“Almost there, Anta” Tana called out, “Just keep pushing. I see the head.”
The healer was kneeling before the young woman’s spread legs, watching carefully as the baby’s head started to emerge. Anta’s mother knelt by the girl’s head, holding her hand and offering encouragement.
“Here he comes, Anta,” Tana said, “Keep pushing.”
Tana moved in to help guide the baby the rest of the way out. The healer thought this was a boy from certain signs she knew, but could not be sure until the child was out.
“Once more,” the healer said, getting excited herself.
And then Tana was holding a squirming, wet little person. She cut the cord, then moved the baby to a waiting blanket. A quick look confirmed that this was, indeed, a boy. The baby took a deep breath, then let loose with a loud wail. Tana quickly examined the child and then cleaned him up. She wrapped him in swaddling prepared by his grandmother and took him to his mother.
“Here you go, Anta. A boy. Your mother can help you start nursing while I deal with the afterbirth. Congratulations. He is quite healthy.”
The young woman smiled as she held her son.
“Too bad Ertu is away. He was hoping to be back for the birth,” Anta said, her voice a bit sad.
She bared her breast and guided the baby to it. He quickly latched on and started suckling, seeming to know instinctively what to do.
“I’m sorry I only have this to give you,” Anta’s mother said as Tana left a while later.
The woman handed the healer a large clay pot of jam. Tana smiled.
“It’s fine. Your jam is always welcome at my table, Lysa. And to be honest, delivering babies is one of the most joyous parts of my calling. No further reward is required.”
The healer hugged Lysa, then set out after assuring mother and daughter that she would be back to check on the baby the next day.
Tana walked quietly back to the home of the village’s blacksmith and headman Master Lond. The village was more than a half day’s journey from Tana’s home near the village of Olsham so she stayed with Lond while in Hyrford. Originally Olsham’s healer, Tana had begun serving Hyrford as well after the loss of their own healer.
As Tana approached, the loud ring of a hammer striking metal reached her ears. The healer smiled and headed for Lond’s smithy rather than the door to the house.
Lond looked up when Tana stepped through the door. The place was, as always, hot from the great fire he kept going for melting and smelting metals. The blacksmith wiped sweat from his brow and walked towards the healer.
“How’d it go?”
“It’s a boy, as I predicted. Very healthy. Anta was nursing him when I left.”
“Good. Wish her man and the other woodcutters would get back. I need some of that wood.”
Ertu was part of a team who were cutting and gathering wood in the woods beyond the river. Some would just be firewood, but some was for building and woodcraft. Lond was making a couple of axes and needed some good hardwood for the handles.
“It’s only been three days, Lond. Sometimes they are out there for a week,” Tana pointed out.
The big man grunted but nodded.
“Yeah, I’m just getting impatient in my old age. I guess you’ll be heading back to Olsham soon?”
“I should. They have not sent for me so I think all is well there, but I owe them some time. I wish we could get a new healer for one of the villages. Going back and forth is getting exhausting.”
“At least it keeps you around,” the smith growled, winking at the healer.
She giggled and leaned in to kiss Lond on the lips.
“Perhaps it is Olsham that needs a new healer so that I can enjoy your company more,” the healer said.
“I wouldn’t complain.”
They kissed again, then Tana headed around to the house to start a fire for cooking dinner.
The following morning, Tana heard a babble of noise and voices outside as she was eating her morning meal. Lond had already gone over to the smithy, leaving the healer to herself. Tana had been planning to go to the old healer’s house, where she still stored herbs and other supplies, to take inventory. And, of course, she had to visit Anta to check on the baby.
Pulling on a cloak, Tana went outside to find the woodcutters’ wagons in the village square. Residents of the village were gathered around a group of men. As she approached, the healer recognized Ertu among them.
“There’s something out there. A crazy woman or maybe a mad spirit of some kind,” Ogan, the leader of the woodcutters was saying.
“She looked a bit like Deira,” added Ertu.
All of the men looked frightened, Tana realized. She recognized the name as that of their missing healer.
