Mist flew behind the girls, giving them room. They were clearly very tired, and though they were used to flying right next to each other, she didn’t think they were rested enough to recover gracefully if they flew into her. She was starting to consider calling for a rest when they started flying lower, and even closer together.
“Isn’t this it?” Frog was whining.
“I thought it was one more lake. Do you remember those hawthorn trees?”
“There weren’t any near where we left Orchid.”
“Yes there were!”
Mist didn’t want the girls to waste energy fighting. *Query* she whistled.
Mist gazed downward. It was approaching sunset, and the shadows were long. Things would have looked different in full sunlight. Cautiously, she flew close enough to use words. “Girls, think about the shape of the lake where the baby was. Is this lake the right shape?”
“I—“ *Maybe*. Both girls sounded uncertain.
Then a tiny windborn was winging straight upward, toward them, whistling furiously, and confusingly, a greeting, and a baby and a girl? But before Mist could properly wonder about why there would be an additional child, clear, *mother—water—asleep*
Mist whistled *greeting* with the special flourish she always used for her daughter, and *show*. Lakeborns could sleep underwater, of course, but if the woman was unconscious, that would make it very difficult to get to her and treat her. And how could she tell the difference, if she couldn’t get close? She knew a very few, very strong windborns, athletes and dancers, who could swim, but she wasn’t one of them. She fell back on healer’s discipline. One thing at a time. If all else failed, she might have to reveal herself as fireborn to get the woman out of the water. But her heart quailed at the thought of having to tell her daughter so publicly, and in front of not only her friends, but strangers. “One thing at a time” she murmured.
As she approached for landing, she saw a small, naked woodborn child, dripping wet, holding a sturdy net at the edge of the lake. The girl was scowling at Orchid, and pointing straight at Mist. “They’re fine. They could wait.”
“Mud, I’d like you to meet my mother, the healer Mist.” Orchid hovered between them, performing a little bow as she landed, as graceful as if she were introducing Mist to the mayor of a village. Mist couldn’t help but feel proud of her. “And these are my friends, Cirrus and Frog.”
“Isn’t Frog a lakeborn name?”
“We can do proper introductions later. I understand I have a patient?” Mist made a point of looking around dramatically.
“Yeah. Mom isn’t waking up.”
“Where is she?” Mist continued to look around, and saw that Cirrus was already lying down in the grass, and Frog was laying her head on the other girl, like a pillow.
“In the water. I was tying the net, under her arms like Orchid said.” she paused to glare, “ She dropped the net.”
Mist breathed a sigh of relief. There was a way to get her patient to her. “But I see you have the net safe now.”
“I caught it!”
“Good. Now, we have to pull your mother up out of the water, so I can see what’s wrong.”
The girl nodded. She was so small, Mist hesitated to ask for more help from her. Still, she could swim, and seemed resourceful.
“I want you to give me the net and look in the water. Are there any sharp rocks or, well, anything that could hurt her if we just pull her in with the net from here?”
“OK.” The girl handed her the net, pointedly not getting anywhere near Orchid with it, and dove into the water.
Mist walked forward, wanting to see if she could see anything helpful . She waded a few feet out, to where her footsteps started to cloud the water, and then bent over and stuck her head into it. She saw the net receding, a few feet, into a cloud of mud. Suddenly, the little girl was right there, walking toward her, stirring up the mud with her feet and somehow waving her arms to keep from floating upward.
Mist stood up quickly, and Mud kicked upward toward the surface, to catch her breath. Mist folded her wings in front of her. “Why were you doing that?”
“Can’t see in the mud – have to feel.”
The girl looked at her quizzically, head out of the water and arms moving to keep her in place.
“Mud,” Orchid called, “Were there any rocks?”
“Thank you Mud, that was very good.”
The little girl smiled, but looked worried. “You help her now?”
“Yes. Orchid and I will pull her out of the water. You watch her. If we need to stop pulling, you tell us.”
