As Syndria drew nearer to the city gates of Caron, she noticed a nervousness in the crowd leaving the city. Though she was tempted to ask someone what was happening, she was more concerned about drawing attention to herself. From the snippets of conversation she caught occasionally, there were Guardsmen stationed at the gate checking each person who entered the city. No one seemed to know who they were searching for, but Syndria knew that if Nedra’s concern was any indication she was soon going to face the first challenge of her journey.
She approached to gate nervously, clutching her small bundle tightly to her chest. Though no one in the city would recognize her as a Healer, if the Guardsmen posted at the gate were part of the Royal Guard they would know her the moment she spoke. And even if the Guards weren’t ones she knew, what name would she give when they questioned her? What would she say was her reason for being in Caron? Syndria’s palms began sweating. She had no answers for the questions she knew she would face soon, and there was no other way into Caron. She had to think of something--fast.
“State your business in Caron.”
Syndria swallowed hard, trying to delay the inevitable. She didn’t recognize the man’s voice, but she still feared being found out. She had never been good at lying even when she had a reason, and now she didn’t even know why she needed to lie. What was she going to say?
“Your business?” the guard repeated, his voice betraying his agitation at this woman who was taking up too much of his time.
“My business?” Syndria stammered. “I--I’m just coming back from--”
“Kierney, what took you so long?” The young girl speaking took Syndria’s arm as she stepped in front of the guard. We’ve been waiting all morning for you to get here. Momma will be so excited to see you at last.” She rattled on until the guard interrupted.
“Take your reunion somewhere else. You are blocking the gate.” Turning to the person behind Syndria, he almost knocked the two girls out of the street. Before she knew what was happening, Syndria was being pulled down the main street of Caron by a pretty little girl who was calling her Kierney.
“I’m sorry,” Syndria murmured quietly, leaning toward the girl, “but I’m afraid you have the wrong person. My name in not Kierney.”
The girl laughed out loud, startling Syndria. “Oh, Kierney! I can’t believe you!” She playfully bumped against Syndria, treating her like they were the best of friends. Soon Syndria was being steered toward a small white-washed cottage with a yard full of children. As the two girls stepped through the open gate, a tiny blonde girl caught sight of them.
“Lyddie!” she called, jumping up from the blue flowers she had been picking. She ran toward the two girls at the gate and leapt into Lyddie’s arms, squealing with delight. Hearing her, three other children came running. The young girl, Syndria’s rescuer at the gate, knelt laughing as the four children all tried to hug her at once, almost knocking her over.
“My goodness! You would think I’d been gone for months by the way you all are treating me.” Laughing, she pulled her skirt out of eight tiny hands as she stood. “This is your cousin Kierney. Why don’t you all stay out here for a little while so we can go talk to Momma. Afterward I’ll come play with you. How does that sound?” Four little voices cheered as Lyddie led Syndria toward the door.
Once inside, Syndria tried once again to tell the young girl she had made a mistake. Lyddie just laughed and called for her mother, telling “cousin Kierney” how excited everyone was to have her there.
A small woman, not much taller that Lyddie, came bustling into the room, wiping her hands on her apron. “My dear, you must be exhausted!” she exclaimed, taking Syndria’s hands in her own as she turned to her daughter. “Lydia, dear heart, would you go heat a bath for your cousin? She has been walking for hours and I’m sure she would like to freshen up before supper.” When the girl left the room, the smiling woman drew closer to Syndria and bowed her head slightly before speaking.
“Forgive me, Mistress, but I could not endanger my daughter further by telling her your true identity. The Ancient sent word to my husband telling us of the dangers you face. I pray you may rest easily with us for your stay in Caron. You are welcome in our home.”
Syndria nodded to the woman, this woman who knew all about a danger the young Healer could not even begin to grasp. Had she angered the King? She started to ask the kind woman what danger she spoke of but for some reason changed her mind, asking instead her name.
