“Must feel it in your bones.” I finished the old woman’s sentence with a sigh. I slid my stool out of the way and allowed her to take over mixing the concoction. This one was for one of the expectant mothers in the village. She’d been experiencing sharp pains in the stomach, so of course, she came to Inara.
Aside from being my adoptive mother, Inara is the most respected healer for miles in any direction. People travelled for many days to seek her advice. After my own mother died, Inara took me in, promising I could be an even better healer than she was. “You’ve got the power of a lioness, if you’d learn to tap into it,” she used to say. But, even with ten years of practice, I know I’m nowhere near Inara’s level of skill.
I’ve learned to stich a wound without wincing, and I can set a bone so straight no one would ever know it’d been broken. But I still struggle with internal things. Problems of the heart and soul, Inara calls them.
Inara tells me it is because I haven’t tapped into my inner strength. That the only way to be truly powerful is to dig into your own emotions, feeling a patient’s pain, fear, all of it. Then, she claims, I can release my inner lioness and harness my ability.
Of course, I don’t believe that. If she wants to believe in her superstitions, that’s fine. But I know the danger of feeling too much. When my father left us on market day and never came back, it broke Mother’s heart. When she heard he’d chosen a silk merchant over us, she just decided life wasn’t worth living anymore. We weren’t enough for him, and I wasn’t enough for her. They left me, alone. That’s what feelings will get you.
Shaking the dark thoughts out of my head, I re-focused on Inara. She was drying the tears from her eyes, a sure sign that she felt she’d poured enough emotion into her cure. Quickly, I poured the powder in a tiny clay pot and ducked outside to deliver the cure. I knew the baby would be fine. With Inara’s cures, they always were.
I asked her, once, how she always knew the right medicine to give. “A lot of study.” She smiled. “And a little help from my spirit guide.”
“Your what?” I was in my eleventh summer, so I hadn’t learned not to ask Inara such questions yet.
“Spirit guide.” She repeated. “Each person has a special spirit animal that will lend them power and wisdom when needed. Most people just don’t know how to connect and listen to them.” She finished with a sigh.
“Oh.” Was all I could think to say. I was only eleven, but even I knew better than to believe in the Spirit Realm. If we truly had mighty spirits watching over us, wouldn’t they have helped Mother be strong enough to stay?
But, despite Inara’s occasional crazy ramblings, she was a true master at the art of healing. One day, I would be too, I promised myself.
When I ducked back through the doorway, slightly dusty from my trip across the village, I was surprised to see Inara packing. “I’ve had a vision.” She announced. “My brother has taken ill, and I must go. I’m not sure how long I’ll be away, but I know you’ll do fine without me.” She paused to pat my cheek with a weathered hand.
“Should I go with you?” I moved to get my travelling cloak. “You’ll need someone who knows which herbs to gather, and I could—”
“Not this time, child.” Inara interrupted with a sad smile. “This is the Last Sickness. I’m going as his sister, not his healer. I’ll return when it is over.”
I watched her finish packing without saying a word. Even though I didn’t believe in magic, I knew that when Inara saw something, there was no changing it, and I had no words of comfort to offer. I’m not even sure such words exist.
It only took a few hours for news of Inara’s absence to spread through the village. Inara rarely left, but when she did, it made people nervous. It was as if a dark plague was crouched just across the river, waiting for the great healer to leave so it could pounce.
Everyone wanted to know what would have taken Inara away so quickly. “She had a vision,” I repeated over and over. “Her brother is very ill.” I left out that Inara said he would die. That felt like information Inara should share for herself, if it ended up being true.
“Hello Talitha,” I hid a sigh and ushered her inside to re-tell the story again. “Inara left earlier—”
“Oh, I’m not here about that.” She cut me off with a giggle. It seemed like she giggled constantly, since her betrothal last month. “I thought we could use the time to catch up. I know we stopped talking after…” Her voice trailed off uncomfortably. “But we were good friends, once.”
“It isn’t your fault. Life has a way of changing things, and people.” I stood, hoping she’d take the hint and leave.
“That much is true.” She smiled wistfully. “In just a few moons’ time, I’ll be a bride! Just like we talked about when we were girls.”
“I thought you dreamt of marrying someone exotic and moving far away.” I couldn’t help a small smile. “You’re barely moving down the road!”
“You remembered!” Talitha squealed. “So it’s not exactly how I imagined, but it’s wonderful just the same. What about your wild dreams? Didn’t you have an imaginary pet, a lion or something?”
“Lioness.” I corrected softly. “I’d forgotten about that, actually.” Maybe that’s what Inara was referring to. My inner strength.
I was just starting to enjoy our conversation when another curious visitor tapped at the doorframe. “I’d best be off.” Talitha smiled. “I know you’ll be extra busy until Inara returns. Maybe we can visit again soon!”
“I’d like that.” I waved as she headed down the path, surprised that I actually meant what I’d said. Then I remembered that she’d be a wife soon, and too busy for idle visits.
