by Vonda N. McIntyre
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Mist rose in a white streak against darkness. The cobra hissed, swaying, and Sand echoed her with his warning rattle. Then Snake heard the hoofbeats, muffled by the desert, and felt them through her palms. Slapping the ground, she winced and sucked in her breath. Around the double puncture where the sand viper had bitten her, her hand was black-and-blue from knuckles to wrist. Only the bruise’s edges had faded. She cradled her aching right hand in her lap and twice slapped the ground with her left. Sand’s rattling lost its frantic sound and the diamondback slid toward her from a warm shelf of black volcanic stone. Snake slapped the ground twice again. Mist, sensing the vibrations, soothed by the familiarity of the signal, lowered her body slowly and relaxed her hood.
The hoofbeats stopped. Snake heard voices from the camp farther along the edge of the oasis, a cluster of black-on-black tents obscured by an outcropping of rock. Sand wrapped himself around her forearm and Mist crawled up and across her shoulders. Grass should be coiled around her wrist or around her throat like an emerald necklace, but Grass was gone. Grass was dead.
The rider urged the horse toward her. Meager light from bioluminescent lanterns and the cloud-covered moon glistened on droplets as the bay horse splashed through the shallows of the oasis. It breathed in heavy snorts through distended nostrils. The reins had worked sweat to foam on its neck. Firelight flickered scarlet against the gold bridle and highlighted the rider’s face.
She rose. “My name is Snake.” Perhaps she had no right to call herself that any longer, but she would not go back to her child-name.
“I am Merideth.” The rider swung down and approached, but stopped when Mist raised her head.
“She won’t strike,” Snake said.
Merideth came closer. “One of my partners is injured. Will you come?”
Snake had to put effort into answering without hesitation. “Yes, of course.” Her fear of being asked to aid someone who was dying and of being unable to do anything to help at all was very strong. She knelt to put Mist and Sand into the leather case. They slid against her hands, their cool scales forming intricate patterns on her fingertips.
“My pony’s lame, I’ll have to borrow a horse—” Squirrel, her tiger-pony, was corralled at the camp where Merideth had stopped a moment before. Snake did not need to worry about her pony, for Grum the caravannaire took good care of him; her grandchildren fed and brushed him royally. Grum would see to Squirrel’s reshoeing if a blacksmith came while Snake was gone, and Snake thought Grum would lend her a horse.
“There’s no time,” Merideth said. “Those desert nags are no good for speed. My mare will carry us both.”
Merideth’s mare was breathing normally, despite the sweat drying on her shoulders. She stood with her head up, ears pricked, neck arched. She was, indeed, an impressive animal, of higher breeding than the caravan ponies, much taller than Squirrel. While the rider’s clothes were plain, the horse’s equipment was heavily ornamented.
Snake closed the leather case and put on the new robes and headcloth Arevin’s people had given her. She was grateful to them for the clothes, at least, for the strong delicate material was excellent protection against the heat and sand and dust.
Merideth mounted, freed the stirrup, reached for Snake’s hand. But when Snake approached, the horse flared her nostrils and shied at the musky smell of serpents. Beneath Merideth’s gentle hands she stood still but did not calm. Snake swung up behind the saddle. The horse’s muscles bunched and the mare sprang into a gallop, splashing through the water. Spray touched Snake’s face and she tightened her legs against the mare’s damp flanks. The horse leaped across the shore and passed between delicate summertrees, shadows and delicate fronds flicking past, until suddenly the desert opened out to the horizon.
Snake held the case in her left hand; the right could not yet grasp tightly enough. Away from the fires and the water’s reflections, Snake could barely see. The black sand sucked up light and released it as heat. The mare galloped on. The intricate decorations on her bridle jingled faintly above the crunch of hooves in sand. Her sweat soaked into Snake’s pants, hot and sticky against her knees and thighs. Beyond the oasis and its protection of trees, Snake felt the sting of windblown sand. She let go of Merideth’s waist long enough to pull the end of her headcloth across her nose and mouth.