“Deira? She did run away in a kind of madness during the plague of nightmares last year. I suppose it is possible,” remarked Lond, who had come out from his forge.
“Where was this?” Tana asked, “If it is your former healer, perhaps I can help her. Get her to come back to the village so I can treat her.”
“About a day’s journey towards the East side of the valley. Near the Haunted Circle.”
Tana cocked an eyebrow and asked, “The Haunted Circle?”
“It’s a relic of past ages,” Lond explained, “In a clearing deep in the woods, there is a circle of huge wooden pillars carved with old runes and set deep in the ground. No one is sure who built it or why. It is widely believed to be haunted by spirits.”
“Perhaps this woman is one of those?” Tana asked.
Tana had some knowledge of spirits. She wished she did not, but wishing could not change her heritage or upbringing. This place sounded eerily similar to one from her past.
“She was outside the circle and followed us for some distance away from it,” Ogan said, “The hauntings are always in the circle or close to it.”
The healer nodded.
“Can someone guide me there? I think I need to see what is happening.”
The smith looked nervous.
“I could,” he told Tana, “It is a bad place, though. There are good reasons why we avoid it.”
“It is not a place I would want to go, but I have to,” the healer responded, “Helping Deira is my duty as a fellow healer.”
The smith looked thoughtful for a moment, then said, “This will be an overnight trip. It’s too far to go there and back in a day. We’ll need provisions, bedrolls, and some other supplies. How about we leave tomorrow and we can spend today preparing?”
Lond sounded unhappy, but at least he was willing to help Tana.
“Are you really sure of this, Tana?” Lond said as they settled into his bed that night.
Tana had initially lived in a small room at the back, behind the smithy. However, as her relationship with Lond turned more intimate, the healer had moved into the big man’s own bed. They had not yet formalised the relationship, nor did they have any plans to. They were in love and enjoyed each other's company, which was enough for now.
The healer snuggled close to the smith, enjoying the warmth of his large, hairy body against her.
“I have a duty to heal, Lond. If this is Deira and she can be healed, I will heal her.”
Tana decided not to mention her curiosity about The Haunted Circle. That curiosity came out of a past that Lond still knew little about and Tana preferred it that way. Only their friend Oben, a war veteran who lived in Olsham, knew the truth about her and Tana had sworn him to secrecy.
The healer was the daughter of the feared sorcerer-warlord known to the world as The Night Lord. Named Artanna at birth, she had been raised in her father’s great palace of Tan Kolar. The Night Lord had intended Artanna to be his heir and successor. In the end, though, she had spurned that legacy and destiny, remaking herself as the healer Tana.
As part of her upbringing, the Night Lord had taught Tana a fair bit about sorcery and spirits. She had resolutely avoided making use of that knowledge since his downfall, but it was still there. Now maybe it would be of use for a good cause.
“Fair enough,” Lond rumbled, “But if things go badly, we pull back. Okay? I left the army due to a bum leg so I’m nowhere near the soldier our friend Oben is.”
“If it is spirits, being a soldier will do no good anyhow. We would need a sorcerer or someone familiar with the rites of exorcism.”
“And I take it that’s not you?”
In fact, Tana had studied sorcery, including exorcisms, under her father's tutelage but had rarely used that learning.
“No, it is not,” she lied, “But if we can get Deira away from whatever is in that circle, then we can seek help from the temple upriver in Aralford.”
“Like they are likely to have an exorcist. Probably have to send to one of the great cities for one.”
“That will be their responsibility if so. Our only concern is determining if this is Deira and trying to help her.”
“Then I am fine with this. I just don’t want to be messing with spirits.”
“Nor do I, Lond.”
Tana knew that was not really true. If messing with spirits would help her save the other healer, the healer would mess with them. She kissed the smith, then they drifted off to sleep.
The woods grew dense as Tana and Lond drew closer to their destination. There was darkness in these woods even in the daytime. They heard birds and had occasional sightings of other wildlife earlier.
“It’s really lovely out here,” Tana said.
When she was home in Olsham, the healer lived outside the village in a wooded area. Tan Kolar had been a vast, gloomy complex of stone and Tana had spent too much of her childhood in the tunnels beneath or the huge central tower. Living out in a wild space was part of her own healing.
