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The two men staggered through the forest,
struggling to continue despite their wounds.
Nahum couldn't see where they were going,
his face so badly burned that
he could not open his eyes.
Kalad was burned too, with a lump
the size of an egg swelling his head,
but it was the deep cut behind his knee
that drained his life and slowed their steps.
They leaned on each other for support,
not because they wanted to,
but because they could barely move alone.
They did not dare seek shelter in a village,
because the women who wounded them
would surely go telling tales
and turn every hand against them.
Kalad spotted a rickety shack
on the hill above a road.
"I see a place we can stop,"
he said to Nahum, and
they took refuge there.
They treated their wounds
as best they could, but
there was not much to be done
for the terrible burns.
Kalad's leg stopped bleeding,
eventually, but could not hold weight.
It did not take long
for both of them to turn fevered,
and there was no help to be had there.
From time to time,
they heard the sounds
of travelers on the road,
but could never get there
in time to call for help.
Finally Kalad splinted his leg
and determined that it would serve;
with a stout stick for balance,
he could move nearly at normal speed.
"What are you doing?" Nahum asked.
"I'm leaving," said Kalad.
"You'd just slow me down."
Nahum could only listen in despair
as Kalad's dragging footsteps
dwindled into the distance.
Some time later Nahum heard
the stamp of hooves and jingle of harness
as a large group came down the road.
There were shouts, conversation,
but he could make out no more than voices.
Perhaps Kalad had gone with them,
whoever they were.
Nahum lay on his bedroll
and waited to die.
He could feel his body
melting all around him.
Kalad had taken their food,
of course, and although
there was a well somewhere near,
Nahum had no way to find it.
He slept as much as he could,
but the pain kept him awake
more often than not.
He wondered if the burns
on his face would leave him blind.
Nahum wished that
they had not attacked the women,
that he hadn't left his troop,
indeed that he had never
become a fighter in the first place.
His heart ached as much as his face,
yearning for a chance to undo
all the mistakes he had made,
now that he'd come to the end
of his chances and himself.
Nahum drifted into an uneasy sleep,
dreaming of a man's round face
and tender words he could not
He woke to find himself alone,
by the solitude and the fact
that he had not yet died
and gotten it over with.
It happened again and again,
sleep full of soothing care,
consciousness only misery.
Nahum roused to the feeling
of something cool and wet
against his face, easing the burns.
Gentle hands wrapped him in gauze,
and after that, a soft shawl of magic
that sent him back to sleep again.
The next time Nahum woke,
it was night from the sounds outside,
and the stranger was still there.
"Dreaming," Nahum muttered,
because it had to be that.
Nobody had any reason
to take care of him.
"You keep saying that, my friend,
but you're awake at the moment,"
a voice replied. "I'm Rohalin.
Can you tell me your name now?"
"Nahum." Surely that much
couldn't do any harm,
though he worried anyway.
"Why are you doing this?"
"I'm a priest of Yasun,
God of Healing," said Rohalin.
"He sent me here --
said that you needed care,
and a second chance."
Nahum didn't argue, too grateful for words.
He might not deserve the opportunity,
but he was determined not to waste it.
There was broth, rich and meaty,
with a bitter edge of herbs.
Rohalin had to help hold the cup
for Nahum to drink from
because he couldn't see it.
Nahum's feelings baffled him,
not just the gratitude,
but something else that
came with the crushing vulnerability.
He'd been abandoned before,
helpless and hurting,
and he should have felt afraid
but it just wasn't there anymore.
Rohalin's gentle touch
settled something inside him,
left Nahum relaxed in a way
that he'd never known before,
its very existence a mystery.
He puzzled over it
even as he slipped back to sleep.
The next day, Rohalin sat him up
and started to unwind the bandages.
Nahum twitched at the contact.
"Trust me," Rohalin said.
"Hold still, and I won't hurt you."
Nahum felt that odd settling again,
as if he'd swallowed something warm.
So that's what it was: trust.
He'd heard of it before,
but never sensed it himself.
"There now, that doesn't look so bad,"
Rohalin said, cleaning his face
with a damp cloth. "Open your eyes."
Nahum obeyed. "I can see!"
he exclaimed. He'd been certain
that so much damage would have
ruined his sight for good.
Rohalin was slim and graceful,
dressed in a fitted robe
of worn wool the color of sage.
"You sound surprised," he said.
"I am," Nahum said.
"I didn't even expect to survive,
but then I had these strange dreams
of a round-faced man with a kind voice ...
and later you came. I don't know
what to make of it."
Rohalin smiled. "Yasun reached you
before I could," he explained.
"We weren't sure you noticed,
the contact was so tenuous at first."
He brought out breakfast,
a bowl of porridge for each of them.
"It didn't make any sense to me,"
Nahum said, "but I think it helped.
I was wishing for a chance to change things."
The porridge tasted better than he expected.
"Ah, that's how you came to His attention,"
Rohalin said. "Yasun watches for that,
because vulnerability has a way
of cracking people open
to all sorts of exciting possibilities
that strength left covered."
"Now that I have what I wanted,
I don't know what to do with it,"
Nahum mourned, stirring
his porridge slowly with the spoon.
"Rest here for a few more days,"
Rohalin said. "Then I'll take you
past the local villages --
they're in a ruckus over something,
and not welcoming to strangers now."
That was Nahum's own fault,
though he said only,
"Thank you for your help."
"You're welcome," Rohalin said.
"It's part of my vocation.
I'll give you a piece of advice --
trust your weakness.
It will tell you who is kind
and who is cruel,
just by how they treat you."
Nahum thought about
how Kalad had left him
because he was a burden,
and how Yasun and Rohalin
had helped him even though
he couldn't do anything for them.
He'd always thought that power
was the only thing worth having, but
maybe there was something
to vulnerability after all:
its very existence had
already altered his life.
Nahum set his empty bowl aside
and then, very softly,
leaned against Rohalin.
The healer wrapped an arm around him
and began telling a parable about Yasun
coaxing a feral child out of the woods.
Nahum tried to keep an open mind
in the face of such unfamiliar words
as he sought to explore the trust
that rose in him like a strange flower.