Not an epidemic after all

But we thought it was, or at least it was going to be. The GM said we’ll have to count on life being this hectic every day for the rest of our lives, and if we don’t take time out for ourselves those lives might be shorter than we’d like.

So we were home. It was still weather to sit outside at the trestle tables, and the moment we sat down our laps were full of children and cats. The garden smelled of lavender. “Halla can make excellent soap,” Aine remarked. “If she’d had the chance to learn earlier she could have been an apothecary!”

“Well, use all the lavender you need, and if it’s not enough I dare say we can find some more!” I said. Perhaps we’d even make an apothecary of her yet, or at least let her use all her skills in our stillroom and learn some more.

“There’s a field up the hill full of–” and Halla said a word I didn’t recognise, but it sounded like the name of a herb. “The farmers make ointment from it, for rough skin.”

“We’ll investigate that, ointment for rough skin is a good thing!”

And then I noticed that when Halla smiled she covered her mouth with a hand. “I think we’ll have to send you to Turenay too,” I said, “there’s a doctor there who can make new teeth.”

“Can’t you do that?” she asked.

“No, not make completely new teeth from bone and metal, but we can stop the teeth you have from rotting and hurting.”

Halla sighed. “I wish I was thirty years younger, I’d go south at once to fetch myself a bride!”

Merain and Tarn came into the garden, bursting with laughter. “Jeran is praying in the little temple! And we have a bet which of Hylse and Serla dares go in first.” I looked with my mind and there he was, praying with more ostentation than usual, probably indeed to challenge the girls who were outside clinging to each other. Teenagers!

“Your bath is ready,” Aine said. Bath! Such a good idea! We got into the warm water gratefully and scrubbed each other’s backs. A chicken wandered in, then a cat that sat on the edge and dangled its tail in the water and got out indignantly. Some ducks — where did those come from? Well, probably Aine got them from the market, or even from the farm with the winter stores. And finally a friendly-looking dog.

“Hey!” I said. “We don’t have a dog any more, do we?” But Amre didn’t answer: she was asleep in my arms. I woke her up before the water cooled down too much.

There was one more thing we had to do: tell Coran in High Penedin that the bandits were coming. It was easy to reach him — either he’d been practising or all our exploits had made us stronger. There’ll be letters to go with them, I said, one for the raft people to explain things, and one for whoever is doing the baron’s work in Veray now. I just hope it’s not Rayin. We’ll come to the village in a day or two, if they’re earlier put them somewhere safe. Rava is with them, she can close up.

It’s all right, we’ll put them in the mushroom cave, Coran said. And Jilan is coming to the market with something new we’re making, he can come round for the letters.

That would be even more convenient! Though I was looking forward to going to the village and seeing everybody there.

In the morning all three of the teenagers were out. “First they were talking, then they were thinking, then they were arguing,” Tarn said. “And then Jeran said let’s go out for a walk together because we don’t want to argue.”

“Jeran is a wise young man,” I said. I knew that Jeran didn’t have any interest in Hylse, except as a friend: he wanted only Serla. But Serla had never had a best friend, and now she had one and it was all very new and exciting. I was confident that they’d sort it out.

We weren’t really intending to hold practice in the morning: we wanted to go into town to see what we could replace of the stuff we’d lost in the flood, and perhaps do a little round of a few brothels and finish up in the one where they’d promised us a shave. Amre really wanted that, I prefer to be hairy, but she prefers me smooth so sometimes I shave and sometimes I don’t.

But there were already four people sitting on the bench outside! We wrote PRACTICE THIS AFTERNOON on the slate so there wouldn’t be any more (we hoped), and sighed, and called in the first patient.

She was a hatter, and her daughter had sent her because she was more and more short of breath. All the stuff she’d used to cure the felt and to make the hats waterproof had poisoned her! We got most of the poison out — mostly Amre and Serla, with Hylse standing by — and that left her so weak that we wanted to keep her in the hospital for at least the night. Ardyth and Alieth brought what they called “the wheelbarrow bed” — a long flat contraption with wheels at the front and stubby legs and handles at the back. One person could lift it by the handles and another manoeuvre it on the wheel side. Now we saw that there’d been a lot of work done on the hospital: there was a women’s ward marked with a relief of an Ishey woman above the door, with six beds in it (but room for twice as many) and a men’s ward with a relief of an Ishey man, where three beds were already in place. On the other side builders and carpenters were working on what was going to be the children’s ward.