Soon the sand gave way to a slope of stones. The mare clambered up it, onto solid rock. Merideth held her to a walk. “It’s too dangerous to run. We’d be in a crevasse before we saw it.” Merideth’s voice was tense with urgency.
They moved perpendicular to great cracks and fissures where molten rock had flowed and separated and cooled to basalt. Grains of sand sighed across the barren, undulating surface. The mare’s iron shoes rang against it as if it were hollow. When she had to leap a chasm, the stone reverberated.
More then once Snake started to ask what had happened to Merideth’s friend, but she remained silent. The plain of stone forbade conversation, forbade concentration on anything but traversing it.
And Snake was afraid to ask, afraid to know.
The case lay heavy against her leg, rocking in rhythm to the mare’s long stride. Snake could feel Sand shifting inside his compartment; she hoped he would not rattle and frighten the horse again.
The lava flow did not appear on Snake’s map, which ended, to the south, at the oasis. The trade routes avoided the lava flows, for they were hard on people and animals alike. Snake wondered if they would reach their destination before morning. Here on the black rock the heat would build rapidly.
Finally the mare’s gait began to slow, despite Merideth’s constant urging.
The smoothly rocking pace across the wide stone river had lulled Snake almost to sleep. She jerked awake when the mare slid, pulling her haunches under her, scrabbling with her hooves, throwing the riders back, then forward, as they came down the long slope of lava. Snake clutched her bag and Merideth and clamped the horse between her knees.
The broken stone at the foot of the cliff thinned out, no longer holding them to a walk. Snake felt Merideth’s legs tighten against the mare, forcing the exhausted horse into a heavy canter. They were in a deep, narrow canyon, its high walls formed by two separate tongues of lava.
Spots of light hovered against ebony and for a moment Snake thought sleepily of fireflies. Then a horse neighed from a long distance and the lights leaped into perspective: the camp’s lanterns. Merideth leaned forward, speaking words of encouragement to the mare. The horse labored, struggling through the deep sand, stumbling once and throwing Snake hard against Merideth’s back. Jolted, Sand rattled. The hollow space around him amplified the sound. The mare bolted in terror. Merideth let her run, and when she finally slowed, foam dripping down her neck and blood spattering from her nostrils, Merideth forced her on.
The camp seemed to recede, miragelike. Every breath Snake took hurt her as if she were the mare. The horse floundered through deep sand like an exhausted swimmer, gasping at the height of every plunge.
They reached the tent. The mare staggered and stopped, spraddle-legged, head down. Snake slipped from her back, soaked with sweat, her own knees shaky. Merideth dismounted and led the way into the tent. The flaps were propped open, and the lanterns within suffused it with a pale blue glow.
The light inside seemed very bright. Merideth’s injured friend lay near the tent wall, her face flushed and sweat-shiny, her long curly brick-red hair loose and tangled. The thin cloth covering her was stained in dark patches, but with sweat, not blood. Her companion, sitting on the floor beside her, raised his head groggily. His pleasant, ugly face was set in lines of strain, heavy eyebrows drawn together over his small dark eyes. His shaggy brown hair was tousled and matted.
Merideth knelt beside him. “How is she?”
“She finally went to sleep. She’s been just the same. At least she doesn’t hurt…”
Merideth took the young man’s hand and bent to kiss the sleeping woman lightly. She did not stir. Snake put down the leather case and moved closer; Merideth and the young man looked at each other with blank expressions as they became aware of the exhaustion overtaking them. The young man suddenly leaned toward Merideth and they embraced, silently, close and long.
Merideth straightened, drawing back with reluctance. “Healer, these are my partners, Alex,” a nod toward the young man, “and Jesse.”
Snake took the sleeping woman’s wrist. Her pulse was light, slightly irregular. She had a deep bruise on her forehead, but neither pupil was dilated, so perhaps she was lucky and had only a mild concussion. Snake pulled aside the sheet. The bruises were those of a bad fall: point of shoulder, palm of hand, hip, knee.
“You said she went to sleep—has she been fully conscious since she fell?”
“She was unconscious when we found her but she came to.”