“It is, I guess. A bit scary, though. There are forest lions around, you know. Probably bears, too.”
“That’s why I have my big strong lover along.”
Grabbing Lond’s hand, the healer giggled and led him in a little dance before she leapt into his muscular arms for a kiss.
Just then, a long wail echoed through the woods. Both froze for a moment, stared at each other, then looked around.
“What was that?” the smith asked.
He pushed Tana away. Reaching into the pack he had dropped on the ground beside them, Lond retrieved a large knife. It was not one he had designed as a weapon, but it would do in a pinch.
“Not any animal I know,” Tana answered, “It sounds like a human in pain.”
The healer shook her head.
“More pain than rage to my ears. I know pain.”
It came again, sounding a bit closer. Lond turned towards the sound, the knife held in a combat stance.
“Your leg?” Tana asked, noting his left leg shaking a little.
The next howl was almost upon them, or so it seemed. After it died down, Tana spotted a form moving in the trees.
“Over there,” she whispered to Lond.
The figure was human but looked pale and gaunt. It paused, glancing towards them. From this distance, though, Tana could not make out the face or other identifying features.
“A ghost?” Lond whispered.
“Not sure. I’m going to approach. Stay back unless they attack me or I call you. If it is a person, I don’t want to scare them with that knife of yours.”
Tana began to walk slowly towards the figure. It emerged from behind a tree to gingerly move closer.
Soon, the strange visitor came close enough for Tana to make out a face, hair, and breasts. The figure was a naked woman. She looked almost skeletal, not unlike some of the animated corpses in the Army of Night.
“Hello?” Tana said softly, “Who are you? Are you in need of help?”
The woman’s eyes were wild, wide open and tinged with red. She said nothing, just emitted a low growl, then another of those piercing wails.
"It's her, Deira," Lond, who had crept up, told her.
Tana nodded, smiling at the woman.
“Come, please. I am a healer. Let me try to help you,” she said, trying to keep her voice soft and soothing.
Neither moved. They just kept gazing at each other. Finally, Tana took a slow step forward. The woman did not respond, simply kept still and stared at the healer.
Another step and Tana could see that the woman was tense, shaking a little. Tana had figured in the nightmares that had driven Deira mad, appearing as Artanna leading the Army of Night. Did the woman recognize her?
“It’s over, Deira,” she cooed, almost as if talking to a child, “I sent the bad army away. I am not the Dark Princess, only the healer of Olsham.”
If only she was not tormented by dreams and thoughts of those old days. If only she did not sometimes feel wild joy as she dreamt of sweeping through the lands at the head of her father’s army. Tana shuddered, wondering if the lost healer could see the darkness that was still in her.
“No,” the gaunt figure said, the first word she had spoken.
“It’s okay, I am here to help. I can heal you if you come with me.”
The woman shook her head, then howled again before racing off into the woods. Tana took off in pursuit. Lond watched in surprise, then joined the chase, limping along as best his leg would allow.
When they finally stopped, Tana found herself in a circle of eight carved wooden pillars. Strips of runes ran down the face of each, with a single large rune about halfway up. Tana stood on one side, Deira on the other. The space between was devoid of life, just bare, dry soil like some miniature desert.
Tana drank in the scene. It was horrifyingly familiar. A similar circle had stood in Tan Kolar.
“Oh no. Not this. Not here,” the healer gasped as memories of that place flooded in.
A vision of her father bringing her dazed mother into the circle danced through Tana’s head. Dark shapes swirled around the pillars on the periphery. The skeletal hands of a lich held young Artanna in place, forcing her to watch. She saw the Night Lord’s hands rise, a garrote in them.
“No,” she cried, “No.”
In tears, Tana fled the circle, only pausing when she was well beyond its boundary. Then she turned to look back. The pale form of the other woman stood in the centre. Dark, wispy forms moved around the pillars.
Lond arrived, immediately racing to Tana.
“What is going on?”
“She’s going to die if I can’t make this stop. They’ve been slowly killing her for as long as she has been out here.”
