The Tally Master, Chapter 10 (scene 48)

Chapter 10

The blackness roared in Gael’s ears like a blizzard’s winds or a storm at sea or a cataract plunging over the brink. He felt dizzy and disoriented. Everything hurt: his ribs, his chest, his neck, and most of all his gut. He couldn’t remember what had happened. Had he tumbled down a flight of steps? Been kicked by a cavalcade of mules? Been rolled over the rubble of boulders after falling in a river?

Slowly, an unfamiliar troll’s face came into focus out of the darkness along with an anxious voice.

“My lord? My lord Secretarius? How badly are you hurt?”

“Get Keir,” Gael mumbled. “Keir.”

And then he was descending into the roaring dark again, spiraling like a stairway in a tower or a vulture soaring down to a carcass. Or was he once again a small child—unafflicted—spinning on shorn grasses? As Gael sank, bewildered and aching, he wondered why he’d asked for Keir. Why not one of his older friends? Why not Barris? Or, even better, Arnoll? Arnoll, who had saved him. Arnoll, who had guided his early days in Belzetarn. Arnoll, who would never betray him.

“Gael?” That was Keir’s voice, cool and assured. “Can you hear me, Gael?”

He tried to nod, but wasn’t convinced that he managed it. But Keir was with him. That was good. He felt glad. Now that Keir was present, everything would be all right. Gael would be all right. Keir would do everything and anything that needed doing. Keir would do it well.

Other voices—not Keir’s—muttered. Something about straightening the poles and smoothing the wrinkles out of the leather. They must have a litter nearby.

“Medicus Piar said to move him carefully” someone said.

Gael tried to speak, but no sound issued from his mouth. He tried again. “Not,” he managed.

Someone’s hand touched Gael’s cheek, cool and soothing. Keir’s hand.

“You need healing, Gael,” said Keir quietly.

“Not,” croaked Gael, “th’ hospital.”

Keir’s breath sighed softly. “Very well.”

A moment later Gael heard his assistant at a distance. “Send to Medicus Piar to meet us in the Secretarius’ chambers over the tally room. Tell him to bring compresses, salves, and herbal infusions for congestion of the blood and thready pulse.”

Then Keir was beside him again. “We must lift you, Gael. It will likely hurt.”

Gael couldn’t imagine how his pains could worsen until they gripped his shoulders, legs, and feet, and hoisted. He thought he screamed, but the turbulent darkness swallowed him so quickly he couldn’t be sure. He seemed to hear a great, sonorous bell clanging, vibrating his bones with each stroke of its clapper. Were there hoarse yells between each resounding stroke? Or the deep, coughing snarls of ice tigers?

A swirl of snowflakes spiraled out of the darkness, gleaming silver and flowing along a shallow arc. The ache in Gael’s gut subsided as another stream of glinting sparks joined the first, soothing his pains and silencing the clamorous chaos of the strange space that had devoured him.

He became aware that he lay on his own sleeping couch, sheep skins cushioning his tired limbs, an herbal scent rising around him, and warm, damp cloths sponging the tenderness away from his bruised flesh.

Keir’s face swam into focus above him. The boy had tied a band around his head to keep his chin-length hair out of his face, emphasizing his graceful jawline and elegantly molded cheekbones. His gray eyes held a grave expression in their depths, but his lips turned up faintly.

“Your bones are all whole and unbroken,” said Keir, “and the infusion of aliseta will help the surface bruising to heal.”

That must be the source of that herbal smell, thought Gael.

“Now I want you to swallow this tincture of Istrian pennywort,” said Keir.

A shallow bowl with a narrow spout appeared within Gael’s limited field of vision. It tipped, and a thin stream of dark liquid pored onto Gael’s tongue, bitter, but laced with mint. As he swallowed, a comforting warmth spread through his belly.

He’d been right. With Keir at his side, all would be well, Gael himself would be well, and everything that needed doing would be done.

*     *     *

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The Tally Master, Chapter 10 (scene 49)

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The Tally Master, Chapter 9 (scene 47)

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