For those who need to know, Tzal is pronounced like the second half of "pizza" with an "L" on the end.
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Chapter Six - "Tzal"
The bald man led Tzal to a building fronting an alley off Anchorage Street. It was old, and a decade ago it had badly needed paint. It hadn’t gotten it. Tzal tried to remember which turns he had taken while keeping up his end of a mostly one-sided conversation. The bald man, he had learned, was Ruben Verner. Ruben used to be a member of the Seaman’s Brotherhood with this other man, Gitto. Gitto’s wife, Zenna, had taken sick a few days ago and had not left the bed. Tzal glanced around the shabby neighborhood, not wondering what could have caused it, but now many different illnesses she may have picked up.
They stopped at the door of the building and Ruben beat on it. After a moment, a short man with the build of a dumpling and a face like an old foot answered the door.
“Gitto,” Ruben said.
“Wait here,” the short man said, slamming the door on them.
“Doorman?” Tzal asked.
“They pay extra for that,” Ruben answered.
A few minutes later, a different man opened the door. He was short, thin, and hunched over. A patina of grime lived in the pores of his skin and Tzal doubted that anything as simple as a bath would remove it. Gitto had an aroma of his own, not a pleasant one. When he grinned, a missing tooth high in his smile broke it. Tzal felt a pang of shame. Had this wretched little man, and not Ruben asked for help, he would likely have dismissed him as a beggar.
The little man shoved his hand toward Ruben, who shook it. Ruben introduced Tzal to Gitto and said that he was a priest.
“O happy day!” the little man said, shoving his hand at Tzal. He grasped it and vowed not to wipe his hand on his tunic until both their backs were turned.
Muttering ‘thank you’s’ the entire way, Gitto led them up a dusty ramshackle staircase. The stairs sank and groaned with every step. Tzal hugged the wall as he ascended to the third floor. He was not surprised to see Ruben do the same; friend or not, the bald man had common sense on his side. They reached a door – one of four on the third floor – and Gitto opened it for them.
“These be my lodgings, and this be my wife.”
The room was small and cramped: a small table and chairs, a rope bed, a trunk, and a hearth barely large enough to cook in. Tzal walked to the bed and set down his bag. Next to the bed, he noticed a tiny side table, decorated with a cracked pitcher and washbowl. In the bed, a softly moaning woman was covered high with blankets. Tzal leaned down. The sickness had aged her; Ruben had told him that she was in her thirties – ten years younger than her husband, but she looked twenty years older now. She shivered and sweated both. Tzal confirmed fever by touching her forehead.
“What happened to her?”
“I don’t know, m’lord, she was sick a few mornin’s ago.”
“I’m not a lord, Gitto. What did she eat the night before?”
“I don’t remember…a bit of meat, I think, and a potato. Aye, definitely meat.”
Tzal didn’t ask what kind of meat. He continued to look her over.
“Will you heal her?” Ruben asked. “Are you a healer?”
“I am. But my old teacher used to say that healing only solves the immediate problem. I want to make sure she won’t get sick again.” He looked at the pitcher then sniffed it. Dipping his finger into the water, he tasted it and spat. He glanced at Gitto. Under the grime on his face, he could plainly see bottle blossoms on his cheeks and nose.
“You don’t drink much water, do you?”
“No, sir. Don’t like the taste too much.”
“It shouldn’t taste like that. Your wife?”
“Aye. She can’t stand the ale and milk’s too hard to come by.”
Tzal nodded. “Does she drink a lot of it?”
“Aye. Particularly lately – she’s been like a fish.”
“Is it the water?” Ruben asked.
“I think so. I’ll know in a minute. Gitto, do you and your wife worship Mannanan Mac Lir perhaps?”
“No, sir. I’ve dropped a coin in the waves time and again, but all sailors do that.”
“Is there any god you worship regularly?”
“Since I won’t offend the household god, I can do this.”
“Beggin’ your pardon, sir, but I don’t have much in the way of coin to pay.”
Tzal turned and faced the little man: “Pardon?”
“Forgive me, sir, but I can’t pay you much.”
“This doesn’t cost you anything, Gitto. My gifts are mine to share, not to sell. They’re given to me, for me to pass on to those who need it.” Tzal turned and began to chant. It took only a moment. He rested his hand on her belly. His fingers cooled until they felt icy then warmed suddenly, as if submerged in hot water. Purple sparks danced across the tips of his fingers and the back of his hand. Finally, golden light rose like a mist and drifted across the woman’s body. After a moment, he removed his hand and took a deep breath.
