The village was silent. A few birds winged nervously over the thatched rooftops, and far away the rushing of a river could be heard, but even that was subdued. On the ground, not a creature stirred. Any within the houses did not move.
It seemed dead. By any rights it should be.
Perera walked to the center of the village, fingers threaded through Gladang's mane. They gray horse stirred, not quite anxiously. He trusted his rider, but there was a sense in this village that disturbed him. Kkren followed behind her brother, in obvious discomfort as Chira grasped her mane and dug her heels into the mare's sides. She had been riding for nearly nine years now, but nerves had the better of her training. The other horses, Tekre and Merrow, were riderless.
"Are you sure he's here?" Chira asked.
"I'm certain." The storyteller scanned the homes and called, "Renner."
"In here." The soft voice came from within a long house at the very edge of the square. Pere released Gladang and went towards it.
People were lying in the long hall, each on a grass pallet and obviously sleeping. Most had a faint flush on their faces, and their breathing was even.
"This isn't the way the plague takes people," Renner said.
Perera smiled. "No."
Renner stepped farther into the longhouse. Saeo lay near the middle of it, the only one there who did not appear in the bloom of health. His normally pale skin was sallow, his hair was greasy and tangled, and his breath came in sharp gasps. Renner placed a hand on his chest to feel his heartbeat. He turned to Perera.
"I'll wait outside." The storyteller left the dwelling.
Renner looked around at the other sleepers, then back at Saeo with a sort of admiration. With only twenty essences, to save so many…
Saeo's heartbeat leapt beneath Renner's palm. What was he holding on with? Perhaps a third of his life? Shear will?
"I always knew you were going to do something generous and utterly stupid," Renner whispered. "That's why I saved this for you."
He began to will life into Saeo.
Once begun, it was managed mostly by instinct. Some part of him figured what to do, and knew when to stop. All the same, it left him feeling exhausted.
He had time to check Saeo's breathing- it was even- before he fell into darkness.
Two shadows fell over the door. Chira made to enter but Pere stopped her with a hand on her arm. She fell back and studied the interior in silence.
At last she said, "Without it…will they feel much diminished?"
Perera glanced at Saeo. "He will."
And at Renner, "He might."
She sighed. "They'll be like us."
The storyteller's lips quirked. "Never quite."
Gladang snorted and stomped the ground impatiently.
"We should get going."
The traveler looked at her.
"Are we leaving them?"
"We are." The voice was heavy. "They might not understand, but…they no longer need us now."
"And we don't need them?"
"Well, don't we-"
"Chira." She quieted. "They have each other now. That's what they each need- someone like himself. Anything you and I would do would only get in the way of that, now."
She pulled herself onto Kkren. This time she didn't claw the mare's flanks or mane. Perera remained standing before the longhouse until Gladang seized a lock of the traveler's hair and tugged it roughly.
"Oh!" Pere turned to Gladang, perhaps with something venomous on the tongue, but halfway through the motion Chira began laughing. Rubbing at a torn scalp, the storyteller joined it.
"Come on, daughter."
As the hoofbeats of the horses faded away, the village fell once again silent. But as a bird cast its shadow on the ground it dared to sing a bit and the trees sighed in an air of freedom.
Inside the longhouse, someone stirred, then fell back again. The healing had exhausted even those receiving it, but the sleep was obviously just that, healing too in its own right.
Renner lay with his head on Saeo's chest, also sleeping. As the shadows lengthened into noon, something stirred, and he shot awake.
"Thank you. I was grateful for your healing, but you were crushing the life out of me." Saeo grinned, belying the dry voice in which he spoke.
Renner smiled back, ruefully. "Sorry."
"No problem." Saeo looked out the door. "Are Perera and Chira here?"
"No." Renner flushed, and said, "I knew when I came here that I wouldn't be leaving with anybody but you."
"Oh." Saeo looked around. "Should we wait for them to wake up?"
"If you want."
"Not exactly. The horses are gone, aren't they?"
"I suppose so."
Saeo shrugged, then grinned again. "Good. I like walking."
- - -
The first of the villagers woke soon after his savior had gone. He sat up, pushed sweat-darkened hair from his face, and examined the others.
He felt strange, with a sort of humming in his veins that he hadn't possessed before. Had never felt before.
It seemed like Power, and felt wonderful.
None of the others rose before the moon, but he waited for them, his silver eyes flashing in the dark.