Chapter Seven: The Tides of Death and the Ferryman

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I wished later that I had been wrong. We dealt with panics, we dealt with complaints of merchants and vendors, of bankers, servants and traveling entertainers, and Burgmasters and of course all the pub masters. Curiously I remember no strong protests from the Laymasters of the City whose entire business depends upon intimacy and quick traffic. Perhaps they are so rich they need not care, or perhaps because of the nature of their business they are all believers in contagion. We executed and burned twelve scavengers who had the stupidity to attempt to sell scraps they garnered from felled nightscaws.

The Guildmasters and Bankers invented a type of exchange. We already had metal bits for small amounts for easy trade within the City, so they followed this idea. They produced strips of a particular kind of cloth, run through with either gold or silver thread, supposedly not easily copied. Different lengths and patterns indicated the quantity of debt. Of course within three weeks we could count five types of forgeries.

For days resentment against strictures gathered in all streets of the City and some men and women spat when they saw a soldier pass. Then the people became fearful, for the first cases of illness sprang up in one day in five different streets of our City. Three days more passed before it was certain, but I noted that a nightscaw had fallen on each street where the first illness appeared.

Barracks rats died too. We had to clean them out of corners where they went to die. I’d never realized how many lived among us until I saw a pony cart laden with their furry bodies heading out through the gates of the City. So small a loss against our greater, but I could have used comfort from that striped rat who used to plop down upon my desk. I missed her bright black eyes upon me, her calm curiosity as she tracked my every movement of an evening.

Ten days after that we were forced to dig great trenches Outside the City to accommodate our dead. It was as though bodies began to rot before the spirit was gone, and hope died once a person’s skin mottled and eyes changed color. The smell was in the air. Though I felt I walked in an endless bad dream, I hoped that some of our precautions had saved lives. We were so tired with the unending work that it was hard to imagine counting who might have been saved, for so very many died. Let me have battle every day by preference; at least you know what it is you do. At least you can fight back.

I was on the Wall with a naked face for I was not on duty, just watching the far ranges with my longsight in my hand, when Thane Gehir rode to the Gates. I saw him coming alone on his rangy black horse, his gray cloak belling in the wind, his hood pushed back. I hastened down to meet him.

The Gate Guard let me out. I walked out and stood in the open roadway.

“I see you, Ti of the Wall, ” he said. His smile lifted my heart.

His brown and silver hair was wind-tossed, his close-cropped beard bristling, and his eyes seemed gray as he looked down. How had he not aged, I wondered, for the aging of our King was freshly in my mind.

“I see you, Thane Gehir, who holds my oath,” I said. “I cannot give you welcome. I give you warning. The great pox has come to the City. Any who have not suffered it are forbidden to enter.”

His face stiffened as he looked down at me, stilling his horse with his strong gloved hands as it restlessly tossed its bony head and bared its teeth. Gehir’s eyes hollowed. He glanced over open and mounded trenches at the far side of our Arena.

“So, those are graves. Fever and spreading dark patches, blood from the eyes?” he asked me. “Three out of four die? Loose bowels like water, a sweet stench from the body and repeated vomiting of blood?

“I have had this pox,” he said at my nod, his face aging with memory. He swung down to stand by his beast, taking up the reins close by the bit as if he expected it to try to bite. Its eyes rolled wickedly as it flared its nostrils and jerked its head to test his readiness.

“There must be terrible death in the City,” he said, “yet how did the pox come to you? Usually it has its own times, its own cycles. It’s soon for the disease to strike this region again. I lost… a friend to it the last time it struck your City,” his voice grated low. I saw him swallow.

“Tell me as we go,” he added, striding with me toward our Gates, “We mustn’t lose time.”

I looked up at him. The steady preoccupied gaze he now fixed upon the Wall spoke of purpose, not pity, reminding me that he did have powers of healing.

“Isn’t there a difference between mending a simple knife cut and healing a fevered body?” I asked. For a moment I felt a fool, for what did I know about his skills?

