Marilynn Byerly

 

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Captured by raiders, an animal healer with limited magical skills must stop them before they murder the neighboring farm families. A Mother Crystal universe fantasy story.

 

Scavengers

 

Marilynn Byerly

 

Her eyes huge with terror, Peggen's six year old crept out of the barn's shadows toward Trillie.

 

Pretending not to see her, Trillie slid her hand up the pastern of the milk cow's near back leg and sensed the tendon she'd repaired with her crystal. A perfect job. She thought kindness and good wishes to her patient as she stood and patted the cow's flank.

 

The cow mooed in reply and ambled to a pile of hay in the corral's corner.

 

Trillie slid through the fence, swung her saddlebags onto her horse's dappled flanks, and tied it down.

 

The little girl stopped in front of her and held out the tabby draped in her arms.

 

Admiring the girl's courage, Trillie knelt to eye level and took the cat, who stiffened and hissed then relaxed as it realized what she was. With a smile at the girl, she concentrated on her cat patient and sensed the abscess on its neck. "What's your name?"

 

The little girl's voice trembled like her brown curls in the light wind. "Willa. She's Mouser."

 

"Don't fear me, Willa. Anyone who loves animals as you do should never fear someone like me. I love animals too." Trillie smiled, trying to keep the red scar slashed across her cheek and her people's reputation from being too daunting. The little girl smiled hesitantly back, their love for the cat binding them for a moment. "She was bit by a bott fly. It left a larva, but that's gone now."

 

"I told you that, Willa." Quivering with outraged insult, fourteen-year-old Julya stalked out of the barn shadows. "I took the larva out myself and put healing powders on. I told you that."

 

Trillie stroked the cat. "You did a very good job, too. I have only to heal it with crystal now."

 

Julya glowed with pleasure. "I watch you every time you come. I want to be like you. I want to be an animal healer."

 

"Only a fool would want to be like me. Your people hate me as crystal but need my talent. Other crystals ignore me because I'm a lowly one-talent red crystal. Only the animals accept me."

 

"I like animals better, too. I don't like people... except Willa and Momma. And I'm good with animals just like you."

 

"But you're not born crystal so you can't heal or speak with them."

 

"You can make me your apprentice, then I could have a red crystal, too." Julya grinned triumphantly.

 

"You'd share my red crystal," Trillie admitted. She met Julya's brown eyes and melded, sensing fierce determination and raw talent. "You have the makings, but.... I'm not much older than you. Find yourself some yellow or green crystal adult. Someone with a real gift to give you. Forget about me. You don't want what I am, and I certainly don't want you."

 

Her lower lip protruding, Julya frowned. "I want to be an animal healer, not some witch."

 

"I'm called witch, too." Trillie shrugged, then palmed the crystal hanging from her neck and focused her healing energy into the cat.

 

"Get away from my young'uns." Peggen stomped toward them.

 

Willa scooted back into the barn shadows, but Julya held her ground, her lower lip extending further. "I want to be an animal healer too, Poppa."

 

His craggy face a dangerous red, Peggen glowered at her. "If you was a boy child, I'd beat the stuffing out of you. Get and don't ever say such a thing again, and you stay away from this filthy witch."

 

Julya met his eyes then fled, tears streaking her cheeks.

 

As if unaware of his anger, Trillie scratched under the cat's ear then put it down to find its young mistress. She stood and faced Peggen.

 

"Filthy witch, ought to kick your hide for putting such nonsense in that child's head. You ain't getting my little ones for your nasty perversions."

 

She snorted laughter. "Perversions? Like saving your cow's life? The Mother Crystal save you from such perversions."

 

"You ain't getting Julya."

 

Trillie's cheek scar flamed with heat as she met his eyes.

 

He backed away from her anger.

 

"I don't want Julya. Or Willa, or anyone else. I have myself and my mare and that's more'n enough for me. Been taking care of myself since I was Willa's age, and I've barely done that thanks to people like you." Trillie rubbed her throbbing scar. "My family was killed in a raid, and I had to scavenge like a rat to keep alive. None of you fine people would take a little scarred crystal in, but you're more than willing to use my talent when it suits your greedy needs."

 

Peggen blinked stupidly, color still high in his weather-beaten cheeks. "Just you stay away from my young'uns."

