We, that’s me and Whisper and Dae, we picked up his two children – well, the girl, Minir, was an eight-year-old, but the lad was nearer my age – and went on to Dae’s Farm, leaving Hawk and Stack to look after the camp. It took a good hour all told, northward along the ridge above our camp, until we looked down on wide patches of grass enclosed by stone walls.
“My fields,” said Dae. “These are pasture mostly, for cattle. There’s one I can usually mow for hay, that way, under the shelter of the hill. The fields north of the farm are mostly to oats or barley, but again the southernmost will give me a crop of wheat most years – it’s gradely land, and worth the chance.”
We nodded intelligently, as if we understood what he was talking about. At least we now knew what a ‘field’ was.
“And that’s the farm, over there.” The house wasn’t in woods, though there were a few trees planted as a sort of shelter to the east and north; nor was it on a hillside. But streams from the hill ran down to it, joined into a series of pools on the west of the house and then flowed on north to a great lake, dark under dark clouds.
As our host pushed open the gate of the farmyard, a thin woman came running out of the house.
“Oh thank the Powers you’re back!” she exclaimed. “She’s so much worse! She’s burning up and tossing and calling – Dae, I’m scared for her!” She seemed to suddenly realise the rest of us were here
“This is the healer; she’s willing to help,” Dae gestured at me. “She will want food and drink and to refresh herself after the journey, Crear, before we trouble her with Kahan.”
“Not if the patient is as bad as that,” I interrupted, “I appreciate the honour you do me, but take me to her straight away.”
The woman made a sort of half gesture to me, and then turned and almost ran back into the farmhouse. I followed. In the main room, straw had been built up into a platform, and on it a heap of blankets was tossing and tossing and tossing. I ran over; the girl in the blankets was perhaps eleven or twelve, muttering gibberish, and hot even standing next to her. I put a hand on her forehead, and it scared me. I dropped my pack, picked her up, shook off the blankets, ran with my burden out to the farm pool and jumped in. The cold snatched all the breath out of me and almost every muscle in my body seemed to cramp; but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that my patient also went into the icy water, all but her mouth and nose, and little by little the muttering faded, the tossing stopped, and the heat subsided. It was a massive risk; I could have killed her; but I’d won the battle – the first battle.
She was sleeping normally in my arms. The fever was still there – it would not have been good to cool her right down – but the intense heat was gone and she was no longer in danger of permanent harm; at least, no more than had already been done. I breathed a sigh, and carried her out of the pool and back into the house.
I laid her on the straw with her feet toward the fire, turned her on her side, and folded up one blanket to support her head. She was wearing a smock, and that was still dripping with the cold water, which would help her stay cool for a little longer, I hoped. The last thing she needed just now was another covering. For me, on the other hand, it was the first thing I needed. I pulled off my dripping cloak, wrapped myself in the other blanket, pulled up a stool so that I could sit at her head, and opened my pack.
“Oh, my dear!” The woman ran over to the far end of the room and brought back a smock and a dress. “Put these on, my dear! You’ll catch your death of cold, jumping in pools in this weather! Not but I understand what you did, and I do be grateful, truly. But put these on, and I’ll get you something to warm you inside!”
“You’re very kind, thank you!” I said, and believe me I meant it. And almost before I’d put on the dry clothes she was pushing a big bowl of stew into my hands – stew! Real, thick, hot stew! Oh yes!
I ate it, watching my patient’s every breath. Her temperature stayed down – not totally down, but safe enough. Her breathing was steady, even if it was shallow. She wasn’t tossing, but her chest was rising and falling with her breathing and her pulse was steady – fast and shallow like her breathing, but steady. There was a rash, all over her body and arms but on her chest especially, but it faded briefly when I pressed a finger on it – which is good news.
“Thank you,” I said again, passing the empty bowl back to my hostess. “May I trouble you now for a bowl of boiling water? A little bowl, if you have one.”
“Yes of course, my dear!” She brought me a sweet little pottery bowl, that fitted comfortably into my two hands. Perfect. I reached into my pack for a certain pot, and stirred a measure of the salve into the water, mixing it in as the water cooled. Then I spooned a drop – no more – into my patient’s mouth. She swallowed it.
“Is that good?”
“Yes,” I answered. “But whether it will help or not we won’t know for a few hours at the very least. Perhaps in three hours, perhaps in thirty hours. Or…”
“Or perhaps never.” I looked her in the face. “Understand, please, I give no promise of success, only that I will do all I can.”
She bit her lip, and Dae put an arm around her waist.
I eased a spoonful of the mixture into my patient, drop by drop. She swallowed it all. Then I stood up.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I haven’t introduced myself. I know our names sound stupid to you, so just call me Seer, please. And this is my son – my adopted son, who’s going to be my runner between here and our own camp. You can call him Whisper.”
