Chapter Twelve — Of Awakening Fire

Jon slept fitfully through the day, curled up beside Tam, where he could hear and feel reassuring breaths whenever he woke. Tam was breathing normally now, and seemed ordinarily asleep, except for the bandaging across his pale pink chest, in stark contrast to the new red-brown of his face and his arms below the elbow.

The Professor managed to sit up and make a few short, careful ventures from Tam and Jon to the water’s edge and back.

“Have you always healed fast?” Jon asked him, fully awake now. The light of the sun was lowering, and he felt restless.

“I assume that it’s the reason I have lived as long as I have,” the Professor said.

“How long, sir?”

“I don’t know precisely. My first clear memories are of a time when I was a little smaller than you.”

“What’s your first memory?”

The Professor smiled, a real smile. “My mother. The woman who became my mother. She knew something about having scars. And Corin was there. I must have a memory of him from before, because he’s always been there. She’d taken him in, too, and raised him as dear as any of her sons. He didn’t know until later that he hadn’t been born like the rest of them. He knew she’d do as much for me.”

“She sounds nice,” Jon said, then, more carefully, “Is she gone now?”

“With people like her, gone is complicated. I think perhaps she’s sleeping under the mountains.”

“Like the winged ones out of stories?”

“Exactly like.”

“Kara says we all live like we’re in some fairy tale.”

“We do,” the Professor allowed. “Fairy tales are full enough of monsters.”

“They’ll be able to find us, won’t they? Doctor and Lady Blackfeather?”

“We’ll be found, yes.” The Professor looked down at Tam, regretful.

“Why hasn’t anyone come yet? Shouldn’t they be back already?”

“Circumstances must prevent that,” the Professor said. “But they will come. In the mean time, we can heal and learn, and see what work we were washed here for.”

“Oh,” Jon said. “Do you think the Seer knew this would happen?”

“There’s no telling what the Seer saw, only that good could be done.”

“Enough to outweigh everything that’s gone wrong?”

“That I don’t know. One man’s burden is another’s salvation, sometimes. Maybe everyone’s. ‘The One turns all pain to blessing in time.’ Isn’t that the saying?”

“But don’t they say that mostly about babies and inconvenient rain, not about people being shot?”

“They do. I agree it’s difficult to see anything as blessed right now.” Another rueful smile. “I was trying to find the sorts of things adults are supposed to say to cheer people up.”

“You can cry, too, if you need.” Jon said.

The Professor squeezed his hand.

Temanava returned as the light dwindled, from the water this time in a small carved boat. She was in her red dress again, and brought bowls of fruit, bandages, and herbs. She tied the little boat at one end of the pool. “You did not leave the cave?”

“No, you asked us not to,” Jon said.

“Thank you for honoring that.” She knelt near Tam. “There were ships today. Ships with people who must never know about here.”

“Are you in some kind of trouble?” the Professor asked.

“Not yet.” Temanava frowned. “But I keep feeling like someone is building a snare around us. I can see the snakes from the window, but they never strike. They’re waiting. I don’t like it.”

Noise from above made Jon jump, but it was just the other girls. They came down the rope with lanterns in baskets, and other baskets full of fruit, bread, and soup, which Temanava gave Jon in coconut shells, one for him, and one for him to give to the Professor. The girls were still careful to keep their distance from the scarred man.

“I don’t believe I can hurt you,” the Professor told Temanava. “I think that I’ve had the condition you mentioned for most of my life.”

“But I might hurt you,” Temanava told him, not unkindly. “And I don’t wish to.”

“With your own fire?” Jon asked.

“I stand upon the well,” Temanava said. “Rivers of fire boil below, not my own, but through me to all. I must always be careful.”

“Who’s on fire?” Tam muttered. “For a minute I thought maybe I was, but it’s all ache. Hullo.”

“Tam!” Jon dropped down by his side and grabbed his hand.

“Was I shot?” Tam asked muzzily. “It was like being stepped on by a cow. Just faster.”

“How are you?”

“I feel like a hoof’s still in my chest. Professor, sir, don’t look like that. It’s not hardly your fault.”

“Don’t try to talk too much,” the Professor said.

“Shouldn’t there be a hole in you?”

“It closed,” the Professor said simply. “Don’t worry about it,”

“It’s not outside my way to. You shouldn’t do all the worrying yourself. I better be good for something.”

“I have medicine for the pain, if you will take it,” Temanava said, kneeling again at Tam’s side opposite the Professor.

“This is Temanava,” Jon explained. “She’s taking care of us in her secret sea cave.”

“That’s real nice of you, and I’m grateful,” Tam muttered. “Sorry, I should be wearing my shirt. Didn’t expect to be in company.”

Temanava smiled behind her hand. “You would make my work more difficult if you did. I’ve brought fresh dressings for you. And you,” Temanava looked up at the Professor. “I have been thinking about your problem. We have something here on the islands that can restore a person’s fire.”

The Professor’s face grew still. “Are you talking about Corta?”

Temanava frowned. “That is not what the herb was meant for. Outsiders made my people’s sacred plant a drug. They burn off wild places to make fields of it now. Once it grew only in the Silence, on the slopes of the God, and still only the holy Breath knows how to properly prepare it. It is meant for the warriors in time of great need, to defend the island.”

“M’sorry,” Tam whispered to Jon. “I don’t think my head’s quite on right yet. I keep hearing things but they don’t make sense.”

