Aviato returned home from work that afternoon, entered his cottage, and immediately knew something was different. Usually, when he arrived home, his wife Joliana would be sitting blank-eyed, rhythmically tapping her fingers on their wooden table, or dozing with her head down, snoring gently. When neither of these sounds greeted him, his worst fear struck him, and for a moment he felt encroaching panic. With conscious effort, he thrust the feeling aside and placed the warm pot of stew that he had picked up at a local inn on the table before looking around the small two-room cottage. Their house was empty.
Her downward spiral had started gradually: a sorrow that lurked behind every word, a grief that dimmed every smile. Then the gradual had become a swift descent: a depression that had leached joy from a woman who had once captivated him because of her beautiful smile. She had taken to using ardon, a drug common on the wharves where he worked, used by men with no hope. Aviato had known for months that one day he would return to find her dead from the drug, but he had not thought to find his home empty of her all together.
He sat down heavily in one of the two roughly hewn chairs at the table, wondering where she could be. Since she was a healer, perhaps her services were needed somewhere. He remembered hearing about the causeway accident earlier that day, when a barge had crashed into the bridge that spanned the Coldwell, the river that bisected Dargon. He had heard that there had been many injuries, and the town guard had dispatched runners to call upon all healers for help. Maybe Joliana had gone as well. It had been many sennights since she’d practiced her art, but it was a possibility.
Aviato stared sadly at the pot of stew. He realized that it had become his anchor. When Joliana had stopped cooking, he had begun purchasing food at Belisandra’s, a local tavern. It took most of his daily wages, but it offered him an opportunity to share a few menes of the day with his wife. During the short meal she would not always eat, but she would occasionally talk and he had decided that it was worth the price of the food. After only a few sennights, he realized he couldn’t afford it every day on his meager pay, but he did not want to let go of the time with her and the chance that she might eat something. He reached a deal with the owner of Belisandra’s to return at night to help out in exchange for the food. He knew that Joliana thought he was drinking; he had not bothered to share the truth wi th her.
Now he leaned back, crossed his arms, and wondered if today was the day he would lose her. He didn’t know what to do next: to search for her or wait.
Tom Madden stared up at the dark sky as the barge moved across the Coldwell River from the side where Dargon Keep was to the other side where the river port and seaport were located. It was a clear night with a cool breeze blowing off the Valenfaer Ocean. The sky was filled with twinkling stars and few clouds, one of which passed in front of Nochturon as he watched.
Earlier that day, one of his neighbor’s adopted children, Briam, had not returned from a trip to the market and, fearing for the boy’s safety, his neighbor Sian had asked him to search the site of the causeway accident. A barge had crashed into the causeway, and a huge lengthwise section of the bridge had fallen into the river, leaving only a narrow strip that connected both riverbanks. Of the people and livestock on the barge and causeway, many had perished.
Tom had spent much of the evening going from one cordoned-off aid station to the next, his ears filled with the painful whimpers and groans of the injured. His unsuccessful search for Briam had finally driven him to the bodies. Much to his relief, Tom had found Briam alive on the keep side of the river. The boy had been very badly injured, resulting in one of his legs having to be removed, but a healer had tended him. Now all of them: Briam on a stretcher carried by two guards; the guard sergeant, Roman Cepero, who had found the boy; the healer, Joliana; and Tom were all returning to Sian’s house.
Soon, the group landed on one of the docks that lined Dock Street and headed toward Murson Street, where Sian and the orphans lived. Although the roads were still peopled by a few gawkers and those with more genuine errands, they were far less busy than they had been earlier. Even the people who were still outside talked in hushed tones, as if the disaster demanded such respect.
“Buy a piece of the old causeway!” A voice intruded on Tom’s thoughts. “It’s straight out of the river. Its magic will protect you from harm,” a second voice called. “It’s a powerful charm to help you remember this day.”
