The mountains are home to many beasts…
The walk back to Healer Hall should have been easy for Toria. It was a pleasant Autumn day and the young girl was becoming an experienced hiker. The bleeding from the wound in her right arm was minimal. She had bandaged similar injuries more times than she could count. Her pack wasn’t particularly large or heavy. Yet the farther she walked, the weaker she became.
[Skill check: First Aid 12, rolled 16.]
She was sweating, thirsty, and a pounding headache was making it difficult to concentrate. She hadn’t realized that combat would leave her so shaken. It suddenly made sense that men were specially trained to serve as soldiers. Fighting people would be a hundred times harder than stabbing a savage lizard to death.
Toria gradually reached a place she had named “Twisted Ivy Pass” in her own mind during her first explorations to find rare herbs. Thick tangles of ivy hung down from massive tree branches, making the pass difficult to spot from a distance. A fresh stream ran through the valley on the other side. Two more miles of walking and Toria could stop for a rest.
[Attribute check: HT 10, rolled 10.]
She reached the shade of a quaking aspen tree and crumpled.
Toria woke with a start, lying on the ground like a forgotten rag doll. She could barely hear the wind blowing through the pines above the strange ringing in her ears. The air smelled bitterly pungent. Her clothes were damp with sweat and her right arm was throbbing. Nausea nearly overwhelmed her when she tried to sit up.
No infection moved that fast. There was only one explanation — poison.
Toria was alone at the edge of commonly traveled woods, too weak to walk. It seemed likely that someone would discover her in a day or two, well before she would die of exposure. Icy fingers of fear gripped her heart as she realized that tomorrow would be too late.
[Attribute check: Will 10, rolled 13.]
She knew that shouting wouldn’t help — there was no one nearby to attract their attention — but she couldn’t help herself. She was desperate not to die alone in the dirt. She didn’t want her friends to find her days later, covered in insects, stiff and blotchy, her milky eyes staring up at an uncaring sky. Her desperate voice broke the peaceful tranquility of the woodland pass until it went raw.
Toria wasn’t sure when she lost consciousness again but it was nearly sunset when she woke herself with a dry, rasping cough. The pain and weakness were overwhelming. Her blurry eyes reluctantly came into focus. Something moved in the tree branches above. Something swift and silent. Her heart almost skipped a beat.
A brown shape suddenly dropped out of the tree. It landed lightly a few feet from Toria’s head and neatly folded its wings. A scrawny, chestnut-colored firelizard gathered its courage and crept over to examine the fallen girl.
[Attribute check: IQ 11, rolled 9.]
Toria could sense the firelizard’s trepidation, it’s curiosity at war with its timidity. Holding very still and speaking quietly, she was able to coax it to her side. It was likely a wild beast, lacking neck markings and the silky sheen of an oiled pet. Its multi-faceted eyes shifted to a flaxen hue as it sniffed her.
It could tell she was suffering. If only it could understand that she needed help.
Toria decided to introduce herself. It was a silly thing to do but it broke the uneasy silence of approaching night. The firelizard sat on its haunches beside her, one little claw resting on her shoulder. It turned its head this way and that, regarding her as she spoke. She knew the beast couldn’t understand her but it was better than being alone.
After a little while, the firelizard warbled a few notes and launched into the air, probably returning to its den before the last of the light faded behind the trees. Toria thought she saw it disappear between.
A high-pitched trumpeting call roused Toria out of a fevered dream. She looked up to see ghostly gray clouds drifting slowly across an azure sky dotted with bright stars.
The chestnut brown firelizard was sitting on her chest and making a huge racket. Before long, Toria heard voices calling her name. She could make out silhouettes against flickering torchlight. Gathering her strength, she called out for all she was worth. The firelizard screeched, its sharp rear claws prickling her stomach as it leapt off of her and fled into the darkness. A few minutes later, the search party found her.
Toria vaguely remembered being picked up on a stretcher and carried back to Healer Hall. She awoke in a treatment ward, one she had visited several times during her clinical exams. It felt odd to be lying in bed instead of standing at the foot of it, listening to an instructor explain a diagnosis.
A tiny spark of embarrassment took hold when her friends and dorm mates stopped by to visit her. It positively burst into flame when a group of wide-eyed Apprentices arrived to learn about the Fire-banded Krite that had attacked her. Apparently, the fang-less creature injected poison by chewing and fragments of tooth inside Toria’s wound had to be carefully removed.
Master Bryka, a freckled red-head who was probably a troublemaker in her youth, checked on Toria often. She was an expert on animal poisons and happy to answer most of Toria’s questions. Madi brought study materials and reassured her friend that she wouldn’t fall far behind in the sevenday it took to recover. Every day, Toria felt a little stronger. At night, she dreamed about the little brown firelizard who saved her.
Returning to her dorm room was positively joyful. She celebrated with a hot bath and a savory meal of chicken stew with golden pan bread.