When the last of my neighbors finally left after confirming for themselves that Inara was indeed gone, and I had no idea when she would return from her journey, I was left alone with my thoughts. Lighting the funeral pyre for the last of one’s family was not a pain I’d wish on my worst enemy, let alone the woman who’d taken me in on the darkest day of my life.
After tidying up the front room, I made my way down the tiny hall to my room. Since I was alone for the evening, there was no point in wasting a candle, staying up after the sun set. I fell asleep thinking about Inara, wondering if she’d reach her brother in time. She was the closest thing I had left to family, and I hated to think of her in pain. Perhaps that is why my dreams chose to remember the only time Inara and I ever fought.
“Do you realize you never laugh?” Inara and I were walking back to her house one scorching afternoon in my fifteenth summer.
“Maybe I just don’t have a sense of humor.” I shrugged, ducking into the cool house.
“You never cry anymore, either. And what about friends? Why don’t you ever go to visit any of the village girls? You know you can have the afternoon off, whenever you’d like. ” I recognized that tone. We weren’t having a normal conversation. Inara had something on her mind.
“What does it matter? I’d rather not waste my time with idle visits. I’m learning a useful skill, and I’m good at it. Isn’t that enough?”
“Not if you’re just a shell of a person.” Inara grasped my chin, forcing our eyes to meet. “Don’t you feel it, girl? You have such power, such potential in you. But you keep it locked away. Deep down. You’ve got to let it out.” She thumped her own chest for emphasis.
“Power?” I practically spat the word. “You mean emotions, don’t you? You would rather me be like I was when I came to you? Sobbing and so broken inside I could barely put one foot in front of the other?”
“Yes.” Inara didn’t hesitate. “That girl knew what it was to feel. To love, to hurt, all of it. What you felt was real. This mask you wear isn’t real, and if you don’t take it off, it will kill you.”
“Kill me!” The thought was ridiculous. “Did you forget what happened to my mother? Feeling is what killed her! I didn’t follow her to death because I learned to stop feeling.”
“Your mother left you because she was weak.” Inara’s eyes were soft with concern, but I was too angry to care. “You, Damali, are not weak.”
“But that is what you ask me to be.” I snapped. “No good would come of it. Even if you were right and it killed me, what would it matter?”
“It will kill you slowly, from the inside out.” Inara’s words were quiet, sad. “But it will kill your gift first. Is it worth it? Sacrificing all those you might help, simply because you are scared?”
In my dream, just like that day three years ago, I didn’t know how to answer her, so I left.
I woke with a start, my heart pounding, but my cheeks were dry. What if it was true? Was I really just a shell? A false mask, hiding a weak, scared child? I couldn’t dwell on the dream while keeping my emotions locked safely in the stone chest of my heart, so I found ways to stay busy. Despite everyone’s worries, I had very few people come for treatments, and nothing more serious than a cough. With no one to talk to, the days passed slowly. After tending the garden every morning, and restocking our supply of dried herbs, I finished the mending and cleaned the house. Then I studied Inara’s book of cures every night until my eyes crossed and I fell into a dreamless sleep.
Inara had been gone a week before my low food supply forced me to the village square to purchase some dried fruit and a few strips of meat. There was a time I had enjoyed meeting my friends in the square. We would laugh and gossip, watching the boys engaged in mock battles for our attention. But after I lost Mother I quit laughing, and my childhood friends faded into acquaintances.
Kadin, my closest friend from before was also in the square, looking exhausted and happy at the same time. But she was so busy balancing her water pot with a child on each hip that she didn’t even see me. It’s better that way. I told myself, ignoring the sudden tightness in my chest. She’d only smile quickly before rushing off to her home.
I nodded and exchanged a few polite greetings while making my purchases, before hurrying back to Inara’s. I’d almost made it out of the square when I heard him. “Damali, when will you move out of the old witch’s hut and be my bride?”
“The day the rapids freeze over, Barek.” I called back, making a show of shielding my eyes from the scorching sun. I knew I shouldn’t have taunted him, but even if I were interested in a marriage, it would not be to Barek. He was handsome enough, I suppose, with his thick hair and well-muscled shoulders. But there was something about him, just under the surface. I couldn’t name why, but he made my skin crawl.
“Just as well,” he huffed, trying to recover in front of the guffawing crowd of young men who seemed to follow him around. “I doubt the old hag would give up any of her fortune as a dowry for you.”
There was no point in arguing against the rumor that Inara was secretly wealthy, so I simply laughed off his barb and went on my way. Supposedly, long before I was born, Inara had been summoned to cure a wealthy merchant from the east of some mysterious illness. The merchant rewarded her for her success with a fortune in rare gems, which she keeps hidden for some reason or another. I’d never asked Inara if the rumor was true. But I’d lived with her since my eighth summer and never witnessed any evidence of secret wealth.
It wasn’t until after I’d snuffed out my evening candle that I got the feeling that something was wrong. No clear image, like Inara described her visions, just a heaviness in my stomach that wouldn’t leave. After checking to make sure the cooking fire was out, I went to my room, telling myself than Inara’s long absence was causing my worry. After turning on my mat for hours, trying to find a comfortable spot, I was finally almost asleep when I heard it.
