Starve a Cold

Starve a Cold; Feed the Healer

 

It is a time of unbridled freedom.  Exploration and expansion created great opportunities as the cultures of the West, long the home of civilization and refinement, sent out their adventuresome sons and daughters into the strange lands of the East, a so-called New World.  On the western coast of this new land they built great cities to rival their parents across the ocean, and began to rebel against the traditions of their elders.

Caravans went further East, always further East, carrying with them technology, religion, and prejudicial preconceptions.  Humans almost always led the way because humans are fertile, and much more populous than their sibling races.  Their paths were made easier with the technology they developed, gnome-invented, dwarf-perfected, and human-built.  All the elves did was talk, or so went the thought of the day.

On the edge of the settled lands, where the forests meet the plains, is a small town.  It was built originally for settlers who wanted farms, and land to call their own, and the land is indeed rich.  Crops have rarely failed in this area, and then never completely.  There is timber enough for their buildings, and generations more besides.  A single road goes through this town; it is a convenient stop-over point for the stagecoaches that pass through on their way further East, towards the birth of the sun and the land of heroes.

At the edge of town a small chapel stood, built by the hands of those who lived here, built to honor their faith, built as a place of hope.  A single preacher lived in the building that housed the chapel, and he loved this town with all his devoted soul.  It was with a heavy heart that he entered the worship-place one particular evening.

He walked slowly down the aisle between the plain wooden benches, idly running his hands along the tops of the seats.  His destination was a candle-lit wall just to the side of the altar.  In a larger church, perhaps in one of the great cities back West, this wall would have had its own alcove, with rows of niches for candles no larger than a pencil.  His church was not so large, but the wall was still there, as it was in every church, even the ones that ran in cars on the iron rails that were snaking further and further out every year.

He silently searched the wall until he found the cubbyhole he sought and pulled from it a small stone figure, roughly the size of his hand from longest fingertip to the base of the heel of his palm.  It was a figure of a woman, with a sunburst at the back of her head and a long staff in her hand.  He carried the figure over to the altar and placed it there with utmost gentleness and reverence.

“Saint Anodyne, we need healing and it is beyond the gifts I have been given.”  His words caught in his throat, breaking past a sob he did not voice.

He went back to the wall and searched until he found another cubbyhole that was just what he wanted.  He removed from it another figure, this one smaller than the first, as a child of eight would be smaller than her mother.  This figure’s head was crowned with the emblem of a rose and a bird was in her hand.  “Sainted Rose, our children are dying.”  His voice broke completely as tears began to streak down his weathered face.

A third time he returned to the wall and this time the figure he chose was larger than the first, masculine in appearance, though robed as the woman and the child, with great wings on his back like the wings of doves.  He set this figure behind and between the other two, forming a triangle with them in the center of the altar.  “Viator, great Angel of Wanderings, somewhere someone walks a path who has the hope we need.  I beg you to guide them to us with safety and speed.”

He started to turn and leave the sanctuary, but paused and seemed to change his mind.  He had repeated these same prayers for weeks and even months to no effect.  In desperation he resolved to follow a dangerous path.  In a special cabinet beside the wall there was one figure that few would place a prayer-candle before.  It was this cabinet that the preacher opened now.  The statuette inside was veiled by cobwebs and dust but he carefully removed it and began dusting it off.

This figure was different from all the others.  They were carved from white stone and painted here or there with gold or silver.  They were uniformly robed in concealing gowns, some with head coverings, some without.  There was little in the way of individuality in them, the distinguishing characteristics being the items in their hands and the type of halo that crowned them.  This one was female, but not robed.  Her gown was merely a tunic which fell to mid-thigh and was belted with a sash.  Above the sash was a short vest with billowing sleeves caught tightly at the wrists.  Below were boots up to the knee that buckled.  The artist who had carved this figure put so much detail into it that the preacher could even see where the part in her hair split the circle of white on the side of her head, sending a streak down either side.

It was a risk to call on the power of Cause and Effect, the strange, unknowable phenomena involved in how events shape each other.  Some men call her Luck, and name her a fickle maiden.  These men call her Fate, and know that she will never bind solely to any one man, for to smile at one she must frown at another.

“Lady Fate, you are as a leaf which bites both ways and I call upon you only in great need.  You, who stand outside and still among; you, who answer only to Elar the Everlasting; you, who know the heartbreak of hands that cannot heal; I beg you to lend your gifts to your fellows and bring us the right traveler with the right gifts at the right time to save our children.”

