Anla’s, Al’s, and Tel’s new friends, whom they helped while Raulin was busy tailing Lady Karninth, were more than happy to direct them to the town hall when they asked. The quartet made their way there slowly, past blocked off streets and piles of debris they had to climb over or double-back.
The building didn’t stand out very much from its surroundings, save for its size and the snapped flag pole on the ground. It had the same gray stone and blue shutters that the other houses and shops had. It even had planter boxes where the corpses of ash-covered flowers were the only tribute to those that had died.
Al knocked on the door and waited. After a few minutes, he leaned against the wall. He knocked again, then sat. The others milled around, finding seats, kicking rubble with their toes. Finally, a man ran up from one of the bars nearby. “There’s no one in there.”
Al turned. “Do you know where we can find someone in charge? The mayor, perhaps?”
“I’m the mayor. I’m a little busy, though. We had an earthquake a few days ago, as you might have noticed.” He seemed too frazzled to be sarcastic. “You’ll have to come back in a week or two.”
“We came to offer help.”
“Help?” he asked. “We?”
Al pointed to his three friends. Raulin fanned his hand in a slight wave. “We.”
“Thanks, but we can’t pay you anything. We’ll need all our taxes and whatnot to rebuild.”
“We know. We don’t need money. If you can find us a warm place to sleep and give us three square meals a day, we’ll consider it even.”
The mayor seemed perplexed. “Well, that’s nice, but what can you do?”
“I’m a cross-switcher wizard. Alpine Gray, by the way,” he said, shaking he man’s hand. “I can help heal or move heavy objects. My other three friends have their own gifts.” With the recent issue with the baerd hunters, they had determined that announcing what Anla was could be a bad idea.
“If we’re giving away rooms and food, you best work. We have precious little of it to go around.”
“We’re not here for a handout,” Al said. “We want to help because we were nearby and because your town needs it.”
“Well, all right,” the mayor said, dubious. “Let me get back to you.”
He walked back to the bar and Al joined the rest of the group. “He thinks we’re insane, doesn’t he?” Raulin asked.
“Something like that. Actually, he thinks we’re hear to mooch food and shelter.”
“We’ll just need to prove him wrong.”
The mayor returned a half-hour later. “Follow me,” he said.
He led the group to a large wooden building two stories high alongside the narrow river that cut a quarter of the town from the rest. “We don’t have any rooms, but if you want to make yourself cozy here, that’s fine. Come to the bar for your meals or if you want to check in to see where your help is needed.”
With that he walked away and left the group to their own devices.
The wheel in the gristmill still churned as the river flowed, but no one was grinding meal. The first thing Raulin did was to pull the chains to shut the sluice gate and stop to flow of water. The damsel stopped turning and the mill was blessedly quiet.
“That’s better. Now, Wizard, did you have a plan once we got to this point?”
“Well, I know what I’m going to do. I’m not sure about everyone else.”
“I suggest you and Tel team up. There’s a lot of things he can do with his kiluid magic that would work well in this situation. He can find people. He can break down things over time, change the air temperature, create ladders and bridges to reach places. He can get you somewhere you need to go in order to help someone.
“Anla I would suggest calming people and acting as a diplomat, perhaps nudging people not to hoard and to help other people.
“I’m going to police. My guess is that most people will cooperate and just try to go back to the way things were. There will be a small percentage who will take advantage of the situation by breaking whatever laws they think they can get away with.
“Everyone needs to stay within a mile of this place, though Al and Tel feel free to stretch that a little if you need to. Everyone good?” They all nodded. “Then let’s set out. Remember your ax, Wizard.”
Al felt a bit lost at first. All he saw were ruins and had no idea where to start, until he remembered that his partner had a different skill he could use. “Tel, what does kouriya tell you?”
He stopped and closed his eyes for a moment. “We should be here,” he said. He walked over to a chunk of wall that had fallen down and tugged a blanket out from underneath, placing it across the street on top of a mailbox. Al had seen him do acts like this before, pulling rocks from treads in the road or putting them in, taking a single leaf from a tree and moving it elsewhere, tossing an acorn far into the woods. He’d never connected it before to kouriya.
“What does that do?” he asked, pointing to the blanket. “I know kouriya is telling you to do that, but why? What will it accomplish?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Kouriya is not about reward or even seeing the end results. It’s about helping things come together that should.”
“So, you’re some sort of agent of destiny?”
“I suppose you could call me that,” Tel said with an amused smirk.
“That sounds like a fine title to have.”
Tel turned and headed in a westerly direction, almost back the way they came. “I am having a thought and a feeling. Tell me if I am right. You find kouriya appealing because it feels like something from one of the books you enjoy.”
“Maybe. There is a seeress in the Kiesh the Black novels who can see his future. He comes to her when he’s lost the trail of his enemies or sometimes when he’s lost hope that he’ll ever clear his name. It’s implied that they are lovers, though some booksellers I spoke with think she’s not real, she’s just a metaphor for him following his destiny or have divine intervention. Anyway, Kiesh has someone or some thing in his life that nudges him to a certain fate. I’ve always liked that idea, that there’s always a lantern hung for you. Being the person that lights the candle seems sort of romantic to me.”
