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The Healer MAG
Ekkehart sees her for the first time on the bridge, in the carriage he has ridden for four frostbitten nights. The moon is a sliver of old corrupted lime, casting its light onto a city pearly with cold. Snow falls in dagger crystals, knifing through the air. It slashes at the top of the carriage, at its fur-lined curtains. It slashes through them and into Ekkehart’s lungs, and he coughs.
Ekkehart’s teacher turns, ancient and worn, his pale face a desiccated star. He speaks in a low rice-paper hum. “This wind carries pestilence. You of all people know.”
Ekkehart knows, and pulls the curtains tight. He tries not to remember, but still the images flow, like the ebb of blood in the heart-tides, like the rush of textures when he feels for disease. Mother bent over a bubbling brew, in the time before he learned to feel, the happy time. Father singing nonsense rhymes as he set a child’s bones with a delicate spell. Then the first prickles of disembodied pain. Father shivering in three woolen cloaks, Mother coughing blood into her hands. Their funeral pyre, amidst the lacy winter trees.
And later, the fraying of blood cells, the fires of fever, in the sick and dying his parents left behind. Feeling the growth of germs in strangers’ tissues like blows to his own flesh, until he cried. He learned to prick away at them with needle-bursts of power, until his pain deadened and his patients stared with awe at this prodigy healer, this miracle child who couldn’t save his own …
Unthinking, Ekkehart snatches at the curtain with wrathful hands. The snow is a mouthful of angry crystals and a stinging in his eyes, and there’s a girl walking through it, wearing a thin shawl. It looks like fever kindling and pathogens writhing; he thinks of her agony torching his own nerves, and he shouts.
The wind steals his voice, but she turns to face him. His anger plummets into eyes of crystal and slate, eyes with the harsh glitter of rock that not even winter could destroy. She stares back serenely, and her wind-chapped mouth curves into a secretive grin.
Ekkehart closes the curtain. His teacher’s rice-paper voice brushes his awareness, a chastisement. Ekkehart smiles, certain he has found someone who would survive the cold.
Hannelore feels his gaze on her back and turns. She sees an ordinary boy with eyes like clear water and hair like frost. Then she focuses her eyes.
The past envelops him, faint frost-haired figures each smaller than the one before. Hannelore sees him at three, watchful before a surgery table, at five, giggling at his father’s magical star showers, at 11, pressing a kiss to his dying mother’s brow. She sees him at 12, gripping an emaciated patient’s arm, tinkering with death. Until the woman stops groaning and the bloom returns to her cheeks, until she thanks him with a supplicant’s reverence in her face.
Hannelore focuses her eyes again and the future unfurls from his frame, a tall shadow with that same pale hair and watery gaze. Hands that drip blood and opiates from a thousand surgeries. She sees him at 16, standing vigil over a dying king, at 18 ringed by broken arrows and broken knights. At 19, bowing before a crowned woman, who gazes at him with such wounded love and naked evil in her eyes. She sees him survive it all, until his mouth turns upward in a victor’s smile, and the light softens a little in his eyes.
She sees all this in the second before the curtain slaps shut.
Hannelore smiles, certain she has found a saint, the boy with hands deft enough to save the world. Found him like her sister’s husband, the man Annegret’s future-image lifted her wedding veil to kiss. Found him like her father’s killer, whose dagger lodged two inches above his future-image’s heart.
Hannelore stops smiling and starts to feel the cold.
They meet at the university door. Ekkehart reaches into the carriage to help the teacher down. Hannelore has walked for two miles. She leans against the doorframe, panting pale clouds into the night.
Ekkehart turns and sees those eyes, their stony glitter undiminished. He reaches reflexively for her gloved hand, feels instinctively for disease through the lambskin. The remnants of past sickness and old injury are a slurry of soft blows, but the health of her cells whirls through his senses.
He remembers himself and drops the hand, blushing at his secret knowledge of her past pains. And she turns away, shying from her secret knowledge of his future fame.
“Sorry,” he says. “I’m Ekkehart.”
Ekkehart’s mouth flutters open, as if to speak, but the teacher is staggering toward him. His owl gaze rivets on Hannelore’s face. “Where is the scholar who identified you, child?”
She shakes her head. “There is none.”
“Then you have no business at this university.”
In answer, Hannelore focuses her eyes.
They meet other children as strange and powerful as they. Madhava, whose spirit wanders the living tissue of animals and plants, bidding them twist, grow, leap, and dance. Octavian, who reshapes his lungs to inhale water and honeycombs his bones to fly. Phyllida, whose dreams come awake in the night to fill the hallways with sun, blood, smoke, and rain.