Tom looked over to see a pair of men on the other side of the street holding out chunks of wet, broken stone to passersby. The two stood over a thick, badly woven blanket with more pieces of rock littering its surface.
“Leeches!” Tom’s voice seemed to startle the healer, who had merely cast her tired eyes at the pair but said nothing. “If those are even real pieces, how lucky was that stonework for the city today?”
Cepero was quick to act. In two angry, limping strides he crossed the street and stood before the hawkers. At his approach, the pair paled and one quickly scooped up the blanket, along with their wares. They scurried off before Cepero could do more than growl.
The party continued towards Sian’s house. Tom clenched and unclenched his fists with nervousness as they walked. As they got closer to their destination, Tom’s worry for Briam and Sian spiraled into a whirlpool of fear and grief. When they turned onto Murson Street, Tom felt his back muscles tense up. Finally, they entered the yard of Sian’s house, and she erupted from the door almost immediately.
“Tom! Roman!” she called. Her voice was soft, but it was shrill with urgency. “Did you find him?”
Tom moved forward to stop her, but she had already reached the litter. Briam lay there, pathetic in his stillness. His face was covered with scrapes, bloody scratches scored his one uninjured leg with lines of dried blood, and the other leg ended in a bandaged stump below the knee. She gasped as her gaze reached the bandages. Tom put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed gently, offering silent support. The sergeant didn’t wait for Sian to regain her composure, but led the two guards and the healer into the cottage.
Tom patted her on the back. She sniffed, wiping the tears from her face and hurried upstairs. He followed her, passing the litter bearers on their way out, and entered the bedroom Briam shared with Finn, another of Sian’s orphans. Inside, the healer supervised moving the unconscious Briam onto the bed while Finn stared wide-eyed. His mouth opened in a shocked breath, face pale, and his shoulders drew back in an unwitting gesture of denial as he saw Briam’s lower body with one leg conspicuously missing.
“You found him!” A soft exclamation from the door drew everyone’s attention. It was one of the two girls whom Sian had adopted: Oriel. Her red-rimmed eyes attested to bells of tears, her ragged, spiky hair evidence of sleepless tossing and turning.
“Is Kerith asleep?” Sian asked. Kerith was the other girl, the youngest of all the children.
“Yes.” Oriel nodded and took a step into the room.
“Wait. I want to talk to you.” Sian moved quickly and drew the girl outside.
Tom went around the bed to Finn, whose face was still ashen. If possible, it had gotten even paler as he watched Sian take Oriel outside.
“I should never have left them,” Finn said, his voice wobbling.
Tom sighed. He had heard the tale of how Finn had momentarily left the three younger children alone on the bridge just before the accident. How many comforting words would he have to find in one day? “Finn –”
“Kerith was right; it’s my fault.” Finn’s anger and the finality of his tone silenced Tom. “I should have been there.” He rose and walked over to the bed. The healer sat in a chair the sergeant pulled out for her. With a grave face, Cepero watched Finn approach.
“It’s my fault. Now he’ll never become a guard,” Finn whispered, staring down at Briam.
“Now is not the time to wallow in your guilt, young Finn,” Cepero said bluntly. “Your duty now is to be there for him, to help him get over this.”
Finn looked up warily and met the gazes of all three adults in the room. “What do you mean? Is he …?” his voice trailed away and he looked down again.
There was a noise from the door, and a weeping Oriel came running in to stand by the bed. She knuckled her tears away, but they wouldn’t stop coming. Tom had to look away for a moment before his own eyes filled. When he looked back, Oriel was weeping over the prone boy. Her breathing was loud, as if she were suppressing sobs.
Sian turned to Joliana. “How is he? How do we care for him?”
“There’s not much we can do for him right now. If and when he comes out of it, we shall see.”
