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Stranger in a familiar land
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The last thing Arikan remembered was a figure blocking that glorious sunshine and the muddled cry of a voice calling for help.

When next he woke it was to agony. Trapped in the shell of his own flayed skin, he tried to move, but it a futile effort. He barely managed to look around. The space was dim, but compared to the mine, it was practically bathed in light. A small window was overhead. Rafters stretched across the ceiling. The noises of animals stirred. That was when he recognized the crunch of straw under his back.

He was in a barn like a beast, but it was bloody wonderful compared to what was escaped. For all the weakness of his body, memory was clear. He walked away from the table of his torturer, a man who impersonated a Hand of the Light with startling skill. An Aes Sedai, her warder, and an Asha’man tried to stop him him, but it was the pulse of the Dark Lord's tempting power that won his freedom when shields kept him from using his own. He remembered the horror on her face with Lythia was turned with her own weapon. He’d opened a gateway and fell through – dumping himself anywhere just to get away.

Which brought him to a gap in his memory. How had he come to be in a barn?

The attempt to stir failed miserably. Some time later an animal whinnied and Arikan was roused back to consciousness. A woman stood at his feet. Her hair was braided and pinned atop her head. She wore a cotton dress and a dirty apron. She held a bucket in one hand that raced his heart momentarily until he realized she was holding a glass of water in the other.

She settled into the straw and bravely scooped his neck upward, tilting the cup to his lips. A blanket he hadn’t noticed until then fell limp down his chest as she eased him upward. He could barely hold himself up to drink, but he greedily swallowed the water. Then two more cups before he found the willpower to speak.

“Where am I?” His voice scratched.

The question pursed her lips to thin lines. She must have seen a few things in her day to be so close to such a gruesome sight as he must be without heaving.

“Yeh be layin’ in the donkey barn. Been here since me husband found yeh in the sheep plot. Figured yeh for dead till yeh opened yer eyes.” She sat back after easing him back to the straw, wiping her hands on her apron afterward, a no-nonsense tilt to her chin.

“Bad luck has been about the area lately so we wont be askin’ no questions ‘bout yeh, but don’t yeh be gettin’ no ideas. Though by the look of yeh, I don’t think that’s a big worry. I’ll bring yeh some stew, should be done soon iff'n yeh have the strength to eat it. I ain't gonna spoon-feed yeh like a wee babe.” she said after looking at her apron.

She didn’t answer his question, but she didn’t need to. The woman provided the answer in the clues of her stupid accent, and he knew exactly where he was: Tear, deep in the country by the sound of it.

Supposed even the countryside of Tear was better than the fake-Hand of the flaming Light’s torture table. He nodded a muddled acknowledgment and sank into the straw. After everything, the donkey barn was as luxurious a king’s chamber.
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“If he was one of your sheep, you would have put him out of his misery.”

The stench from within was enough to water her eyes. Talin refrained from curling her nose, but frankly she’d smelled more fragrant corpses. The farmer who’d led her to the barn startled a little, which she duly ignored as meaningless sentimentality. Man or beast, it made no difference. It was only the unusual circumstance that kept her rooted in the threshold, for she was not best pleased with the evident waste of her time, and neither did she wish to linger in this place of bubbling evil. She could hear the shallow scrape of the body’s breathing from here. He would expire on his own if they left him much longer, but it would not be a kind death. Talin knew which she’d prefer, and it wasn’t an end burning in delirium.

“I suggest you find somewhere better for me to work. Tell your goodwife to ready water and clean cloth, and inform her I expect her assistance. I have the rest of the supplies I will need.”

His skin was furnace-hot under the palm she crouched to place across his forehead. A dexterous net of saidar sank deep a moment later, and curious intensity filtered the feedback. Broken bones, twisted ligaments, punctures, burns, and an interesting stab wound to his ribs – mostly for what was still buried inside. The list went on, both gruesome and fascinating. She’d seen things she could never have imagined in the north, but this was something else; it was sadistic and intentional, a body pushed to its very limits before the inevitability of death. The internal damage was substantial. Her hand retracted the moment it was able, and her lips puckered for the disgusting film left against her skin.

“You won’t survive Healing,” she told him matter of factly. If he was even conscious enough to hear her judgement, his ears were so damaged it would be as muffled as if someone held his head underwater. Who in the Light was he? Someone important, clearly, else why waste the time and resources on such morbid work. And perhaps a channeler, given his miraculous arrival in the middle of the Tarien countryside. Escaped or dumped? For now she did not care, beyond consideration of retaliation. She did not want to be confused for his torturer.