Snake nodded. There was a deep scrape down Jesse’s side and a bandage on her thigh. Snake pulled the cloth away as gently as possible, but the dressing stuck with dry blood.
Jesse did not move when Snake touched the long gash in her leg, not even as one shifts in sleep to avoid annoyance. She did not wake from pain. Snake stroked the bottom of her foot, with no result. The reflexes were gone.
“She fell off her horse,” Alex said.
“She never falls,” Merideth snapped. “The colt fell on her.”
Snake sought the courage that had seeped slowly away since Grass was killed, but she could not retrieve it. She knew how Jesse was hurt; all that remained was to find out how badly. But she did not say anything. Resting one forearm on her knee, head down, Snake felt Jesse’s forehead. The tall woman was sweating coldly, still in shock.
If she has internal injuries, Snake thought, if she is dying…
Jesse turned her head away, moaning softly in her sleep.
She needs whatever help you can give her, Snake thought angrily. And the longer you swim in self-pity, the more likely you are to hurt her instead.
She felt as if two completely different people, neither of them herself, were holding a dialogue in her mind. She watched and waited and was vaguely grateful when the duty-bound self won the argument over the part of her that was afraid.
“I need help to turn her over,” she said.
Merideth at Jesse’s shoulders and Alex at her hips, they eased her up and held her on her side, following Snake’s instructions to keep from twisting her spine. A black bruise spread across the small of her back, radiating both ways from the vertebrae. Where the color was darkest, the bone was crushed.
The force of the fall had almost sheared the spine’s smooth column. Snake could feel shattered chips of bone that had been pushed out into muscle.
“Let her down,” Snake said, with deep, dull regret. They obeyed and waited in silence, watching her. She sat on her heels.
If Jesse dies, she thought, she will not feel much pain. If she dies, or if she lives, Grass could not have helped her.
“Healer…?” Alex—he could hardly be twenty, too young to be burdened with grief, even in this harsh land. Merideth seemed ageless. Deep-tanned, dark-eyed, old, young, understanding, bitter. Snake looked at Merideth, glanced at Alex, spoke more to the older partner. “Her spine is broken.”
Merideth sat back, shoulders slumped, stunned.
“But she’s alive!” Alex cried. “If she’s alive, how—”
“Is there any chance you’re wrong?” Merideth asked. “Can you do anything?”
“I wish I could. Merideth, Alex, she’s lucky to be alive. There’s no chance the nerves aren’t cut. The bone isn’t just broken, it’s crushed and twisted. I wish I could say something else, that maybe the bones would heal, maybe the nerves were whole, but I’d be lying to you.”
“Yes,” Snake said.
“No!” Alex grabbed her arm. “Not Jesse—I won’t—”
“Hush, Alex,” Merideth whispered.
“I’m sorry,” Snake said. “I could have hidden this from you, but not for very long.”
Merideth brushed a lock of brick-red hair from Jesse’s forehead. “No, it’s better to know all this at once… to learn to live with it.”
“Jesse won’t thank us for this kind of life.”
“Be quiet, Alex! Would you rather the fall had killed her?”
“No!” Looking down at the tent floor, he said softly, “But she might. And you know it.”
Merideth stared at Jesse, saying nothing at first. “You’re right.” Snake could see Merideth’s left hand, clenched in a fist, shaking. “Alex, would you see to my mare? We used her badly.”
Alex hesitated, not, Snake thought, from reluctance to do as Merideth asked. “All right, Merry.” He left them alone. Snake waited. They heard Alex’s boots in the sand, then the horse’s slow steps.
Jesse moved in her sleep, sighing. Merideth winced at the sound, sucked in a long breath, tried and failed to hold back the sudden deep sobs. Tears glistened in the lamplight, moving like strung diamonds. Snake slid closer and took Merideth’s hand, offering comfort until the clenched fist relaxed.
“I didn’t want Alex to see…”
“I know,” Snake said. And so did Alex, she thought. These people guard each other well. “Merideth, can Jesse bear to hear this? I hate to keep secrets, but—”
“She’s strong,” Merideth said. “Whatever we hid, she’d know.”