That brought a silence down on the whole room. Tom went out and brought back a couple of chairs for the sergeant and himself. Sian and Oriel sat with Finn on his bed, beginning a vigil that lasted unbroken for over two bells. Oriel and Finn drifted to sleep leaning against each other. Joliana and Sian both stared at Briam, while Cepero’s gaze drifted around the room. Joliana chewed on her lip and wrung her hands, her entire body shaken by a fine trembling every so often. Tom saw her eyes dart around the room frequently, like she wanted to get up and run, but she never moved.
His own eyes were pinned by the grief in Sian’s face. Sian looked up, the dark stains under her eyes contradicting the strength in her voice. She met his gaze and offered him a smile, and he knew, somehow, that she understood his feelings. What she said, however, was prosaic. “How about some food, Tom? Roman, Joliana, I’m sure you must be hungry too. Let’s go down to the kitchen. The children are all sleeping and will be fine.”
Tom marveled at her resilience, but perhaps it was not so surprising. She had faced problems all her life and conquered them. The true question of the moment, for Tom, was how Briam would react when he realized that his injury would deny him his dream of joining the guard.
Their meal was a muted affair, with no conversation beyond the necessary. No one wanted to speak of the possibility that Briam could die. When they went back upstairs nearly a bell later, they found Oriel awake and sitting in the chair by the bed.
Sian asked, “Is he still sleeping?”
The blonde girl nodded, tears filling her eyes again. After a moment, she said, “I think I heard him stir a mene back.”
“Oriel, I sent a runner to Mayda to tell her you wouldn’t be in today. There’s some food on the table if you are hungry.” Sian spoke softly. Mayda was the keep cook to whom Oriel was apprenticed. The young girl had actually come home for a half-day visit before Briam had been hurt.
Tom turned his gaze to Briam, propped up on his bed with extra pillows, his damaged leg swaddled in thick wrappings. As they watched, his eyelids flickered, and Sian spoke. “Briam, how are you feeling?”
Joliana had steeped some herbs in hot water when they were downstairs, and she now moved to the bed, offering a cup to the boy as he squinted confusedly at the crowd around the bed.
“Wha … what happened?” his voice was strained.
When Briam didn’t seem to notice her, Joliana sat on the bed, lifted him, and balanced his head expertly on her shoulder as she held the cup to his mouth. After he finished taking enough to suit her, she held out the cup, and Cepero grabbed it while she laid Briam back down gently on the bed.
Sian sat down beside him and rubbed his forehead. “You’ve been hurt, Briam.”
Finn crept toward the bed as Joliana tried unobtrusively to check the wrappings on the leg. Her hands trembled when she prodded the cloth gently, and Tom realized anew that she had been shaking on and off since he had first seen her by the riverbanks. It looked like more than just a nervous habit.
“I can’t feel anything. I’m all numb.” Briam tripped over the last word.
“Joliana here is a healer. She’s helping you get better.” Sian gestured to the woman at the foot of the bed. “She says that her medicines are going to make you feel that way for a few days, but it will help with the pain.”
Briam attempted to nod, but apparently couldn’t, so he blinked in assent and closed his eyes. After about a mene of silence, it became apparent that the potion had made Briam go back to sleep.
“Will he be okay?” Cepero turned to the healer.
“I don’t know. I can’t be sure.” It occurred to Tom that the woman didn’t seem very confident with anything. Her nervous moments made him suspicious. She repeated, “I can’t be sure. He has come through the worst, but we still have to worry about infection, and fever, and making sure the surgery site heals properly.”
“What will he do without a leg?” Finn asked.
Before Joliana could respond, Briam jerked awake. “My leg? What’s wrong with my leg?” The boy struggled into a sitting position, wriggling out of Sian’s quick grasp in order to try to get a look at his body.
“No!” Briam’s terrified words cut through the room. “My leg! What happened to my leg?”
Sian attempted to speak calmly, but her voice wavered. “Briam, you were hurt when the causeway collapsed … Your leg was crushed. Joliana did what she could, but it was too late. She had to cut it off below the knee.” She took the boy in her arms and hugged him.
