The Tally Master, Chapter 16 (scene 75)

Chapter 16

Staring at Keir’s alarmed expression and dilated eyes, Gael felt a villain. He’d intended to keep his new knowledge of Keir’s gender to himself. For very good reasons. Why had he changed his mind? Keir undoubtedly knew quite well just how dangerous it was to be a woman in Belzetarn. And now her protective disguise was revealed.

What if Gael denounced her to Carbraes? Would the regenen banish her to the wilderness?

What if Gael announced her secret to the tower at large? What might the horde do to her?

What if Gael took advantage of her vulnerability, stuck as she was in a citadel of trolls, far from any defenders?

Tiamar’s throne! She must be wondering all those and more. So unlock your throat and reassure her, you fool! he admonished himself.

He forced himself to refrain from reaching to grip her shoulder. Or rising to fold her in a comforting embrace. Under the circumstances, any movement from him—any touch from him—would be the reverse of reassuring.

“I shall tell no one that you are a girl, a young woman,” he amended.

Keir’s white face flushed red. Her mouth opened, shut. She swallowed.

Gael continued, “I shall treat you just the same. As though you are the boy you pretend to be.” He nodded. “Although . . . how old are you? Perhaps I’d best recalibrate my expectations. You scarcely need parental guidance, do you?” He lifted an eyebrow, hoping his dry demeanor would help restore her equanimity.

“Gael, I’m so sorry!” gasped Keir.

“You needn’t be,” he said. “What else could you do, when the scouts dragged you here?”

She bit her lip. “That was it, of course.”

He nodded again. “Of course.”

“I’m twenty-five,” she said, a slight twinkle returning to her eyes. “Not fifteen. Or sixteen.” The twinkle became quirking lips, barely restrained from laughter.

Gael chuckled. “I quite missed the date on that one, didn’t I?”

“You did,” she agreed. “Gael—”

He tilted his head.

“I knew I could trust you. And I felt a little . . . strange, keeping it a secret from you. But I just thought . . . it would be safer if we didn’t have to worry about keeping our stories straight. Who knew and who didn’t. When I should act like a boy. When I didn’t need to.”

“Very sensible,” he concurred. “And we should continue in that way. For all intents and purposes, you are the boy you pretend to be. Go ahead and act the boy, even around me, so that you don’t slip where you shouldn’t.”

She nodded, then looked at the floor, her cheeks still slightly flushed.

Gael felt a touch awkward, too. What could he do to get them back on their old footing?

His gaze caught on his satchel. Of course. Olluvarde. He’d not planned on explaining the details of his scheme for the gong to Keir, but showing her his sketches of the ruin would distract her—and him—from their present embarrassment.

“I made renderings of most of the bas relief murals in the underground passage at Olluvarde,” he said. “But some of the energetic diagrams surrounding the first panel—the one depicting the creation of the lodestone from meteoric iron—didn’t make sense to me.”

He unfastened the satchel’s flap and pulled the top bunch of parchments out.

“I didn’t study the energetic vignettes that closely,” Keir confessed. “I was too enthralled with the amazing quality of the stonework at first. And then . . . the trolls captured me before I could retrace my steps to see more.”

“What do you make of these?” Gael handed her his sketches.

Like Nathiar, she paged through them in silence. Unlike Nathiar, her face held a look of appreciative wonder.

“These are beautiful, Gael. We should preserve them in a scroll, when you finish using them for a technical guide. Why do you not—?” She broke off, shaking her head.

“Why what?” he asked.

“I was going to ask why you do not make such drawings of your surroundings here, but”—she wrinkled her nose—“why would you want to immortalize a troll citadel.”

“There are other subjects than trolls here,” he said mildly. “But truthfully, I always associated sketching with the more tedious exercises set by my teacher. Perhaps I should reconsider my opinion.”

Her lips curved slightly, and then she returned her attention to his drawings. She went through them more slowly, a frown growing on her face. Her fingers traced a series of broad curves, then tapped on a tangle of intertwined fronds. Her frown deepened.

“This is the base pattern for any energetic pattern that addresses the root node,” she murmured. “Except those lopsided spirals indicate movement. This is very strange.”

She brought the sketch closer to her eyes, scrutinizing the details for a long moment.

Abruptly, she thrust five of the parchments toward Gael, fanning them out.

“Gael, do you realize what these seem to indicate?” she asked, her voice sharp.