“Yes,” he glanced down at me, his look altered into compassion. “I must teach you how different, for I cannot do this alone and you are the only…” he seemed to bite some meaning back and substitute words in their place, “one who is oathed to me. Who shares my blood. Now tell me all you can.”

This I did. At the Gate I ordered Hret who was a soldier from the Innerlands and accustomed to animals, to take Gehir’s horse and stable it — with due care for its apparent bad temper. I also penned a note for Master Mell to take my authority, for I did not know what Thane Gehir had planned, nor how long it would take, and he was holder of my First Oath. Then I hurried after Gehir, who gestured at me with impatience, his face as intent as if he heard some sound I could not. I felt he was doing this wrong, that we owed notice to the Fortress and our King that he had come and been admitted to the City. He pressed forward as he walked, his shoulders hunched. His face had grown tight and hard with intent, and I did not ask, though I thought surely he should have taken his horse, using its speed to bear him where he wanted to go. However, he turned immediately to the barracks and I followed.

We had set aside one building for sick young warriors, and all the beds had filled. I’d just that morning set some of our healthy to contriving more cots. I knew several beds would be empty by nightfall. I do not think anyone saw the effort with which I forced myself after Thane Gehir through that door and into sweet sewer reeks and the sussuration of agony. So open and well-aired a room, with large windows and good light, but none of these helped against the sounds and smells of pox.

He knelt at the first bed; it was young Westerman, who lay turning and turning his distorted face upon his thin pillow. The purplish mottling had begun to show on his pallid cheek, like a stain bleeding through a piece of cloth, his lips were bitten to dark mauve. Though his bedding was dirtied, I could indulge no outrage. These were patients no nursing could keep clean. They rotted from within. They fell apart; they burst like bags of pus, shit and blood. Thane Gehir looked up at me.

“Watch what I do;” he said, “now place your hands over mine.”

I knelt, wishing I had blackened my face for this duty, for it felt worse than war. I feared my feelings showed. Gehir took a deep breath as though to calm himself.

“Ah shyd” he muttered, reached for the boy’s wrists, clasping them in his own big hands. I put mine over his, feeling the massive strength of them and their heat. I saw him close his eyes so I forced my own lids down. For a moment, nothing.

I felt the sensations that came next as though they were separated from me by some distance, perhaps translated by memory. Not my own, Thane Gehir’s, and through him the feelings of the soldier under his hands. What happened seemed a replay of the disease itself. A cloudy sense of pain in bone and flesh, a wrenching pressure of stomach and gut, bursting pain of the head. There came then a passage into dark realms, as if we became small and smaller, pressed down. I felt that the hands under mine turned and shaped the darkness itself. It was as if Thane Gehir whispered to me ‘know this and move it — so. Take the part that is shaped this way and change it to be like this.’ When Thane Gehir finally lifted his hands from under mine and muttered “It is over”, I saw that for him it had been no distant pain. There stood sweat on his forehead, suffering drew lines on his face.

I looked at Westerman and he appeared little different to me. But then he sighed aloud, and the sound was one of unbelieving relief. I stared across his soiled bed at Thane Gehir, who was already rising to his feet.

“Can you try?” he asked. “There is not enough strength in me and I need you. Do not touch the truly dying, because you may not come back.”

“But can I?”

“I do not know. Try. Think of it as an order from your Oath Holder if that helps.”

I went to the next bed and found death, so I passed on to a young woman whose appearance I scarcely recognized in the mask of her pain. Redev was conscious, and stared at me, her jaw clenched so that she could make no sign of recognition, even if she wanted to do so. One of my most promising archers among the unsworn, her distinctive light hair lay shed about her head upon the pillow she had stained with her vomit and her blood. I did not dare to hesitate. I knelt and took her wrists as he had shown me.

“Ah shyd,” I whispered and closed my eyes.

This was raw, this was pain that any mind would deny remembering. Thane Gehir was not here with me to take the sensations and translate them to something more endurable. From the tortured fever of her bones to the appalling wreck of her deep gut, I felt racked, choking on decay. I had no ability to disengage.  I could only try to go forward. Move the pieces, like this. How I became free again, I don’t know. I opened my eyes upon the ward once more, and my knees hurt.