He resisted, fighting her. “No, no.” In spite of his injury, his desperate strength was enough to shove her away. “Fark! No!” he screamed. His eyes rolled and he seemed on the verge of panic.
Tom jumped to catch Sian, and she held onto him for balance.
“Quick, help me.” The healer grabbed something from her satchel, and, as Cepero held Briam, Joliana twisted her fingers under the boy’s nose. He crumpled like a wet dishcloth.
Joliana turned to face them, anger in her face. “He shouldn’t have had to find out like that, and so soon. Now he is going to be a very difficult patient.” She put the herbs in her hand carefully back into her bag. “He has to sleep; it’s best for him right now. There’s not much else we can do. I should go, now. It’s been a long night.”
Sian sighed. “Yes, it has. Before you go, I have a question. What do I need to do for him?”
Joliana reached into her bag and pulled out a few bundled items as she answered. “I will leave you some dressings. You will need to clean and replace the bandages every few bells. I’ll also leave you these herbs. Steep them in hot water and give them to him every time he wakes up. It will dull the pain and make him sleep. If there are any problems, you should send for a healer.”
“When will you be by to check on him?” Sian asked.
Tom frowned. He didn’t care for this healer. The way she shook as if with palsy made him think she drank too much, although there was no smell. He wasn’t going to let a healer like that attend one of Sian’s orphans! He opened his mouth to say that they would get Rebecca, the healer they usually used, but Sian only squeezed his hand and shook her head. He closed it again, wondering why she didn’t want him to speak.
“Uh … if you want me, I can stop by sometime this evening and then again the next morning.” Joliana appeared surprised at the turn of the conversation.
Sian glanced at Tom with a warning in her eyes before saying, “Yes, that would be great. I’ll send one of the children for you if we have any problems. Thank you for all that you’ve done for Briam, and us.” Sian took the woman’s hand in hers as she spoke. Letting it go, she said, “Finn can show you out.”
Tom saw Joliana smile and sighed. In fact, he thought it was the first time he’d seen the healer really smile since he’d met her.
“Thank you. I will be back later.” Joliana turned and followed Finn out of the room.
Oriel sat down beside the bed and held Briam’s hand.
After a momentary silence, Tom said firmly, “We should really send for someone else.”
Cepero nodded, echoing Tom’s concern, “Do you think that was a good idea? There are plenty of other healers in town.”
Sian shrugged her shoulders. “She saved Briam’s life. The only thing I can do is give her a chance. I think maybe she needs one.” Then she changed the subject. “It’s been quite a night.”
“I know,” Cepero said. “I should be going, as well. I’ll be by later to see how Briam is doing.”
“Sure,” Sian answered tiredly. “I suspect you can find your way out without Finn.”
“Yes, I can.” Cepero started towards the doorway, but paused just inside the room and glanced back. Tom met his gaze and realized that Cepero was just as worried about Sian as he was about Briam. “Stay with her, Madden. Help her.”
Tom nodded emphatically. “I will do the best I can.” He would, for he knew that she needed him, and he would always be there for her.
Four days later, Joliana sat by the unmoving child on the bed in his room. Her hands were engaged in changing the small pieces of damp cloth that she had placed on the boy’s forehead and his neck and chest in a futile attempt to bring down his fever.
One part of her mind disconnectedly registered her surroundings. Her chair rested unevenly in a patch of late-afternoon summer sun, heating one of her legs to the point of discomfort. She didn’t move. Most of her mind was occupied trying to hold onto any thought that passed through it. She felt like she was in a delirium, not the kind induced by ardon or its withdrawal, but one induced by deep emotion. The only coherent thought she was able to latch on to for a few moments at a time was Briam’s deteriorating condition. The professional part of her had come alive while she was treating him, and it was able to help her think. His leg continued to bleed sluggishly and she knew that if she could not stop it, the end was near. She just couldn’t think of anything to do.
