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Dlameda sat on the floor of the child-house, with a half-circle of children ranged neatly around him. Yarfi, the oldest and noisiest, already wanted to be a ranger and kept drumming his heels against the floor. Tamorn, a studious girl, cared little for healing but gladly pored over the book just because it had writing in it. Kalitelm, the smallest because of the dwarfing condition that stunted her body, kept staring at Dlameda with an intensity that made him wonder if he'd spilled soup on his tunic. At least the other children in the age-set sat quietly, without distinguishing themselves in any positive or negative way.
"All right, now you've seen some of the things that the Ancients left to us," Dlameda said. Carefully he packed the anatomy book and the precious bone models back into their box.
"Why do we have to learn this old stuff?" Yarfi whined. "It's not important. It's not like we can still do the things that the Ancients did."
Dlameda pounced on the opportunity. "Suppose you're out hunting, Yarfi, and your age-mate Shreliv breaks his forearm. It's twisted around so that his hand almost touches his elbow," the healer said. "How many bones would you have to fix?"
Yarfi looked perplexed, his little mouth hanging open. "Just the forearm bone, I guess," he said eventually. "That one."
"Two." Kalitelm's voice was soft but confident.
Yarfi rounded on her. "What would you know about it?" he said.
"There are two bones in the forearm, not one," Kalitelm said, pointing at her own stubby arm. "One connects to the thumb-side of the wrist and one connects to the pinky-side. So if someone's forearm is bent all the way over, both of those bones must be broken. That's two -- unless there's another break in the wrist or elbow, which Dlameda didn't say, but if someone is hurt then you'd better check."
"Very good, Kalitelm," Dlameda said, heading off an argument. "Yarfi, just because we can't do everything the Ancients discuss in this book, doesn't mean we can't do anything. We can still learn the parts of the body, and we can set most kinds of fractures. If you want to be a ranger, you may need this knowledge someday." He swept his gaze over the other children. "That goes for all of you. Remember, you must face a simulated emergency as part of your adulthood testing -- usually during the winter trials -- and first-aid can play an important role in that."
"Could the Ancients fix everything, Dlameda?" asked Tamorn.
"No, not everything," Dlameda said. "Some things they could make better, but not make go away. That's why we have the models of baby feet that go with the book."
"Why do some people have Amukiiron, anyway?" Kalitelm asked, gazing at the short legs and clubbed feet that the disease had given her. It plagued certain families in their small village; they tried to avoid relationships likely to pass it to their children, but it still appeared sometimes. "Why isn't everyone the same size and all healthy?"
"That's a little beyond the scope of today's lesson," Dlameda said. He really didn't want to try explaining genetics to a girl of ten summers, even a smart one. Sometimes he regretted spending so much time around Itadesh's previous healer, Matilth, in hopes of getting a bead onto her necklace. She had never accepted his advances, and he wound up with an extra profession that didn't perfectly suit him.
"I want to know," Kalitelm pressed.
With an inward sigh, Dlameda fantasized about going out with the other rangers. Then he replied calmly, "That's a lesson for another day, Kalitelm."
Oromaal came to his rescue, clapping her hands for attention. "That's enough quiet study for now," the raiser declared. "Look, everyone -- Lenaroth has come to take you outside."
"Put on your boots and parkas. We're going to play some ranger games in the forest," said Lenaroth.
Yarfi whooped in glee and scrambled toward the outerwear hung neatly on its pegs. Most of his age-mates followed him. Tamorn at least paused to thank Dlameda before she hurried away. The healer gazed longingly at the door.
Kalitelm still sat in front of him, her huge blue eyes fixed on him. "I want to learn more," she said. "Will you help me?"
"Of course, Kalitelm, you're part of all the healing lessons," said Dlameda. He wished that he wasn't stuck in here, teaching children about basic anatomy. He would rather be the one taking them out in the woods with his friend Lenaroth, or better yet, taking the snow-unicorns away from the village for fresh browse.
"No, I mean, I want to learn things that aren't in the easy lessons," Kalitelm said. "Like I want to learn all the bones in the body."
Dlameda rubbed his forehead. "Do you have any idea how many bones that is?" He doubted her interest would hold; he had been disappointed before.
"Two hundred and six," Kalitelm said promptly. "I want to learn more about them."
"Kalitelm, you're still young. Be careful about putting a lot of time into something unless you feel very certain that it is what you want to do," Dlameda warned her. He missed Matilth with a deep ache, like a bone that had broken and never quite healed properly. She had died so young and unexpectedly, during a rescue attempt, leaving Dlameda the only person with enough training to take over. He yearned to find someone to take over as Itadesh's primary healer ... but he couldn't bear the thought of trapping someone else the way he had inadvertently trapped himself.
Kalitelm crawled forward and opened the box. She trailed a reverent finger over the tiny ashaakarg bones, tied together with sinew to model the feet of an infant. "I haven't decided what I want to do yet," she said. "I think ... I shouldn't be a ranger, because rangers get hurt a lot and I might not heal very well. So I'll probably be a domestic. I'm good with litte ones who are younger than me. I kind of like learning about plants. I want to see if I'm any good at learning people parts." Then she sighed, rubbing a hand over her twisted feet. "I want to know why I'm different."
"You don't need to decide for a while yet," Dlameda pointed out. "It will probably be a year or two before your age-set can take the adulthood tests."
"I know, but I don't want to get there still knowing only the basic stuff that everyone has to learn," Kalitelm said. "How can I make a good decision unless I try different kinds of work to see what I do well and what I enjoy? So I've helped the raisers take care of infants. I've talked with some of the gatherers about plants, and they're going to bring back samples for me to study. Now I'm asking you about healing. Will you help me?"
Dlameda thought about that. The girl had a point about the value of exploring her options before making a decision. Perhaps he should reconsider.
"Kalitelm, come dress to go out!" Oromaal said. "Everyone else is ready."
Dlameda held up a hand. "Just a moment, Oromaal," he said. "Kalitelm, do you care enough about this to put some real work into it?"
"Yes," the girl said.
"Even if that means staying indoors to study while your age-mates go outside to play?" Dlameda asked. Any adult, especially one who taught lessons to the children, could take on a youngster who showed a particular knack or interest in some skill. Dlameda had learned to make extra sure of the interest before committing his limited free time.
"Yes," she said again.
"All right, then," Dlameda said. "Oromaal, Kalitelm is going to stay here with me for an extra lesson. Lenaroth, go ahead and take the others with you." Then he lifted the models from their box and placed them in Kalitelm's hands. He opened the book to the relevant page. "We'll start with foot bones, Kalitelm. Once you learn those, we'll discuss your progress and whether you want to continue."
Kalitelm nodded eagerly. "I'm ready," she said.
Maybe this would work after all. The only way to find out was to try.
This story came out of the September 16, 2011 Muse Fusion. It was inspired by a prompt from Ellen Million, and has been sponsored by her via barter.