“That’s just how she talks,” Jon explained, holding Tam’s hand tight.

“She . . . she seems solid enough anyhow. And that’s not right, like.” Tam rubbed at his eyes and winced. “Where are the others? Ellea kept yelling, and my head’s about split.”

“Ellea’s not here. I’ll explain more later,” Jon assured.

“I will get you that medicine,” Temanava said.

“Which does not contain any dangerous herbs like Corta?” the Professor asked.

“No, he has all the fire one should ever hold. I was going to offer to mix it for you.”

“You said it isn’t meant for outsiders.”

“The outsiders are taking everything. They’ve been taking everything for generations now. Can I not take an outsider as an ally, if I choose? You said you were willing to help us.”

“I am. But the strongest thing I have to offer you is my mind, which will not be of use to anyone if I don’t have full use of it.”

Temanava laid out her herb piles and began grinding and mixing with rather more force than seemed needed.

“I don’t mean to spurn your help, or misunderstand your offer,” the Professor said carefully.

“You were meant to be more than you are, weren’t you?” Temanava asked, looking up from her work with slightly wet eyes.

The Professor paused. “Yes.”

“So was I. Today they taught us to walk with books on our heads. My grandmother taught me to read stars and the sea. I was chosen to understand the essence of plants and the fire that flows through men, of healing and power. Today I was told never to offer opinions or unasked speech to people to whom I had not been introduced, or who were older, or greater in wealth, or men.”

“That’s a load off the pitchfork,” Tam volunteered muzzily.

Temanava nodded. “I like you. You talk sense. Jon, take this mixture and that pot and make a tea.”

“Yes, miss. I know how to make tea,” Jon said.

“Of course you do, all the red people know brewing tea,” Temanava said, with a laugh.

The other girls giggled, from where they crouched around the food baskets.

“Red?” Jon looked confusedly at his hands. Then he looked at Tam, whose face and hands, sun-touched, were certainly a dark ruddy color. “Oh.”

“They say the far-siders make even more of a ritual of it,” Temanava said, carefully removing Tam’s bandaging.

“What, of making tea?” Tam asked, biting his lip so he wouldn’t wince.

“Everything they do, they do as though it is magic learned a thousand years ago. Maybe it is. They made half the world disappear.”

“I don’t know that story,” Jon said.

“A ship crossed round the world once,” the Professor said. “The cartographer wrote about strange nations on the other side he called the Dynasties, and their inexplicable marvels. No one back home believed half of what he claimed. That was the last ship to circle. When others tried, they found barricades of strange ships, and harbors that refused to let them dock. At first they were turned back courteously, but if they pressed on they were fired upon by cannons that spat fire that burned even in the water and consumed whole ships. So the last record of what lies behind the outer rim islands is a collection of vivid fairy stories.”

“Soon after making the Maribelle colonies, before the fall of their united empire, the Arienish sent a mighty fleet,” Temanava said. “They sent a hundred ships with thousands of cannons. They called it the great trade fleet, and piled it with weapons and goods. They docked here on their way, my great-grandmother said, and took on enough water to drain the falls. No one saw the fleet again.”

“There was no trace at all?” Tam asked.

“Maybe the far-siders burned them. Maybe there was a great storm on the seas, or a mighty wave,” Temanava said, adding new dressings.

“There may even have been a mutiny. Colonies were rebelling by then, and most sailors at that time were sent unwilling to sea,” the Professor said.

Jon finished with the tea and gave the pot to Temanava. “If only the island had sent out a great wave when the first traders came here,” she sighed, pouring.

“Do you really wish that?” Jon asked. “Hasn’t anything good come at all?”

“Nothing worth the price of what we lost,” Temanava said.

“Arien tried to take over our Land once. Corestemar too,” Tam said. “We were lucky to fight ‘em off.”

“More lucky than you realize,” Temanava said. “Bandaging done.”

“Thank you, Temanava, for your help, knowledge and healing,” the Professor said.

She looked intently at him. “The herb they call Corta only grows on these islands. No one has been able to grow it anywhere else, because its roots are the very blood of this place, offered up to give the island’s own strength and healing to its people. Outsiders made it a way to steal strength unearned, to avoid sleep, to feel little pain, to fear nothing, even what they should. What it is, made truly, is fire, the island’s fire, to spark one’s own back into life.”

The Professor opened his mouth, closed it, and looked down at his scarred hands. “Something spent a great deal of time making sure I would never be able to use . . . fire,” he said at last, so quietly it was difficult to hear.

“And do you trust the wisdom of that thing, or want what it wants?” Temanava asked.

“No,” the Professor said, just as quietly.

“What if you could have some of that power back?”

“I’d be very afraid,” the Professor said, seeming suddenly, to Jon’s eyes, oddly young.

“All wise men fear power,” Temanava said.

“We’ll talk about this tomorrow,” the Professor said, clearing his throat. “For now, tell me what you want to learn, and I’ll see if I have any knowledge that might be helpful to you and your friends. I am happy to tell you I know nothing about how to walk with books on my head.”

Temanava nodded. “Do you know navigational mathematics?”

“You do like to challenge me, don’t you?” The Professor ran his hands through his hair. “Get me some chalk or paper, and I’ll see what I can remember.”

Temanava grinned, and beckoned the other girls over as Jon helped Tam with his tea.

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