Thane Gehir stood up from the next bed and turned to see me staring up at him.

He took a step towards me and raised me to my feet, then took my left hand and placed his against it, scar to scar, matched. Then he stepped to the next bed. I looked down to see Redev staring up at me. She did not smile; her unfocused eyes closed and she fell instantly into the redeeming sleep of exhaustion.

I am a good killer, I have never thought myself fit for much else, save perhaps a little study in our libraries. But I kill, I defend my own and I am good at that. Nothing else. What Thane Gehir had cursed or blessed me with was a terrible thing, more full of dread than death. Yet all my long strange obligation to him, now bent me to his task. I cannot tell you if it became easier, or faster as hours went, but when you have been trained to practice with pain, perhaps that discipline helps to make the laying on of hands possible, even when you know what will happen when the words are said.

By the time we had finished what we could do in the ward and staggered for the door, there were people waiting for us. Parents and grandparents with ailing children and grandchildren, children with children, all in a great line. From them rose sounds blending into a moan. I leaned against a whitewashed wall, feeling the uncontrollable tremor of my limbs, and closed my eyes.

“I have made them be orderly,” Mell’s voice was explaining, “I told them anyone who did not obey would be sent to the back.”

“Give us some water,” I managed. I saw that Thane Gehir had already pushed himself erect as if to walk towards the waiting people. I pulled on his sleeve.

“They will kill you,” I said to him.

“It is what I was made for,” he said.

“Take some water first,” I urged as Mell offered her leather-bound flask. Cascada came up by my side and gave me hers. My greed consumed me, and surely a third of the cool wetness ran across my face before I was done with haste.

“Let us have wine brought,” Cascada said, “and food.”

I gagged at the thought.

“No,” both Gehir and I said together. “Water is all we need.”

He went to the line and sat on the ground, reaching out for the first child. I could not move for a few seconds longer, watching, and then I became aware of eyes, both Mell and Cascada staring at me, wary, considering and eager. It was as if I had passed back in time to when I had been unsworn, when, because of my willful separation of my heart from my companions, I had not been what I seemed. Once again I was supposed to be a part of our soldier’s body, yet was not.

In this moment it seemed to me that I had passed through belonging into a new kind of unbelonging, and I was too tired to know how it felt. I looked at the people waiting, whites of their eyes glinting like those of frightened animals and I could bear no more hesitation. It is better to move into pain than to flinch from it.

___________________________________

I woke in darkness and for a space I panicked, flailing as if I had become lost in that inside place where healing took me. Then I found textures of fur covers, and my calf could feel the cold of the stone floor through the leggings I still wore. I sat up, and my entire body seemed to ache, as though I had been in the mother of all fights the day before.

“You are awake at last,” said Mell’s voice from the darkness.

“I brought you here to hide you when you passed out.”

I found my mouth too dry for speech, but as I looked around the patches of light and dark began to make sense to me. There was a doorway, there was a dim glow of burnt down fire, and that triangular bulk by the door was Mell seated in a chair.

“Can you eat?” she asked me.

I felt no hunger. However, the shakiness of my limbs as I got to my feet insisted that my body needed fuel. I managed to make some sound, and Mell got up in one fluid movement, coming towards me with her hand outstretched, a water goblet offered. I took it, grabbed it from her and tried to drink, spilling before I could steady my hands to the job. A warrior’s hands, I thought critically, should not shake like this.

“How is it with Thane Gehir?” I croaked at her waiting shadow.

“I do not know. I brought him here too, when he could do no more. He lies in the corner, and as you did, he rests like the dead.”

She took my elbow, steadied and steered me towards a table by the fireside.

“Crumpets from the King’s kitchen,” she said. “A roast of venison with sour cherries and a stew of blackberries and apples. It’s all cold. I suspect you won’t mind. Also wine, if you can bear it now.”

She knelt to stir up the fire a little as I began to chew food that seemed at first tasteless and alien. As I went on it became in my senses more wonderful than any food I had ever eaten before, the venison succulent, crumpets tender and flaky with butter. I drank of the wine and its deep acid bite filled my mouth with scents of past summer.