He placed the figure on the altar, making the triangle into a diamond and fell to his knees beside them, bathing the wood and stone with his tears.

— — —

The stage the next week was a full day late.  The preacher was in the graveyard with his shovel, preparing a place for the latest little one, when the unapologetic driver rolled up to O’Reilly’s Hostel to unload his passengers.  With trembling hands the preacher carried his shovel back to his private quarters behind the church.  The shovel went back into its place with the other tools he used when tending the town burial place.  He started back towards the door, then paused and reconsidered.  He turned instead to the washbasin to clean his hands and face, and breathe a desperate prayer into the piece of cloth he used to dry them.

While the preacher prepared himself to face his wild hope, a stranger walked quietly into town from the east.  She did not carry any bags.  She did not ride a beast.  She looked around at the town curiously, looking first at Donovan’s Saloon, then the dry-goods store run by old Sam.  She looked at the bank, and the lumber-yard, and the empty school.  She saw the print-shop.  Then she looked at the hostel.  She walked calmly up to the doors and entered with the rest of the passengers who had arrived from the west in the stagecoach.

The preacher arrived at the hostel just as the last of the new arrivals finished checking in.  O’Reilly gave him a broad grin before turning back to the lady gowned in the latest styles back West to give her a door key and directions.  Once the swishing of expensive skirts had faded only the preacher and O’Reilly stood at the front desk.  One of the strangers, the same one the preacher had not seen walk into town, sat at a table in the dining area, her attention firmly fixed on a bowl of rich stew in front of her.  O’Reilly’s youngest, and only surviving, son was sweeping in one corner with a broom that was taller than he was.

“Isn’t that just my fate, Preacher?”  O’Reilly’s grin was wry and self-depreciating.

“Isn’t what?”

“Best custom I’ve had in months and I don’t have room for all of them.”  He motioned his head towards the girl still determinedly spooning stew into her mouth.  “That one volunteered to stay at the church, if you’ll have her, that is, Preacher.”

The preacher nodded.  “Of course.  The church is open to anyone who needs rest and shelter.”  He nodded a see-you-later to O’Reilly and walked over to sit opposite the stranger, and took a good look at her.

She was somewhere between a girl and a woman, though he knew of women who had married and had children at a younger age, well built and sturdy.  Her hair seemed to be pulled back and was covered by a carefully pinned kerchief.  It was not, however, hidden in the manner of some of the wandering peoples, who felt that a woman’s hair was too sensual for masculine eyes, and what he could see of it was very dark.  Her clothing was plain, a simple dress of deep green, and she didn’t seem to have any baggage with her.  Altogether, she was an unusual sort of traveler for this area.

“Greetings.  I’m the preacher here.”

She looked up at him for a moment, grey-green eyes considering carefully.  She seemed to be measuring him with those eyes.  “You are a priest?”  He noted a strange ripple in her words, an unusual cadence.

“A preacher, yes.”

“You are a man who walks the path of religion . . .” she paused, “and you have not deceived yourself about it.  How remarkable.”

The preacher felt a strange moment of mental vertigo as he watched her watch the room with wild-animal wariness, and did not pause in her measured consumption of the stew.

Beside them Dace continued his sweeping, determined to make up for the three brothers and two sisters gone to play with Rose in Elar’s arms.  The rhythm of his sweeping, though, grew slower and slower.  The preacher looked over at him, concerned, and grew even more so at the boy’s flushed face and the beads of perspiration that soaked the roots of his hair.  A terrible fear filled his heart and he glanced over at the girl to see that she had paused her spoon, full attention on the child.

Dace wavered on his feet and the preacher was amazed that anyone could move as fast as the stranger-girl did, catching the child as he fainted, her hand going to his forehead to gauge the fever that was overtaking his body.  The preacher felt his heart sink into his stomach as he saw the all-too-familiar symptoms.  He was helpless, so very helpless before this killer.

The girl looked up at him, fury in her eyes at his resignation.  “Where’s the boy’s mother?”

O’Reilly fell to his knees beside them, tears running down his round cheeks.  He had raced to them when he saw the sudden movement.  “Gone.  Gone with our children.  Dace . . .” his voice broke, “Dace is all I have left.”

“Where is your healer?” she demanded.  For a moment the preacher wondered if she were so innocent that she did not know how Healing worked.  And what it could not do.

