I never thought my life had been easy. But, then, I’d never met anyone who thought their life was easy. I was under the general impression that everyone had been broken in one way or another along the way, and it was what we did with that brokenness that defined us. I thought this even when I got aghast looks from my therapists who told me, in no unclear terms, that it was phenomenal that I had come out as well-balanced as I was. They’d say “Your life was so hard.” And, after a time, I came to accept that, maybe, my life was a bit harder than the ordinary.
I recanted that belief when I found him, my god-given charge, on the third day of being in the city at the end of the farm fields. My life had been luxuriously easy.
Because the boy, my new baby, was dying from how hard his was.
His hair that was supposed to be silver was gray, lank, and matted about his shoulders. Only one eye looked up at me from the hollow of his skull, dull and lost, the other swollen over with an old bruise and dried pus. His clothes was little more than burlap sacks messily sewn into something that resembled a shirt and pants, his feet bare, bony, and yellow-gray with mud and calluses. One of his legs was twisted like it had attempted to make corkscrew pasta, and the other was obviously broken and infected. Flies buzzed about him. The only reason I even knew he was alive was because he gave a slow blink when I crouched down in front of him to check.
And he couldn’t be older than eight. It was older than I had thought on hearing ‘little boy,’ but a child nonetheless.
I was crying by the time I’d gathered up the magic that Nehcor had given me. But even as I set my glowing hands to his legs, I knew I’d have to be selective with how I used it if this dying boy was going to make it.
But first…the broken leg.
Even as I gently set my hands to the askew limb, I could feel the energy trickling out like threads of heat.
Nehcor, my godly brother, had hesitated when I asked him for healing magic. But he seemed to think better of it and agreed to it, saying it was a great idea after all.
But I came to understand why he had hesitated when I had healed the first person I had come upon, the little old lady with the dowager’s hump, and she nearly fainted from surprised. Apparently, healing magic is very rare, and often attested to those of divine power. However fitting it was for me, being directly sent from this world’s god, I was supposed to be hiding the fact that he had sent me.
‘Don’t so much as whisper that I sent you. If they come to see you as some sort of avatar of me, that may adversely affect their agency–not to mention get you in trouble. How will you be able to focus on helping my little hero to grow into the man he wishes to be if you’re busy being kidnapped by religious zealots or kings who want to use your influence for politics? It’s best to keep it secret, especially to your charge. Just trust me on this. If you don’t…I’ll have to pull you out.’
If I was supposed to be quiet about my connection to him, I had wondered why he had allowed me healing powers to begin with.
But now that I saw the near-death state of this poor boy, I could understand why.
But any change of matter required energy. Healing required atoms, molecules, and chemicals to be reknitted, rekindled, and replaced, which naturally required energy, and since I hadn’t yet figured out how to take energy from thin air, it came from my body.
So I only healed his leg for now. It wouldn’t do to wear myself out when it was obvious he was too weak to make his way to the hotel I’d made my temporary home. It looked the most painful.
The one, red eye widened in the light of my magic. His cracked lips parted in a wheezy gasp.
Once his broken leg was back to normal, I wiped my face, sniffing. The tears kept leaking out.
“I’ll heal the rest once I get you home,” I turned around, giving my back. “Can you give me your arms? I’ll carry you.”
Another, wheezy sort of rasp. A split second later, I realized it was his voice.
My mind was too frazzled from his appearance to handle that question right now. I’d seen holocaust victims in photos. But I’d never been in front of one, one even worse off. They never mentioned the smell or show in hyper detail of the festering wounds and grey pores.
“Come on, sweetie. Let me take care of you…please.”
So all I could do was fall to begging.
His hands on my shoulders were like ice. The weather had been a bit chilly lately, but the shadows of the alley didn’t help. It wasn’t like it was winter, or anything.
Once I had his arms around my neck, I reached down, found the crook of his knees, and got a good hold. Then I stood, and nearly gave a loud sob at how light he was.
“There’s a boy,” I murmured. “Good boy. You’re going to be okay.”
A raw hole had come to life in my chest. In it, a tiny fetus, with perfectly formed hands and feet, floated in a jar. Another was wrapped in a thin blanket, gray with frozen, half-opened eyes.
The Inn was a good walk away. I’d gone deeper into the city hoping that the faint fuzz of ‘this way looks good like pretty flowers’ would lead me to him. So by the time I kicked open the front door of the Red Swallow Inn, my legs were shaking and my arms were beginning to grow numb.
“Hal! Hal, I need help!” my voice cracked.
A middle-aged man in his early fifties came around the corner from the kitchen. On seeing me, he sped up to a trot across the common area, which consisted of two fireplaces at each end of a large room dotted with round tables and simple stools.
“What on–are they still alive?”
“I need to heal him, but he needs to be bathed and fed and–” I had stopped crying along the way, but now started up again.
Hal’s expression puckered. Despite his grizzled appearance, he was a soft soul. “Now now, it’s okay, I’m going to help you. Just bring him around back, I’ll have Milly prepare the bath out there. I’m sorry, but I can’t let him bring in lice into my establishment, so we should clean him first.”
