Title: That Which Preserves
Author: Quasar (quasar273)
Date written: December 2008
Length: 1100 words
Summary: Shortly after meeting the Highlord's sister, Kindrie has a crisis of conscience -- his own, or someone else's?
Notes: A pinch hit written for Cherry Ice in the Yuletide Treasure challenge.
Wind murmured through the sumac leaves. Kindrie blinked upward at the glinting stars, his head aching. He didn't even remember falling asleep, just that strange slide from memory to vision to dream. He thought he was awake now; though dark, the world had that level of unyielding detail that came from outside the mind rather than inside. Distantly, he could hear the river murmuring in its banks.
Rolling over, he saw the Knorth -- Jame -- curled up under that tapestry she had been carrying on her back. It rippled and humped strangely, as if it were somehow alive and trying to consume her, or perhaps something worse. Kindrie began to wonder if he was actually dreaming, but a moment later, the blind ounce squirmed out from under the tapestry, yawning and stretching luxuriantly. He sniffed the air, gave a chirrup, and trotted off into the night as if lack of sight were of no concern.
Kindrie's own vision, like most Shanirs', was preternaturally sharp at night. He could see the Knorth's face framed by dark hair, the bruised crescents of her eyelids above the mask. Kindrie had not yet laid eyes on the injury he had been supposed to heal, yet he knew with a deep certainty that her face would be a younger, female version of her brother's. They were alike in bearing and gesture, as well, but it was not that which had deceived Kindrie when he first met her. There was something inside her which tugged at his soul just as Tori had done, as if Jame and the Highlord were one and the same.
The voice boomed through Kindrie's head, but not through his ears. A memory, perhaps, made vivid and immediate by his own instability. If he couldn't recover his soul-image he would descend into hallucination and madness.
Hallucination was what he first assumed when a monstrously huge version of the ounce glided out soundlessly from the trees. It could not possibly be an Arrin-ken, for none of them had been seen in centuries.
Fratricide, echoed the imaginary cat. The God-voice has spoken.
Kindrie trembled. "Then... Lord Ishtier spoke the truth?"
You heard his words and sensed the truth of them.
Kindrie had not doubted his truth-sense before, but he doubted Ishtier. The maimed priest had locked Kindrie out of his soul-image; it was not a basis for trust. But it was inconceivable that a Kencyr priest would lie about something as serious as the god-voice -- especially about a prophecy that the Highlord's sister would murder him.
Kindrie glanced uncertainly at the sleeping figure huddled under her scrap of cloth. He had trusted her more than Ishtier from the moment of their first meeting, in spite of the strangeness that haunted her. But he could not be sure of his own judgment, as out of balance as he was. "I... I don't think she would...."
Unwilling or unknowing, the deed may yet be done the same.
Kindrie gulped. "Lord Ishtier wanted me to --" He could hardly form the words. As incomplete as his training was, it felt deeply wrong to be told to kill one he'd been sent to heal.
Sitting up, he groped at his belt. He carried a small knife there, as all healers did -- not the white knife of ritual suicide, but a mercy knife to ease the passing of those who were too severely wounded to recover. A healer knew just where to set the short length of steel for swift, sure results. But in his experience with battleground healing -- last winter, when traveling south with the Kencyr Host under the Highlord's command -- Kindrie had never had to do the deed himself. The few times he'd declared a randon beyond healing, there was always an officer or even a lordling nearby to speed the death.
Now he loomed above the Highlord's sleeping sister with knife in hand, and no one else to take the task away from him. She was wounded, and he didn't know how badly since he hadn't seen under the mask -- but he did know that it wasn't likely to kill her. There were very few poisons that could harm a full-blooded Highborn, and Shanirs like Kindrie and Jame were even more resistant.
The fact that she was not facing a lingering, painful death need not stop Kindrie's knife. Unlike a mercy stroke, this act would even save a life -- the Highlord's, whom Kindrie felt a desperate need to connect with.
Jame made a small, unhappy sound in her sleep and rolled to face the other way. The Highlord raised an eyebrow quizzically at Kindrie.
No, not the Highlord. There was a face woven into the tapestry Jame clutched about her shoulders -- was that a death banner? A Knorth death banner? Surely there could be no mistaking the characteristic triangular face, silver eyes, and cloud of dark hair. This Knorth face seemed to be watching Kindrie suspiciously, waiting for his next move. It offered no opinion, but the cloth pulled tighter around the girl's shoulders, as if hugging her close.
Kindrie looked up at the great cat. "No," he said, and his throat spasmed around the word as a thousand memories of punishment roared through his mind. "I can't do it. It's not right. I'm... a healer. Not a killer."
The cat's eyes gleamed through the darkness at him. You take your calling very seriously, child of Argentiel.
Kindrie scrambled to his feet. "Yes. I do. You're the judge -- judges," he amended as he belatedly noticed the sensation of many pairs of eyes upon him. He could only see one Arrin-ken before him, but he had the undeniable impression that many were observing. "If you want her dead, do it yourselves." His knees trembled at this audacity, and he waited to be struck down where he stood.
That is not our way, little healer. Strangely, the voice in his mind held a tinge of amusement. Order your own affairs. You know the prophecy.
Despair washed over Kindrie as he wondered if his lack of nerve tonight had doomed Torisen.
The huge cat turned and began to pad away through the trees, but at the edge of the grove it looked back over its shoulder. But do you know all of the prophecy?
Kindrie stared. "Lord Ishtier left something out?"
Ask him, came the fading voice, even as the great feline form disappeared into middle gray.
Without changing position, Kindrie found himself lying on the ground, blinking up at the stars. So it had been a dream after all, he realized; no Arrin-ken, no mysterious judgment, no failure of nerve.
Feeling oddly disappointed, he rolled to looked at Jame. From between her shoulderblades, a Knorth face regarded him solemnly.
Kindrie felt a sharp pain in his elbow and squirmed free with a suppressed yelp. Somehow the knife had come out of its secure sheath on his belt. Gripping it, he stared in wonder at the face on the tapestry. Jame twitched, and one silver eye disappeared for a moment in the folds of the cloth, like a wink.