“I assure you it’s nothing quite so enchanting.”
“Then why do you do it?”
“Because I hope that other people are doing that for me, nudging me in the right direction, hanging the lantern, as you say. I reflect upon where I am right now and I don’t come up short.”
“We haven’t always been in great situations. We’ve been imprisoned, you’ve been sick.”
“But I am still alive, among friends, in a beautiful land learning about its people. A man’s fate isn’t always positive. Sometimes a man’s fate is to die at sea or be hanged by people who say he killed a man. That wasn’t my fate. You helped me with the latter.”
“Would you ever know if it wasn’t your fate, though?”
“No, that’s true. It’s impossible…”
A woman rounded the corner and tripped, falling to her knees. A man and a woman caught up to her and pulled her up despite her protests. She began keening and fighting against their grip.
Thinking she was being taken against her will, Al walked over to the group. “What’s passes?”
“My baby!” the woman cried, her head bandaged and bleeding.
“Dear, he’s gone,” the woman said with a worn patience. “He’s with the dabbins in Kriskin’s realm. He’s happy there.”
“No!” she moaned. “I need to find him!”
“What if we looked?” Al asked. “Is that okay?”
The man glared at him. “We need to take her back. The sooner she heals from both wounds…”
“Maybe it will give her closure when we find his body. Just tell us where to look.”
The man sighed through gritted teeth and jerked his head to the crumbled house to their left. The older woman sighed and dropped in front of the younger and held her head in her hands.
Al circled around the house, trying to find a way in. Both doors were blocked by rubble. The roof had collapsed in, but there was nothing connecting it to the ground. The only way he found in was a picture window, and as lithe as he was, Al didn’t think he could squeeze through.
“Tel, do you think you could help me so I don’t have to smash a hole in the side?”
He closed his eyes and began pulling stones out the side of the building. Al stepped up to the first foothold, just deep enough for the toes of his boot. He’d always done poorly at the exercises in Amandorlam, but here his balance was fine tuned. He was pleased that the training he was doing with Raulin was paying off.
Al pulled himself up to the top floor and flexed his fingers. Dust motes floated in the shafts of afternoon light. He stood in the master bedroom, the legs of the four-poster fallen through the boards of the floor. He squinted and saw in the dark corner of the room a wooden cradle.
He sighed, his stomach seizing at the thought of succeeding. He tossed his ax to the ground, since he wouldn’t be needing it, and began his walk over.
The lessons came back to him. Though he had passed because he had memorized the theory, it had never clicked with him. He could never move his feet or shift his body in ways that were necessary to prevail against the tight beams, rolling balls, and steep inclines of his class in proprioception. Here was his redemption, he hoped.
Find the best path. He could go up on the roof then down, jump on the bed and then over, or try the rubble on the right. The last choice was the one he felt wasn’t going to lead to the floor giving out.
Use your surroundings. They often taught of using belts to hold on to objects or finding sticks to disperse your weight. If you didn’t have to step down, you decreased your risk of falling. This didn’t prove to be helpful here.
Listen. This was the hardest one for him. He could never “listen” to what his body was supposed to be telling him. He would lumber across pine boards in class, hearing the cracks but not reacting in time, falling. His teacher would ask him what he did wrong. He told them, but he could never fix the problem.
So, he walked verrry sloowwly. The wall that had fallen over felt sturdy, but there! He felt it pull apart, widening his foot. He moved and pressed down. That was fine, so he shifted his weight, pulling himself up. Good. Step. Fine. Step. No, step back. To the left? No, to the right, closer to the middle of the house. Good.
He had concentrated so hard on his journey that he hadn’t thought about the end. The baby was in his crib, the sheets wet and kicked off. Though chubby with slits for his eyes and mouth, his skin was purplish and blue-tinged. Al sighed and closed his eyes. He had said he would do this.
He remembered Marnie as a child and the thought of her like this caught his breath once in his throat. He reached down and placed one hand on the babe’s neck, the other under his rump, then turned to look around. There’s no way he could climb down with a child in his arms, so he found the crooked staircase inside and made his way downstairs.
To the left he saw a thin hole in the stone that had been hidden from the outside. It was only inches wide, but the stones were loose from the quake and wiggled free when he held the babe in the crook of his arm and pushed with his free hand. In a few minutes he had an opening large enough and he crawled through.
Again, with deference, he held the baby by the neck and backside and walked to the back of the house. He had almost turned the corner when the boy flailed his arms and sucked in a breath to cry.
“Kriskin malor!” Al yelped, almost dropping him. “Oh, not today for you, little one! Death will take no one!”
And he ran to the woman, all three of them wide-eyed in shock. “He’s cold,” he said, handing him off to his mother. “You need to feed him and change him, quickly! Blanket! We need…”
He sprinted to the mailbox and yanked on the comforter, moving back to the trio. “Here,” he said. “Swaddle him in this.”
The woman with the bandaged head was already nursing him, sobbing with her exhalations. The other woman, the grandmother, perhaps, pulled Al aside and kissed him on the forehead. “Thank you, young man,” she said. “Whatever can we do to repay you?”