“Madam,” he addressed her with as much respect as he could muster.  “I am the closest we have to a doctor-physician or one of those fancy Mage-Healers.  I am very good at setting a body to rights that has been damaged by forces outside itself, if Anodyne will forgive my pride in her gifts.  Broken, bruised, or even severed, I can set it and occasionally a wound will mend beneath my hands in a miracle given to me from Elar through Saint Anodyne.  But I can do nothing against an illness born within the body.  Fevers, poisons, infections, I am helpless against these.”

She growled in frustration, a strangely animal sound.  “Traumatist.  That would be just my . . . .”  She seemed to come to a decision.  She turned her face to O’Reilly.  “I will need as much stew as you can cook, as thick as you can make it.  I will need someplace quiet and restful for the boy.”  He stood and ran for the kitchen and she turned to look at the preacher.  “You are damned lucky.  I am a Feverist.”

— — —

She carried the boy all the way into the room O’Reilly showed her.  It was his own living area within the hostel, on the first floor behind the front desk.  Carefully she placed the boy, who had begun muttering in his faint, on the simple bed, then she turned to the worried father.  “Out.”  Her voice brooked no argument.

O’Reilly took one last look at his son, his eyes glistening even in the dimness of the unlit room, and then bowed to her before leaving.

The preacher was waiting for him at one of the tables.  “Sit,” he asked gently, “before you fall over.”

O’Reilly did so, hiding his face in his hands, elbows on the tabletop.  “How can Elar do this to us, Preacher?”

The preacher sighed.  “I don’t know.  I really don’t know.  It might not even be Elar.  The Book says that there are reasons some are given the chance to battle enemies beyond the bounds of mortality.  We honor them as Saints, but they are soldiers and warriors in their own ways.  We might be sitting in the middle of a battlefield we can’t see, while the Saints and Angels fight for our children.”

Philosophy was not O’Reilly’s strong point.  He decided to change the subject.  “Y’ever heard of a Feverist before?”

The preacher shrugged.  “I think I ran across the word in a book somewhere, but I can’t remember where at the moment.  All I can remember is the idea that they are exceptionally rare.”

“Rare.”  He repeated the judgment thoughtfully.  “Y’think they’re in the Book, somewhere?”

The preacher frowned.  “Maybe.”  He wasn’t the most scholarly of preachers and his command of the knowledge in the Book was sketchy at best.  But he cared about the people in the community with all the devotion in his soul, and that was why he had surrendered to this path.  “I’ll look later.”

They fell silent, awaiting the results of a battle they could not affect.

— — —

Hours later the stranger-girl stumbled from Dace’s sickroom looking pale, wan, exhausted, and staggeringly thin.  Her previously well-fitted clothing hung on her frame several sizes too large.  She made her way to the table that waited for her, and the bowl of hot stew with fresh bread, heedless of the crowd of townspeople that had gathered at the news that young Dace had fallen ill, and the unexpected hope that this time one of their children might survive.

O’Reilly waited frantically nearby, just this side of pacing.  She looked up at him and nodded once.  “Your boy will live.  He needs quiet and rest, but he will live.”  A shout rang out from the crowd, quickly muted at her furious glance as several men stepped up to congratulate O’Reilly, and no few women burst into tears.

She sat down and began eating with a determination that rivaled anything the preacher had ever seen.  He longed to ask her the questions that bubbled in his brain like foam, but found that he could not.  Not with so many people, not with her looking so gaunt.

She was on her fifth bowl of stew, and O’Reilly had convinced the townspeople to return to their homes, and their remaining children, when she slowed her eating enough to begin to talk.

“When I was a child, I didn’t know what I was.  I only knew that when someone was sick, they got better and I got hungry, ravenously hungry.  As I got older I learned to control it better, to store up food within me in case I’d need it.  I also learned not to talk about it.”  She looked up at him.  “How many children has the fever taken?”

The preacher decided that he might as well be honest with her.  After saving Dace, she deserved it.  “No one above the age of twelve gets it.”  He answered her slowly.  “Mara O’Reilly wore herself into exhaustion and died of grief.”  She nodded.  “But so far no child born here has reached the age of twelve.”

Her eyes grew round and then closed in pain.  “How many are left?”

“Half a dozen scattered in a few households.  A few babes in arms.  Three expectant mothers.”

She sighed and two great tears rolled down her cheeks.

