No home is without its complications…
The Autumn Gather ended with a massive fireworks display. Gradually, over the next three days, the assembled travelers and traders made their way down the wide road leading out of the mountains. A few days after that, Toria’s second semester began.
The classes that semester were much more challenging for Toria, despite the fact they were easier for everyone else. Instead of brute memorization, the lessons included more hands-on work and problem solving. Remembering facts wasn’t enough; Toria also had to bring them to bear.
Winter started early. It was beautiful at first, once Toria learned to emulate the students from Fort Hold and dress in layers. As the days grew short, the mountain was hit with a patch of brutal weather lasting almost a month. The rain was bitter cold and turned into hail at night. At least one hearth remained burning in the main living cavern at all times. The dorms were allowed to burn a little coal on nights when the temperature dropped below freezing.
In the last sevenday of the Turn, two inches of snow fell on the mountain. The local children laughed at the Hall students from warmer climates as they slipped on ice and chased scarves pulled off by swirling winds.
The two days of Turnover were right in the middle of a six day study break. Most of the celebrations were indoors. The living caverns were decorated with wreathes and garlands that filled the air with the scents of milkweed, almond, and vanilla. Harpers played traditional songs, encouraging everyone to sing along. Turnover dinner didn’t rival the feasts of the Gather, but it was a special time for cherished friends and beloved family members to enjoy each other’s company.
Friends exchanged small gifts, usually fun little items they had crafted themselves. Gifts between family members were sometimes larger and more useful. Toria received a number of small gifts from her dorm mates — fancy blank postcards from Bevina, a woven purple bracelet from Fiadi, a springy hair tie from Keeva, and nice writing tool from Madi, a scented candle from Nabella, hair ribbons from Roshena, and a pair of bead earrings from Sersha.
The Pelegas dorm delegate, Patrina, gave everyone a “dreaming ball” on a little wood stand. It was about 3″ in diameter, partially transparent, and made of swirled glass. In the right light, it looked like an opalescent soap bubble.
Master Valora sent both a letter and a gift, which arrived the day before Turnover. The gift was a conch fossil pendant carved in a spiral with the words, “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”
The leader read:
Happy Turnover! Your friends at Katz Field send their greetings.
Turn 1,251 will launch you into a very serious career. There is so much to wish you, I hardly know where to begin.
I’ll start with Patience. You will need this quality in great abundance. I wish you Kindness and Gentleness. A good person wants these, but a Healer must have them. I also wish you Sympathy and Understanding. All who seek you, the sick and the suffering, will benefit from these as much as from your skill.
Keep your feet firm on the ground. A Healer’s life is not easy. Always try to treat each patient with equal care regardless of creed or position. The worthwhile Healer is the one who can do this.
I hope your hands, heart, and mind will always be set on serving whichever Hold is lucky enough to have you.
Finally, I wish you happiness, good luck, and a career that will be a credit to us both.
Toria realized that her eventual promotion to Journeyman would mean choosing a specialty and studying more directly under a Master at Healer Hall. One day, she would be posted to a hold, not necessarily Katz Field. She would never study with Master Valora again.
When Spring arrived, the landscape transformed. The monotony of dull, pine green was broken by vivid wildflowers in every color imaginable. Wildlife returned from hiding in the valleys or slumbering in remote caves. The river swelled and could only be crossed by the bridge on the main road. The whitewater rapids were so loud, Toria could almost hear them from the Hold’s courtyard.
Fiadi, the weaver’s daughter from Lemos, suffered a terrible case of hay fever. She was lucky to be surrounded by Healers, but even with medication her eyes watered and her nose was perpetually red.
At the end of the first Turn of study, Sylvie transferred into the program for aspiring midwives. She loved babies and children and everything to do with them. Only that strong love was enough to get her through further studies.
Toria was left to study with Bevina the bookworm, with occasional assistance from Sersha who had just been promoted to Senior Apprentice and moved to another dorm.