“She’ll be fine. Let her sleep. She’ll wake up exhausted in the morning, but she’ll wake up healthy.” He handed the pitcher to Gitto. “Dump that out and show me where you get your water.”
“Thank you, sir! Did you mean what you said?”
“About not makin’ us pay for this?”
“Of course. Religion is not a business.”
“It is in Harbordown.”
“I didn’t know that,” Tzal said, looking away.
“Everything’s a business here. Everything’s for sale.”
Tzal looked back at Gitto and shook his head.
* * *
Gitto led Tzal and Ruben out of the building and to an alley with a small well, little more than a hole in the ground. Tzal glanced around before examining the well. The alley was almost wide enough to be a street, but its atmosphere declared it as a place to be wary. Discarded wood scraps, masonry, and garbage littered the ground. Splashes of rotten grease, dried blood, and other fluids were scattered around. A squad of rats feasted on the putrefying body of a tailless cat. In one corner, two people were asleep under feather-thin blankets.
Tzal knelt by the well and picked up the bucket. It was heavy, waterlogged from years of use. It exuded a slight foul odor.
“It’s here,” he said.
“What are you going to do?” Ruben asked.
“I’m going to purify the well.”
“You can do that?” Gitto asked.
Tzal nodded and began to chant. As he did, the stone on his ring began to glow. The men listened, as the simple words of the chant became Words, the verbal facets of magic. Around him, the air grew denser, cooler. Keen eyes might even have noticed mists of condensation rising from the ring. Anyone focusing on the chant would have heard nonsensical words becoming non-words, increasingly harder and harder to hear. By the time he was ready to unleash the purification spell, the Words had evolved beyond the point where they were merely heard and had moved to a place where they affected all six senses; they carried an undertone of white noise, but they could now be felt, smelt, seen, tasted, and captured in a thought. Ruben, Gitto, the sleeping beggars, and a few approaching people all suddenly felt a light pleasant tickling between the shoulder blades; the tiniest hints of apples blossoms crossed their noses and tongues; their vision came to a slightly crisper focus; and, for only a second, each of them thought of their mothers.
Pure white light danced along Tzal’s fingers. He smiled, understanding what had caused the corruption. White light sprang from his fingers and entered the well as he released the incantation. He stood, feeling clean, and told Gitto that the body of a diseased cat had gotten in the well and was poisoning the water. He told him how far down it was. It would need to be recovered soon, to keep the rot from returning.
A worried-looking bystander, a man whose sense of style and cleanliness split the difference between Ruben and Gitto, asked what he was doing.
“He’s cleaned the well, bless him, he did!” Gitto said.
“Cleaned the well?”
“It was poison. He cleaned it up and saved my wife, too!” Gitto crowed, pointing to Tzal. “He’s a priest, this genne’man is!”
Tzal smiled and began to say it was his pleasure to help, but before he could, the bystander rushed at him, grabbing his sleeve and begging for assistance. Tzal asked what he needed. His son was sick, and his son drank from the well. Tzal started to speak, but someone else grabbed him. He spun. A young woman had a sick baby – would he help? He nodded and heard Gitto’s voice rise above the rest:
“He said he wasn’t for sale!”
Tzal stood straight and looked over the young woman’s head at Gitto, who was speaking to a group of shocked Harbordowners. The man with the sick son grabbed his left hand; the woman with the sick baby clutched his right. Both needed him then. He told them both he’d help them. As he spoke, he heard a shrill whistle and looked up. Two stories above, a woman said her husband was sick. Next to that window, a little boy yelled out that his mamma wasn’t moving. The man pulled at his left arm and the young mother entreated him to come with her. A crowd gathered, some needing him, some just watching. Ruben stood aside, watching and smiling.
“Did you plan this?” Tzal yelled to the bald man.
“On my word, I did not.”
From above came another cry of help. Tzal looked up and smiled. As a priest, he’d always done his best to serve. Yet he’d never once been asked to serve so many. He’d only arrived, but he had found something good to do.
He glanced at the young mother. “Follow me,” he said.
He turned and faced the first man who had asked him to help. Tzal nodded to him.
“Take me to your son,” he said. “I’ll help him. I’ll help everyone I can.”
Continue with Chapter Seven - "Harbordown by Night"