Kacey MacTavish stumbled through snow. Her breath came out in ragged gasps that hung in front of her eyes. She fought the temptation every time, but she wanted nothing more than to reach up and wave at the mist.
Just like she and her father had done when she was a little girl, bundled up with Ardyn and Corlane in the snow.
He's dead, Kacey reminded herself. The thought no longer brought her crashing down, but it still echoed like a dull drumbeat. He's gone. Because of me.
She shivered, and not from the cold. Again she saw the green-eyed man turning the gun on her, and...her father had been a mighty man. He could have survived one gunshot, surely. But no! He had to take two. If Kacey hadn't been there...
"I should have refused to go," she growled to herself. "I should have fought harder about the wedding! I shouldn't have gotten in the carriage. I should have told Ardyn to shove it when she talked me into the dress. I should have...he'd be alive if I had just..."
It was her fault. She knew that, deep inside, as she crunched snow underfoot and made her way along the coated path. Her father's shield thumped on her back, so heavy after so long running. Twice she had almost thrown it away, but it wasn't a tool of murder, was it? It was all she had left of him.
Light. There was light ahead. Kacey almost turned away, but she hadn't eaten since the ill-fated stop at the inn, last night. She hesitated on the road, stomach roaring.
She felt in her pocket. She'd given away her most valuable necklaces and trinkets already, but maybe she had enough for something.
"And then what?" Kacey asked herself. She started for the town anyway. "Go where?"
It was a miniscule town. It couldn't even properly be called a village. But there were lights hanging off the buildings, and Kacey saw heavily-bundled townsfolk moving from place to place.
"Excuse me," she asked of the first person she passed. The man tucked his coat in and turned his head, but Kacey didn't stop. "Where could I go to find some food?"
He ignored her. She stood in the snow, shivering and trying not to curse him. Then she turned back to the street.
"Excuse me-" No, she was moving along. Kacey picked her next target. "Sir, please, can I ask-" She swallowed as he too pretended she was a ghost.
She moved through what felt like most of the town, and no one acknowledged her. They gave her dark looks, and several of them muttered. They hurried away when she approached. None spoke directly to her, though one couple loudly wished "that drifter" would leave them alone.
"Nice," she told them. "I'm right in front of your faces, and I'm only asking if there's a place I can find something to eat. You don't have to do a thing but talk to me."
"That drifter is getting on my nerves, darling," the man said, and she nodded very seriously as he took her arm and moved along.
"Gods above and powers below," Kacey hissed. She paused to kick a snowbank very forcefully. "Bleeding..." she couldn't even finish the sentence. Her stomach did it for her.
"Food," she muttered. "I'm trying, all right? I promise." She hefted the strap of her shield, then...
She paused as she saw a rickety church, close to the west edge of the settlement. Kacey inhaled, studying the lamps burning by the doors.
"Well, Kacey...why not try?" She approached, and raised a hand to knock. Falteringly, she did, teeth chattering.
"Yes?" a woman asked, opening the door. Kacey took in her dark nun's outfit.
"Please," Kacey said. "Can you tell me where I can find some food? I can pay, or I can work. Just...no one will talk to me."
The woman frowned. "We have little to spare. You are not the first to come recently and take."
"I can work," Kacey pleaded. "I can-" She broke off as she heard a loud fit of coughing. "Is there sickness here?"
The nun's face became stony. "The children have to go somewhere when the flu strikes, don't they?"
"The flu..." Kacey swallowed. "Children?"
"You can thank the other men, the ones who took the medicine and food," the woman told her. "Those Guiding Light fellows. I assume they're friends of yours. Hopefully the drow will put us all out of our misery." She pushed on the door.
"No, wait!" Kacey put her shoulder in the door. It might have been the worst idea of her life, but children... "Ma'am, I can heal."
The nun raised an eyebrow. "You are a wizard?"
Kacey shook her head, meeting the nun's eyes. She saw the understanding click to light in her gaze, and tried not to shiver. "But I can heal. I can cure the flu." She swallowed as she watched the woman's eyes, and her complex web of interconnecting thoughts. "Please let me help. I don't know the men who took your medicine, but I can cure sickness without it."
The nun clutched the door, jaw working. Kacey held her breath. She wondered if she was about to get a first-hand look at a witch-burning.
"Come in." The nun opened the door. "Come on, young lady."
"Thank you!" She stumbled as she ascended the last stair. Warmth slapped her, and she pulled down her hood with a gasp of relief.
"You are a Vod-witch?" the nun asked. She tilted her head. "Your ears. You are half-elven."
Kacey jumped. "I..." She swallowed. "Yes, ma'am."
"You would do well to keep that hood up outside these doors," she warned. "Perhaps even when you heal the children. We are on the border, miss: you'll find no human settlements north of here. Half of your lineage is looked on with hate and scorn by all in this village."
"I'll bear that in mind," Kacey agreed. "Where are they?"
"How do you expect to be paid for this?" the nun asked, standing in Kacey's way. "We have no money here."
"I..." Kacey had completely forgotten her own hunger and exhaustion when the words children and flu crossed her world. "I don't care. Just let me help them. Whatever you think my work is worth, I'll take it gratefully."
The nun raised one eyebrow, as if she were regarding some strange new species no man had ever seen.
"Come." She gestured, and Kacey looked past her to see blankets spread over pews and between them, and perhaps two dozen boys and girls no older than thirteen. "If any of them ask, stranger, you have a Rune of Nerien, and know nothing of witchcraft. For your own safety."
Kacey lay in a pew, with a thin blanket and her own coat bundled up as a pillow. Her father's shield she had propped against the wood by her head, and her boots she had set before it, as neatly as she could.
The nun had watched while she worked, and very closely. Kacey suspected she had been poised to do...something if her witchcraft had harmed the children in any way, and that just made her respect the middle-aged woman a little bit more. She wondered if there was a knife concealed in her habit...and also wondered whether possessing a blade or not would have changed her willingness to try and keep a malignant witch from her charges.
She probably would have succeeded, too. Kacey had barely managed to stay on her feet long enough to examine all the children and give them the healing touch she'd perfected from Brigid's book. Several of them she'd also given Clarity, to poke a light through the cloud of depression haunting their gazes. One, she had marked with Safety, noting his black eye.
The nun had given her food. Not much, and only potatoes and bread, but Kacey relished it like a kingly feast.
She stared up at the reliefs of the gods above her. Kacey eyed each one in turn, from Nerien to Atura.
What am I doing? she wondered. What am I supposed to be doing? How am I supposed to do it, whatever it is?
She shifted her weight. Well, this is a church, after all. She closed her eyes for a moment. If any of you are listening, up there...I could really use some guidance. I need a sign.
The children crowded around the nun, where she sat on the steps to the altar. Kacey's eyes were distant, but she listened as the kids settled down, all together, and the woman opened a large tome.
"The Book of Sora," the nun said. "Who is Sora?"
"The Goddess of Protection," the kids chanted. Kacey smiled, remembering her own lessons.
"And what does she do?"
"She protects," Kacey murmured, far too low to be heard, but with a cheeky smile.
"The Goddess of Protection watches over those in need of watching over, and she is patron of the downtrodden," the nun explained. "She is not the God of War, and war is not her nature. Her mission is to defend and uplift. Her symbol is a broken sword, which shows no weapon can harm those under her protection. Her motto is what?" She paused. "Matthew?"
"Do what's right because it's right," the child said. "And you need no other reason."
Kacey listened. She eyed the Goddess' relief above.
Kacey let out a sigh.
She was fast asleep before the nun even got to the first parable.