Gray morning had come when I went through doorway of the Fortress, and took a post horse I found tethered with its companions under Hret’s care. Without asking he gestured to another soldier to take his place at the tie-up and took to his saddle to accompany me. Clearly Master Mell had left orders. We went through the empty streets at a trot, and the sound of hooves on cobbles rang in my head. Mell was right, there stood a crowd of people wrapped in heavy cloaks to protect against morning’s piercing chill, all huddled by the gateway to our barracks. They looked up at the sound of our hooves, and I realized muzzily that the streets were mainly unused now, because of all the measures we had set up in an effort to protect them from this ending. Of course all of these civilians waiting were technically in violation of those very rules, but if I had been forced to search out each patient, I would have missed so many or simply been too late. This was a law-breaking that must be accepted. I took a moment to say as much to Hret, and give him the order to pass the word.
I found it hard to start. I had not slept all I needed yet, not by a long bit, and to re-enter the sickness willingly, took all the will I had. No accommodation of sense had dulled the impact of the fetid sweetness, nor dampened the uncontrolled sounds of the ill. My flesh still shrank from the putrid marks upon their clothes, the fresh splashings of blood and fluids on their faces and their skins, the soggy weight of their helpless legs stained with their ruin. I do not know how many sick I touched. Sometimes the flickerings of their characters, of their scattered memories, trouble me even now in the night as if they left shadows on my spirit. I never saw any one personality clearly when I laid my hands on a body, but the presence of their minds left some ghostly pattern in mine, sometimes just the images of vivid recollection unexplained.
I was too tired to feel guilt over those who died while I had slept. Such worries would only confuse. All of this was new to me. I had to avoid thinking too much. Nor had I time.
It was at the end that I reached out for the next and saw it was a naiman. They are half our size but like us in basic shape, though the neck is no narrower than the head, the features minimized, without a distinct nose. The eyes are little and black like berries, or the eyes of mice. They have also a large blunt tail that helps them to balance when they walk as we do in the streets. The kind in our region are pale blue gray in skin color. I have heard that some countries have red or green ones. We permit them in the city, as one might allow unowned cats, as being of little danger and occasional value. They make fine baskets with those small four-fingered hands and are skilled in metalwork. All our finest chain mail comes from these creatures. I was so set upon my purpose that I had already put my arms out before I realized.
I looked at the parent creature’s beady black eyes.
“But I don’t know you,” I said. Still, the parent naiman pressed the child into my hands and the toothless mouth opened in silent appeal. I felt the soft heavy thing with repulsion, and then I could perceive the fever in it.
“Ah, shyd,” I said, yet I felt the heat only in my hands, as though I saw and felt through some other blocking material. I had no fever in my bones, and no pain. I could not help sighing in relief. I had had enough, and I must be mind-crazed to try this healing on a naiman. I set it down in its wrappings upon the stones of the road. I tried to do so gently. The mottling already showed a faint blotchy blue on the pallid skin. No one could blame me, I thought, these things are not even human, I cannot be expected to heal what I can’t know. I cannot even talk to it. How can it be ill anyway, with a human disease? But the rats died, so perhaps the naiman did too, quietly in their tunnels and the underground rooms they inhabited.
I cannot explain what revulsion of feeling happened in me. I know a part of it felt like anger, and came out of knowing myself outcast. As much outcast as these creatures who lived among us, whom we refused to know. I seized the parent’s dismayed and fluttering wrists in my hands and deliberately sank myself, like a swimmer diving into cloudy water. It was female, and this was its child. When I shook loose again, I turned to the small one, took its clammy arms in my grasp and did the same. It was different, even in the parts of pain, and towards the end of my efforts I became terribly afraid that I would never get out. I no longer believed that I knew what I was doing; exhaustion alone had broken all the sense I had left, which was little enough, some part of my mind remarked….
When I could see the street again, it seemed runny before my eyes like a painting smeared with water, and I could hear nothing. A small wet hand batted at my arm, and I saw the blue blur of the naiman in its hooded brown cloak. I closed my eyes again, and shook from the memory of my fear. It was all that I could do. I passed from this shivering into sleep, there in the muddied street.
“We have been here before,” said Mell in the darkness. “Still I have better news for you this time. You have little more to do this day. Some ten hours after you rose, Thane Gehir awoke and went out after you. I do not think you knew he was there, but he worked by your side at the barracks for the rest of yesterday, and there is hope that he has cured all he can. There may be straggling cases yet to tend, however we can breathe again.
“And you will regret to hear you have missed a battle, albeit a small sort of battle. The people of the nightscaws began an approach. We met them with such eagerness that they fell back. We killed a two score with only lesser injuries to our own. I also had people-figures made of straw and clothing to set upon the Wall so that we seemed made more numerous by their original attack rather than less. The enemy did not stay long enough to investigate as they should have.”
I heard her sigh through my drowsing.
“I suppose,” she seemed to remark to someone else in the room, “that it’s too soon for her to wake. Each time I check, she still breathes. I shall breathe easier myself when she is up and about once more.”