Again, her mind wandered. Over the past few days, she had watched everyone in the house visit and hover in the room that housed the desperately ill boy. Even Cepero, the guard who had found the boy, had come, with concern in his eyes and encouraging words for Sian. As for Tom Madden, he was in the house frequently and never failed to do some little thing for Sian every time he came. In some ways, he reminded Joliana of her husband, Aviato. Both were big-boned men with gentle eyes, and the way Tom treated Sian reminded her of the early days when she and Aviato had begun walking out with one another.
All that joy in her marriage had disappeared so gradually that she did not know how or when it had happened, but she did know the reason: she could not have children. Yet Aviato had not been overly saddened by the news when she had learned of it all those years ago; she was the one who had taken it hard. She had felt her own womanliness to be in question. How could she face herself, and how could she face the great Stevene when she lacked that which fulfilled a woman and made her whole?
There was a rustle at the door and Sian entered the room carrying a few things on a tray: a bowl of water, a cup of tea, and a slice of bread. “You’ve been here for bells and haven’t had a thing to eat. Let me change his cloths while you eat. How is he?”
Joliana sighed and placed a hand on Briam’s forehead. “Not good. The fever is spiking. We have to bring it down.”
A silence fell as Joliana wet a cloth and wiped Briam’s face with it. In many ways, Sian’s behavior confounded her. She cared for the orphans as if they were her own. All of the other children, from the fourteen-year old Finn to the seven-year old Kerith, including the visiting Oriel and Aren, clung to Sian for comfort. They all took strength from each other. Joliana envied her that. Had she had children, such relationships would have been hers too. Yet in her perception, the paradox was that Sian had not birthed these children from her own body.
Joliana had always been traditional, set in her ways even in her youth. Although she herself had been born into the Olean religion, Joliana had found strength and solace in Stevenic ways after her mother had died young. Then she had met Aviato, but again, she had followed the laws of the Stevene and kept herself pure of body until after their marriage. She had looked forward to the next stage in her life: motherhood. When she had not conceived after months of trying, it became apparent that something was wrong. Now, years later, there was no denying her barrenness.
Looking up briefly, she remarked, “You amaze me, Sian, with the way you care for these children.”
Sian sat down next to her, gently took the cloth away, and motioned to the food. “Eat, please.” She began wiping Briam’s face. “It hasn’t been easy. I know that a lot of people think I do this because I’m a deeply devout Stevenic, but that’s not it. I’m just giving back what my adoptive parents gave to me. In truth, some days I wonder if my debt is repaid yet and if I can go and have my own normal life. It would be so much easier.” Sian frowned as she paused in her ministrations.
Joliana hid her surprise at the confession by helping herself to the bread. As she took her first bite, she was seized by a desperate shivering and felt the need for ardon overcome her; but she couldn’t give in to it. Sian sat across from her, pretending not to see. Joliana tried to force the trembling into a rhythm, but could only endure and wait for the fit to pass. After what felt like a bell but was probably less than a mene, she lifted the mug and drained it quickly. The tea was hot and stung her tongue and throat, but it felt good.
“Is it gone?” Sian asked softly, her eyes back on her task. She continued to wet the cloths and wiped off Briam’s forehead, neck, and chest.
Joliana swallowed another bite of bread and said, “Yes.” This overt mention of her condition was almost too hard for her to accept, and she hoped the other woman would not press her for details.
Joliana finished eating in silence, gazing down at the boy. After he had initially woken up the first night, he had fallen into a disturbed sleep, which had later turned torpid. For the past day or so, he had been very still. His leg continued to bleed sluggishly. Now she checked the stump and discovered that it had begun to fester. Sian watched as she bandaged the leg.
“He is getting worse.” Sian’s voice was toneless.
Joliana saw no point in dissembling. “Yes.”
“You have to do something.” Now Sian’s voice had taken on a beseeching tone, yet the words were like an order. “You must do something; otherwise he will die.”
“I — I –”
Someone entered, and they both turned. Tom and Oriel came in together, and it seemed that man and girl read the women’s faces.