The healer was shaking, tears in her eyes.
“What is it, Tana? Why does this place upset you so?”
“My father brought me to a place like this. He made me watch him kill my mother.”
“Who was your father? What kind of a monster kills a woman in front of her child?” Lond sputtered after a moment of shocked silence.
Tana looked at the smith and sobbed, suddenly realizing her lover finally had to hear the truth.
“My father was the Night Lord, Lond. My real name is Artanna and my rightful title is Princess of Tan Kolar. I was meant to be his heir. That’s why I figured in those nightmares a year ago. The last remnant of his army was calling me to take up my place at their head.”
The smith shook his head in disbelief.
“No, this is insane. You are Tana, the healer of Olsham and Hyrford. You are … you are the woman I love, Tana.”
Lond dropped his knife and moved towards Tana but she recoiled.
“It is true, Lond. Oben can confirm it. He was there when I refused my birthright and broke the pact that bound me to my father’s army. A pact that was forged in a place such as this.”
“If it is true, then it is also true that you have put it behind you, isn’t it? I have seen how lovingly you treat our sick and injured. I saw the joy in your eyes after Anta gave birth the other day. I have felt your love when we are alone together. Whatever title you were born to, whatever birthright you were supposed to take up, you are now a healer and the love of my life.”
Tana stared at him. She remembered their joy and flirting not long before. She remembered holding Anta’s baby. A smile crossed her lips.
“I hated my father maybe more than anyone else did, Lond. The darkness he wrought hurt me so badly. I was the one who killed him. So maybe you are right. That legacy is my past and I have slain it.”
Lond took Tana into his arms and gave her a tight hug. Then he kissed her.
“I love you, Tana. Whatever your past, my love is your present. Now please tell me, can you help Deira?”
Tana was pretty sure of what she needed to do. Breaking the pact that empowered the circle and held its spirits would free Deira but would not be easy. The spirits would be sure to resist. So much for not messing with spirits.
“I love you, too, Lond. And, yes, I think I can save her. I need the knife. But Lond, it is possible that I won’t survive. My life might have to be traded for hers.”
Lond went pale, but kissed her.
“I know you have to do this, Tana. I would hate to lose you, though.”
“You won’t, I hope,” Tana responded after kissing him back, “It’s just a risk I want you to know about. One more thing. If I can get the spirits of the circle to focus on me, you should be able to run in and grab Deira. Given her condition, she should be light so just carry her and run back to where we first saw her. I will find you later. I’ll signal you when to move by pointing at her with the knife. Got it?”
The smith nodded, a grim look on his craggy, bearded face.
“I am ready, Tana.”
The healer picked up the knife and headed back into the circle. She strode to the centre where the gaunt figure of Deira stood. The woman looked both sad and frightened. Her body was quivering.
Tana slowly turned, taking in the ring of pillars. Memories of her father’s instruction came back.
“The runes are cast from the West. Start at the Western pillar, then follow the circle clockwise, touching each rune. As you touch them, sing the eight chants as I taught them to you.”
Shadows like a dark mist danced around the pillars. They slowly drew closer to the women. The air was cold, feeling like the depths of winter.
“Enough!” Tana roared, raising her knife, “Show yourselves!”
The misty forms coalesced into vague human shapes, cloaked in a darkness deep as night. Yellow eyes shone from heads that were only vaguely distinguishable from the shadows around them. Those eyes reminded Tana of the liches who had commanded her father’s army. The liches were powerful spirits embodied in the corpses of dead kings through sorcery.
“Who speaks to us this way?” a voice said.
It was a collective voice, a chorus that spoke with a strange harmony and sounded neither male nor female.
“I am Artanna, Princess of Tan Kolar, heir to the Lord of Night,” Tana announced, shuddering as she spoke her old name and title, “Who you are is the more pressing question.”
“We are the voice of Pras Tola. We welcome you, daughter of Tan Kolar.”
Tana knew that name. The legendary Circle of Pras Tola was the ancient place of sorcery where her father had first learned and practised his art. So had he come here? Was this where he had forged his original pact with the spirit world?