She stood without a notion to offer a comforting word. There was a fair chance the fetched water would end up as a cleansing for funerary rites, yet Talin had nothing in her with which to soothe a dying man. The calculation of her thoughts was only on the practicalities. If he could grip to the power, it might provide the necessary energies to sustain him through the work, but she doubted it would be enough, even if he rivalled the strength of the Dragon Reborn. Neither did she wish to encourage something that might be used against her if he proved mad. There were other ways to lend fortitude of course, but they weren’t ways Talin considered performing on a stranger. Not when the energies borrowed would be hers. There might be no real benefit in saving his life. It was the challenge of it that charmed her. She’d never seen anything like it.

Talin would have liked to douse a few buckets of water over the filth of his ragged skin, to work with a cleaner canvas, but she thought the shock of it would only be detrimental to the slow work of piecing him back together. His pulse was fluttering faster than it ought, a poor sign. It would be a shame if his heart seized now, just because she couldn’t stand the smell. She set the woman to the task with warmed water, a cloth, and patience. Her husband dutifully replaced the buckets and disposed of the old, disappearing from the threshold almost as quickly. Talin caught Kaori in her periphery a few times too, but he kept his distance. He’d seen her work before, though nothing quite like this. She kept the connection between them muted; his grief was a tiring drain at the best of times, though he was otherwise pliant to her needs. Generally she was pleased with the arrangement.

She kept half an eye on the goodwife while she set herself to other necessary work, for the woman flinched or grimaced every time she discovered evidence of some new injury. Neither her nor her husband had been best pleased with Talin’s decision to use the farm’s kitchen, but it was as close to an infirmary space as she was likely to find in this backwater, and denying an Aes Sedai was simply not an option. Old blood crusted deep across his wasted body, and the wounds oozed afresh when their armour was soaked loose. A rural wife had to be used to preparing meat surely? It seemed no different; he barely looked human if you avoided the face. Light send the woman couldn’t work a little bit faster?

“The filth will only speed the infection inside him. Your care for his pain does him no favours.” Talin glanced up, expression sharp. The medicinal tang of the brewing tea was stronger now than the abrasive stink of filth. A small blessing.

If she could get him stable, it would be a foundation. Though no amount of Wise Woman witchery was going to tip the balance, it would buy the time she needed. She couldn’t attempt anything with saidar before she removed the leech buried in his side, and she couldn’t do that while he was still coated in his own excrement. But she also needed to control the fever. The rest of his injuries, even the internal ones, were negligible, though assuredly agonising. Infection would be the thing to kill him. It had reached the blood. If he survived there would be long months of convalescence ahead, just from that alone.

When the brewing was done she lifted a cup to his lips. She expected the woman to move out of her way, and did not address her. Stretched out on the table, he had been drifting in and out of consciousness, but any hoarse babbling had been ignored. Once in the flicker of his eyes Talin frowned at something perceived. But it was a consideration for later. “Drink this," she instructed bluntly.

Then the work would begin.
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It was cold. Cold deeper than standing wet in the snow. A cold that drilled to the bone and made him shake uncontrollably at times. Enough that the twitching muscles and spasming limbs yanked him from the edge of oblivion that was sleep. The blanket was ice during those hours, or days, or however long passed in that donkey stall. And the great Dreadlord Arikan would have burrowed deeper into the hay if he could dig down any further.

He barely noticed the touch to his forehead. The wife came back a few times with more water, but soon he flat out ignored her and grumbled about being left alone. So when a different kind of hand reached out, his jaw clenched tight at the touch, he thought a tooth might break off.  When saidar invaded his skin, one almost did. He opened his eyes to see who dared.

Flaming red hair bright as a torch filled the view, and instinct made him react. To jump her sack of shit bones and return to her some of what he felt that very moment. The One Power’s shield was already broken, but amid the shatters he would not be able to grab hold of it lest it rip his soul to shreds, but in the heat of that moment, he seriously considered the sacrifice to be worth it. Self-preservation won the day, though, and all he managed was a pathetic jerk of the body instead. One that fell back into the hay as the shudders rippled fresh and strong.

The view focused. It wasn’t Lythia, he realized after her voice filtered muffled ears. Whoever it was, her declaration about being too weak for healing was no shocking revelation either. As much as he wanted to spit on the Source and dare it to even try and kill him, he hadn’t escaped only to find defeat in a disgusting donkey barn. None too pleased with being disturbed, he participated in some of the actions required to move locations, but losing the blanket and the warmth of the nest flushed fresh cold, and the shivers were stronger than even his mighty will. It was an arduous journey. Finding himself before another slab registered, and he eyed it warily. No chains, no straps. He eventually submitted to rolling up in the fetal position after a few moments’ consideration. The blanket was a poor aid for warmth, but soon he drifted into that blessed oblivion, the one beyond the realm of sleep and dreams and let them go about their business.