Spring Break was spent relaxing, exploring, and hunting for firelizard eggs. No clutches were found, but everyone involved had an exciting time hiking along the mountain trails.
The second Turn of Healer training built on the first. Now that Toria knew what was inside a person’s body, it was time to learn how it worked. The objective structured clinical exams became challenging and involved patients with more serious conditions. If she did well, at the end of the Turn, she might get to walk the tables and join Sersha in a better dorm.
By the end of the third semester, the drama between students was becoming difficult for Toria to bear. Madi started dating a plucky Harper boy named Riley, Keeva regularly fell behind on chores, Roshena made a fuss any time there was the slightest noise during study hour in the dorm, and minor scuffles broke out between rivals.
When scholarly Master Rentin asked Toria if she would volunteer to gather Needlethorn, she jumped at the chance. She could get away from the drama for a whole day, exploring misty valleys, babbling creeks, and fields of flowering trees. Time seemed to slow down whenever she ventured away from the Hall. The serene solitude was like nothing Toria had experienced at Katz Field.
Harvesting Needlethorn would have been challenging when Toria first arrived at Healer Hall, but now she knew everything she needed to gather a substantial crop. A Healer had taken her class to practice harvesting thorns on small plants in a greenhouse during the second week of Autumn. As long as the flowers had opened and the plant was dormant, a Needlethorn wouldn’t shoot Toria with poisonous darts. The only trick was finding a field where the plants weren’t too close together, otherwise a late-bloomer might hide in the dense foliage.
Over the last Turn, Toria had learned all the trails and roads near Fort Hold. Unfortunately, the best Needlethorn would be far from human habitation and herdbeast grazing fields. She packed two light meals and left just after dawn.
A snippet of lyrics from a song she heard at Turnover came to mind:
The mountain is a soulless thing,
At night, a shape of ancient fear,
In darkness, winds of Chaos born
Amid the frost peaks, thundering
For fearful lordless wights to hear
The mighty granite titan mourn
As she made her way to the top of a ridge, Toria could see a wide valley below with a narrow stream running through it like a pretty blue ribbon. She could smell the succulent scent of Needlethorn on the breeze. There seemed to be an easy path down.
Just before reaching the bottom of the ridge, Toria caught sight of something shiny lying on a narrow dirt path, probably a game trail. She investigated to discover a broken glass vial. Smooth, thin glass wasn’t cheap. It was a strange thing to find in the middle of nowhere. Toria decided to look around.
[Attribute check: PER 10, rolled 7.]
MUSIC: Hidden Cache
She noticed that the small, yellow flowers had been knocked off a huge patch of Bitterbrush shrubs. On closer look, the thinner branches had been broken, as if something had trampled between them. Toria put on her gardening gloves and carefully pushed the branches apart to see what lie beyond.
It was a cave mouth of yawning blackness. As Toria stepped in and her eyes adjusted, she saw a narrow, rough-hewn tunnel winding its way into the ridge. After a few more steps, her shadow dissolved into the surrounding darkness. The cave was dank and the only sound was dripping water.
[Skill check: Survival (Plains) 9 -1, rolled 9.]
Toria examined the uneven dirt floor, wondering what might live in the cave. She had heard that some of the mountain predators were large and extremely dangerous. Instead of three-toed prints with deep claw marks, she found numerous boot prints.
The mysterious prints led deeper into the passage. Toria had to feel her way along with one hand on the rugged, sloping wall. After a little bend, the tunnel ended in a crevice where a tiny trickle of water dripped slowly but relentlessly into a small pool. A number of plain wood crates had been stacked on the driest part of the cave floor.
Someone had left a glow basket on top of a rickety wood stool. Toria opened it, grateful when pale yellow light poured into the cave.
All told, there were seven unmarked crates. They were loaded with all sorts of valuable medical supplies. Some of them were perishable and would only last a few months.