Miska looked down at the golden-eyed baby in her arms, frowning. Even for a Kankenni, this child was small; hardly more than a delicate face framed by a puff of dandelion-pale hair. The sandy beauty marks on her nose, cheekbones and forehead were barely visible. The tiny body, swaddled in a ragged quilt, felt lighter than a kitten. Specks of living light from the Second World -- Motes -- swirled about the child, but they were few and faint. Miska had a sick feeling that, were Little Cousin to get much thinner, no cures in the First or Second Worlds would save her.
"She’s beautiful, Illyana!" Miska jumped up, dancing with careful delight and watching the tiny face. She tickled the baby’s nose with the ribbons worked into her coppery braid: brown, light green, and primrose. One tiny hand waved feebly, and the infant sneezed.
"Oh -- Wondermaker’s blessings, Little Cousin!"
She dropped down next to Illyana and settled the baby in her mother’s arms. "I?m surprised everyone isn?t crowding in here to see her."
Illyana lay in a nest of shabby pillows and tattered blankets on the floor of the Birthing Cavern. The cinnamon-colored tracings on her face almost mirrored her daughter’s. Her ash-blonde hair, worked loose from its colorful ribbons, clung to her forehead. She smiled wearily, and cradled her child against her shoulder.
"This is the quietest it’s been since she was born." Illyana shifted so the baby could nurse, draping a fold of her too-large shirt over the tiny body for warmth. "The children all wanted to play with her, and the adults all wanted to hold her. Old Nonni Bera almost wandered off with her. Elder Midyora shooed the last of them away about half an hour ago."
"Tanrin must be so proud!"
"He is. He’s telling everyone I?m resting. I suppose I should be. But I wanted you to have a chance to see her without all the fuss."
"Thank you, Cousin." Miska watched the baby nurse with a strange mixture of wonder, love, and envy. And worry. "She’s beautiful. So tiny, though."
"Almost a pound. Not so very small," Illyana protested, then sighed. "But you?re right, she’s too thin."
"She needs sunlight." Miska hesitated. "I could take her."
Illyana looked up in alarm, and the baby whimpered in protest. "Take her aboveground? Miska, even if it weren?t icy cold... If you were seen!"
"I?d make sure she was warm. Doddi Jakki used to take me out in colder weather than this."
"Well, he was human, and humans do strange things. Someone might see you!"
"Who else would be out there this late in Barren Season, except the P?raptoi? And maybe Elder Midyora, seeing if there’s any onion grass coming up yet."
"The P?raptoi! Miska, if the Guardians caught you outside with a baby. . ."
"Naneri would run to the Elders if she caught me outside with a child, I?m sure. But Abri wouldn?t be surprised -- I think most of the P?raptoi wouldn?t be." Seeing her friend’s alarm, Miska smiled and shrugged. "They shouldn?t be back until the day after tomorrow, anyway." She traced invisible maps on the cavern wall with her finger, thinking. "It’s three days? walk from the Human village, carrying trade goods. They couldn?t get here any faster unless they went through the Second World. Even if they came now, they?d go up the forest side of the hill." The imaginary path circled a convenient lump of calcite. Miska grinned. "Abri knows where to find me at sunset. He?ll lead the others up the forest slope, and I?ll go to the river side."
"You know so much about Trading and Guarding, I?m surprised you haven?t been made one of the P?raptoi." Miska didn?t reply. Illyana frowned. "But what if Elder Midyora finds out?"
"Midyora would most likely not say anything. It’s the other Elders that worry me. But none of them go aboveground -- especially at this time of year."
Illyana looked uncertain.
"Besides, I just remembered where Midyora is. She’s gone looking for Kimo... again." Miska rolled her eyes.
"He probably tried stealing food, and now he’s hiding," Illyana commented.
"So she probably won?t be back for a while. This is the best time."
"Do you really think it would help?" Illyana studied her daughter’s pinched, fretful face, and sighed.
"Well, it always makes me feel better."
Illyana nodded. "Check the outer rooms, just to be certain no one’s listening. I?ll hold Little One while you do."
Seeing the look of hungry longing, of faint hope, on Illyana’s face, Miska slipped quietly through a short tunnel and pushed aside the curtain into the next room. No doors separated the caves, just sheets worn too threadbare for any other use. Every sound came through: rhythmic chants from children learning the first steps of Worldwalking, giggles from other youngsters playing Seek-and-Find in a cluster of stalactites, the back-and-forth murmur of adults sorting through the scraps of last year’s harvest for anything salvageable. Miska was always careful to preserve the impression of privacy in the healing rooms, even though the faintest whimper carried through all of them.