“The Pact of Pras Tola still exists? It has never been broken?” she said, astonished.
“It has not. We have waited long for one who can command its power and restore its glory. Like the daughter of Tan Kolar.”
So these spirits had been in the circle for millennia. The wood must be intact and unrotted only because of their influence. Tana was unsure if she could break such an ancient pact. She was certainly not about to become part of it, though.
“Free this woman, then we can talk,” Tana commanded
“She is our sustenance. Without her, we might still be trapped in the pillars.”
Of course, thought Tana. Spirits in the world cannot sustain themselves, save by stealing life from other beings.
“She will soon be gone and I am healthy. Release her for I am now among you.”
“We cannot feed upon the daughter of Tan Kolar. We need her to be strong to lead us.”
“Where you are going, you won’t need sustenance,” Tana growled.
She bolted for the West column. The spirits did not follow at first, seemingly startled by Tana’s action. Then, perhaps realizing what the healer planned, they followed like puffs of smoke. Reaching the column, Tana raised the knife. Chanting in a language that predated even Pras Tola, she carved a carefully angled line through the large rune on it. Foul-smelling smoke arose from the cut.
As she carved, Tana was planning her next move. If one moves clockwise to cast the runes, counterclockwise should undo them. She would also have to remember the chants in the reverse order.
“No,” said the voice of the spirits, “You cannot.”
Tana ignored them. She raced to the next pillar, the Southwest one, and began defacing its rune. Then she was off to the third.
“Stop!” the voice howled.
The air turned bitterly cold and a powerful wind buffeted the healer. Two of the phantoms stood between Tana and the fourth column.
“We can grant you power,” the voice intoned, “You can be as great as your father, Princess. Greater, even.”
“I rejected his power," the healer roared back, "I destroyed the pact of Tan Kolar. Why would I accept yours?”
As Tana spoke, she levelled her knife. While it appeared she was pointing at the spirits still in the circle, Tana was actually pointing at Deira.
Taking the cue, Lond raced in and grabbed Deira. As he did, Tana charged the spirits in her path, hoping that would distract them. Incorporeal, the phantoms could not impede her. A momentary sense of freezing cold and bleak horror almost stopped her. Then Tana was at the fourth pillar, hacking away at the central rune as she sang the fourth chant.
At the fifth, Tana was surrounded by a dense black fog. The yellow spots of the phantoms’ eyes danced around her like fireflies. Cold fingers caressed her or pulled at her clothing.
“Come to us, Princess. We shall serve you. We shall make you a palace greater even than Tan Kolar.”
Desire welled up, not the kind Tana felt for Lond. It was the naked lust for power she had felt a year before as her father’s army called on her to take up his sword. What the spirits were making her feel was the desire to rule, to crush lives under her heel, to transform the world with darkness and death.
Out of the corner of her eye, Tana saw Lond disappear into the woods, Deira slung over his shoulder. She remembered the warmth of his touch, the gentleness he had shown as they made love. Tana remembered holding Anta’s baby, himself the product of his parents’ love. And she remembered her friend Oben, how he had risked so much to accompany and aid her in her quest to stop the nightmares the prior year. Tana smiled.
“That is not the power I want,” she told the spirits, her voice soft, “I am a healer, not a sorcerer. Love is a healer’s greatest power.”
The fifth rune perished under Tana’s knife and she continued on to attack the sixth, then the seventh. The fog was clearing, as was the malign influence it tried to exert over her.
“We shall be no more if you finish. Please stop. We offer you the world.”
The voice had become fainter and its tone one of pleading. The eyes were but sparks in the night.
Tana arrived at the last pillar. She began carving over the eighth character, and singing the final chant. There were no more protests. Indeed, there was almost no sign of the dark spirits of Pras Tola.
Then it was done. Tana slumped to the ground and dropped the knife. Her heart was pounding and her head was throbbing, but the healer knew it was over.
After uncounted time, Tana felt her energy returning. The healer rose and walked into the woods. She followed the direction that Lond had taken, hoping to find him.