“All right. I’ve got to wake her. She shouldn’t sleep more than a few hours at a time with that head wound. And she has to be turned over every two hours or her skin will ulcerate.”
“I’ll wake her.” Merideth leaned over Jesse and kissed her lips, held her hand, whispered her name. She took a long time to awaken, muttering and pushing Merideth’s hands away.
“Can’t we let her sleep any longer?”
“It’s safer to wake her for a while.”
Jesse moaned, cursed softly, and opened her eyes. For a moment she stared up at the tent, then turned her head and saw Merideth.
“Merry… I’m glad you’re back.” Her eyes were very dark brown, almost black, strange with her red hair and high complexion. “Poor Alex—”
Jesse saw Snake. “Healer?”
Jesse gazed at her calmly, and her voice was steady. “Is my back broken?”
Merideth started. Snake hesitated, but she could not evade the directness of the question even for a short time. Reluctantly, she nodded.
Jesse relaxed all at once, letting her head fall back, staring upward.
Merideth bent down, embracing her. “Jesse, Jesse, love, it’s…” But there were no more words, and Merideth leaned silently against Jesse’s shoulder, holding her close.
Jesse looked at Snake. “I’m paralyzed. I won’t heal.”
“I’m sorry,” Snake said. “No, I can’t see any chance.”
Jesse’s expression did not change; if she had hoped for reassurance, she did not reveal disappointment. “I knew it was bad when we fell,” she said. “I heard bone break.” She raised Merideth gently. “The colt?”
“He was dead when we found you. He broke his neck.”
Jesse’s voice mingled relief, regret, fear. “It was quick,” she said. “For him.”
The pungent odor of urine spread through the tent. Jesse smelled it and turned scarlet with shame. “I can’t live like this!” she cried.
“It’s all right, never mind,” Merideth said, and went to get a cloth.
While Merideth and Snake cleaned her, Jesse looked away and would not speak.
Alex returned warily. “The mare’s all right.” But his mind was not on the mare. He looked at Jesse, who still lay with her head turned toward the wall, one arm flung across her eyes.
“Jesse knows how to pick a good horse,” Merideth said, attempting cheerfulness. The tension was brittle as glass. Both partners stared at Jesse, but she did not move.
“Let her sleep,” Snake said, not knowing whether Jesse was asleep or not. “She’ll be hungry when she wakes up. I hope you have something she can eat.”
Their frozen attention broke in relieved if slightly frantic activity. Merideth rummaged in sacks and pouches and brought out dried meat, dried fruit, a leather flask. “This is wine—can she have that?”
“She hasn’t got a serious concussion,” Snake said. “The wine should be all right.” It might even help, she thought, unless alcohol makes her morose. “But that jerky—”
“I’ll make broth,” Alex said. He pulled a metal pot from a jumble of equipment, drew his knife from his belt, and began to cut a chunk of jerky into bits. Merideth poured wine over shriveled sections of fruit. The sharp sweet fragrance rose and Snake realized she was both thirsty and ravenous. The desert people seemed to skip meals without noticing, but Snake had reached the oasis two days ago—or was it three?—and she had not eaten much while sleeping off the venom reaction. It was not good manners to ask for food or water in this region, because it was worse manners not to offer. Manners hardly seemed important right now. She was shaky with hunger.
“Gods, I’m hungry,” Merideth said in astonishment, as if reading Snake’s feelings. “Aren’t you?”
“Well, yes,” Alex said reluctantly.
“And as hosts—” Apologetically, Merideth handed Snake the flask and found more bowls, more fruit. Snake drank cool-hot spicy wine, the first gulp too deep. She coughed; it was powerful stuff. She drank again and handed the flask back. Merideth drank; Alex took the leather bottle and poured a generous portion into the cooking pot. Only then did he sip the wine himself, quickly, before taking the broth outside to the tiny paraffin stove. The desert heat was so oppressive that they could not even feel the heat of the flame. It flickered like a transparent mirage against the black sand, and Snake felt fresh perspiration sliding down her temples and between her breasts. She wiped her sleeve across her forehead.
