so little word... I didn't expect anything more, but still… I do hope he comes home before…before winter."
Frin had often regretted bringing the news of the slave market to Corli, after learning of the consequences. Her own man, Schlain, had only just returned after weeks on the road. Schlain was a metal smith, and for much of the year he rode from town to town with his tools, making fine implements and jewelry. Their older boy, Hain, went with him to learn the trade. Frin knew what it meant to be separated from your loved ones. But at least she had her younger son with her when the other two were gone. She felt sorry for Corli, always alone.
"He'll keep his word. I trusted his eyes, and Schlain likes him. You know how rare that is. Your man's got a good heart. I know of no other who would do what he has, and for strangers at that. You've no worries that he won't be back, Corli." Frin looked down at her friend and winked. "From what you tell me, he'll be running to get back into your bed. And pay no attention to that Iorla. She's just jealous."
Corli smiled and sighed with fatigue. Frin was doing her best to make her feel better. But she had more than loneliness to contend with. By that time they'd all heard tales of the fiery battle with Morgo and his hired men. What other troubles would the travelers meet? What else would he encounter on this long perilous road? But she was too tired at the moment to think about that. She yawned widely.
"I must catch a few hours of sleep before I go, Frin. I can't keep my eyes open a minute more."
"Get some rest. And thank you for all your help, my dear."
Corli left a few hours after noon, satisfied that mother and baby were doing well. Frin promised to tend to her when her time came. Lira would come and stay with Corli starting in her eighth month, and would ride at least once a week to check on her for a month before that.
"That is, if your man's not back by then. But he will be, and then Lira won't need to be your messenger. He can come find me on his great big red horse, and I can snuggle behind him and tease and tickle him all the way to your farm."
"Of course. Of course he'll be back. Oh, Frin, I hope he's safe," Corli whispered.
Frin climbed up beside her on the bench of the cart and embraced her when she saw the tears shimmer in Corli's eyes.
"Don't worry. It's not good for your babe. He'll come back. I know it."
The bear roamed in great circles around the woman's farm, just as the fire wizard had instructed him. Each night he would come into the oak forest and hear what the grumpy old badger had to say, and the chieftain of the crows would stammer and croak out his report. Silly blackbirds. Where were the ravens when you needed them? Crows were twitchy, gossiping creatures. Yet he had to admit they had their uses.
Four days ago a scout crow had taken note of a bedraggled, filthy man lurking to the south of the farm. He had an evil face and a furtive way that made the bird follow him until he disappeared. The crow chief reported the finding to the bear. Then they saw the same man again in a different spot, closer to the farm. Why was he hovering about? Was he an enemy? The crows could hardly wait to take their news to the bear.
The bear went looking for the man. He watched from the shadows under trees. The crows were right; this one was evil. He could smell it on him from fifty paces off. The bear was tempted to trample and shred this one immediately. But then other men would find a corpse mauled by a bear, and they would begin the hunt. The fire wizard had spoken of this. He had warned them to try not to attract attention. They couldn't guard the woman if they were driven off by hunters and fearful people, could they?
The bear and the badger growled and conversed long into the night. The badger had to go and judge for himself. When he returned, there was a strange gleam in his eyes.
"We must send for the Fire Wizard. I fear for the woman. The stench of hatred off this one's heart is strong and ugly."
The bear agreed. They woke the crow chieftain and told him their decision. If word was to reach the wizard, it would have to travel by wings. The crow bobbed and rocked, cackling softly.
"We will set out at once. The word will be passed. My people and our allies have been keeping watch over the travelers; they are just east of the Hills of Ash. It is four days hard flight by falcon south and west."
"Will that be in time, I wonder?" the bear growled.
"We birds cannot fly faster than we can fly, bear. We will travel beneath sun and star. The news will reach him as quickly as feather and wind can carry it. Then it will be up to the wizard."
The bear and the badger sent word to their relations and friends. Soon the guard over Corli was trebled. The badger's wife and half-grown son left their snug and well-furnished badger den in the hills and came to live in the hole beneath the woodpile. And a fiercely admired enemy of both of them, a wolverine, agreed to let bygones be bygones in the service of the fire master who knew the speech of all of them.
Two days later the badger watched in alarm as the girl with hair the color of autumn grass rode in and the Fire Wizard's woman made ready to leave the protection of the farm. Thank goodness they'd already sent news. The badger didn't need to wait for word from the crows. He already knew what they had to do.