Winter flees as abruptly as it came. Wildflowers bloom across the fresh-dug graves, and Ekkehart studies them from the castle windows. In the evenings, when the sky is rosy and his mind is soft with sleep, he dares to hope they cover his parents’ grave.
Hannelore slips into the observatory and finds Ekkehart by the vaulted window, telescope in hand.
“Look at the stars,” she says mechanically, turning her gaze toward his face instead of the sky.
She leans in to catch his whisper. “They look like the future.” She sees a change in him, a widening of the eyes. “It’s so distant and inscrutable.” And she feels his voice like the heat of a too-close flame and thinks vaguely of escape. “You have telescope eyes,” he says.
Hannelore wonders if it’s a challenge or a plea.
She decides the next morning in the underground library called the Paleocrypt, amid the dripping of subterranean water and towers of ancient tomes.
“Ekkehart,” she calls, and he whirls, wearing a look of cautious surprise.
She draws close to whisper in his ear. “You’ll save lives.” His breathing quickens; his shoulders tense under her hands.
“I feel so helpless sometimes,” he murmurs.
“I’ve seen the future. You’re hardly helpless.”
His pale head sinks, and Ekkehart crumples, sobbing. The other students are drawn from their studies, all gasps and murmurs of concern. Before their curious eyes, Hannelore embraces Ekkehart and he winds his trembling arms around her neck.
“Thank you,” he says, two mornings later. They are eating breakfast together, amid muffled speculation about their sudden friendship. “You told me what I needed to hear.” He smiles sheepishly, handing her a fritter.
She bites into it. “It was true.”
“I think that’s what I have to do,” she continues. “You were born to heal, and I was born to tell the truth.”
Ekkehart awakens to screaming and wonders if one of Phyllida’s night-ghosts has run loose. Then he hears the plink of shuffling glass and rolls his sleeves up. He grapples in the darkness for his needles and knives, but the screaming swells, and there is no time.
In the hallways he can see no blood-slicks, but his temples are throbbing with disembodied pain. Follow the pain, he thinks, winding through corridors and down the cellar stairs.
It leads him to a broken flask on the stony floor, splinters of glass and a pool of emerald liquid. He recognizes it with a prick of anguish as dragon-ichor, a heavy acid, and the agony burns at his crown.
Ekkehart lights the sconce with a candle. Hannelore materializes from the gloom, face-down and fists clenched. The blood pounds at his temples, but his nerves deaden into crystals of ice. Slowly, clumsily, he clasps her hand to seek the point of her pain. Winding through the spaces between her cells, he finds her skin unburned, although a section of hair has been seared away. No acid in her digestive system, lungs functional, pumping the air out in frenzied sobs. Nerves fine, and …
He stops, blank.
“Ekkehart,” she whispers, “I’m blind.”
The teachers storm in, and Ekkehart is screaming.
Old hands shake him gently, then roughly, until the teeth rattle in his skull. He groans, pressing his temples, where her blindness is now a conflagration, now a snowfall of wintry knives.
The face of his first teacher wavers before him, and the rice-paper voice crackles with urgency. “Only you can heal her.” Ekkehart tries to shake his head, but fear holds him immobile with cadaver hands.
“Like I healed my parents?” He tries to scream, but his voice is a weak whisper, hollow even to his ears. He trembles, remembering warm hands and smiling faces, remembering a wind that carried the scent of roasting flesh.
Then he’s kneeling beside her, hands on her temples. He sings nonsense rhymes like his father, smooths her forehead like his mother, until her ragged breathing levels. Then he winds through the disordered nerves, the sundered sensory cells. Slowly comparing her remarkable ruined eyes to his ordinary whole ones, he nudges the cells, prompting synthesis, encouraging regrowth.
After two hours, Hannelore’s breathing softens, and she sleeps. After three hours, Ekkehart is interrupted with breakfast and he waves it away. After four hours, the pain in his eyes – in both their eyes – fades. Ekkehart tells the teachers. Gravely, wearily, he accepts their praise. But he worries he has robbed his dearest friend of her greatest gift. After five hours, Ekkehart collapses on the cellar floor. He dreams of ruined prophets and healers dead from grief.
After nine hours, Hannelore seizes Ekkehart in a jubilant embrace. He awakens reluctantly, then he remembers and bolts upright. “Your eyes?”
They glint. He sees her tear stains, and under them the pink blooming of new skin. “All better.”
“Completely better?” he persists.
Hannelore focuses her eyes.