“Is he de–?” Oriel could not complete the word, and she went quickly into Sian’s outstretched arms.
“No, no,” Sian soothed.
“How is he?” Madden asked, meeting Joliana’s gaze, frowning as he tried to read her expression. Joliana was pretty sure the large man did not trust her, but he seemed willing to give her a chance, since Sian had.
Joliana shook her head. “He is getting worse. The wound is not draining properly.”
“Isn’t there something you could do?” Tom asked, his hands rubbing Sian’s shoulders.
Joliana looked down at her patient, and something within her shuddered. This boy, no blood relation to these people, had brought them to tears with his accident; he had made a woman like Sian weep at the thought of losing a son, and men like Madden and Cepero go silent. As for her, the boy had accomplished what neither Aviato nor she herself had been able to do: make a crack in the unremitting hold that ardon had over her. That thing within her that had tormented her over the years was crumbling. The boy had done that, a boy whom she had never met, and a child not her own. Joliana couldn’t let him die, for the others’ sake as well as her own; it would be worse than being barren.
She looked at all of them and knew she needed to get away. She had to think of something to do to save the boy, and she couldn’t do that with their beseeching gazes upon her. “I have to go. I have to –”
“But –” Madden interrupted her.
Sian shushed him by touching his hand, which rested on her shoulder. “That’s fine. When will you be back? I guess you need to get some more herbs. Do you need any money?”
Joliana was shaking her head before Sian finished. “I’ll be back tonight.”
Aviato looked up as his wife entered the cottage. He couldn’t help comparing her appearance tonight with that on the day after the causeway accident. He had waited bells for her that night, and when she had finally returned, she had told him the story of a boy whose leg she had been forced to cut to save his life. She had been shaking with the need for ardon that day, but he knew she’d had none. Since then, she had returned to her one patient, and each time she changed a little. Today she looked tired and unkempt, but his heart still rose at the sight, for the overpowering grief in her eyes had disappeared.
“Aviato,” she said in surprise. “Is it that late already?” She swayed and he recognized the need for ardon. His joy at the disappearance of the bitterness within her was tempered by his worry at what the withholding of ardon was doing to her.
He moved forward and pushed her down into the nearest chair, saying, “Sit down. It will pass.” He turned away to the stew he had been making and ladled some into a bowl. One of the things he had learned in his time as a helper at Belisandra’s was how to cook. Since the causeway crash, he had been trying to put those lessons into practice. “Eat this. You will feel better.”
He watched for her reaction a little anxiously, for she had frequently refused food in the past, preferring ardon and the occasional piece of bread. She was still thin, with eyes darkened by fatigue as much as the withdrawal. Much to his amazement, she actually began to eat, at first with disinterest, but with some semblance of enjoyment by the third spoonful.
“Tell me about your patient,” he said, watching her, reminded of the first time he had seen her. She had already been a healer then, and had come to physick his friend who had been in an accident. After bells of work, she had been exhausted and famished, and he had bought her a bowl of Salamagundi Stew. She had eaten it then with the intensity of a healthy and hungry woman, and the same glint for life had shone in her eyes then as it did now. The hope in his heart grew and took on a steadiness.
Joliana began to speak, describing the fever and the bleeding of the stump. Then she fell silent and Aviato watched her, wondering if the events had affected her positively, hoping that they had.
“What does the family say?” he asked.
“Oh Aviato,” she sighed. “Not one of them is related by blood. Not one of the children is Sian’s own.” Then she corrected herself. “No, I wrong her. They are all her children. She may not have birthed them, but she is their mother. Even Tom Madden, who is not related to any of them, who is not even married to her, treats them all like his own children.”
In that instant, Aviato understood everything Joliana had left unsaid. When she had discovered that she would never be able to have a child, he had tried to console her, but she had refused to be comforted. At last, something had happened to show her the truth of his words: that birthing her own child was not the only way for a woman to become a mother.