“I am Tamara and my husband is Sir Lawrence of the Council. We are--” As Lyddie came back into the front room, Tamara’s voice instantly changed back into the sunny, cheerful tone she had used when Syndria first came in with her daughter. “--so glad you are finally here to visit us! Your uncle will be so pleased to see his brother’s eldest daughter. It has been so long,” she smiled, hugging the Healer. “Now hurry along and bathe while I finish preparing supper. Lydia,” she called after her daughter, “try to keep the little ones form getting filthy. Supper will be ready by the time your father gets home.” With that she turned back to the kitchen, leaving an awe struck Syndria standing alone in the main room of the cottage.
Syndria cleaned up quickly and changed into the clean white gown Nedra had packed for her early that morning. She wanted to have a chance to speak with Tamara before the family ate their evening meal together. She started to look for a hair ribbon before she realized that her hair was now much too short to be tied back, and the thought threatened to bring tears to her eyes.
“Don’t be a child!” Syndria admonished herself. “You have seen suffering and death everyday for the past twelve years--hair is nothing to get upset about.” Straightening her shoulders, the young Healer quickly pushed the thought aside and made her way through the cozy cottage to the toasty kitchen where Tamara was cleaning off the large plank table.
“Tamara,” Syndria began, but the smiling woman interrupted her.
“Call me Aunt, Mistress, and I will call you Kierney while you are here in our home. I will have my children know nothing of your true identity.” To Syndria, Tamara’s interruption sounded much like a warning, as if she was afraid the Healer would willingly put the children’s safety in jeopardy.
“Of course, Aunt,” the young Healer smiled, trying to reassure the woman who was apparently risking so much to protect someone she did not know. “I appreciate all you are doing for me. Tomorrow I shall leave, and your life here will return to normal. I would like to ask something more of you, though. Why are you doing this? I do not wish to cause your family harm, and I fear that my presence here could be doing just that.”
Tamara sat at the table and motioned for Syndria to do the same. Once the Healer was seated beside her, Tamara leaned in and began speaking quietly. Her words shocked Syndria--the Ancient had told her none of this!
“The prisoner you healed last escaped from the castle, as I am sure you know. What you do not know, however, is that the Wizard Euroin went before the King with the idea that you had something to do with his escape.”
Syndria interrupted, “How can that be? I left before Paodin’s escape. Why, I even passed by the Wizards as I left the dungeon!” She caught herself afterwards, realizing she had not only revealed the prisoner’s name but had also said dungeon instead of “the west hall.” She started to correct herself but decided against it. If King Simann was already convinced of her involvement with the escape of a prisoner it wouldn’t matter what else she added to her list of crimes.
Tamara put her hand softly on the Healer’s arm, silently urging her to be calm before she continued, “That is not what has you in danger, Mistress. The King asked Wizard Euroin the same question, for he knew you would have left before the Wizards entered the room. Euroin then told the King they had found a different kind of spell hidden deep within your gift--the old magic,” she whispered the last words. “Wizard Euroin convinced the King that you tried to hide the prisoner’s true identity, and now they want to…” Her words trailed off, but Syndria knew exactly what the Wizard wanted. He wanted to torture her as a traitor to the King. Though she had done nothing, her torture would buy Euroin time to find Paodin while placating the King.
Syndria’s eyes threatened to tear again as she spoke. “I am sorry your family has been brought into this. This is my problem to deal with, no one else’s. I shall leave early tomorrow. I was told to meet Nedra at the stables. After tonight I shall trouble you no longer.”
Tamara shook her head slightly before she replied, “I’m afraid that is not an option. The King is keeping all the other Healers locked inside the castle.” When she saw Syndria’s stricken expression she quickly added, “Don’t worry--King Simann has no reason to question the loyalty of any of them. He just wants to make sure you are left to your own devices away from the castle. Also, you will need to stay with us for a few days. The Guard will not let anyone leave the city until feast time comes, so until the week’s end you will be Kierney.” Just then the cottage door opened and Tamara stood. Children’s laughter rang out from the main room, mixed with a man’s low rumble. “Ah,” Tamara smiled, “Lawrence is home. Come and say hello,” she prodded, taking the Healer’s hand and leading her out of the kitchen.