He scanned the renderings. They were some of the energetic diagrams that had mystified him. He’d taken particular care with them, figuring they might be critical to Nathiar’s understanding of how the lodestone in the gong operated and thus critical to devising how to make the artifact harmless. But Nathiar had skipped over these diagrams lightly, referring almost exclusively to the ones from the seventh panel while they strategized.

“I didn’t understand how they pertained to the creation of the lodestone,” he admitted.

“That’s because they don’t,” said Keir, a certain intensity to her expression. “Look”—she brandished another set of drawings at him—“these show how the lodestone was adjusted and used to power a spinner’s spinning wheel, and these”—another set—“show how to make it lift a platform up the side of a tower.”

“And that first set?” asked Gael. He was not sure he wanted to know. Keir’s demeanor gave him pause—growing determination mixed with unease.

She placed all except one parchment on his desk and held that one out for his perusal. It was the scene depicting a healer and her patient.

“Don’t you see?” Keir persisted. “The man is not ill or injured, not in the typical sense. He’s a troll!”

How had Gael missed that? Were the curved and elongated noses, the enlarged ears, and crooked thumbs common in Belzetarn become so normal to him that he did not mark them any more? Perhaps so.

He glanced up from the drawing to meet Keir’s intense gaze.

“Those energetic diagrams”—she stabbed the stack of parchments on Gael’s desk—“show how to use a lodestone to move a troll’s nodes back to their proper positions. Gael—” she paused to take a breath “—I could heal you. I could heal Arnoll. I could heal Kayd. Gael—” she swallowed “—you cannot destroy the gong’s lodestone. You must not.”

“You could re-anchor floating nodes?” Gael felt breathless. It had been a tenet of the ages, from the beginning of the truldemagar—whenever that was—that troll-disease could not be healed. The nodes, once ripped from their moorings, could not be reattached.

“No.” Keir’s excitement ebbed, but her determination strengthened. “Not re-anchored. But think! Moving the nodes to their correct locations, and maintaining them there, would gradually drag the obvious physical deformations back to normalcy, and many of the other symptoms along with them. A troll maintained in this way might live to a normal old age. And die a normal, human death. Gael, this is an incomparable resource!” She sounded almost fearful. He felt fearful. This forgotten bit of lore from the ancient world . . . could change everything about their present world.

Or would it? Suppose Keir were to heal every troll in Belzetarn. What then? Would the humans re-admit trolls to their enclaves? Unlikely. Would the trolls even want to go? They’d made lives for themselves here. Would the Ghriana-folk—Belzetarn’s current foes—cease to attack? Would Carbraes cease to defend?

The lodestone contained within the gong—if preserved in its current configuration—might change the world eventually. But nothing would change immediately. Or even within a few years.

So what was he to do with this disconcerting piece of possibility?

He almost wished he’d not shown his sketches to Keir. Surely he could have come up with some other distraction. But if the healing properties of the lodestone were to be plumbed, it would have to be done immediately. The morrow, after Gael reforged the blasted thing—with the help of Nathiar and Arnoll—would be too late. The lodestone would have an altogether different configuration then, and its effects would either be nullified—his goal—or utterly changed.

If the lodestone could generate healing now . . . tomorrow it would likely no longer do so. If.

“We need to know whether the lodestone within the gong still functions as it did outside of the gong,” he decided aloud. “This could all be furor for naught.”

“Yes,” said Keir, her tone definite. Had she reached that conclusion ahead of him? “I’ll need two trolls to hold the gong at the right angle. And I’ll need”—she gulped—“a volunteer.”

“That will be me,” said Gael.

She opened her mouth, closed it.

“It cannot be you,” said Gael. “Or can it?”

She sighed. “No. Drawing energea through my nodes, as I must to perform healing, makes the nodes much more difficult to move. Even impossible to move. Another healer could use the lodestone to move my nodes, but I cannot do so. If the lodestone still works in this fashion. You are right that it may not.”

Gael continued, “I would keep this experiment between us two. And I have no healing skills. Indeed, even my magery is very rusty. Therefore, you shall be healer, and I shall be healed.”

“Gael, what if the lodestone does injury in its current configuration?”

“Then you will cease the instant you perceive the problem and repair it by normal methods, if that is possible.”

She looked at him, her gaze steady for a moment. Then she nodded, firmly.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 16 (scene 76)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 15 (scene 74)

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