We installed the woman in the new ward, still smelling of whitewash, and left her in the care of the nurses. “Perhaps we should send her to the farm for a while to recover,” Amre said.

That might be a good idea! Away from the town and its noxious fumes.

The next patient was a girl of about ten, called Arvi, who had been pissing blood — I thought all kinds of things, but carefully didn’t ask her anything before I’d examined her. She turned out to have inflammations everywhere in her body, like she’d been infected by something. “Is anyone else in your house ill?” I asked.

“My little brother was. But he’s dead now.”

I did all I could to draw the heat off — exhausting for doctor, apprentices and patient, and I had to chide Serla because she was taking so much anea from Hylse that Hylse almost fainted. “But she’s one of us!” Serla said. “It’s permitted!”

We’d have to have a good long talk about that, but all I said was “Not in this practice.”

We put Arvi in the women’s ward because the children’s ward wasn’t finished yet. Then I sent Serla and Hylse to her house, well-protected against infection (Serla could do it, and she could show Hylse how and make sure it was strong enough) and with Jeran to protect them. Not the dog: the way she looked we were going to have several more dogs within days. Now we also knew where she came from: the Crown of Valdyas, where they’d had more dogs than they knew what to do with it and we were obviously short one.

Meanwhile Amre had been taking care of a man with a black eye and a cracked rib. “I’ve sent him to fetch his wife,” she said, “she’s in the same state. He says she can’t leave the house but that’s because he took away all her clothes.” I told her about the girl, and that worried her as much as it had me. “If it’s catching we might have an epidemic on our hands,” she said.

There was still one patient on the bench. Well, not a patient himself: he’d come to ask for help for his brother. “The donkey walked over him and now he can’t walk or sit or stand, only lie on his bed and wail!”

“We’re coming,” we said. We followed the boy up the hill, to the servants’ entrance of the house of Master Doryn. There we found Serla, Hylse and Jeran! “Oh, you’re here already!” they said. “We hadn’t even called you yet!”

The steward came running from the main part of the house. “The doctor is with the mistress!” he said. “Doctor Orin. What are you doing here?” He obviously didn’t approve. “They call you ‘the fake doctors’ here,” Serla whispered.

“Wait,” we said, “we’re here for the boy that the donkey stepped on, are you telling us that Arvi lives in this house too?” And yes, it was the same house. “Well, if we can’t see the mistress now, is there anyone who is ill who isn’t important enough for Doctor Orin?”

“My wife and daughter,” the steward said, reluctantly. He showed us into a room where the wife and daughter were lying in one bed, clearly with the same illness as Arvi.

“I’ll get the donkey-cart,” Jeran said. “I suppose you’re going to want them in the hospital.”

We also called Luthjul to ask her to invite the whole midwives’ guild to a meeting at our house tonight. And please ask someone to tell Aine, she’d be put out if we call a meeting without notice again. I could feel Luthjul smile in my mind.

“When did this start?” we asked the steward. It needed lots of questions, while we were also working on the sick women, but eventually it turned out that the sickness had come with the high water, and that the same thing had happened several years ago when the water was also high enough to flood the cellars. It was only in this house (“castle”, according to Hylse, and Serla who had grown up in an actual castle had a very hard time convincing her that this was only the house of someone who was rich enough to pretend), not even in the neighbouring houses.

“The well,” Amre said, when the steward’s wife and daughter were away on the donkey-cart and we were waiting for Jeran to come back and fetch two more women.

The well was in the yard, and the water still stood high enough to touch, and yes, there was something very bad in it. “Don’t use the water from this well,” we told the steward, “keep it covered up, and get your water somewhere else. Is there a public well?” There was, and we checked it and it was clean. The steward grumbled about having to stand in line with other people’s servants. “Then send your servants!” Serla snapped at him. “Do you want everybody to get sick from the water”?