As I said this I suddenly realised that there were half a dozen other pairs of eyes staring at me from the darkness beyond the fire. I concentrated on my host and hostess, though, for the moment.
“Pleased to meet you, Lady Seer.” She took my hand and shook it, in the way people have around there. “And you too, Whisper. I am Crear Chawo’s daughter. My man Dae Graam’s son you have met already. Chawo, Dae, children, come and be polite to our guests!”
The eyes came out from the darkness and resolved themselves into a row of humans, shyly huddling towards me.
“This is Chawo, our eldest daughter,” The solidly built young lady must have been at least a year older than me, more likely two. She muttered something vaguely like “Pleased to meet you,” put her hand out and back so quickly I didn’t have time to shake it, and then retreated. But there was something in her face – was she pregnant? Yet her waist looked shapely enough. Just a couple of months gone, perhaps.
“Young Dae, our eldest son, you have already met as well.” One of the suggested hostages, of course. Perhaps just younger than me, but solid like all the family. Actually, rather nice looking, and judging by the downiness of his chin old enough to be interesting – pity he seemed too scared even to open his mouth. Mmm… Well, mustn’t get distracted. “And Graam our second son,” A year or more younger, but equally inarticulate. And equally downy-chinned, which was interesting. Farm Folk certainly mature faster than Tent Folk, by anything up to two years, I’d guess. I wonder why?
“Kahan is our next daughter, and then Crear, our second daughter, Minir who you’ve also met, then Csel our third son and Ska our youngest son.” Who was four or five, I would guess – there should have been a couple more after him. And yet Crear didn’t look too old to be bearing children. Well, a shaman should ask questions, but there is a time and a place to ask, and this wasn’t it.
I turned back to my patient, and waited.
For thirty-two hours.
And I was already sleepy from last night.
I gave her a spoonful of mix every hour for the first three hours, and every three hours after – if you give too much for too long it can make trouble. She was all over the place at first, but she steadied off after only a couple of hours, and began to show solid improvement after about sixteen. Then it was a slow but steady climb back.
They gave me more stew of course, in fact they gave me as much as I wanted, which fell rapidly to zero as I felt it making me even sleepier. So then they gave me bread daubed with some very savoury white stuff with blue ripples in it like mould; I’d never tasted anything like it before. Gorgeously rich flavour, with a real bite to it – I definitely wanted to taste it again.
“It’s called cheese,” Crear answered. “We make it from our own milk.”
“Well, you do, love,” said her husband. “You’ll let me not anywhere near it!”
I smiled. “How is it made?”
I’m glad she told me after I’d tasted it. If I’d known before, I’m not sure I could have put it in my mouth.
The twilight came, darkness fell, dawn crawled in, the farm went about its business, and I sat by my patient. When even the bread and cheese was making me nod off, I sipped cold water, splashing it on my face. The afternoon wore on, and another dusk, and I stood up to keep awake, holding on to a beam to stay upright.
But it was worth it when just before midnight Kahan opened her eyes and hugged her father.
“And now it’s bed for you, Lady Seer!” Crear led me – well, pulled me – over to a nice straw bed with sheepskins to cuddle me and a rolled and tied fleece as a pillow. I was asleep before I lay down, she says, and I believe her.
I woke, suddenly, all of a piece, and as exhausted as I usually am when I go to bed, not when I get up. Sunlight was shining in at the door. I struggled to my feet – and would you believe it: the Earth Mother had chosen then to make me a woman – in other words, I’d started my first period, in my sleep, in someone else’s bedding. Thanks a bunch, Earth Mother – you’re as stupid as my real mother is.
That’s all hindsight, mind. At the time I was so out of my skull that I just stared at the red patch in a daze, completely unable to work out what was going on. Crear must have seen me standing there staring stupidly; she came over.
“Oh, it’s your month!” she said. “I suppose you were thinking not with the watching’n’all. Or can you count not yours?”
“I – well – it’s my first,” I stammered. A certain level of brain activity was slowly returning. “I’m sorry… I just wasn’t expecting… I mean, I’ve got nothing with me… and the mess… I’m sorry…”
“Oh don’t be silly! It happens to all of us! But your first? My my! A big day! We are honoured!” Crear laughed. “Now, if you want to wash, use the Dipping Pool under the wall, there, and here’s your clothes and here, you tie one of these against yourself.” She gave me a cloth bag stuffed with dried moss – neat and clever; there was more to cloth than I’d realised – and showed me how to wear it to catch the blood.
“But the straw – the bedding!”
“Oh, silly, I’ll see to all that while you’re gone, and I’ll have a cup of hot and a bite to eat waiting for you when you’re back! Now go on!” and she pushed me out of the door.