“Briam is failing,” she said. “His fever is very high, and his body is limp. I fear it cannot be very long. How can I tell her, Aviato? How can I let him die?”
“Is there nothing you can do? Is he still bleeding?”
“The bleeding has lessened, but the wound has begun to fester. It will get into his blood. Once that happens …” her voice trailed off, but an intent look had come into her face. Aviato waited, wondering at her sudden silence.
“Tom Madden said something. What was it?” Joliana stared blankly at the wall, and then exclaimed, “Leeches! Aviato, I have to go –” A shudder shook her and her face paled.
He grabbed her hands and held on as she trembled violently, her breath coming in harsh gasps. Perspiration beaded her forehead and her eyes were wild. When at length the fit passed, she sagged limply in the chair.
“How long has it been since you had it?” he asked. It was the first time he had openly acknowledged her need for ardon.
“It doesn’t matter. If I take some now, who will help the boy? And Sian, the silly woman, refuses to call another healer. I have to go, Aviato. I have to get some leeches or the boy may not live. If the wound continues to fester I will have no choice but to cut again, and he definitely will not be able to withstand another cutting.”
When Joliana trod the steps of Sian’s house much later, it was past the night’s third bell. The causeway accident had almost denuded the city of medicinal leeches. She had finally managed to get no more than three. She feared it would not be enough, but she did not have enough money in hand to buy more. Three would have to be sufficient for the nonce.
The house was silent, the children ostensibly retired for the night, but Joliana knew that the quiet was just a veneer. Sian carried the weight of Briam’s life on her shoulders. Sure enough, she was sitting by Briam, cooling him off with damp cloths.
“You’re back,” she said softly. “I think he’s worse.”
Joliana didn’t answer but began to unwrap the bandages from the boy’s stump. The wound was raw and angry, and blood was accumulating under the skin. She took the leeches out of the small jar and placed them on the wound. They latched on instantly.
“What are you doing?”
Joliana replied, “The blood is pooling under the skin that I stitched together. If the wound doesn’t drain properly, it will suppurate and poison him. The leeches will drain the blood. Because of the accident, I could barely find any and I spent two bells searching across the city. We may need more, and it’s going to cost.”
“What’s going to cost?” Tom Madden had entered the room while the two women had been whispering to one another.
Joliana explained, and he said, “Don’t worry, Sian. I’ll take care of it. Joliana, please tell me where to get them.”
“We don’t need them immediately,” she said. “These will be fine through the night. We may need some in the morning.”
Sian rose and accompanied Tom to the doorway, and Joliana turned her back to give them some privacy. She examined the boy, conscious of the whispers behind her.
That began a vigil that lasted through the night and the next morning. Tom Madden brought an additional six leeches. As soon as the three Joliana had brought had fallen off, she replaced them with three new ones. As the blood pooling under the skin decreased, Joliana thought she sensed the boy’s skin cooling, but she could not be certain. She made tea of willowbark and fennel and other herbs and tilted it into the boy’s mouth; some of it made it into him, and some did not.
Each bell passed for Joliana with only shudders to mark them, for the need for ardon never failed to make its timely appearance. Oddly enough though, after each fit passed, the next seemed more bearable. By the time the last leech fell off Briam’s leg, fat and gorged with his blood, Joliana knew his fever had come down. His blankets were drenched with perspiration but his body was cool to the touch.
“Oh,” she whispered.
She was unaware that she had spoken aloud until Sian said sharply, “What is it?”
Joliana turned to her, smiling, but with tears in her eyes. “The fever is broken. He will make it.”
Sian swallowed and fell to her knees by the bed, placing her hand against the boy’s forehead. “When will he wake?”
“Tomorrow. I have been feeding him something to make him sleep as well as to lower the fever. I’ve stopped now, but it should wear off by tomorrow.” Joliana looked out of the window at the approaching dusk. “I should go,” she said. “I’ll be back tomorrow.”