 

"I don't need them or you, Peggen. I don't need anyone. You need me far more." She sighed and calmed herself. "The healing of the cat was a gift from the Mother Crystal for the brave little one. I expect no payment."

 

He held out two small cheeses and a loaf of bread. "For the cow."

 

She stuffed them into her saddlebag, then swung up into the saddle, and nodded farewell. "Fair harvest to you and yours from the Mother Crystal."

 

If he returned the bountiful farewell, she didn't hear it as her mare walked out of the barnyard. When they'd passed out of sight, she slumped, exhausted from the healings and her anger, and let Cloudy have her head. The mare knew the way back to their hut as well as she.

 

Summer sun burned through her jerkin onto her shoulders as she dozed.

 

She wasn't conscious of hearing the calling until she'd already reined Cloudy off the path. Some creature called for her help.

 

Blinking awake, she stared around her at the overgrown fields of the Lareer homestead, deserted for years after raiders murdered the family. The chimney and burnt hut were all that remained of the homestead.

 

Concentrating on the call, she palmed her crystal then urged Cloudy into a brisk trot toward the grove of oaks beyond the house. The tall grass was pressed down in a wobbling path as if something human-sized had dragged itself through.

 

Dancing sideways, Cloudy snorted and stopped.

 

Trillie caressed her neck. "Nothing will harm us on the Mother's business." Not quite as confident as her words, she slid out of the saddle, took her saddlebags, and crept forward, her hand on her crystal.

 

Under an oak, the huge creature sprawled on its side, its back to her. For a moment she thought it a brown yearling calf or some demon spawn of an evil crystal's making, then its yellow eyes met hers, and it whined. Wolf? No, hound. A wild dog. Its rectangular head was as large as a calf's, its jowls huge. It could take off her arm with ease.

 

Thinking reassurance and peace, she walked to it. A trap bit into its right front leg, the chain dangling and broken. She stroked its scraggly, matted neck.

 

"Peggen or another farmer must have set this for you. I should ease you out of life so you'll not take another cow or sheep from human mouths."

 

Not believing a word of her threat, the dog wagged a nub tail.

 

She numbed its leg, pried open the trap, and freed the leg. After cleaning the dog's wound and smoothing the ragged flesh back into place, she sat down by the animal. It lay its huge head in her lap as she concentrated on her crystal.

 

As she healed it, the dog rested quietly, grateful for the easing of pain and the simple human companionship. Finally, she dropped her crystal.

 

Examining it beyond its injury, she rubbed its throat. It had called her so it had been human raised. Wild creatures didn't have that resonance with human healers, and its tail was docked. A sword scar on its shoulder and its memory images spoke of unpleasant, cruel human encounters since.

 

"An outcast too, are you? Left to fend for yourself when you got too big. Well, you'll be well enough soon to do that again. And I suggest you stay away from Peggen's farm, or you'll not be so lucky next time."

 

It made no promises as it drifted into sleep. She rested her back against the oak and followed it, leaving Cloudy cropping grass on guard duty.

 

The mare snorted warning.

 

Early dusk had fallen. She and the dog lifted their heads toward riders approaching. The dog stood on four firm legs.

 

"Leave now before they see you. The Mother Crystal be with you, dog."

 

Its nub tail wagging, the hound stared pleadingly up at her.

 

"I don't want a dog. You're better on your own than with me."

 

As the dog trotted briskly into the shadows, she took the mare's reins and walked into the field. The ten riders were on her before she realized they were strangers and dressed for fighting. The first swung a sword to cut her in half.

 

She clutched her crystal and prayed.

 

Horses screamed and bucked, fighting riders who tried to force them toward her. The swordsman cursed and kicked his roan, but it stood stiffly, trembling. He hit its head with the hilt of his sword then jumped off to finish her on foot.

 

"Hold, Gort. It's a woman."

 

The swordsman eyed her as if regretting not being able to kill her. "Ugly, but she'll do." He grabbed her arm and jerked her into his enormous chest. His breath was like rotting meat. She caught a glimpse of sick red eyes and a battered bear face as he bent toward her.

 

"I'm crystal."

 

"Hold on now, Gort." The man with gray hair and a shriveled apple face grabbed his shoulder.

 

"She's mine first, Camree," Gort said. "I saw her first."