They breakfasted on jerky and fruit, and the wine, which struck quickly and hard. Alex began to yawn almost immediately, but every time he nodded, he staggered to his feet and went outside to stir Jesse’s broth.
“Alex, go to sleep,” Merideth finally said.
“No, I’m not tired.” He stirred, tasted, took the pot off the fire, set it inside to cool.
“Alex—” Merideth took his hand and drew him to the patterned rug. “If she calls us, we’ll hear her. If she moves, we’ll go to her. We can’t help her if we’re falling over our own feet from weariness.”
“But I… I…” Alex shook his head, but fatigue and the wine stayed with him. “What about you?”
“Your night was harder than my ride. I need to relax a few more minutes, but then I’ll come to bed.”
Reluctantly, gratefully, Alex lay down nearby. Merideth stroked his hair until, in a few moments, Alex began to snore. Merideth glanced at Snake and smiled. “When he first came with us, Jesse and I wondered how we could ever sleep with such a noise. Now we can hardly sleep without it.”
Alex’s snore was loud and low, and every so often he caught his breath and snuffled. Snake smiled. “You can get used to nearly anything, I guess.” She took one last sip of wine and returned the flask. Merideth, reaching for it, suddenly hiccupped, then, blushing, stoppered the bottle instead of drinking.
“Wine affects me too easily. I should never use it.”
“At least you know. You probably never make a fool of yourself.”
“When I was younger—” Merideth laughed at memories. “I was foolish then, and poor as well. A bad combination.”
“I can think of better.”
“Now we’re rich, and I’m perhaps a little less foolish. But what good is it all, healer? Money can’t help Jesse. Nor wisdom.”
“You’re right,” Snake said. “They can’t help her, and neither can I. Only you and Alex can.”
“I know it.” Merideth’s voice was soft and sad. “But it will take Jesse a long time to get used to that.”
“She’s alive, Merideth. The accident came so close to killing her—isn’t it enough to be grateful for, that she’s alive?”
“To me, yes, it is.” The words had begun to slur. “But you don’t know Jesse. Where she’s from, why she’s here—” Merideth stared groggily at Snake, hesitating, then plunging ahead. “She’s here because she can’t stand to be trapped. Before we were together, she was rich and powerful and safe. But her whole life and all her work were planned out for her. She would have been one of the rulers of Center—”
“Yes, it was all hers, if she wanted it. But she didn’t want to live under a stone sky. She came outside with nothing. To make her own destiny. To be free. Now — the things she enjoys most will be beyond her. How can I tell her to be glad she’s alive, when she knows she’ll never walk on the desert again, or find me a diamond for some patron’s earring, never gentle another horse, never make love?”
“I don’t know,” Snake said. “But if you and Alex see her life as a tragedy, that’s what it will be.”
Just before dawn the heat eased slightly, but as soon as it grew light the temperature rose again. The camp was in deep shade, but even in the protection of the rock walls the heat was like a pressure.
Alex snored and Merideth slept peacefully near him, oblivious to the sound, one strong hand curled over Alex’s back. Snake lay on the tent floor, facedown, arms outstretched. The fine fibers in the pile of the rug prickled softly against her cheek, damp with her sweat. Her hand throbbed but she could not sleep, and she did not have the energy to rouse herself.
She drifted into a dream in which Arevin appeared. She could see him more clearly than she could remember him when she was awake. It was a curious dream, childishly chaste. She barely touched Arevin’s fingertips, and then he began to fade away. Snake reached for him desperately. She woke up throbbing with sexual tension, her heart racing.
Jesse stirred. For a moment Snake did not move, then, reluctantly, she raised herself. She glanced at the other two partners. Alex slept soundly with the momentary forgetfulness of youth, but sheer weariness lined Merideth’s face and sweat plastered down the shiny black curls. Snake left Merideth and Alex alone and knelt by Jesse, who lay face down as they last had turned her, her cheek resting on one hand, her other hand shielding her eyes.