— — —

That night the Preacher woke from a deep sleep with a start.  He thought he heard crying.  Curious, he reached for his pants and got dressed, well, halfway at least, and began looking for the source of the sound.

Lights were on in the chapel.  He heard the crying grow louder as he approached, and saw the stranger-girl sitting beside the altar, one of the figures sitting in front of her.  Her head was bowed over her arms and she was sobbing.  He quickly ducked back into the shadows behind her, suddenly wondering if he should be there at all.

“. . . I can’t do it, Mother!”  The words stopped him in his tracks.  “I can’t Heal them all.  I can’t eat enough and it’s just not fair to heal some and leave the others to die.  And if I kill myself in healing, who will stop the cause?”

The preacher felt caught in the middle of a moral crisis.  He was naturally curious, but this was a woman praying, and rightly, it was none of his concern.  But she was praying about the children, and they were his concern.  In the end, there was only one proper path.  He stepped out of the shadows and knelt next to the girl.

“Young woman, I am a preacher.  I do not know what you are used to, but I can keep a confidence and I am here if you need to talk.”

She looked up from her arms, her face tear-streaked and vulnerable.  Again he felt that strange mental vertigo as he looked into her eyes, and a thrill rushed through him.

Her eyes widened in surprise.  Then she chuckled softly.  “Well, Preacher, it seems that you and I are bound.”  He blinked, confused.  She tried to explain with a smile through her tears.  “I do not know the rules of your culture, but sometimes two souls are knit together by a glance.  Where I come from, it is a lifelong joining.”

He blinked again, stunned this time.  “I thought that was a figment of faerie stories.”

She looked suddenly concerned, as if a thought had just occurred to her.  “I do not know how to ask this with delicacy.  Preacher, are you celibate by oath or geasa?”

He blinked a couple more times and then fell into a sitting position with a laugh.  “No, no, I am not celibate by oath or geasa.  It is customary, though, to be married before such activity.”

“Marriage . . . it is the giving of oaths?  The binding of eyes is stronger than oaths of words.  I have only this night, Preacher.  There is much I must do on the morrow if the children are to be protected.”

He nodded slowly and then carried her back to his chamber.  It wasn’t until later that he realized that he hadn’t seen which figure she had been praying to.

— — —

When he woke the next morning she was already awake and standing by the window, dressed in a simple robe and looking at the rising sun.  She still wore the kerchief, though a few strands of dark hair were finding their way loose and softly framed her face.  She looked over at him, a strangely sad look in her eyes.  “It is time.”

He sat up in bed and swung his legs over the side with a sigh, reaching for his pants.  “So soon?”

“There are things you need to know,” she said as he got dressed.  “There will be a tree, and fruit in all seasons.  Everyone must eat of the fruit, nursing mothers and all children.”  She continued speaking as he followed her into the center of town, a large square left empty for the purpose of turning wagons around.  “The fruit will not store.  Gather only what you need.”

“What are you talking about?”  They had arrived at the square.

She turned and held his face in her hands.  “I cannot eat enough to heal the children and I cannot defeat the cause of the curse.  One will come from me who can.  Believe me, my husband, I wish there were another way.”  She slid off her shoes and stood barefoot in the dirt.  “This land, though, is fertile, and my mother chose well when she chose my father.”  She took his hands and dropped something in them, a pendant with a chain.  “There will be a pod.  When it opens, accept the blessing of our binding.”  Her feet seemed to sink into the earth.  She untied the robe and removed it, tossing the garment to him.  She stood nude in the dawn light and he could see the transformation creeping from her feet upwards.

Her legs and body lengthened, her legs growing together, until she stood like the trunk of a great tree.  She stretched her arms up and branches grew from them.  A fierce wind rose up and blew the kerchief from her hair and he could see the streak of white in her dark hair that she had hidden from him, from them all.  Her hair, now loose and flowing, lifted up and separated into other branches.  But one would always be stark white, and the fruit from it would be white also.

When the rest of the town began its business their preacher was still there, kneeling at the foot of a tree that had not been there the night before, with blue and white fruit ripening on limbs and branches.

— — —

The preacher stumbled into the chapel of his church and saw a figure on the altar, where his bride had placed it the night before.  As he looked into the carved face of Lady Fate, he saw a tear roll down her stone cheek and knew that he wasn’t the only one who mourned.

The white lock, he suddenly remembered, was a family trait.

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