Then we finally got to the boy trampled by the donkey. It looked like there wasn’t much more wrong with him than very bad bruises on the inside of his body, but we wanted to have him in the hospital anyway so we could keep an eye on him.

Surely Orian would have gone now? The steward showed us into the master’s room, and there Orian was, next to the bed, unconscious! Serla went to see what was wrong with him while we busied ourselves with Doryn. She had the sickness worse than the others, but we could repair the worst of the damage.

When we emerged from the work Serla was next to us, pissing herself with laughter. “Doctor Orian isn’t ill!” she said. “He’s just exhausted. He tried to cure Master Doryn with his mind but he can’t!”

Back at the hospital we worked the whole afternoon, too. We were already exhausted when Ardyth told us there was someone at the front door.

“Gods, we forgot to take the sign down,” I said.

“Aine took the sign down. I don’t think this is a patient. He’s got soldiers.”

This was a clearly Velihan man, of advanced age, richly dressed. I’d have called his face ‘freckled’ if he hadn’t had so many freckles that they ran into each other and made his skin nearly as dark as mine. And yes, he had two uniformed guards with him, standing at attention next to the donkey-cart he’d clearly come in.

“I would see Master Doryn,” he said.

His presence was so commanding, and we were so tired, that we him into the house without question. “I’ve heard that there’s sickness in Doryn’s house, and not only that, but that Doctor Orian has been poisoned too.”

“Not poisoned,” I said, “he overexerted himself while treating Master Doryn, and lost consciousness. There is nothing wrong with him except exhaustion.”

Doryn was awake when we reached the ward. “My dear friend,” the man said to her, “I came here because I heard rumours of your demise.”

“Lathad,” Doryn said, “any rumours of my demise are premature. And I’ll have you know that my assets are mine.”

The man blanched, so far as he could under all those freckles, turned on his heel, walked to his donkey-cart and drove away without another word.

“What was that about?” Amre asked.

“I suppose he expected to inherit,” I said.

“Did you feel his command? He was talking mostly with semsin, I suppose. I’m glad that all he wanted was to see Doryn, I don’t know what I’d have done otherwise.”

“Well, now we know and we can guard against it,” I said. We went back to Doryn to see if she needed anything after this shock, and she grabbed each of our hands. “Children,” she said, “you’re intending to go to Silvermine, aren’t you? Don’t go. It’s dangerous there. We will seize and pacify it, of course, like all the villages. Mines shouldn’t be run by peasants. Everything needs to be bigger!”

She was delirious, of course, but I couldn’t help listening to her and feeling warned. I wasn’t going to tell her that we’d been to Silvermine already, and that we knew about at least one plan to seize a mine from a village and were doing all we could to prevent that.

Then the man with the black eye came back — even Amre had completely forgotten him! He had a woman with him who could have been Rava’s older sister, as large and not much cleverer, wrapped in a bedsheet. We set the man’s rib and put a compress on his black eye and treated the woman’s cuts and bruises. (The cuts were from her husband’s knife when he cut the clothes from her: a row of little shallow punctures.) “It’s his fault!” she said. “He came home too early!”

“And found you in bed with another man?” I asked.

“Well, a woman needs something,” she said. “It’s not as if he’s usually home when I want him. Off to Rubymine all the time. Comes back and spends all his haul and then goes again.”

We checked them for the clap but they were both clean. “I don’t go to the whores!” the man said indignantly. “That my wife plays the whore when I’m not here doesn’t change that.”

“At least I don’t charge for it!” the woman said, and they were almost fighting again.

And yet these two people clearly loved each other! I couldn’t understand it.

“Hey,” the man said, “what do we owe you?”

“Two shillings each,” I said, “unless you can’t afford it.”

“Do you think I can’t afford it? Wouldn’t you like a little ruby instead?” And he took a small stone from his purse, uncut and unpolished, like a dark red pebble.

Amre took it and held it against the light. “Yes,” she said, “we’d prefer that, thank you!” Worth at least four riders when we get it worked, she told me.

