“At least have a bath!” she said.

He knew what he smelled like, and thanked her.

“What’s Alder paying you for all this?” she demanded while the water was heating. She was still indignant, speaking more bluntly even than usual.

“I don’t know,” he said.

She stopped and stared at him.

“You didn’t set a price?”

“Set a price?” he flashed out. Then he remembered who he was not, and spoke humbly. “No. I didn’t.”

“Of all the innocence,” Gift said, hissing the word. “He’ll skin you.” She dumped a kettleful of steaming water into the bath. “He has ivory,” she said. “Tell him ivory it has to be. Out there ten days starving in the cold to cure his beasts! San’s got nothing but copper, but Alder can pay you in ivory. I’m sorry if I’m meddling in your business. Sir.” She flung out the door with two buckets, going to the pump. She would not use the stream water for anything at all, these days. She was wise, and kind. Why had he lived so long among those who were not kind?

“We’ll have to see,” said Alder, the next day, “if my beasts are cured. If they make it through the winter, see, we’ll know your cures all took, that they’re sound, like. Not that I doubt it, but fair’s fair, right? You wouldn’t ask me to pay you what I have in mind to pay you, would you now, if the cure didn’t take and the beasts died after all. Avert the chance! But I wouldn’t ask you to wait all that time unpaid, neither. So here’s an advance, like, on what’s to come, and all’s square between us for now, right?”

The coppers weren’t decently in a bag, even. Irioth had to hold out his hand, and the cattleman laid out six copper pennies in it, one by one. “Now then! That’s fair and square!” he said, expansive. “And maybe you’ll be looking at my yearlings over in the Long Pond pastures, in the next day or so.”

“No,” Irioth said. “Sans herd was going down fast when I left. I’m needed there.”

“Oh, no, you’re not, Master Otak. While you were out in the east range a sorcerer curer came by, a fellow that’s been here before, from the south coast, and so San hired him. You work for me and you’ll be paid well. Better than copper, maybe, if the beasts fare well!”

Irioth did not say yes, or no, or thanks, but went off unspeaking. The cattleman looked after him and spat. “Avert,” he said.

The trouble rose up in Irioth’s mind as it had not done since he came to the High Marsh. He struggled against it. A man of power had come to heal the cattle, another man of power. But a sorcerer, Alder had said. Not a wizard, not a mage. Only a curer, a cattle healer. I do not need to fear him. I do not need to fear his power. I do not need his power. I must see him, to be sure, to be certain. If he does what I do here there is no harm. We can work together. If I do what he does here. If he uses only sorcery and means no harm. As I do.

He walked down the straggling street of Purewells to Sans house, which was about midway, opposite the tavern. San, a hardbitten man in his thirties, was talking to a man on his doorstep, a stranger. When they saw Irioth they looked uneasy. San went into his house and the stranger followed.

Irioth came up onto the doorstep. He did not go in, but spoke in the open door. “Master San, it’s about the cattle you have there between the rivers. I can go to them today.” He did not know why he said this. It was not what he had meant to say.

“Ah,” San said, coming to the door, and hemmed a bit. “No need, Master Otak. This here is Master Sunbright, come up to deal with the murrain. He’s cured beasts for me before, the hoof rot and all. Being as how you have all one man can do with Alder’s beeves, you see…”

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Categories: Ursula K. Le Guin