“She will be all right,” an answer came, and the part of my brain that still craved sleep jerked at the sound. Quillson, by my oath, sitting here with Mell as if companioning any old friend.
“I owe you for your aid,” Mell said. “When even Hret feared to touch her, you were willing to help me load her on my horse to bring us here.”
He made some small dismissive sound.
“No, it is a real thing,” she said. “You do not even know her as I do, and I cannot say that I am free of fear. I don’t know if what has changed in her has changed forever. I do not know what the Gods will say. I don’t understand how she could heal a naiman, or what that deed may have done to her. I have not seen her cry since she was a child, but her face has been wet with tears today. I don’t know if she will be allowed to go back to being Corpsmaster of the Wall. You know she is the youngest Corpsmaster ever approved to that post since records have been kept in this City of the Spirits. Worst of all her loyalty belongs to a wizard, an immortal. How can he care for the things we know?”
“Your friend is my friend,” he said as if they were not weighted words. “You make much of this, but she’ll be well. She must be honored. She saved over seventy lives by the count I hear in the City. I think far more is the reality. They must matter for something.”
They continued to speak as I fell back into black sleep, helpless in my need.
When I sat up, shaking the furs from me, I found that the fire was fully burning and the room lit with candles. Thane Gehir sat at the table with his back to me, Cascada and Berann stood as if on guard by the door, and Mell tilted her chair as she jumped to her feet.
“You’re awake!” she came towards me, her washed face smiling openly.
“I am as hollow as a drum,” I admitted, “as dry as a river bottom in drought, as spent as a …”
“Teenager in a whorehouse,” said Cascada wryly.
“I need a bath.”
“True enough,” Mell wrinkled her nose, “you’re still human enough to stink.”
Thane Gehir turned in his chair to look at me and rose. Bristly and unkempt, he seemed bigger and more filled with life than I had ever seen him before.
“Ti of the Wall,” he said, and I saw a kind of dismay on his rough-made face, as if he feared how I would react to him. That was what made me begin to forgive the strange thing he had done to me. Otherwise my feelings were too tangled for showing.
“Let us waste no time on manners,” I said and grinned at him. “I’m starving and smell food. Keep me from it no longer!”
Mell had brought a platter of small roasted birds, about the size of pigeons and dressed in a subtle spicy sauce that I guessed could only come from the King’s own kitchen. The bread was thick crusted, still warm with a lovely yeasty smell, and to my great pleasure there was a bowl of braised winter greens. I ate ferociously, as did Thane Gehir on the other side of the table.
“I am derelict in my duty,” I said to Mell, “even so I swear that the next thing I must do is visit the baths.”
“The law allows the Corpsmaster time for illness,” Mell smiled a little, “even, I suppose, if it is not all her own sickness.”
“But it was mine, ” I said and shuddered, as if touched by the ghost of corruption.
Gehir pushed his chair back from the table, holding one more crust of bread in his hand. He looked about at us, and a slight frown crossed his bearded face.
“I trust I do not offend,” he said. “But I am curious. While I understand that each of you has the right to burn your sword, to break your Oath, what does it mean to you and how is it done?”
I stared at him.
“I thought you knew everything about us?” I said.
“Just the outlines in this case,” he said. “I know it is a desperately remote possibility, but I would like to understand what might make a soldier cut such ties to her Oath.”
“Betrayal,” I said, “though how the Wall could ever betray a soldier is hard to conceive. More likely that a soldier betray the Wall. If you, who hold my Oath acted in some dishonorable way I might burn my sword.”
I could not hide the shiver that ran down my back at my own words.
“You could order me to burn my sword,” I said. “if you ever chose to cast me off or found me unworthy.”
“And you would then be free to make another Oath?”
“My honor would allow it,” I said, though I did not like the words.
“Why do you burn your sword? Must it be done where all can see? Why not some other gesture?”
“It ruins the temper of the blade,” I was startled to find he didn’t know the reason. “The blade can only serve one Oath. It can be handed from soldier to soldier in the service, but in each soldier’s hands it serves only one Oath. To burn it is nearly like an amputation of a limb, save in extraordinary circumstances. No one wants to be a soldier without an Oath. And yes, the place and time can be private or not. In history some private burnings have been recorded where a soldier knew he was going to another loyalty in a kingdom divided, when to burn it in public would have meant his death.”
I heard feet in the hall before we had any other warning. Both the Thane and I stood with Mell, Berann and Cascada as soldiers entered, and I wondered at the fact that these were all Guards of the Fortress — if I had had any part in their training it had been long ago. They stood at the doorway as if not sure what part they were to play, and I read both aggression and indecision in their bodies. I wiped my mouth upon my napkin, raising an eyebrow at their commanding officer.
“I am needed?” I asked, tossing it back onto the table. It was a rude thing to do, but it was the best I could think of at that instant, to command their attention to myself. “You are…?”
“Haemerick of the Fortress,” she said, her blue eyes brilliant in her blackened face. “You are needed, Corpsmaster.”