The girl nodded, and swam over to the baby’s enclosure, where she slid a long, curved reed out of the netting. She then stuck it in her mouth and swam out , under the water. Mist tracked her progress until she was still, wondering how hard it had been to teach the girl the trick of using a brethd so young.
Even grownups had trouble with it, and some never got the hang of breathing in only through the mouth and out only through the nose.
“Ok, Orchid, take one end of this. We’re going to pull slowly and gently.” Orchid nodded seriously, so mature for her age. Mud seemed a lot like her. Mist waited until the reed showing Mud’s location stopped moving outward; not too far, thank goodness. “Now.”
They pulled evenly and slowly; windborns often had to cooperate to lift heavy things up to cliff-side homes, and so they were used to watching each other’s cues and adjusting for differences in size and strength. It went very smoothly; apparently Mud’s assessment that it was “all soft” was accurate, but still, Mist breathed a sigh of relief when they got the woman in far enough that she could lift her out of the water and onto the sandy bank. A quick visual scan showed there was a scrape along her head, scabbed over. Her skin, tattooed with flowers around the shoulders and arms, and on the wide tail that covered her genitals, felt only a little warm, though she could see that it had flaked a bit on the left side. Mist ran her fingers along the woman’s arms, legs and back, checking for broken bones with both her normal senses and her fire-sense.
Mud came out of the water, the brethd stuck under one arm, forgotten.
Mist looked up. “What’s her name?”
Mist gently lifted her outer eyelids; it was hard to tell if the woman had a concussion with the inner lids still closed, but they were easy to damage. “Coral, can you hear me?”
“Mom!” Mud called, reaching out to grab the woman’s foot and shake it.
Orchid reached over, pulled the girl into her wings. “Let my Mom do her work. She’s good at it.”
Cirrus called, sleepily, “Hey, Orchid, I brought you some fruit.”
Knowing that Orchid would take Mud over there with the other girls, Mist let herself descend into trance. Aloud and with magic, she called, “Coral, Coral, can you wake up?” There was pain with a dim, restful coolness overlaying it, shielding Coral’s consciousness from it. And there was something else, an odd resistance, an uncomfortable blurriness. Reaching for it with the magic, Mist suddenly felt disoriented, and slammed herself out of the trance. Nofiera. This woman’s mind felt like the time her mentor had made her taste nofiera, for too many were afraid of Fireborns, and might use the herb to disorient her before an attack. But why? She’d had no sense that the woman was fireborn.
She looked at the woman more closely, sniffing the scab. But it only smelled like seaweed and lake water. Then she realized the woman was clutching something green in one hand, and gently pried it open, to see the distinctive leaves, not as red-tinged as the sample her mentor had shown her, but still recognizable. She stood to go grab some wide-leaved plants, so she could pick the herb out of Coral’s hand without touching it, and realized there was a whole pile of the stuff, recently picked, laying on the beach. Stepping around it, she pulled some tall grass out of the ground, and used it to push the stuff from the woman’s hand, then rinsed it several times.
“Coral? Coral, can you hear me?” She tried again, this time opening a smelly jar and waving it under the woman’s nose, keeping her firesense carefully closed.
This time, the woman moaned, and opened her eyes, outer eyelid, and then inner. “Wh—Who are you?” The pupils were different-sized, confirming that the head injury was serious.
“I’m a healer. My name is Mist.”
“Is she—“ the woman struggled to sit up, “Mud! Are you here?”
Mist helped Coral sit, watching for signs of dizziness or nausea, then realized the girl was running toward them full tilt. “Slowly, Mud. Your Mom hurt her head, and we mustn’t knock her over again.”
Mud skidded to a stop in the sand, then sat carefully in her mother’s lap. “Are you OK?”
“I’m—“ she looked at Mist, who smiled, cautiously. “I’m feeling pretty bad right now, but I’ve got a healer . What about you? Are you OK?”
“Uh huh. Orchid’s friend gave me a peach!”
“Where were you? I was so worried!”
“I ate berries while you picked leaves, and then I was tired. I climbed a tree.”
“Of course you did.” The woman rolled her eyes and sighed.
