Lovers, part one

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Harbend recalled staring at Trai's ruined body. The fire mage was still alive. Harbend knew, somewhere deep inside he ought to feel elated, but there was only an empty void. Trai should have been dead now, but Neritan had used her powers, and now she looked lifeless as well. Harbend shivered at the thought of any wound severe enough to force a Magehealer into unconsciousness.

Someone had to bring help, and he should be that someone. This was when he needed to be strong, but that emptiness held him hostage. Right now he wanted someone else to take command.

Harbend forced himself to take a step forward. The snow was darker now from days of feet trampling it. The caravan must have waited for them. He wondered if they were worried. What a strange thought.

Of course they are not. They believe I've brought Arthur back. I should have. It was my responsibility.

There was another problem he had brought upon them. While they were searching for Arthur the caravan wasn't moving, and even with the help of the escort sending out more hunting parties supplies were getting strained. A few more days and complaints would spread rampant as food had to be rationed.

He crossed the dirty snow in search of his own wagon. Maybe he'd be able to change his clothes without causing another disaster. He found his wagon as he had left it. It was all too orderly to offer any substantial amount of diversion for him, and he was soon standing on the ground again knowing he had to return to the accusing looks.

This was, as his father would have said, what happened if you didn't lead a proper life, and Harbend knew his had been all but proper. Then the memory of his meeting with Uncle Ramdar nudged at him, and Harbend admitted that at least the head of their family had decided this was indeed his proper path. Small comfort right now and here.

Unable to delay the inevitable questions he and left. He had brought them to this. Now he would have to take responsibility for it. Somewhat strengthened in his resolve he went to find Trai. The wounded first. Questions could wait until later. Trai ought to be among the magehealers, and Neritan with him.

Harbend found his horse and saddled it. Without Escha he needed to ride all the way to the circle of wagons were the mages from Ri Khi camped together.

Mind still full of his own failure Harbend arrived at one of the rearmost circles and dismounted. He walked the last bit with leaden steps, and when he climbed the wagon shown to him by a young, black haired groom Harbend didn't know what to say.

The scene did nothing to dispel his dark thoughts. Escha crying, despair seeping through the Khar. Nothing left of the mighty mage but a frightened child.

I have never seen him like this.

Harbend wanted to comfort Escha, but how? Harbend looked down at the prone body. A miracle Trai was still alive. Harbend couldn't understand how anyone had been able to gather such a mass of scars, but memories of the burning Khar more than hinted at the reason.

Neritan had yet to awake, but at least she had been joined by another Magehealer.

Harbend wondered briefly what kind of people Arthur had managed to surround himself with during their short stay at the Roadhouse. Mages, all three of them, and powerful ones as well. Still, Trai's body told the telltale signs that power didn't always come with invincibility.

"How is he?" Harbend asked.

"He will survive. Magehealer Hwain is very powerful. None of us could have done what she did."

Harbend studied the woman who had answered his question. A Magehealer, and one he didn't know by name. That added to his discomfort as well. He should have known. Apart from Neritan they were only three, and any mage who dedicated her life to the healing of others at the cost of her own pain had the right to command more respect than to remain a nameless resource.

He'd become his profession and lost some of his humanity in the trade. Was it too late to revert that transition? He searched his surroundings to distract his thoughts. magehealers didn't crowd their wagons with goods the way other traders did, and they weren't supposed to. Most of their earnings were made during the journeys they embarked upon for different reasons, and the caravan was no exception.

Despite this Harbend could make out crates obviously meant for trade, and even though he couldn't be certain he guessed their contents to be dried herbs unusual or nonexistent in Braka. magehealers were a kind of their own, and Harbend assumed the exchange would be on an herb for herb basis rather than money. As healers they were certain to want more items for their profession than any amount of wealth. Healing people wasn't a career anyone chose for becoming rich, and he couldn't imagine a more uncomfortable way to make a living. From what he'd learned they didn't really heal their patients. Rather they gradually transferred whatever had befallen the one in need to themselves and then sped up their own healing process. No wonder they preferred herbs in cases not requiring such a ghastly treatment.

Beds and stretchers lined the wagon, and one of the former was occupied by a woman who must have had some kind of serious mishap during their travels. He didn't know of what kind, and he didn't care to ask.

Then, all of a sudden, Neritan rose as did Trai.

"That was, ah, unpleasant," she said.

"What... where am I?" Trai murmured, unsuccessfully trying to raise his arms.

"I have sedated him. We'd better explain where we are before he tries to attack anyone. He still believes us where he went unconscious," Neritan explained when Escha gave her a worried look.

"Trai, we are safe. You are with the caravan." Harbend felt strangely compelled to be the one who came with the reassurance. He smiled weakly at the mage and turned to Escha. "I will leave you two alone now. You can call upon me at any time you wish."

Receiving a grateful look he didn't think he deserved Harbend left the wagon and climbed out into the wintry cold. Rather the cold of outside than the one freezing his heart. He put one foot in front of the other with a determination sprung from desperation and headed away from the circle of wagons.

Alone, he needed to be alone with the snow and the sky. Maybe there was redemption, but he would have to find it for himself. If it existed he didn't know, and if it did he was even less certain he deserved it.

It was late afternoon but still light enough for him to see the tracks from wagons driven to form the circle. He struggled further away until he had to trample unbroken snow beneath him and no longer saw any of the wagons. The pillar of smoke was still visible behind him though. Harbend knew it would be night and morning again before he could walk far enough not to see it any longer. This had to do. He was alone enough to be able to contemplate his deeds and decisions, and he slowly walked aimlessly with his misgivings and the sound of snow breaking under his feet as his only companions.

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