Except they kept picking at him. Little nibbles and stings. Pricks and pulls. It roused him awake more than once. Curses and other savories frothed from red lips on the regular, but their bite was less about the pain and mostly for being woken. And that blasted cold.

During one such annoying interlude, the girl, an Aes Sedai he had managed to discern from the ugly ring on her finger, put a cup to his lips. Medicinal, woodsy, and layered with the syrupy film of sick sweetness. He recognized the taste immediately, and suddenly all-too-aware eyes flashed their silent accusation of poison.

“No,” was all he managed to say. He turned his head away, but her weak grip overpowered him, absurd for how easy it was, and the swallows came else he choke on what literally she poured down his throat. It wasn’t his first time being poisoned, and hatred stared her down for it anyway.
[Image: talin-av.jpg]
Talin Sedai

Talin ignored his febrile struggling the way one ignored a recalcitrant child. She wouldn’t waste her time arguing with what she knew to be best, and he was in no fit state to put up any notable resistance. Most would have sucked down salvation without question. Most would have been thankful an Aes Sedai chose to ply her trade at all, especially given where they were. But he only glared with an intense hatred that in other circumstances might have taken her aback. In return she simply forced him to drink.

Crimsonthorn was distinctively sweet. There was only ever a thin line between healing and harming, but everything had its place. Interesting that he recognised enough to be afraid.

“You won’t want to feel this,” she said. “And I need you to be still.”

It made no real difference whether he understood. Soon the numbness that stole his pain – or most of it, at least – would loosen his muscles and rob his ability to command his limbs. If he did not foolishly spend his time in pointless struggle, it would benefit him to focus on something nice as a distraction for the duration. Since Talin had no suggestions for what that might be, she did not voice it.

The dosage had been precise, for too much would stop him breathing. Clearly the patient anticipated ineptitude; another anomaly given the ring on her finger. He did not look Amadacian. Though perhaps it was hard to tell; he barely looked like a man at all. She set the goodwife, who by now seemed quite pale, to ensure he did not swallow his own ragged tongue. In the meantime Talin made sterile what she could, and arranged her instruments. Saidar, so far as she could discern, was useless for removing foreign objects from the body. And an injury could not be healed twice. The ribs were going to be an inconvenient obstacle. An interesting challenge, though.

“Whoever let it get this far in was a bloody fool,” she muttered.

The cut into his flesh was precise, meant to widen the incision enough to give her room for manoeuvring. Soon her hands were bloody to the wrist. If she could snap open the bone it would have been easier, but the slippery heat and rise and fall of his chest served to remind her he still lived. Briefly she wondered what might happen to him if the creature slipped away into the cavity beyond. It was difficult to tell how much the stab wound pierced the muscle, or what hollow tunnel it might have created. Thankfully it was an unintentional interloper, and not some ghastly creature from the Blight. Or so she assumed from the other telling marks on the man’s now cleaned skin. If it had been something nastier she doubted he would still be alive.

The leech’s darkly pulsating body camouflaged easily amongst the gore. Fortunately Talin had experience of the insides of bodies that did not rely on saidar to differentiate. It was fat, and it took a moment of frowning deliberation to determine where its body narrowed. Some primitive instinct urged her to wrench it away in disgust. Interesting how her own stomach roiled. Instead she slid the flat of her knife carefully underneath its mouth, and pinched its grotesque body. It was so engorged it barely gave resistance to capture. Talin straightened, peering in disgust at its squirming body. Then a thread of fire curled it into ash. She made a faint noise of disgust.

A moment later the heavy thud of a body hit the floor. Talin was not surprised but certainly annoyed to discover the woman had fainted.

“Come attend your wife! And bring me fresh water!” In the meantime she wiped her hands across the front of her borrowed apron. Pressed stained fingers to the patient’s wrist to check his pulse. She could suture the wound, but if he was going to survive the rest of his injury the sooner she conducted the remainder of her experiment the better. Healing the way the Sisters taught it was inelegant, like dousing a candle with a bucket of water. She’d never quite forgotten Nyrekell’s sneer at the many questions she’d asked as an Accepted. It was not so dissimilar to the way her family had looked at her after they found her with Mormo’s body. Talin had learned to be circumspect with that experience. She did not stop learning, but she did stop seeking approval. And here was a grand opportunity to learn without repercussion. 

Saidar was a guiding force. She did not flood him as one normally would, and she brought all five threads into the delicate flow. Her hands pressed against the angled carapace of his ribs. It was slow and difficult work, more intricate than anything she had attempted before. She did not react to the farmer’s gasp as he retrieved his wife from the sawdust floor, nor noticed when it was Kaori who fetched the water and led both of them out. Her attention arrowed entirely to the bloody binding of flesh.

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