By some miracle the main Healing Cavern was Mote-lit, but empty. No one -- except for a few cats -- rested on the ragged pallets scattered about the floor. No parent cradled a feverish child. Miska glanced around, making sure that no one was napping behind a rock formation, then crossed back through the Birthing Cavern to check Midyora’s workroom. The only light in this smaller room came from the glow of the fire pit reflecting off the knobbly stone walls. Midyora’s precious iron cauldron bubbled over a bed of coals. The smell of grain and hot broth wafted from it. Some of the Cavern cats hunkered before the fire, stretching to sniff as near the pot as they could reach without singeing their whiskers. Miska called more Motes from the Second World to light the room, and grinned at the cat’s startled expressions.
"Hello, Sly Ones!" The older cats fled, while the younger ones pressed forward to thrust furry heads under Miska’s hands. She fondled ears and stroked narrow backs until a wave of purring muffled Illyana’s quiet lullaby. Not a Kankenni in sight, although the constant murmur of many voices carried clearly from the passageway outside. No one entered the Elder Healer’s domain carelessly. Miska stalled for a few more moments by stirring the soup pot, ignoring the cries of the skinny cats clawing up her legs, and her own hollow stomach.
She stiffened, and turned slowly to face Midyora. The Elder Healer stood in the outer doorway, fists planted on broad, if bony, hips. Her gray hair straggled loose from its binding rainbow of ribbon. Yet, even dressed in the patchwork of mismatched clothing that all Kankenni wore, she radiated discipline. On her, a faded cotton dress and patched man’s overcoat became a uniform. Miska felt tall and gangly next to most Kankenni, but not Midyora. Under that stern gaze, she felt like a naughty child.
"If you were Kimo, I?d assume you were stealing soup." Midyora said.
"Yes, Elder Healer." Miska replied, watching the older woman’s face. Midyora frowned.
"As it is, I?d wager my ribbons that you haven?t touched a sip."
"No, Elder Healer."
"Yet you seem slightly guilty about something." Midyora bent stiffly to caress a cat twining about her legs. "Drop the formality, child. Why are you in here?"
"I?m visiting Illyana and Little Cousin, Eld... Midyora."
"I?m sure that’s true." She straightened, brushing aside an emerald-bright ribbon. "Odd, though, that Illyana’s in there, and you?re in here. Close to the nearest way Aboveground."
Miska froze. "I..." Midyora wouldn?t take her before the other Elders when she hadn?t actually gone anywhere yet -- would she? Still, to risk a baby...
The Elder Healer smiled; a thin, sad smile. "Skinny little mite, isn?t she? Make sure you wrap her up warmly."
"The baby. Before you take her Aboveground."
"That is what you?re thinking, yes?" Miska nodded, heart thumping. "It’s what your grandfather did with you, the day you were born. Must be a Human instinct. I assume you got permission from at least one parent first?"
"Of course! I mean... it was my idea, my suggestion. Illyana doesn?t like going aboveground. But Little Cousin looked so pale..."
"And a touch -- or more -- of sun never did you any harm." Beneath the beauty marks that curved across her forehead like dark wings, Midyora’s eyes twinkled. "It never hurt me either." Then she became serious again. "You do realize, if the other Elders found out -- especially Ilion or Avoca -- you?d be risking banishment. You and Illyana both."
"I?d never take a baby out of sight of the Caverns!"
"That wouldn?t matter to the others. Remember your history: Kankenni died less than a mile from here. Some of us still remember being Driven Below." Midyora checked the contents of the soup pot, and sighed. "But this is the hardest Barren Season we?ve weathered since before your grandfather’s time. We can?t hide in the Caverns forever -- it’s wearing us away."
Despite herself, Miska smiled. Midyora hardly acted worn away. All the while she was talking, she bustled about, straightening bottles in their niches, folding blankets, and refilling water jars from the cistern.
"I?m not saying you shouldn?t be careful, mind you. Not all Humans are as civilized as your grandfather was. Even I get tense Aboveground, thinking about..." The old healer broke off, shuddering. "Never mind. But if Abri and the other P?raptoi can go trading among them, you of all people shouldn?t have to hide your nose. I?d have made you a P?raptoi myself, if..." Midyora broke off and looked Miska up and down. "With those green eyes of yours, and the way you?ve grown... Have you eaten today?"
"I hadn?t thought about it," Miska answered, still unnerved.
"Hmm. Have you finished giving the little ones today’s lesson?"
"Yes, Midyora. I showed them the story of Moshi and the fox."
"Who wouldn?t stay in his den? I?m not surprised." Midyora chuckled. "I could use another pair of hands. That rascal Kimo’s nowhere to be found. Take a bowl of soup in to Illyana, and while you?re at it, get another for yourself. It has the last of the carrots in."
"Thank you, Midyora."
The old woman smiled. Miska ladled the steaming broth into two clay bowls and ducked through the curtain.
Illyana had slipped into a doze, with the baby still held protectively to her breast. Miska knelt beside her, set down the bowls, and touched her lightly on the shoulder.
"Suppertime, Cousin," Miska whispered.