“You were so brave! Everyone’s still talking about it,” Sersha told Toria a day later, “how you got a wild firelizard to fetch help.”
When Toria looked confused, she smiled and shook her head, almost laughing. “You don’t remember? You were really feverish,” she said thoughtfully.
“Master Nerida’s bronze firelizard, Maverick, put up such a fuss, people followed it out to the courtyard. There was a brown nobody recognized and it wanted someone to go with it. They were going to ignore it, but Maverick pulled on Master Nerida so hard, he tore her blouse,” Sersha explained.
“They asked somebody named um… Tilton? Why those two firelizards were carrying on and making a fracas, so they took them to see Foltisk, he’s a watchwher, and I think Foltisk told Tilton what Maverick wanted, or something like that,” she continued, sounding uncertain.
“Anyway, Tilton said someone was badly hurt, and the more to look, the better to find, so they sent a search party to follow the brown,” Sersha finished.
A particularly dry and pleasant Winter slowly gave way to Spring.
Madi had made plans to travel to the coast during the break and invited Toria to go with her. “Four sevendays of fun and sun!” she promised. “You really need to get away from the Hall for awhile,” she insisted. “Besides, it’s easier to find firelizard nests near the ocean.”
It was difficult to plan for vacation when third Turn graduation was only days away. Toria had missed a sevenday of class while she was sick and hadn’t felt quite herself for awhile after. It hadn’t been easy to catch up, especially in her rigorous study of mental illness and emergency care. Master Galiana, well known for her obdurate and exacting nature, might have asked for her to be held back.
The day before Commencement, a package arrived for Toria from her family cothold. Inside, she found a small stack of letters from family members and new fancy clothes. The traditional outfit would have been the talk of Katz Field, but at Healer Hall it was rather rustic and ordinary. The dark green bodice with cream-colored buttons and trim, white short-sleeved blouse, and full shepherd-checked skirt brought back vague memories of a childhood she had nearly forgotten.
As she looked over the half-sheets of paper, Toria noticed for the first time how poorly her parents and siblings could write.
“I am very prowed,” Toria’s mother Mielle had drawn in simple letters. “You are the nicest child I raised and during hard tymes you did never ask for anything. The Harper bringed news that you are soon to be a Jorneyman and we are all so happy. We have wonder and eksytment for you. It is good work making people well again. Spread your wings and fly, dear one.”
MUSIC: Walking The Tables
The Commencement dinner was held outside in the courtyard that Turn. The weather was splendid and the stars shone brightly in a clear sky. Little bundles of glows twinkled in the flowering ornamental trees surrounding two rows of trestle tables. Cheerful music echoed back from the buildings surrounding the courtyard. The air smelled of roasted meat and freshly baked breads.
[Attribute check: PER 11, rolled 12.]
The gossip started as soon as students began taking their seats. Toria overheard several of her friends wondering why the dinner was being held outdoors. Perhaps a special announcement would be made.
As she looked towards the Junior Journeyman’s table, she noticed that people sat in very obvious cliques. If she decided to continue her studies past the fourth Turn, she would compete with her friends for sponsorship from a Master. By the looks of it, not every relationship survived the ordeal.
Masterhealer Sarantis began the formal ceremony late in the evening. Although the Commencement speech was slightly different each semester, he always began by reminding everyone that they were joined not only in craft but also in spirit.
“We are from all paths of life,” he said proudly. “We are different in appearance, in age, in prosperity, and in our life’s pursuits, but here today we are all of one Hall. We are Healers.”
Toria missed part of the speech when she noticed a brown firelizard perched on a branch, watching the ceremony unfold. It took her a moment to realize that it was only Master Folant’s little Scout.
Master Tambria, sitting at Sarantis’ right in a position of honor, handed the Masterhealer the roster that would make or break the future of dozens of students.
The entire gathering burst into cheers and applause when two Senior Journeymen were promoted to Master rank. The curly-headed new Master of diseases held the chair for the willowy Master of surgery as she fought back tears and joined her colleagues at the high table.
The Masterhealer made his way down the list of names, posting Journeymen and promoting worthy students. Most of the fourth Turn graduates would return to the Holds that sponsored them, serving their communities as general practitioners. Toria knew of at least two who were looking forward to going home.
Toria positively tingled with excitement when the first Senior Apprentice promotions were announced. One name, another, a third, and finally, “Toria is promoted to Junior Journeyman.”
When the announcements were finished and the Masterhealer returned to his seat, Master Tambria went around the table, pinning a small, round brooch with the symbol of Healer Hall on each new Journeyman’s clothing. She offered a gentle hug, a kiss on the cheek, and a heart-felt congratulations.
Master Valora would be thrilled to hear the news.
As a Journeyman, Toria could move to a dormitory for older girls or find a small apartment. Although the apartment would afford more space and privacy, she would need to pay a modest rent. Most of her friends were happy living in the dorms. A handful spent much of their free time in their boyfriend’s apartments. Toria suspected that one or two of them might marry shortly after fourth Turn graduation.