“What happened?” I asked. I felt I had been sleepwalking half a lifetime. Air hung musty in this darkness, the world of living wind far away from where I sat. I heard something in the corner and looked. There was a rat, gone very thin with sadly unkempt whiskers. I tore a chunk of crumpet from the one upon my plate and tossed it. So not all of them had died. This had been a big fellow before his illness, with parti-colored hide. I watched him eat in the firelight and my heart gladdened a beat.

“You made the sick children sleep,” she said carefully. She stood watching me as if she waited for my next need like a servant.

“Sit,” I said, “Mell, you make me nervous standing there, my friend.”

She pulled a chair over and sat on it backwards, with her arms folded over the back of it. I noticed the barrier seemed to comfort her like a block between us and she had moved the chair further from my table than it had been before. The rat seemed more comfortable with me than she did. I tossed it a bone with some meat still clinging to the joint.

“That is what I saw,” she said. “You said two magic words each time you began your task. You seemed to be in pain for long minutes each time you laid hands upon a sick person, as if touching them wounded you. Your face became… old. Those you touched sleep now, and they seem to be without fever, but it has been nearly twenty hours that I have watched over you, perhaps half that for Thane Gehir, and I don’t know what has developed since.”

“So King Matthew knows that Thane Gehir has come.”

“Yes. I sent Berann to give him word as soon as I became aware of what was toward.”

I stopped eating, though my stomach clamored for more, and drank again of the wine. The rat came closer, the sad whiskers trembling. Clearly it had been grievously ill too, like us humans. I took a scrap of venison with the fat attached and offered that. The animal came slowly to my hand, then delicately took the meat with its black hand brushing mine. It looked at me then, choosing not to run back, and ate the offering deliberately as if enjoying the taste.

“Thank you, Master Mell,” I said. There seemed a strange ringing in my mind, as if of warning or of need. I looked at her, since she looked now only at the fire.

“What have you become?” she asked, almost conversationally.

I did not answer, because I had not even thought about it yet. I scratched an itch on my cheek, realizing that I desperately needed a long soaking in the baths. She was now looking at me in the wavering light, her eyes watchful and challenging. I looked down and saw my rat moving away, its steps still stiff with the wasting of illness. Did it have any friends who had survived?

“Very dirty,” I said. “I want a bath more than any other thing.”

“There are more children and young people waiting,” she said, and she must have seen my whole body flinch. “They crowd at entrances to the barracks, because they think that’s where I have hidden you and Gehir. I am told by Master Cascada that they will not disperse even in the night. I suppose they have no place to go but death. The troops have culled the crowds for the already dead five times since you went down. Corpsmaster Ti, what have you become?”

“A servant,” I said, “and be sure that answer does not comfort me any more than you. I had better go. Where is this place where I have slept?”

I stood up and stretched carefully, feeling the stiffness in my arms and legs.

“I brought you to the inner Fortress,” she said. I looked around and up at the great arches curving smoothly into the corner pillars and the repeated lines of shaped stone that gave the room a sense of space that its actual size could not explain. It seemed familiar to me, yet I felt sure I had no memory of having been this deep in the Fortress ever before.

“Stay here, with my lord Thane Gheir until he wakes,” I asked her. “It is a request, Master Mell, not an order. And I thank you for your care of us.”

She nodded.

“I can find my own way out.”

“Tell me then, one thing. Why did you and Lord Gehir begin your healing among our young warriors and not among the children?”

“I can only surmise what Gehir’s thought was,” I said. “The people of the nightscaws sent this disease to cripple us, so that they might win their next attack. They didn’t do this for malice alone. They will be coming.

“We may be women,” I added in as bitter a note as I had used for years, “but we cannot forget to be warriors as well.”

“I wondered if that might be the logic,” she said without resentment, “so you’ll approve my sending yesterday some of the most experienced scouts to cast about in the Outside. We want as much warning as we may contrive. Pick up someone to keep you company on your way to the barracks,” she said. “The people may mob you, and you aren’t steady on your feet yet.”

I saluted my obedience to her, the only jest I could manage.

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