"Mmm? Oh... didn?t mean to fall asleep. Smells nice. Is it from the Second World, or is it real?" Second World soup would smell and taste comfortingly real for a moment, but once swallowed, it would cease to exist. Any Kankenni could make diamonds and sapphires from the essence of the Motes. Not even the wisest could make a loaf of real bread.
"It’s real, Cousin. With carrots, too. Something besides mushrooms, for once."
"You took this out of the Cauldron? Won?t Midyora be angry?"
"Only if you don?t drink that while it’s hot enough to do you some good!" came the reply from the next room. Illyana bolted upright in alarm. The baby whimpered feebly.
"It’s all right. She knows. Everything." Miska said.
Illyana slumped back into the pillows, still breathing hard.
"Through no fault of Miska’s, I might add." Midyora put in from behind the curtain. "So drink your soup."
"Here, let me help you up." Miska boosted Illyana into a sitting position against the cavern wall, cushioning her with pillows and creating a soft niche for the baby. "There. How are you feeling?"
"As though I?d spent the last day and night being kicked from the inside." Illyana grimaced, but her eyes were gentle when she looked at her infant daughter. She sipped a little soup, and a touch of color came back to her face. "Don?t be in too much of a hurry to have one of your own."
"But the Elders will never let me marry Abri unless we prove I can bear healthy children." Miska took a scalding gulp of soup, hiding her face behind the bowl. It tasted faintly musty, but she could feel the warmth flowing all the way through her. "Even then, I?m not sure they?ll allow it. If they don?t want me to be one of the P?raptoi..."
"They blessed your mother and father -- and your grandmother and grandfather too. Don?t forget that, Historian." Illyana reached to tweak Miska’s brown ribbon, smiling. "Besides, I?ve heard Elder Ilion say it would be good for you to have children."
"So I?ll stay indoors all day, that’s all. But Abri knows better." Miska grinned. "He wants me to become a P?raptoi, and go trading with him. If we?re married, the Elders will have to approve, because we?d be together. Remember how the three of us used to play on Doddi Jakki’s wagon when we were little, and pretend it was before the Exile, and we were traveling to Human villages?"
Illyana nodded. "I liked your grandfather, once I knew not to be scared of him. He even took me for a ride on one of the chevrals that pulled the wagon once. The one that looked more goaty than horsey."
"Trippy. He called them Trippy and Trompy. Trippy was my favorite. Abri always liked Trompey best. Doddi Jakki said even other humans thought those were silly names, but I thought they were funny. I used to call him Noddi when I was little, instead of Doddi, you know."
"Little goat, instead of Grandpa?" Illyana laughed.
"Because of his funny little red beard. I thought he was a faun. He didn?t even believe in fauns, though." Miska set down her bowl. "Are you ready?"
Illyana cuddled her baby a moment longer before handing her over.
"I?ll take her to Doddi’s Storytelling rock. I won?t be long," Miska promised. The baby looked up at her, tiny mouth pursed in infant puzzlement. "You?ll like that, Little Cousin." She hesitated a moment, listening. Midyora had been humming, loudly and off-key, while she tidied her already spotless dispensary. Now everything was quiet.
"Just a moment, girls." Midyora stepped into the room. "One more thing. Just a precaution. The Elder Healer reached into a hidden pocket and drew out a strip of pale green cloth. She held it up, examined it carefully, and finally nodded. With much creaking of joints, she eased herself down to sit cross-legged by Illyana’s bed. "I?ll be back shortly."
Her eyes went unfocused. Her body, and the cloth, now looked translucent and misty.
"Does she always go to the Second World just to wash her sashes? I have trouble staying there for more than a few minutes." Miska whispered.
"Well, she is over a hundred and twenty years old," Illyana whispered back, grinning. "She’s practiced. Maybe at that age the mental body’s easier to move around in than the physical one."
Midyora’s face turned slowly toward them. "Very funny, younglings." Her voice sounded distant and muffled. Suddenly the old woman shook herself and clambered back to her feet, looking solid again. The cloth now glittered with Motes, like a diamond bracelet. She tied it gently about the baby’s thin arm.
"A bit of extra protection for the little mite. Not as impressive as, say, Avoca might have done, but then Avoca would be aghast at this whole scheme. It?ll do."
"How could you talk to us between worlds like that?" Illyana asked enviously. "I always get distracted, or afraid I?ll stay too long and lose my hold on this body."
"Ilion hasn?t taught you yet?" A sly smile spread over the old healer’s face. "It means infringing on his specialty, but if you feel up for a lesson, we can practice something simple now."
"Will you teach me how to make my Solid World body follow me wherever I?m Worldwalking?" Illyana’s eyes lit up.
"That’s hardly simple! And that is something only Ilion should teach you. But we can start on the theory." Midyora glanced at Miska, and winked.
Miska grinned. A new lesson -- that would keep Illyana from worrying about the baby for a little while. She smiled at Illyana, and then slipped out, with the baby wrapped snugly in her own moss-green cloak.