Again, Mist reflected on how hard it must be for a lakeborn to rear a different-form child, one who would never be able to breathe water. She wondered at the wisdom of setting things up that way, whether it was the ancients or the Gods who did it. Her mentor said it was so people could never believe they were anything but one people, one kind of critter, no matter how different they looked. Her eyes fell on the pile of nofiera. Yeah, right.
She reached into her pack and got out another peach, slicing it with one claw. She handed a slim piece to Coral, and a bigger one to Mud. “Here, let’s see if this will stay down.”
The woman put it into her mouth and pulled it out again very quickly. “I don’t think I’d better try. It tastes funny.” If the woman had eaten even a little nofiera, things would taste odd. If she were sensitive to it.
Mud had already finished her piece. “Can I have more?”
Mist intercepted the piece Coral had tasted, in case some trace of the herb was still in her mouth, but gave the rest of the peach to Mud. “Go on now, let me talk to your mother.” She pulled out some grapes. “Here, for you and Orchid to share.” She caught her daughter’s eye, and made a motion with her hand. Orchid nodded. She would keep Mud with her for a while. “So, why were you picking leaves?”
The woman looked at her, then away. “It’s—private.”
“Nofiera is a poison. It makes most people a bit tired or fuzzy-headed, but the rest, well, there’s a good chance you lost your balance and hit your head because you got some in your mouth.”
“I’m not fireborn!” The woman looked angry, and a little scared.
“I didn’t say you were. But it is not only fireborns who are affected, no more than lakeborn women have only lakeborn children.” Coral flinched, and Mist had a sinking feeling that her otherform child was why she had been sent to gather the nofiera. As much as was in that pile—you could dose more than a small community with that. She was tempted to call the fire and burn the pile of leaves right then and there, but a glance at her daughter, who was flying overhead, catching grapes with her mouth or toes as Mud threw them, causing Mud to giggle hysterically—no. No matter how tempting it was, it was the wrong thing to do.
“I know it’s hard to have an otherform child,” she said gently. “Have you thought of fostering her?”
“She’s so young!”
“And she obviously loves you.” Mist sat quietly for a moment, then pressed on. “I have to ask what you plan to do with all that nofiera. It’s dangerous.”
Coral looked down, one finger tracing the bright water lilies tattooed on her tail. “The mayor, the council—they said someone was doing it, and I’d best prove it wasn’t me or mine by gathering the stuff.”
“I think they’d have kicked us out, if Minnow hadn’t been born right—I mean, lakeborn. But then, for a while, things were better. Until it started.”
“Weird things. I don’t know, exactly, I didn’t see any of it. But everyone is scared.”
“And so they were going to make everyone eat some of the nofiera.” Mist closed her eyes. She’d seen it once, a village dosed, people walking around like they were drunk or exhausted. Everyone affected a little bit, and pretending not to be. She’d seen children burned in fires, a butcher who cut his own finger off trying to cut meat, a baby accidentally dropped by its windborn father. And the ones who couldn’t stand upright past the dizziness, or who started puking as soon as the herb hit their lips—she shook her head. Not again. That wasn’t going to happen on her watch.
“Rest now. But stay awake. You hit your head on something, and sometimes people with that kind of head injury, if they fall asleep, they just stop breathing. And your children need you.”
“I should nurse Minnow.” The woman started to sit, and Mist pushed her down again, gently.
“If the herb made you sick, it probably will make him sick too. I have something I can mix to tide him over, and I’ll send Orchid for a friend who can nurse him for a couple of days, until it’s all out of your system.”
“But the mayor—“
“Tell me where your school is, and the mayor’s name, and I’ll send word that you were injured.”
Coral lay back, looking pale. “They’re in Amber Lake, and the mayor is Eel.”
Mist reached into her bag and took out the powdered soybean mix, and the small nippled bottle. She could and would destroy the nofiera here, both the picked leaves and the source, but unless the lakeborns felt safe again, they would just find more. She had to do something, but what could she do, that wouldn’t put her, and Orchid, at risk?
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