 

Lifting placating hands, Camree smiled. "I'm just warning you. She's crystal."

 

"If she could have stopped me, she would have already. Wouldn't you, girlie?"

 

Trillie said nothing.

 

"Crystal's crystal however dangerous they can be. You know the stories. No woman's worth the price of crystal. Specially not one that ugly."

 

Another rider snickered. "Want your rocks to turn black and fall off, Gort?"

 

"That's just an old woman's story."

 

Camree chuckled. "Knew a man once in the Tyran campaign who said it was true, and he said it in a high squeaky voice.

 

The men guffawed.

 

"Then I'll kill her sooner'n I thought." Gort eased a knife out of a sheathe at his waist.

 

Trillie backed, but his hand tightened on her wrist.

 

The horses screamed and milled about as if a predator stalked.

 

Gort slid the hot blade against her throat and chuckled when she shuddered.

 

Camree caught his hand. "Another mistake. She's an animal healer. Want to walk the rest of your life?"

 

"You sure?"

 

"Ever had your roan stop like that before? You a animal healer, girl?"

 

She nodded, careful of the blade at her throat.

 

Gort swore viciously. "Can't call that curse on me. Without a horse that'd accept me for the rest of my life, I might as well slash my own throat." He swore again. "Can't play with her, can't kill her, can't let her go 'cause she'll warn all those plump farms ready for taking. What'll we do with her?"

 

"Keep her so she can't bring in the local lord and his troops." Camree clutched her shoulder and ushered her away from Gort. "Let me get the temptation away from you."

 

As the men set up camp, Trillie huddled against an oak and made herself as small and unnoticeable as possible. She kept herself in Camree's shadow when she could. The old man was better than these scavengers and as close to a friend as she could find among these men. She watched for an opening to escape.

 

After supper, Camree plopped down beside her and stared at the small fire in front of them. "You're not powerful enough to send thought warnings or request for aid to another crystal, not powerful enough to stop us or escape. You got yourself some problem, healer."

 

Startled by his reading of her thoughts, she glanced up.

 

"No, I'm not crystal blood. Just an old campaigner who learned to figure the enemy's mind."

 

"Am I enemy?"

 

"Not mine." He asked with formal respect, "May I seek your services, healer?"

 

"Trillie. I can turn away no animal." She followed him to the horses. For a moment, she considered throwing herself on Cloudy and fleeing, but Camree hovered above her.

 

"Don't you try to escape and warn the farmers. Gort'll forget hisself and kill you. As long as you behave, you'll be safe."

 

"They're nothing to me. Treat me like dirt except when they need me. Why should I care about them?" He led her to a huge black gelding. She caressed its white-haired muzzle. "Hello, old fellow."

 

"Rany's like me. Too old for this but nowhere else to go."

 

"You carry yourself like a Lord's man, not like those dirty scum."

 

"Lord Bannen. Tossed me out when he thought he'd got the best of me. Served him loyally for years. Durn near lost my life protecting him dozens of times, and he tossed me out." The horse bent and rubbed its head into his chest. He stroked the gelding's ear. "Rany's been loyal, too. He's all I got. Afraid he'll not hold up much longer. The others want me to let him go and take another. He deserves better than that lonely end. Least you can have is someone to care when you're alive and wish you well when you go. Even if you're a horse or a soldier too dumb to die in battle at the proper age."

 

She smiled at Camree, their mutual affection for the horse binding them in heart and spirit for a moment. "I know that loneliness. Too well. I'll give him what help I can."

 

Later, Camree brought her back to her tree and tied her hands and feet for the night. Curled up on the ground, she thought up hopeless plans of escape until she fell asleep. In her dreams, she walked through Peggen's farmyard and found bodies--Peggen's three fine sons in pools of blood, Peggen and his wife, Julya, and brave little Willa, her head split open by a sword.

 

Tears streaking her throbbing scar, Trillie woke. Something warm nudged her thigh. She jerked then relaxed. Soulful yellow eyes glowed in the darkness as the hound rested its head on her stomach and studied her. She smiled and thought to it, "You'd better leave before they kill you."

 

The hound's nub tail wagged as it understood her, but it didn't move.

 

She sighed. Its death would be on her head, too.

 

Her crystal burned her throat as power surged through it. Concentrating, she tried to understand the message the Mother Crystal sent about those outcasts men toss away as useless but who have their own value in the light of the Mother Crystal.