I obeyed without questioning it. Hal had been nothing but kind to me ever since I had healed his arthritis in return for a night’s stay. He’d be so ecstatic about the results, he had insisted I stay as long as I needed to and even offered me a job. He told me I had saved his business, because his daughter had never been able to marry and his wife had died ten years earlier. A half-paralyzed with arthritis old man and a spinster didn’t exactly the best inn make.
I got to the backyard just as his daughter, Milly, was pulling out the tub from the backdoor. The yard was mostly cobblestone and dirt patches, being just a large space between buildings. A homestead stood to the east, a small apartment building to the south, and a shop to the west.
Milly pulled it over to the pump with her thick, strong arms, then settled it in place. She took one look at the body oozing off my back and gave a frown of her thick, flat lips.
“Lil’, that there’s a body, not a kid.”
“He’s alive,” I said. “Please, hurry. We need to get him clean so he can get inside.”
“No need to be weepy about it, dear, I’m moving, I’m moving.”
And she hurried quick enough. Her broad frame nearly filled the door, wider than most men. There was no surprise as to why she hadn’t found a husband. Milly, although strong, hard-working, and kind as her father, was no beauty.
I settled the boy in my arms. Even as I did so, I could feel his string-thin muscles beneath my arms stiffening and pulling to adjust himself. Relief flooded through me as I met the gaze of his one good eye, a bit brighter than before.
I gave him a rather watery smile as I tucked some fly away hair so it wouldn’t aggravate that beautiful eye.
Stupid god. Why hadn’t he gotten me here sooner? No, why hadn’t I gotten here sooner? I’d been looking every day, or more like sightseeing every day. It’d been a freaking medieval theme park for me, suddenly finding myself in a world where Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table could pop up at any moment and the occasional street performer puff out magic flames and water. And, while I knew I had to find him, I never thought he’d be in this state.
Milly came back out with a large bucket of steaming water. Luckily, she’d had some boiling water on hand when I’d come back. But, then, she usually had some on hand in the day, for cooking, cleaning, or otherwise.
She dumped it into the wooden tub.
“That’s all the hot stuff I got for now,” she moved to the well spigot and gave it a pump. “I’ll get the soap and razor.”
“Quickest way to get rid of lice and who the hell knows what else,” she gave him an eye before pouring a bucket of cold water into the bath.
And since she was right, I didn’t fight her as I set to work getting his shirt undone. I ended up slipping it over his head like he was a toddler, and moaned at the skin and bones I found underneath, speckled with bruises, scabs, and old scars.
He showed his first sign of life when I reached for his pants.
“S-s-stop,” he rasped.
“It’s nothing I haven’t seen before,” I said. “Work with me, sweetie, please?”
His hands turned soft as butter and soon I had a naked boy skeleton on hand. I barely gave the few pubic hairs a thought before lifting him up, like a princess, and setting him into the shallow water of the tub. The level just reached his belly button.
Hal came out with the soap and razor. Milly followed him with bread and some cheese.
“We’ll clean him,” said Milly. “You just focus on healing.”
“Not too much,” warned Hal with furrowed brows.
But there would be no ‘too much’ for me. This boy was the only reason I was here. If I died wringing out this body of all the energy it had to give, then all the better. He’d be saved to grow, and I’d get to return to my babies.
So I put my hands on whatever part of him I could reach and closed my eyes.
Hot threads criss-crossed my body as my mentality reached for his wounds. His eye. Bruises, Cuts. Failing organs. Dehydration. The malnutrition would have to wait, as I’d have to take materials from my own body. Even so, his twisted leg took great chunks from me, since I had to break apart the bonds of his bones that had healed wrong and straighten them with new calcium. As I did so, I could hear him choking and gasping on the pain, his throat too dry to properly scream.
Then my arms, which had already been forced beyond their strength in carrying him all the way here, went loose and I fell sideways, my vision dotted with black.
“Oy, bread! Eat!”
Milly shoved the bread into my hand. I somehow managed to get it to my mouth. My stomach, which had been fine before, now felt as though it was trying to eat itself.
The rest of the day blurred by me in a mix of forced eating, squeezing magic out of a body that hadn’t had magic the week before, straining myself to both remember how to care for famine victims, and to not cry every second. Ugh, who knew I was such a bleeding heart? Fine, I am. I’m a dying, bleeding walking heart.
But point was, we got the kid dressed in one of Hal’s night shirts, shaved bald (even his poor scalp had scars, which I had to wait to heal), fed, and tucked into my bed, which was the only spare bed in the half of the inn for owner and employees.
Poor kid couldn’t stop shivering, even in his sleep.
Hal and Milly soon had to leave him to me to tend to the Inn. I felt a little guilty, in part, that I wasn’t out helping them, but Hal just laughed and said I could barely walk. Besides, someone would have to wake him up every two hours to eat some milled wheat mush (think Cream O’ Wheat).
So, since I was nodding off in my chair, and my baby was cold anyways, I thought nothing of sliding in behind him in the little bed. Poor thing was so skinny there was more than enough room. I was just awake enough to register a faint, but not unpleasant, shock of the feeling of having someone sleeping next to me after so long. Before any sad memories could rise up, I was asleep.