She’s feigning sleep, Snake thought, for the line of her arm, the curl of her fingers, showed not relaxation but tension. Or wishing it, like me. Both of us would like to sleep, sleep and ignore reality.
“Jesse,” she said softly, and again, “Jesse, please.”
Jesse sighed and let her hand fall to the sheet.
“There’s broth here when you feel strong enough to drink it. And wine, if you’d like.”
A barely perceptible shake of the head, though Jesse’s lips were dry. Snake would not allow her to become dehydrated, but she did not want to have to argue her into eating, either.
“It’s no good,” Jesse said.
Jesse reached out and laid her hand over Snake’s. “No, it’s all right. I’ve thought about what’s happened. I’ve dreamed about it.” Snake noticed that her dark brown eyes were flecked with gold. The pupils were very small. “I can’t live like this. Neither can they. They’d try—they’d destroy themselves trying. Healer—”
“Please…” Snake whispered, afraid again, more afraid than she had ever been in her life. “Please don’t—”
“Can’t you help me?”
“Not to die,” Snake said. “Don’t ask me to help you die!”
She bolted to her feet and outside. The heat slammed against her, but there was nowhere to go to escape it. The canyon walls and tumbled piles of broken rock rose up around her.
Head down, trembling, with sweat stinging her eyes, Snake stopped and collected herself. She had acted foolishly and she was ashamed of her panic. She must have frightened Jesse, but she could not yet make herself return and face her. She walked farther from the tent, not toward the desert where the sun and sand would waver like a fantasy, but toward a pocket in the canyon wall that was fenced off as a corral.
It seemed to Snake hardly necessary to pen the horses at all, for they stood in a motionless group, heads down, dusty, lop-eared. They did not even flick their tails; no insects existed in the black desert. Snake wondered where Merideth’s handsome bay mare was. These are a sorry lot of beasts, she thought. Hanging on the fence or lying in careless heaps, their tack shone with precious metal and jewels. Snake put her hands on one of the roped wooden stakes and rested her chin on her fists.
At the sound of falling water she turned, startled. At the other side of the corral, Merideth filled a leather trough held up by a wooden frame. The horses came alive, raising their heads, pricking their ears. They started across the sand, trotting, then cantering, all in a turmoil, squealing and nipping and kicking up their heels at each other. They were transformed. They were beautiful.
Merideth stopped nearby, holding the limp, empty waterskin, looking at the small herd rather than at Snake. “Jesse has a gift with horses. Choosing them, training them… What’s wrong?”
“I’m sorry. I must have upset her. I had no right—”
“To tell her to live? Maybe you don’t, but I’m glad you did.”
“It doesn’t matter what I tell her,” Snake said. “She has to want to live herself.”
Merideth waved and yelled. The horses nearest the water shied away, giving the others a chance to drink. They jostled each other, draining the trough dry, then standing near it and waiting expectantly for more. “I’m sorry,” Merideth said. “That’s all for now.”
“You must have to carry a great deal of water for them.”
“Yes, but we need all of them. We come in with water and we go out with the ore and the stones Jesse finds.” The bay mare put her head over the rope fence and nuzzled Merideth’s sleeve, stretching to be scratched behind the ears and under the jaw. “Since Alex came with us we travel with more…things. Luxuries. Alex said we’d impress people that way, so they’d want to buy from us.”
“Does it work?”
“It seems to. We live very well now. I can choose my commissions.”
Snake stared at the horses, who wandered one by one to the shady end of the corral. The vague glow of the sun had crept up over the edge of the wall, and Snake could feel the heat on her face.
“What are you thinking?” Merideth asked.
“How to make Jesse want to live.”
“She won’t live uselessly. Alex and I love her. We’d take care of her no matter what. But that isn’t enough for her.”
“Does she have to walk to be useful?”
“Healer, she’s our prospector.” Merideth looked at Snake sadly. “She’s tried to teach me how to look and where to look. I understand what she tells me, but when I go out I’m as likely as not to find nothing but fused glass and fool’s gold.”
“Have you showed her your job?”
