◊ ◊ ◊
Whip grass sliced Grania’s arms as she trudged through the field. Clouds of sticky flies rose up out of the pale, purple grass, their sing-song buzz caught in her ginger-colored hair and the sweat of her neck. She felt none of it.
“Tancy!” she called.
Up and down the search line, Tancy’s name punctuated the still, dry air. The elders of Tancy’s village, the people she treated, her brother, Grania’s son, healers from other districts all called for her. Only the crows answered.
To Grania’s right, Hortune stumbled, righted herself. “I tried to Seek her,” the healer said. “As soon as I heard she’d gone missing.”
Grania studied her friend. “And?”
Hortune shook her head, red braids tight against her scalp. “Nothing. Not a whisper of her energy print.”
“So, either she’s far out of reach…”
“No.” Grania plowed forward, her heart slamming in her chest.
“You Seek her,” Hortune suggested. “You know her better. She was your apprentice.”
Grania scanned the hip-high grass. It trembled where the hounds hurried ahead.
“I’ll have to stop.”
“Then stop. Catch up when you’re done.”
Hortune and the rest of the line pressed ahead of her. Grania stood in the sea of grass, looking down at her boots. Red dust clung to old, brown leather. A garden snake wove in and out of sight. Sun beat the back of her neck, sweat trickled from under her hat brim. Staring at her boots, Grania allowed the energetic portal at the top of her head to spiral open, then the portals in the bottoms of her feet. Gentle light flooded her. It pulsed from her head, down her spine, and out her feet into the red earth. In a moment, the space between her eyebrows warmed.
She summoned an image of Tancy—baby-blonde hair, bright blue eyes, skin like milk. Willowy and limber, she could reach any tree moss, pick any berry without snagging thorns, or tie any bandage. Sweet Tancy, who loved starlight and flicker bugs, who never said a harsh word to anyone, who ate iced berries like a two-year old. Tears ran down Grania’s cheeks as images of Tancy flipped through her mind. She loved the young healer like one of her own children.
As the images slowed, Grania released the energy at her brow. Out into the white-hot day it swept, holding the essence of Tancy and seeking it. Grania sent the energy through the whip grass field, over the ravines and mesas, far out into the desert, into the Jaliper forest. It followed the road to Gar Cumberlain’s adobe home, found the sick baby Tancy had been called out to treat. The energy touched homes in Tancy’s district, and Sunny Mountain. On the peak of the mountain, Grania thought, for a moment, that something answered the energy’s call. She paused, seeing wispy clouds in her mind, watching the sun’s face until it burned. But, nothing more spoke to her. Slowly, she turned her attention back to the surface of Saladar. The energy broke through high clouds, glided over rocks and fields and homesteads. It gathered itself back inside Grania, throbbing along her spine. She closed the portals in order and swayed on her good, dusty boots until her breathing slowed. Then, Grania opened her wet eyes.
“Oh, Tancy,” she whispered.
They searched until dusk, never finding a trail past the entrance to the whip grass field. The searchers gathered around the elders, faded in the sloping light, faded in their hope. Most of the village of Tula Valley, Tancy’s village, milled about on the rocky plain. Some brought water to the searchers. Some studied maps. Some tended the searchers’ horses or the hounds. All waited.
“We’ll start here at dawn,” an elder said, his silver hair glowing in the dim.
Grania pressed against other tired, sweaty bodies. She held a cup of water, but had no idea where it came from. Hortune shambled beside her.
“I’m going to the Cumberlain’s,” she said, her voice rough with dust. “That baby still needs tending.”
Grania nodded. She watched Hortune limp across the rocks to the road. She was too tired to get a horse for her friend, definitely too tired to think about Tancy alone in the dark. The last of the light caught in Hortune’s emerald skirt as she rounded the bend, disappeared.
“Mother?” Tain stood next to her, holding their horses’ reins.
Grania gazed up at her son. In the purpling light, he looked so much like his father. Grovain, she thought, the old wound aching for a moment. Her husband would have rubbed her wooden feet, picked the sticky flies out of her hair. But Grovain was dead as, most likely, was Tancy.