Then Aine came to fetch us because she suspected — or had noticed — that we hadn’t eaten anything since breakfast. We hadn’t been in the garden long before Jilan appeared from the alley, a small barrel on his shoulder. It was full of fish: smoked trout like we’d had in one of the villages on the way!

“We were clearing the vines, and then we’d got all this dead wood! And we’d got all this trout from the river. Come on, try it.”

It was delicious! Aine brought bread, and we ate a late lunch or an early supper. But when Aine started talking about getting some in for the winter, Jilan said, “Not until we’ve worked on the recipe a bit more! I’ll leave the rest of the barrel here but you’ll have to use it up in a couple of weeks, or it’ll get rancid.”

He wiped the fishy grease off his chin and left, while the guild started coming in. We’d been right to have someone warn Aine to prepare for a lot of people! There was more bread, cheese, soup with fresh vegetables and a large jug of beer. Aine’s, not Halla’s, which was still ripening in the brew-house.

We discussed the sickness, glad that it wasn’t an epidemic after all. “Poor Orian!” someone said, and Orian the apprentice looked up, “What?”

“No, not you, the pill-peddler, he tried to help Doryn with his mind and it left him in a dead faint.”

“But will he have learned from it?”

“That it’s impossible to cure people with your mind, just as he’s always said,” Luthjul said.

One of the priestess of Naigha’s apprentices spoke up. “Excuse me? I read in the old book that there used to be a temple of Naigha where that house is now. If there’s been a burial site in the rock, wouldn’t the water bring rot with it when it comes up that high?”

“When have you been reading the old book? Didn’t I say that wasn’t for you yet?” the priestess asked.

The girl blushed. “I’d run out of everything else to read,” she said.

“We have an apprentice like that, too,” I said. “You’d probably like Serla’s books. You can ask her if she’ll let you read them.”

“I’d appreciate it if you asked me, first,” the priestess said, making me blush in turn.

“I’m sorry I spoke out of turn. But may she ask?” The priestess grinned and nodded.

“Anyway, yes, you may be right about that,” Luthjul said. “They should dig a new well on the other side, where the water runs clear.”

And right in the middle of the meeting the dog gave a little yelp and started having puppies! Naturally there wasn’t any attention for wells, or for epidemics that weren’t. We called the children so they could see it too. After the fifth puppy the dog lay down, satisfied, while the tiny blind creatures searched for the nipples.

“I still think kittens are cuter,” Hinla said.

We got the guild out of the door and were about to go to bed. First, a final round. The women’s ward was quiet, everybody was asleep, Doryn’s fever had gone down. The steward’s daughter woke up and saw Amre’s face in the light of her candle. “Did I die?” she asked. “I must be with the gods, there aren’t any people in this world so beautiful as you.”

“Yes, there are,” I said, “I can assure you that Doctor Amre is a real person!”

In the men’s ward, we saw that the boy was running a fever now. The bruising in his belly had hidden worse damage, and if we didn’t do something about that right away he might well die. “Do you want some help?” Jeran asked. “I’ll get Orian and some other people.”

“Yes, please,” we said. Any help we could get. It probably wouldn’t be difficult, but it needed a lot of anea that we still hadn’t got back ourselves after all the other work. After a while, the ward was full of young people, some we recognised and some clearly friends of Jeran’s that we hadn’t met yet. We all joined hands, even Serla and Hylse, and Amre and I called fervently on Anshen.

He was there. In his image of handsome young man, his right hand in Hylse’s left hand. We hardly noticed after first acknowledging him, but it did make a difference for the work. It took all night, but this time nobody fainted — it wasn’t like Doctor Cora’s big workings where she needed the help of a dozen students of the school because she’d never learned to get the power from the world. (We can get power from the world all right; just not always as quickly as we use it.)

Then the boy was sleeping peacefully, the fever gone, the rest of his wounds slowly mending. “Isn’t he cute,” one of Jeran’s friends said, and yes, he was: about eight years old, with soft brown curls, a spray of freckles on his nose, and (though they were closed now) large hazel eyes.

Now we could go to bed. And we did. And didn’t sleep for a while, even though we were just as tired as when we got home from Master Doryn’s house.