Chapter 4
The Healer

Arita, Byrn; Anno Regis 1275

"When I defended my uncle from his attackers, I crossed a line. No mater how much I wished it, I could not turn back. My life would be defined by that struggle. I was trapped between wanting to go forward into the unknown and wanting to retreat to the safe and familiar. When I hesitated, the hand of Fate gave me a push."
--Excerpt from the assorted writings of Mark the Guardian

Tiberius lay fitfully in his bed, the wrappings on his many wounds soaked in blood. Mark had tried to change the bandages earlier, but it only caused the wounds to reopen. Mark was simply too inexperienced to properly treat someone in his uncle's precarious condition. Pale and dripping with sweat, Tiberius turned to his concerned nephew.
"Mark," he said. "these wounds are beyond our ability. I have heard a healer from Fiora is visiting students in Arita. Her name is Ofeliya. Bring her here."
"Okay," Mark replied.
"But before that... There is something we must do in case more soldiers arrive."
Mark nodded. He knew what had to be done.

* * *

The town of Arita was not unfamiliar to Mark. It was a rather simple village with cobblestone streets overrun with grass and laced with low-lying walls. The only structure that could draw much attention was the abbey on the south side of town belonging to the Order of Saint Arita. He went to town frequently for lessons and errands, but this trip was far more urgent. He had to find the healer from Fiora as soon as possible. The moment he rode into the town, a mocking voice pierced the air.
"What do you want here, foreigner?"
Mark glared at the source. It was Brenok, a local boy he had known for years. Brenok had always been short for his age and it was probably because he had been bullied so much that he became a bully himself. Whether by nature or intentional styling, the bangs of his hair curled up like horns, a perfect compliment for his devilish personality. Evident from his rich clothes and haughty bearing, he belonged to a family of far greater means than Mark's uncle. For some reason beyond mere class differences, Brenok was always hostile toward Mark. Though Mark had lived in Byrn as long as he could remember, Brenok treated him as an outsider. A smug grin matched the wild green eyes that gleamed with malice.
"I don't have time to quarrel with you," Mark growled.
"What's this?" Brenok scoffed. "Are you growing a backbone?"
Mark did not allow himself to be baited by Brenok's taunts. Getting into a fight would waste precious time that could mean the difference between the life and death of his uncle. Swallowing his pride, he quietly moved on while Brenok continued to pour abuses on him.
Asking around, he quickly managed to find where the healer was. She was at the abbey, conversing with an assortment of monastics and laymen in the main courtyard. They were gathered around her in a semicircle in the central orchard. Mark hurried up to the group, which immediately fell silent at the intrusion.
"Are you Ofeliya, the healer from Fiora?" Mark asked.
"I am," she replied.
"My uncle has been gravely injured. You're the only one who can help him. Please..."
One of the people in the group, a lay healer by his appearance, spoke up angrily, "Look here! Who are you to approach the kingdom's greatest healer?"
Ignoring the person, Mark continued to plead with the healer. "I beg you. He'll die if you don't help him."
More objections rose from the group, but they were silenced by a gesture from the healer.
"I shall go with you, young man." Looking at the group, she told them, "I am sorry we could not spend more time together, but remember that a healer's first responsibility is to tend to those in need."
She rose, gathered her things and motioned for Mark to lead her. He wasted no time. Although he was not particularly fond of horses, he had the foresight to bring his uncle's palfrey to make the trip faster. It was no trouble for him to match the aged healer's riding pace on foot. The same could not be said if he had expected her to keep up with him.
It was close to sunset when they reached the cottage. As Mark led her inside, she looked around at the empty interior. With her prospective patient nowhere to be seen, the healer became indignant.
"You dragged this poor old woman all the way here, so where is your uncle?" she asked. "Do not tell me this is all a ruse. I have nothing of value for you to steal, if that is your intent, nor am I worth ransoming."
The accusation astounded Mark, but he was still naive about the dangers of the world.
"Don't misunderstand, please. My uncle is here, just hidden."
Before she could say anything more, Mark pushed aside a table in the center of the room and lifted up the rug, revealing a trapdoor. Picking up a candle, he guided her down the hidden stairwell into a secret underground chamber. By the flickering light of several sconces, she could see Tiberius lying on a mat in a far alcove. With calculating professionalism, she knelt over him and immediately began to examine the bindings for his wounds.
"How did this happen?" she asked.
"He was attacked by the Dragon Guard last night," Mark replied. "I don't know why, though. We haven't done anything to provoke them."
"Now that you mention it," the healer said, "they have been behaving oddly as of late."
Tiberius struggled to sit up, wincing from the pain of his injuries. "Something... is not right..."
"That much is certain," Ofeliya replied, easing the swordmaster back down, "but you mustn't move. It will only worsen your wounds. There is nothing you can do about it now. You have to focus on healing or my treatment will do you little good."
Mark was silent as Ofeliya unwrapped the bandages to inspect Tiberius' wounds. It was true that his uncle could do nothing about the current situation until he healed, but they could not afford to sit idly by until the Dragon Guard returned to finish what their men started the night before.
"I will find out what's going on around here," Mark said, his voice filled with resolve. "The King himself will explain why this has happened."
"You can't be serious!" the healer exclaimed.
"He will account for this. I swear it..."
Tiberius chuckled. "Just like your father..." He shook his head. "I... I won't stop you... Take my sword. Use it well... and remember your training."
"I will," Mark said. "Take care, Uncle." He looked to the healer. "I'm counting on you."
"I shall do what I can," she replied.
Mark left the chamber and went to the mantle as soon as he emerged from the stairwell. He stared at his uncle's sword. He knew it was only a pale shadow of the blade of his ancestors, but it still held considerable power. He removed it from its mount and strapped it to his side. Gathering some light provisions for the road, he was soon ready to set out.
Since the cottage was built on a plateau, it provided an excellent vantage point. To the east he could barely see the castle on the horizon. There he would find the reason behind the attack on his uncle. His plan was bold and reckless, but something inside him had awakened. He would find the answers he sought no matter the cost.