After a long walk with many stops to rest, Tana found Deira and Lond in the clearing where they had first heard Deira’s wail. Deira was asleep, wrapped in one of the bedrolls they had brought. Lond sat against the trunk of a tree yawning. The healer walked over and collapsed beside him.
“Tana? Are you okay?” he whispered, a big hand closing on her arm.
Tana turned to look at him. She smiled.
“I’m alive,” she told him, her voice soft and hoarse, “Weak and exhausted, but I am alive.”
“And it’s over?”
“The Haunted Circle will never harm anyone again. We should bring the woodcutters out sometime. Just cut it all down and burn it.”
“We can arrange that, of course. I’ll have some good new axes to use. What about Deira?”
“She should be safe now but will need a lot of time to recover. Let me get some sleep and then I can examine her when the sun is up. I don’t want to wake her now.”
“Sure. I’m pretty bushed, too. She’s not as light as you’d think. And my leg is aching something fierce.”
“Oh crap, I forgot about the leg when I asked you to carry her. I’m so sorry, Lond.”
The smith smiled and kissed Tana’s forehead.
“It’s okay. First time I’ve used it that hard in quite a while. I guess with enough motivation, I can make it work.”
They smiled at each other and chuckled.
“Hold me, please. I’m cold,” Tana whispered, taking his hand.
The big man lay down, his body against the healers. He pulled his bedroll over them as a comforter, then put an arm around Tana. They kissed, then lay still. Sleep came quickly to both.
Weeks later, Tana slowly turned in the centre of the circle, scanning the ring of wooden pillars as she had before she began to break their spell.
Since her rescue of Deira, the pillars had turned grey and rotten, the wood ageing rapidly now that the spirits and the pact binding them were gone. Heaps of crumbling, rotted wood lay around their bases. Two had already fallen over. Insects crawled and flew around them. In the centre, the soil had turned fertile. Shoots of fresh vegetation erupted from the ground that had been barren when Tana first entered the circle.
“I don’t remember this place at all. This is where you found me?” Deira said after she did a circuit of the Haunted Circle.
“It is. What do you remember?”
“I remember being incredibly afraid that the Army of Night was coming for me. I fled, ran deep into the forest. And then there is nothing but a vague sense of terror and helplessness until you awoke me the morning after you rescued me. It’s like I was trapped in a dream.”
“It is probably for the better. Who knows what horrors you endured at the hands of this place’s shadows.”
Ertu approached, axe slung over his shoulder.
“So should we cut them down?” the young man asked.
“You can probably just push them over at this point,” Tana told him, chuckling, “And don’t bother with a fire. Just leave them to rot. This place is done.”
“Tana!” Deira shrieked.
The healer of Olsham rushed over to her colleague.
“My foot is resting on a skull, Tana,” the other healer said, moving her left foot away from the white object that was buried in the soil.
Tana knelt to find a human skull. Another bone, maybe an arm, was becoming visible nearby.
“A sacrifice would be needed to empower a place like this,” she said, her voice quivering.
Tana remembered the garrote tightening around her mother’s throat. A tear ran down her cheek.
“Tana, what’s wrong?” Deira said, kneeling next to her.
“My mother…my mother died as such a sacrifice.”
Tana began shaking as tears flowed and powerful sobs wracked her.
“I was only a child, Deira. I couldn’t stop him. I couldn’t save her.”
Deira hugged Tana, gently rubbing her fellow healer’s back.
“It’s okay, Tana,” she whispered, “You saved me when you could. And you’ve helped so many others. You can’t be blamed for what someone else did when you were powerless to stop them.”
Tana wept in Deira’s arms for a little, then slipped free and rose.
“We need to move these remains somewhere else,” she said, “Maybe to the village cemetery. They will not be at peace here.”
“There’s a shovel with our tools,” Ertu told her.
Smiling through her tears, Tana found the shovel and started digging. Deira and Ertu joined in, carefully moving the bones to a bag as they were exposed. When they had recovered all that they could find, Tana dropped her shovel and wandered into the woods, relief and sadness swirling in her mind and heart.
“I’ll come for you, Mother,” Tana whispered to the wind, “Someday, I will come.”