Some ten days later, Joliana sat by Briam’s bed examining his stump. The boy was asleep, having ingested some of Joliana’s sleeping potion after lunch. She was still dosing him, albeit less frequently, but knew that she needed to stop completely soon. The leg was healing nicely; the leeches had done their job well. Thinking of the little creatures made her think of her own dependence on ardon. The fits had reached their zenith on the day she had brought the leeches to Briam, and afterwards had reduced in both intensity and frequency. The day of the causeway accident was one many people would remember for other reasons, but she herself would only remember it as the day she had started her recovery from ardon.
There was a rustle at the door as Sian entered, sat down, and handed her a steaming cup of tea. “You seem to be thinking serious thoughts.”
Joliana took the hot cup in her hands carefully. The shaking had all but gone over the past couple of days, but still she did not feel secure. She wasn’t sure how to answer the other woman’s unspoken question, and it was too hard to talk about her thoughts. She settled for a bland statement that conveyed nothing of her true feelings. “I feel better.”
The younger woman seemed to understand, for her reply was just as vague. “Sometimes things happen that make us decide to change.”
Sian was easy to talk to because she had an innate sense of tact, but Joliana still found it difficult to express her innermost feelings. During one of their conversations, she had admitted being barren, and Sian, with her usual discretion, had not pursued the topic.
Now Joliana tried to expand on how she really felt. “Sian, you have a wonderful family here. I saw you and Tom worry about the children like you’d brought them into the world, yet four or five years ago you’d never even seen any of them before. That is incredible.”
Sian replied, “I didn’t choose this family. What I did choose was to help these children, to make us into a family despite the fact that I’m not their mother, but when I did, I didn’t realize how happy it would make me.”
As if saying the words aloud made understanding them easier, Joliana said slowly, “You and Tom are parents to these children.”
Sian grimaced. “Tom …” Her voice trailed off and there was silence for a moment. Joliana sensed that the younger woman was trying to express something very private.
“Tom and I have been like this for a long time, close friends. I don’t know if that will ever change and if we will ever become more than friends, but I do know that I can depend on him.”
Joliana nodded, realizing that she had something that Sian did not: a husband who was a companion, supportive even in the darkest moments of life. What Joliana had, Sian worked at. In that instant, Joliana couldn’t understand how she had ignored Aviato’s pain and how she had never noticed his support as she had drowned in her own sorrow. The comparison between Sian and her was stark, and Joliana found that the mirror of comparison was truthful: it showed her not only what she lacked, but also what she had.
Now that Sian had shared a difficult confidence, Joliana found it easier to say a few words about her feelings. “Thank you for allowing me to work with Briam. Seeing him recover makes me feel hope, makes me see what I have, not just what I don’t.”
Again, Sian’s answer was indirect. “The children are all here today, Joliana, but they grow up. Aren and Oriel are already apprenticed and don’t live here any more. There are more children on the street without parents, without a family, than I could ever hope to adopt.”
The words painted a new picture in Joliana’s heart; perhaps with some effort, she too could have what Sian had: a family.
Outside, the town bell tolled nine times, and Sian asked, “Will you stay for dinner? Tom will be over soon.”
Joliana considered it for a moment, but realized where her steps should lead now. “No, I want to go and be home when Aviato returns from the docks tonight. He was worried about me the night of the crash, and since then he’s been staying home from the pub.”
As she left, Joliana looked up at the evening sky, remembering the night of the causeway accident when she and the sergeant had brought Briam home. She had shuddered practically all the way to Sian’s house, and her thoughts that evening had been darker than the night; she had yearned for the ultimate end. Little had she realized then what a turning point in her life that night would be.
Tonight, Joliana felt a sense of freedom. She knew she never wanted to taste ardon again, but she also knew that she had a long way to go before she could conquer her need for it. The physical symptoms had diminished greatly, but not disappeared. She had regained her husband, gained a friend, and perhaps, the possibility of a family, in exchange for giving up ardon. To her mind, it was a good exchange.