Chapter 2: Imil

Wind swirled lazily through the town, adding an annoying but not dangerous bite to the already cold day. It was snowing of course. It is always snowing in Imil, it seems, although in reality it would be more precise to say that it is always snowy in Imil. But at the moment it is both snowy and snowing in Imil.

As shadows, long and bleak as any shadow is in wintry light, grew longer as night fell, turning cold day to colder night, the village changed. Fireplaces burned bright, candles lit shadowy corners, and families gathered together to share warmth and light and heat and love. But three things remained the same.

The first was the silence. Only the crunch of an occasional footfall disturbed the quiet, muffled silence of a world besieged by snowflakes. The villagers did not speak this night. They simply worried, hoped and prayed, and they held their loved ones close.

None despaired, and that was due to the second constant, the girl. No – a girl no longer, although not yet a woman. Tired from mental and physical exertion, her head was still held up high, she was still ceaselessly moving from one home to the next. To a less experienced observer she would appear a fountain of boundless strength, but the blue-haired Mercury adept was overworked. Flesh wounds and broken bones are relatively simple matters in comparison to the illness the young healer was fighting. She can use her power to bolster strength and heal internal wounds, she can mix syrups and tinctures, but a purely healing power is not an effective force to wield against microorganisms.

The third was our observer, who watched the snow and the silence and the shadows. She was patience, she was unmovable, she did not need to step in and save this foolish doctor, this young, tired, medic…

…who was now in a snow drift, unconscious.

The woman sighed. She had never had much luck on Mondays.

-tempusfugit-

Mia awoke to warmth, and the smell of herbal tea. Sitting up groggily, she looked around her house blearily and then proceeded over to the fireplace and the tea that she had left simmering last night.

She stopped, and frowned, trying to grasp what was wrong with that statement. Accepting a cup of tea from the flame-haired woman, Mia murmured a word of thanks and sat down at the table. Absently noting the exotic smell of the drink she took a sip.

Instantly, liquid fire erupted inside her brain, flashing down her spine and firing every nerve in her body. Coughing and sputtering, the suddenly awake water adept could not even speak. Hurling away the horrific concoction, she stared in shock at the evil woman who had tricked her into consuming such poison.

"What- You- How- Why!"

The redhead smoothly caught the wooden cup without so much as batting an eye, and with a saccharine smile she sat down at the table, placing the miraculously unspilled drink in front of Mia. Leaning forward, the woman with hair that glowed like embers waited for Mia to finish before she finally spoke.

"So, child, can you tell me what you have learned from this experience?"

"Child! I'll have you know that-"

"Yes, yes," the woman cut her off with smooth skill. "I know, you are no longer a little girl, but rather a responsible woman, right? Now stop reacting and start thinking. Do you remember what happened last night?" said the woman with red hair and blue eyes, destroying Mia's complaints first with willpower and then a gentle, soothing kindness.

"Last night? What do you mean?" Mia, relaxed in the comforting aura that seemed to fill the room, considered the question. "Well, I finished doing my last check-up of the night, and I…"

"…Ended up unconscious in the snow in the middle of the night because you overworked yourself."

For a moment there was silence. The woman sighed and fixed her gaze upon the Mercury Adept.

"You have a responsibility to these people. You are to heal their wounds, to fight off illnesses at any moment. You are the only healer here." Her wise eyes glared at the enraptured blue-haired girl. "Drink that medicine! Drink and listen! You are the only member of you clan here. Nobody else can cast ply or even employ herbal medicine. That means that if you get sick, if you break your leg, if you collapse after working for three days straight then people can die."

Mia winced, but the older woman was not done yet.

"You have to treat yourself as one your patients. If you don't think that one of your patients should be working on sheer willpower for a week without sleep, then you shouldn't do it either! If you don't look after yourself, there is nobody to look after Imil in the midst of a medical emergency."

Mia hung her head, embarrasses beyond words. She should have known that, she had been taught that. This young woman, with locks of fire and eyes the age and tint and wisdom of oceans, was right. She had failed in her duty.

"Other than that you have done rather well."

Mia raised her head in surprise to see the woman smiling kindly at her. "Your knowledge of herbs is good, and you have kept all of your patients alive and well with nothing more than the weakest of your clan's healing techniques. Now, on to business!"

Mia blinked, blindsided by the apparent segway.

The redhead cheerfully reached under the table and pulled out a variety of books, manuscripts, scrolls and pamphlets. Examining each briefly, she placed a dozen or so on the table in front of Mia and put the rest back.

"I don't have much use for money," chirped the woman, "but I would be interested in trading for some supplies and inventory."

"'Traditional Chinese Medicine: A Study in Acupuncture,' 'Herb Lore and You: Healing with Poisons,' 'Bloodloss Prevention for Dummies?'" Mia gave the woman a questioning look, and then took a cautious look at a thick tome entitled 'Field Surgery: 10,001 Situations.'

"I don't sell wares, I sell knowledge," said the woman with a smile. "I figured this would also interest you!" she remarked, an evil glint in her eyes, as she handed Mia one of the thin, hide-bound, booklet-sized ones.

"'Birth Control and Midwifery!'" Mia yelped, face burning as bright as her tormentor's hair.

"Any pretty young girl your age should be prepared!" said the woman with a wink. "I have no doubt that you will need to know about such things eventually, so just give it a look for now and put it somewhere safe for future reference."

Mia shoved the devilish item between two treatises on… navigation? Pushing down her blush, she looked at the other female in confusion. "Why are you-"

The redhead was no longer seated at the table, but rather over by the fireplace, ladling something into an assortment of cups and flasks.

"That should do for a few days!" the woman proclaimed. "Give it to your patients at least once a day, but no more than two flasks worth every 12 hours. So no excuses for not getting your rest!" she lectured.

"But what-"

"No excuses! I'll have to leave now, but I want you to finish that drink and remember what I told you or the next cure I feed you WILL be worse than the disease – or more accurately, your foolishness!" Launching a steady stream of words, the flame-crowned woman was halfway towards the door before Mia managed to get a word in edgewise.

"Wait! I haven't paid you anything for these!" Desperate for some reason she could not fully explain, Mia strove to prevent the woman from leaving. "I can't just take your books and your help for free!"

Pausing in the doorway, the woman flashed Mia a grin. "I got paid. Shelter, food, company... that was my payment." Seeing Mia's look of protest, she let out a peal of laughter.

The laughter like crystal chimes. It held the music of a thousand bells, flutes echoing in cold mountain air, babbling brooks and whispering winds and the sound of the sea. It was all rumbling earth and blooming flowers and it crackled in the pleasant manner of a fire on a cold winter night.

"Child, gold shines, but those three things are all that I need. Love as well of course, but that is not payment!" She turned and left Mia with one more parting thought.

"Love is its own price and its own reward! Remember that, girl!"

"But you didn't even tell me your name!" Mia cried out, into the snowy Imil morning.

Her only answer was laughter, floating on the breeze.

A week later, the Mercury Lighthouse was adorned with cyan fires. When she packed her bag to accompany a group of adepts seeking to prevent the lighting of the Elemental Lighthouses, she brought the books with her.

Even the little one.