“Of course. We can each do a little of the other’s work. But we each have a talent. She’s better at my job than I am at hers and I’m better at hers than either of us is at Alex’s, but people don’t understand her designs. They’re too strange. They’re beautiful.” Merideth sighed, holding out a bracelet for Snake to see, the only ornament Merideth wore. It was silver, without stones, geometric and multilayered without being bulky. Merideth was right: it was beautiful, but it was strange. “No one will buy them. She knows that. I’d do anything. I’d lie to her, if it would help. But she’d know. Healer—” Merideth flung the waterskin to the sand. “Isn’t there anything you can do?”
“I can deal with infections and diseases and tumors. I can even do surgery that isn’t beyond my tools. But I can’t force the body to heal itself.”
“Not… not anyone that I know of, on this earth.”
“You’re not a mystic,” Merideth said. “You don’t mean some spirit might cause a miracle. You mean off the earth the people might be able to help.”
“They might,” Snake said slowly, sorry she had spoken as she had. She had not expected Merideth to sense her resentment, though she should have. The city affected all the people around it; it was like the center of a whirlpool, mysterious and fascinating. And it was the place the offworlders sometimes landed. Because of Jesse, Merideth probably knew more about them and the city than Snake did. Snake had always had to take the stories about Center on faith alone; the idea of offworlders was hard to accept for someone who lived in a land where the stars were seldom visible.
“They might even be able to heal her in the city,” Snake said. “How should I know? The people who live there won’t talk to us. They keep us cut off out here—and as for offworlders, I’ve never even met anyone who claims to have seen one.”
“Would they help her?”
“Her family is powerful. They might be able to make the offworlders take her where she could be healed.”
“The Center people and the offworlders are jealous of their knowledge, Merideth,” Snake said. “At least they’ve never offered to share any of it.”
Merideth scowled and turned away.
“I’m not saying we shouldn’t try. It could give her hope—”
“And if they refuse, her hope is broken again.”
“She needs the time.”
Merideth thought, and finally replied. “And you’ll come, to help us?”
It was Snake who hesitated now. She had already set herself to return to the healers’ station and accept the verdict of her teachers when she told them of her errors. She had prepared herself to go to the valley. But she put her mind to a different journey, and realized what a difficult task Merideth proposed. They would badly need someone who knew what care Jesse required.
“All right. I’ll come.”
“Then let’s ask Jesse.”
They returned to the tent. Snake was surprised to find herself feeling optimistic; she was smiling, truly encouraged, for what seemed the first time in a long while.
Inside, Alex sat beside Jesse. He glared at Snake when she entered.
“Jesse,” Merideth said, “we have a plan.”
They had turned her again, carefully following Snake’s orders. Jesse looked up tiredly, aged by deep lines in her forehead and around her mouth.
Merideth explained with excited gestures. Jesse listened impassively. Alex’s expression hardened into disbelief.
“You’re out of your mind,” he said when Merideth had finished.
“I’m not! Why do you say that when it’s a chance?”
Snake looked at Jesse. “Are we?”
“I think so,” Jesse said, but she spoke very slowly, very thoughtfully.
“If we got you to Center,” Snake said, “could your people help you?”
Jesse hesitated. “My cousins have some techniques. They could cure very bad wounds. But the spine? Maybe. I don’t know. And there’s no reason for them to help me. Not anymore.”
“You always told me how important blood ties are among the city’s families,” Merideth said. “You’re their kin—”
“I left them,” Jesse said. “I broke the ties. Why should they take me back? Do you want me to go and beg them?”
Jesse looked down at her long strong useless legs. Alex glared, first at Merideth, then at Snake.
“Jesse, I can’t stand to see you as you’ve been, I can’t bear watching you want to die.”
“They’re very proud,” Jesse said. “I hurt my family’s pride by renouncing them.”
“Then they’d understand what it took you to ask for their help.”
“We’d be crazy to try it,” Jesse said.
Copyright © 1978 Vonda N. McIntyre
by Vonda N. McIntyre
$4.99 (Novel) ISBN 978-1-61138-084-2