She took reins from Tain, groaning as she pulled herself into the saddle. Silently, Tain led the way to the road, turned left where Hortune had turned right. Grania’s horse clopped faithfully behind him. Both horses knew the way home and headed there with no encouragement.
Grania’s heart ached for Tain. As a fourteen year old, he fell hopelessly in love with Tancy when she apprenticed with Grania. When Tancy left for Tula Valley a few months ago, she also left a stoic nineteen year old who loved her even more. Again, she thought of Grovain. She would spare her son Grief’s chasm if she could—she had lived in those shadows for years while she raised her children. The climb out took courage Grania didn’t possess, but had to find anyway. Love always took courage, she mused, was always a risk, whether in sunshine or shadow. And if darkness paid for the light, then the dear price was probably fair.
They stopped in the dusty yard outside their long, low house. Evening had come on. Golden light shone from the kitchen window. Grania eased off her horse, her thighs and calves in spasm. Without speaking, Tain continued on to the barn while Grania limped to the door. Rella met her there. When she saw her mother, the young woman’s hopeful expression vanished.
“No,” she said, gripping her hands together.
“Is supper ready?” Grania asked, sliding a hand down her daughter’s arm.
Rella followed her into the cool house. “Don’t you want a bath first?” She picked sticky flies out of Grania’s long braid.
“No,” she sighed, crossing the tiled floor. Pulling a wooden chair out from the table, she sagged into it. “I just want to sit here.”
Rella crossed to the stove, stirred a steaming pot. Grania smelled onions and lamb. Her hollow stomach rumbled.
“What did you find?” Rella asked quietly.
“Nothing.” Grania peeled off her hat and dropped it on the table. The dusty, sweat-stained thing insulted her daughter’s clean kitchen. She noticed the whip grass welts on her arms and pondered them like a puzzle. “No tracks. No scent for the dogs. Nothing when we tried to Seek her.”
A bowl of lamb stew slid between her scratched arms. “But they have to find her body.”
“Yes.” Grania lifted a spoonful of stew, blew on it. “I suppose that will happen tomorrow.”
They both heard a horse gallop through their yard. A man’s voice called out, and Tain’s answered. The women pulled open the door. Quint, Hortune’s husband, hurried from the dark to the arc of yellow light falling from the doorway. He clutched his hat in his hand.
“Hortune’s gone,” he said.
A chill ran down Grania’s spine. “What? What do you mean?”
“I went to fetch her at Cumberlain’s. Gar said she never came. Said the baby’s fever broke on its own.”
Tain came up behind Quint. The older man’s eyes showed whites all around as he looked at Tain, looked at Rella. “She’da waited for me, even if the baby was better.”
“Yes, she would.” Grania struggled to make sense of Quint’s story. She grabbed his arm. “Just a minute. Just a minute.”
Quickly, she prepared herself to Seek Hortune. She pictured Tuni’s freckled face, her no-nonsense approach to healing, her spectacular shouting matches with Quint. Grania sent the energy flying back to the turn in the road where she last saw Hortune, let it spread out from there.
“Cumberlain’s pepper field,” she muttered as the energy returned and drained in a flash. “Get lamps,” she told Tain. “I’ll ride with Quint. Hurry.”
Tain ran back to the barn. Quint pulled Grania up behind him, his horse shying, and took the lamps as Tain swung bareback on his horse.
“Hurry,” Grania urged as the men fiddled with the lamps. She clung tight to Quint as he galloped his horse out of the yard and down the road. They sped past the search party’s stopping place, rounded the corner, and came abreast of the pepper field.
“Slow now,” Grania said, leaning around Quint’s shoulder. “Here!”
She slid off the horse before Quint could stop. “The lamp! The lamp!” she cried, reaching for it. Grania ran up the road, stopped, back tracked, swung the lamp toward the field.
The men rushed to her, stooping to see the tracks in the dirt.
“Tuni’s,” Quint said. He grabbed Tain’s lamp, jumped into the ditch and threw light on the edge of the field. “And here. She crossed here.”
The men bounded ahead of Grania. Tain kept track of Hortune’s boot prints while Quint shouted her name and scanned the dark field. Suddenly, Tain stopped, stood up. He searched the dirt in the next row, muttered, returned to the first row and searched the other side.