“Just tell other people that we’re here. Maybe we can save more.”
He felt jittery as he walked back to Telbarisk. His hands could make aspens jealous. “Was that kouriya?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” said Tel, “but it certainly feels like it.”
* * *
The word spread quickly throughout the town: if you knew someone missing, you found the tall man and the brown-skinned man. They kept on street corners and by important buildings for visibility and the people came. In the first thirty-six hours (since they stayed up all night), they saved fifteen cold, starving, injured people from broken houses and buildings. Grandfathers, daughters, fathers, aunts, a doctor, a few bakers, and one nobleman who promised them anything they wanted if they ever visited them in Quirr down in Tektorn.
It wasn’t without it’s tragedies. Six bodies were recovered during that time. After the two of them slumped against a wall and each other in exhaustion, the ratio of dead to living began to increase. The stories from those surviving became more from luck and skill, such as a young teenage boy pulled up drunk from his parents’ basement from surviving for four days on whiskey and wine. The tearful thanks from people reunited turned to nodding acceptance or quiet blame.
The requests slowed by the fifth day, so they went back to helping people move debris out of the roads and secure places for people to stay until their houses were fixed or rebuilt.
Raulin and Anla worked well as the carrot and stick of Mouth Kalista, but they worked at opposite times, Anla during the day and Raulin during the night as well as a before and after. Anla walked the streets speaking with people, many who just wanted to talk about what had happened. She listened to their fears, their uncertainty of picking up where things left off, their crippling despair at having nothing but the clothes on their backs. She gave soothing words and influenced a few of them into better thoughts. Raulin mainly caught thieves and put the fear of the Twelve in them. It worked sometimes. Other times he felt filling the men he put jail cells for a few nights should remain there longer.
On the tenth day, Al waited for the three of them to eat breakfast (there was a lot to choose from, since people dropped off whatever they could in thanks) before diving in to a discussion. “I think we should take our leave.”
Anla looked up from her bowl. “Is it because you’re not getting any appreciation anymore?”
“We haven’t been getting that for some time. No, I’ve been thinking about it and I’m trying to be fair. Most of the town seems like they’re at a point where they don’t need us anymore. I heard a little girl laughing last night. I understood in that moment that things were going to be all right for Mount Kalista.”
Tel shook Raulin awake into wide-eyed startlement. “We’re leaving,” he said.
“You’re done, Wizard?”
“I think so.”
“We should check in with the mayor before we leave, but likely.”
The mayor was in agreement, in the end, though he did try to solicit their unpaid labor for as long as they wanted to stay. After a long conversation, he admitted that though they had done a fine service, that they could, in fact, take it from there.
He handed Al a pouch. “I know I said we couldn’t pay you, but this is from the townsfolk on their own accord. They wanted to thank you.”
“We don’t need it,” he said, “but we really do appreciate it. Out of curiosity, how much is it?”
“A little over a hundred gold.”
“That’s very generous. I think that would be best used for those suffering the most. Make sure the children are taken care of. I know there is a brother and sister no older than ten that are orphaned and have been staying with their neighbors.”
“You’re a good man. Is there anything we can get for you? Anything at all, just name it.”
Al turned and asked the group. Anla and Raulin shook their heads. He was about to turn back when Tel said, “Three things.”
“Yes?” the mayor asked.
“You have a strong, but thin thread you make from the caterpillars in this area.”
“A spool of it, please.”
“If we could have some of the salve that helps with cuts, that would help. There was a woman with black hair and a part that was white who made it.”
“Ah, Mrs. Gitz. I can ask her for some.”
“As much as she can give.”
“And the third?”
“Wine?” He laughed. “We have plenty of that! I’ll even give you something from my own stocks, what remains of it, anyway.”
The mayor left to gather those items. “Why those?” Al asked.
“Why ask for anything, then?”
Tel tilted his head in thought. “Something I have learned while I’ve been here is that Ghenians have a strange way of trading in things. They pay coin for things instead of trading like for like. When someone pays them a kind gesture, they feel the need to repay this with things. Coin for life, coin for help, coin for comfort. They need to repay this immediately, not understanding that kind gestures are given all the time and aren’t expected to have a price on them. But, this is the way they do things. And when you do not take the payment for your kindness, they often get upset and insist you take something, getting angry with you when you don’t.
“I thought it was best to avoid that possibility, hoping the town could think of us fondly when we’re gone. When Al refused the gold, I suggested some things we might need, things they have in abundance here that we might not find elsewhere. That way, the town has the gold, we have some items, and there are no hard feelings for anyone.”
Raulin nodded his head in appreciation. “Those are some fair observations, Tel. And I think that was the right course of action.”
The mayor returned within the hour, also bringing a sack of foodstuffs for the road that he insisted they take. Al didn’t decline in light of what Tel had said. “Now, I took the liberties of giving you my best double snub bottle of wine. I hope you don’t mind that it isn’t from Kalista.”
Raulin took the bottle once he realized what it was. “Cavr-e dansk, the king’s wine. That is a very good vintage. I hope we have cause for a celebration to meet the caliber of this drink.”
“And may you find it,” the mayor said, waving goodbye as he left for the tavern.