Whispers, far enough away to make the words unclear, but closer than the path that led through the village. I froze, straining to hear. The slurring voices drifted closer, moving around to the back of the house. Whether by strong drink or excitement, the intruders began to lose their caution, and as they did, I felt anger slicing through my veins. Two, no, three men were digging up our garden. The garden we used for food and herbs to heal everyone in the village! And for what? The ridiculous hope that Inara’s mysterious jewels were buried below.
Inara owned no weapons, and I wouldn’t know how to use them if she did. But I had to stop them. I couldn’t let them destroy all our hard work over some drunken idea. My mind raced, trying to decide what to do. But at least now I recognized their voices. Kedar, who doesn’t even walk with a limp because I took the time to set each tiny bone in his foot after it was trampled by a frightened horse last spring. And Faisal, whose sister had been ill not two moons ago. How could they!
I recognized the third man’s voice at the same moment I realized why I could hear them clearly now. “It must be inside.” Barek’s words slurred just beyond the outer door. “Makes sense she’d want her wealth where she could see it all the time.”
“What about Damali?” Faisal hesitated.
“I’ll take care of her.” I could hear the sneer in Barek’s voice as the door scraped opened.
Instantly, my anger turned to fear. There was no way I could overpower three men. And if Barek was their leader, I was in real danger. He wouldn’t have forgotten my words in the square this afternoon. I was trapped, and I was almost out of time. The thin wall separating my sleeping area from the common area wouldn’t hide me for long, and there was nothing to protect me from Barek.
I listened as they invaded the house, smashing and breaking and laughing stupidly. They had no right.
“What do you think this is worth?” Faisal called out. “It looks like something one of the traders from the East would have.”
“It’s colored glass, not gems, idiot.” Kedar’s voice was muffled, and I could envision him leaning back over our crate of old fabrics, rummaging through them.
“Still might be worth something.” Faisal slurred. “Catch.”
I winced at the sound of breaking glass and the smell of myrrh that filled the room.
“Well it’s worthless now.” Barek grunted.
They were moving closer to where I crouched in the corner of my room. Anger and fear swirled around inside my head, so fast it was hard to focus. I felt the rage vibrating in my chest, almost like a purr. This was my home. I couldn’t let them do this. But I had no choice. I was alone and defenseless. Even if I screamed, we were too far off the path for anyone to hear. What about Barek? What did he plan? Was this really about gems, or revenge for his wounded pride?
The faint glow of the moon gave off just enough light in my room for me to cast a panicked look around. There was nowhere to hide. In terror, my mind started playing tricks with the shadows. I could almost see the form of a huge cat, crouched at the doorway. It even seemed like the vibrating anger in my chest was an actual purr, coming from the shadow-cat. I shook my head to clear it, forcing myself to focus.
Finally, he was just beyond my doorway, and I made a choice. He would not attack me in my bed. Even though I was armed only with my fists, I would attack him. In one motion I stood, threw open my door, and yelled.
Or, at least, that’s what I intended to do. What came out instead was a roar. It was impossible to see by the tiny candle in Faisal’s hand, still in the main room, but I could have sworn I felt fur brush passed my bare calves. Then chaos broke loose.
Barek cried out in pain and Faisal swung the candle just in time to catch the shadow of a large cat, preparing to pounce. Kedar bolted towards the outer door, but he wasn’t fast enough. I watched in shock as a huge paw swiped the back of his leg. It must have been a trick of the flickering light, but I was sure I could see through the cat’s paw.
It was over in a few moments. As soon as the last of the intruders fled through the door, I raced over and slammed it shut. Faisal’s candle flickered once before going out on the dirt floor. Logically, I knew I should relight it and take inventory, start cleaning up, do something. But I couldn’t bring myself to do anything except walk numbly back to my room. I sank to the floor by my mat, clutching my shaking knees to my chest. I don’t know how long I crouched there before I thought to look for my mysterious feline rescuer, but she was gone. If she’d ever been there at all.
Inara found me asleep, still crouched in the corner of the room. “Well, the village is lively this morning. It seems that three men were attacked by some ghost cat while walking passed our property late last night. They even have injuries to prove it. Would you happen to know anything about that?” She eyed the half-used candle in her hand and my current position on the floor.
I opened my mouth to respond, but all that came out was a strangled sob. Instantly, Inara’s arms were around me, so much like Mother’s, when I was a child. When the tears came, I couldn’t stop them. Through the sobs, I told her about everything. My loneliness and fear, the attack, and finally about the ghostly lioness I thought I saw.
When I finally stopped, I expected Inara to give me a draught for nerves or sleep, perhaps to even question my sanity. But when I gathered the courage to meet her eyes she smiled. “Child, I think it is time for your true training to begin.”
©June, 2014 Keshia Swaim
Keshia Swaim has made it her mission to save others (and herself) from reality by writing as often as she can. She’s had several short stories published, and her debut YA novel, Blood Bound, was published through Spencer Hill Press in October, 2013. When she’s procrastinating, Keshia can be found on Facebook, or Twitter @KeshiaSwaim.