Don't you just hate it when the worker at the next desk flumps down with two boxes of tissues, throat lozenges, cough syrup, a bottle of aspirin, and a sore red nose and says, "Yuck, I can't remember when I've been this sick! I was up all night coughing my guts out!"
A knock at my door awakened me. My little fire had died to embers; by the faint reddish light I judged it to be about three hours before sunrise.
"My daughter!" whispered the baker. "She's afire with fever! Can you help us, Shaman? She keeps telling us that she's Cleopatra and that we're supposed to bring her a barge so she can go sailing on the lake!"
I scooped up my pouch of herbs as I pulled on my cloak. There was no need for me to say anything; the Ur-Jennans are put on the face of the world to tend the ill, give assistance to those in need, and tell the world how things are supposed to be. Heal, help, and holler, that's us. I followed him to his shop and climbed the stairs to his residence above the bakery.
"At least it's nice and warm here," I said as I knelt beside the young woman's bed. "That's a good thing." I put a hand to the girl's cheek. She was feverish indeed, and her breathing was labored, as though inhaling took an effort like lifting sacks of flour. "Here," I said to the baker, "stew this in two cups of water." I gave him a small portion of goldenseal. To her mother I said, "Can you find some bolsters or pillows to prop your daughter up? It may help her to breathe." As the mother and father scurried off, I touched the side of my staff against the girl. She opened her eyes.
"Tell them to turn up the heat," she commanded. "I was not born to lie about on flea-ridden rags in the cold. And bring me some Assyrian beer. The insipid swill these people keep bringing insults me."
"Just keep those lungs going, Cleo. We're brewing you some good hooch right now." The young woman's mother returned with a load of pillows, and we built a rampart of cushions and dragged the girl into a sitting position against them. Her breathing was rapid, but now less of an effort.
"Her name's Adda, not Cleo," whispered her mother.
"Okay," I replied. "When did Adda start feeling dizzy and tired?"
"Oh, about three days ago. We thought it was just a monthly thing, but after she forked hay down for the animals and fed the hens yesterday, she lay down and we couldn't get her up to milk the goat in the evening."
Wonderful, I thought sarcastically. I'd thought our village had escaped this malady this year. People fall ill, lie down, and then their innards stop doing what they have to do. Adda had fallen victim to what some call The Winter Ill, a disease they say springs up from the snow and fog combined with the moss on the sides of houses; others dub it The Spring Sacrifice, saying that so many must die in order for the season Winter to be appeased so as allow Spring to come. We shamans and healers just call it the Winter War, for it attacks in the cold months when people are at a low ebb. Nor will the illness disappear from town until the warmer months of Spring.
"Did she meet anyone new about two weeks ago?"
The baker's wife fluttered her hands and pulled her apron up to cover her chin. "That there Black Knight from the Coast was in town and took a fancy to Adda. They rode about on his great black charger, her sitting on the pillion. You don't think he put a curse on her, do you?"
"That depends. Was he sneezing or coughing?"
"Oh, aye, he was sneezing like to blow his armor off," she said. "He was telling people at the inn that he was allergic to small towns." She simpered, dabbing at her nose, "He gave Adda a gold coin -- said that he thought maybe she was the cure to his ills."
"And then he left, leaving his cure behind?" I observed, which made the baker's wife remember the brewing herbs and return to her kitchen.
The Black Knight from the Coast gave Adda more than a gold coin. She'd be lucky if she lived through the pneumonia that settled in her lungs, luckier still if no one she knew died as the townspeople spread the disease to every household. Why did that lout have to go gallivanting around the country when he knew he was sick? Wasn't he too proud to have to say "I'b da Blag Gnite! I'll slay dee after I blow by doze"?
Not only the Black Knight, but any of these tough guys who think they can keep going when they're ill are a pain in the ass. Let me count the ways. First of all, the toughies who fall ill and keep on going think that they're functioning normally, and pride themselves that no sickness can keep them from performing their normal duties. They're wrong. During the really bitter winter we had a few years ago -- no, wait, can it really be 15 years ago? The butcher Dooley Garm caught a fever, and continuing to run his shop, became convinced that if he put scraps in a big box-trap, he could get what he thought was quality pork to show up for his sausages every day. Before he was dragged off his job to be confined to bed forcibly, he'd made a tremendous poundage of seasoned sausage. His family only found out about the trap when Dooley came home from the store reeking of skunk, which he couldn't smell because his nose was stuffed up. The sausage was tasty, but still, in his fever he didn't know what all he was grinding up. For sure it wasn't the little piggies he saw in his fevered visions.