“What?” Quint demanded.
“The tracks stop,” Tain said. “They just stop. Like Tancy’s.”
Quint whirled around in the pepper plants, screaming Hortune’s name. Tain stood up, not sure what to do next. He turned to get his mother’s advice, but Grania was gone.
Wind chimes tinkled and clanked. Too loud, Grania thought groggily. Have to move them away from the window. Her pillow felt rock hard and full of sand. She started to roll over and stopped, every joint aching. Grania opened bleary eyes to a dimly lit floor, sections pulsing as if alive. Beyond the light, the floor became dirty metal and stretched into a cavernous room. Chains hung from the high ceiling, clanking against each other.
A face bent over her—a young woman with small, pointy features and wide black eyes. Her black hair pulled back from a forehead tinted lavender.
Grania automatically etched a circle over her heart. While she no longer practiced the ways of The Mother, her childhood upbringing remembered the old sign of safety.
Pulling herself upright, she leaned against the cold metal wall and tried to wake up out of her nightmare. The last she remembered, Quint and Tain pushed ahead of her in the pepper field.
Two other figures moved out of the gloom. Grania pushed against the metal at her back, scrabbling her feet against the smooth, lighted floor. The first, a powerfully built man, wore a black blouse covered by a black leather vest, black trousers and black boots. As he stood in front of Grania, he smiled—perfect white teeth under a thin black mustache. Heavy-lidded black eyes snapped at her. Long black hair swept back from a sharp, purple face. He hissed and gargled at her. Grania jumped at the sound.
The second man stood a head taller than the first. Broader through the shoulders, he wore only the black vest with his tight pants and boots. Grania could see a mat of thick black hair on his lavender chest. He crossed heavily muscled arms as he coughed and yowled.
The smaller man’s jaws bunched. He turned and backhanded his companion with enough force to make him stagger. He chittered and spat. The big man nodded sharply and faded into the gloom. Then, the dark man turned back to Grania with a wolf’s smile.
“Come,” the girl said, her mouth not able to shape the word correctly. She held out a dusky hand.
Grania shrank from it. “Who are you?” She clutched her knees to contain her trembling. “Where am I?”
“Hu,” the girl puzzled, standing up. “Wair.”
“Klaks,” the man rumbled, motioning between himself and the woman. He spread his hand over his chest. “Brax.”
“Ique,” the woman said.
The man pointed at the floor. “Quee.”
Grania stared at one face, then the other. None of the words made any sense. Were they names? Places?
The woman extended her hand again. “Come.”
“Why?” Grania whispered back.
“Wi,” the man repeated. He hissed at the woman.
She squatted and gazed across at Grania. “Come.”
The man stepped forward, thrust out his hand. He glared at Grania and shoved his hand closer. She held her breath and laid her hand in his cool one. In an instant, he yanked her to her feet and propelled her into the darkness. Grania tried to stop, but his grip on her arm nearly lifted her off her feet. He hurried her along a narrow passageway that snaked between containers stacked into the darkness above.
“No!” she cried, struggling.
Closer now, the strange people smelled like ash and destruction. Grania twisted and kicked, but the man’s grip only tightened. He and the woman dragged her along the passageway and out a portal to a corridor. Haze hung in the air. Metal conduits and ducts ran into and out of the steel walls. Grating clattered under their feet. Other purple-skinned people passed them, their black eyes flicking over Grania and moving on.
Panic choked her. No place like this existed on Saladar. No one looked like this.
“Ike,” she tried, looking at the woman.
She nodded at Grania. “Ique.”
“Brax,” she said to the man, but couldn’t look at his fierce face so close to hers.
“Brax,” he repeated, slowing down. “Yes.”
“Saladar?” She gestured up the corridor.
Brax shook his head. “Quee.”
They rounded a corner and came to a closed portal. Brax gripped Grania by the shoulders, fingers digging into her flesh. She forced herself to look at his terrible face. He clicked and groaned.
“Healer,” he said.
Grania’s face pinched. “Yes, I’m a healer,” she nodded.
He slapped a light next to the portal. As it began to open, his nostrils flared. “Healer.”