 

Trillie now knew how she could save Peggen's family and all the other families, but she didn't like it a bit, not a bit. But she had no choice. The Mother Crystal could be a cruel taskmistress as well as a kind one.

 

She held out her bound wrists for the hound's teeth and thought to it, "I have a task for you."

When the hound later loped into the darkness, Trillie curled back up and blinked bitter tears.

 

A man screamed, dying.

 

Trillie jolted awake in the predawn gray as horsemen raced through the camp. The scavengers fought to save themselves, their bodies and swords ghostlike among the oaks.

 

Camree shouted warning. "Trillie!"

 

Gort's bear face glowed with hate as he stood above her. His sword slashed toward her. "Betraying witch."

 

She scrambled backwards as Camree leapt over her toward Gort. His boot heel caught her temple, and she collapsed, stars lighting an inner night sky.

 

Inner night sky faded to become true sky. She crawled to her knees.

 

Gort sprawled on his face, blood pooling from the sword wound on his shoulder. Everything was silent. No steel against steel. No cries of the wounded. No voices. She could see no one in the darkness. Was she dead?

 

A gruff whisper behind her. "Trillie."

 

She knelt by Camree, who clutched his chest with bloody fingers, a sword at his side. He gazed up at her, his wrinkled face smooth with suffering. It was too late even for crystal healing. She stroked his temples and eased the pain as if he were an animal, their closeness allowing her to help him. "Thank you, Camree."

 

"Healer, don't let them kill Rany or put him out by himself. He'll die of loneliness. Loyalty deserves better'n that."

 

"I won't. I promise. I'll take him."

 

Camree smiled, the bond of the horse once again tying them together. "Mother Crystal watch over you, Trillie."

 

She blinked tears at his caring farewell and answered in kind, "The Mother Crystal take you in peace, Camree."

 

His eyelids quivered closed. He sighed and slumped, his soul fluttering past her.

 

A true friend found and lost in such a short time. She staggered toward where she could feel Cloudy, the only comfort she had.

 

Soldiers now talked in leisured good nature and milled around the woods. The raiders must all be dead.

 

"Trillie! You're safe!" A figure ran toward her in the dawn light and threw itself against her, its head on her breast, its arms around her in a fierce hug.

 

She stupidly explored long hair. "Julya?"

 

Julya squeezed her harder. "Thank you. Thank you. I'll be the best apprentice you've ever seen. When the red crystal appeared on my throat, and then that wonderful dog talked to me, I was so thrilled!"

 

The hound rubbed against Trillie's side, almost knocking her off her feet. "No choice. Only way I could warn...."

 

"I got to ride with the Lord's soldiers, and the dog led us here, and.... It was so exciting."

 

"Yes. Exciting." Trillie pulled away from Julya, trudged to Cloudy, and buried her face in the horse's warm, sweet-smelling neck.

 

"Poppa was real mad, but he sent Win fast enough for the Lord's soldiers. He said I could never come back 'cause of this crystal. But Momma said he'd change his mind soon."

 

Trillie shrugged. "Maybe." Rany nuzzled her shoulder then rubbed his forehead against her chest. She hugged his head.

 

Julya stroked the hound's ear. "Why is that horse so sad?"

 

"His rider died tonight. Camree was a good man. He saved my life."

 

Julya's voice became solemn. "I didn't know horses cried."

 

"All animals cry in their own way. I promised I'd give Rany a proper home so he'd not be alone."

 

She shook her head. "A broken down warhorse, a hound the size of a calf, and an apprentice. The Mother gifted me a lot of new mouths to feed. Outcasts only She can see the good in. A purpose for."

 

Julya shyly palmed her crystal. "The Mother Crystal will provide."

 

"She always has, even if stingily at times."

 

"My family. Poppa said I could never.... Willa, and Momma, and my brothers...." Julya sniffed back tears. "I'm glad I'm with you and the animals. I couldn't bear the loneliness otherwise." She held out her hand.

 

"The Mother Crystal knows, even Camree knew everyone needs someone who cares." Trillie entwined their fingers and squeezed. "Even those of us too stubborn to realize it."

 

Copyright 2002

May not be reproduced in whole or part without the author's express permission.

 

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