Secondly, refusing to believe that their illness is hurting themselves, the adamantly operational folk also refuse to believe that their illness might be catching and cause hurt to others. Thus they inflict their contagion on all and sundry, but especially on those who have to work most closely with them. The old Lord Stonewall had a scribe who followed him at heel like a dog every day of his employment, from the time the old lord had sat down to breakfast until he went to his bedchambers. The dolt scribe caught some stomach bug, and rather than stay away from the old man, kept to his job of noting the old fellow's whims, and though the scribe lived on to pester the old lord's nephew who succeeded to the throne, the old Lord himself, his personal bodyguard, and his son all went the way of diarrhea, dehydration, and death. (The nephew, the new Lord Stonewall, soon sent the scribe to cover the turbulent political scene of the high plateau; the scribe subsequently became a lawn ornament for Kaladang the Axe and was possibly the least-mourned casualty.)
Thirdly, the witless wonders who drag their disease to work tend to think that they are owed some kind of award or honor for having toughed it out, done a bad job while they were ill, and having passed on the horrible sickness to their coworkers. Jason the Mason hoicks a spit onto the floor of the inn and brags, "Nay, I don't let a little thing like a cough keep me from me work! Every day of the Seven I'm on the job, layin' brick or mixin' stucco, no matter what! Me boss can count on me, I'm his right-hand man! Oh, aye, when the year-end bonuses come up, this here ol' Jason's gonna be right at the top of the sack!" But then that's because he picked up the work of the other masons who became too sick to haul stones because he gave them his croup.
Fourthly, determined diseased ones are resentful when told they should stay home and perhaps miss a day's wages or two. The baker's wife, Adda's mother, came back with the hot pot of steeped herbs. I poured some into a small cup. "Go get some sugar to put in this," I told her, and watched her as she went to the kitchen, paused in the doorway, and sneezed. Great, just great. When she returned with the sweetening, I told her, "You should rest for the next couple days. You could be falling ill of this malady as well."
"Oh, I can't do that, Shaman, we've got a business to run."
"If you continue to run the business when you're sick, you might make bad bread and lose customers. Or worse still, you might give your customers this sickness."
"Nonsense. I've taken the coin for the loaves for 22 years come the Moon of Budding, I'm not about to turn that over to an apprentice. Here's the sugar. Now what do we do for Adda?"
"You want to get her to sip a little of the tea as often as she will. Feed her with a spoon; she's too tired to swallow a big gulp. The sugar will help her wake up more often to take a sip. Put a chicken on to boil and make a chicken soup with onions and lots of garlic. All of you as well as Adda should have as much chicken soup as you can hold. Put lots of parsley in it, and cranberries, if you have them, and here's a bottle of elderberry extract. You and all the members of your family should take a little spoonful of the elderberry every day for the next couple weeks." I handed her the bottle. "Keep Adda warm, but wipe her face and limbs if she sweats."
I turned to Adda's pale face again, touched my staff to her shoulder. "Cleo, this body is not for you. Go West, would you? I'm tired of having you show up at every sickbed in town."
"Go West? With the pickled pompous asses who do that Egyptian walk and wear the Pura Raza sarcophagi? Forget it!" Nevertheless, as I raised my hand to make a holy gesture, the spirit snorted and left for other residences.
"Mama?" the young woman asked, looking at her sniffling mother.
"Oh, Shaman, she knows me again!"
"Use the tea and the elixir. I'll be back in a day or so to see how you're doing." I picked up my pack and started towards the door.
The baker called out to me, "Here, Shaman! Have a loaf of bread for your troubles!" He put his left sleeve to his mouth and coughed, very softly.
"No thank you, I have plenty at home. I will see you soon." I exited the residence and bakery, trying to hold my breath. I went to the town spring and let the overflow rinse my hands, which I scrubbed with the sawdust of witch hazel stems from a pouch in my pack.
That damn Black Knight from the Coast. If he wasn't chopping people up with his great sword, he was murdering them with his germs. He'd no doubt survive; he lived high off the hog and got plenty of exercise. If he had to take a few days off to lounge around some comfortable hotel, it was no skin off his nose. And then he'd have the chance to infect more people, which would probably amuse him if he was bright enough to have any understanding of the dynamics of contagion.
While I walked back to my cave under the tree and hedge, I mentally inventoried how much elderberry extract, goldenseal, wild garlic, and olive leaf I had stored in the jars on my shelves. Depending on how quickly this Winter War spread, perhaps I could rent a horse and ride to Skuleflight Harbor for extra medicines.
Maybe while I was there, I could find out where the Black Knight lives. Maybe I would even pay him a visit. He was a 'tough guy', wasn't he? He ought to be able to survive whatever an old shaman has to offer.
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