“Lilike, tonight we’ll brew a tisane of parsley. That’s for treating baldness, so you need to learn –” Rebecca sighed in frustration as her apprentice set a book aside and went to the cupboard to grab a piece of bread. “Will you please pay attention? And put that book back in its box!”
“But I’m hungry,” came the response. “And why can’t I look at your books? Aren’t you curious about the recipes in this one? And I want to figure out what the other one is. Don’t you think ‘Maran’s Tome of Curses’ is an exciting title?” Lilike’s face brightened as she spoke of it. A pretty teenager, she had joined Rebecca as an apprentice a few months before. With tawny hair and dark eyes the color of water sapphires, she was cheerful and quick to learn, but easily bored.
“And what does a healer need with curses? I can’t imagine why Cyon would have kept such a book.” Despite being unable to read, Rebecca had inherited them along with a whole shop full of paraphernalia when her mentor had died, many years before.
Regardless of Rebecca’s sensible argument, her apprentice’s enthusiasm for the book wasn’t so easily turned aside. “I bet it’s full of spells and magic potions …”
“If you’d noticed, I’m tying to teach you how to make a potion …”
Lilike’s face twisted up. “But that’s just herbs: herbs to keep old men from going bald. That’s not real magic!”
The two of them were working in the small first-floor shop where Rebecca had lived since her arrival in Dargon. The single room was old and shabby, with one bed, one table, and one chair. Light and air streamed in through the doorway and open-shuttered window. One wall had shelves containing the healing supplies that she kept on hand, and, on the other side, many drying herb cuttings hung above the fireplace. The healer crouched by the fire, stirring the decoction she was making. Frowning, she said, “Sometimes I don’t think you want to learn about herbs and healing. I honestly wonder why you came to me.”
“Well, I’m just so old,” Lilike whined, making Rebecca smile while the young woman continued. “When Cavendish dismissed me because I didn’t have the hand to be a scribe, my father said I needed another apprenticeship or I’d have to join the town guard. I don’t want to be a guard … though it might be more exciting than being a healer!” Lilike finished her bread and picked up a sheaf of tansy weed from the table. Sitting on the floor in the sunlight, she began to separate the roots, leaves, and flowers into piles.
Rebecca shook her head and sighed. “Being a healer is not about excitement, girl; it’s about helping others, about healing.” She thought about why she had accepted the young woman as an apprentice. Her reflection, the last time she had seen it in her washbasin, had shown without equivocation her white hair, the wrinkles on her face, and the blue eyes that were a pale imitation of the color of her youth. In order to preserve the skills and knowledge Rebecca had learned from her master, Cyon, she had needed to find an apprentice. That, however, had not been the only reason she had chosen Lilike. The evening after Lilike’s father had presented her to Rebecca, the herbalist had dreamed that the sandy-haired girl would someday become a well-known healer.
“I know it’s about healing,” Lilike said. “And I want to help people, but nothing ever happens here. You’ve been to two birthings since I came to you, and you didn’t take me to either of them. It’s been nothing but colds and fevers. Maybe I should start making those recipes for potions from your books. Even those look more interesting than boiling parsley …”
Rebecca sighed again. She still had faith in the vision she’d had before accepting Lilike as her apprentice, but during conversations like this, she wondered. The girl was indeed old to start learning a new trade. In a lecturing tone, she said, “A healer is he who has not healed a hundred people.”
“– a hundred people,” Lilike chanted, a beat behind her. “That is such an odd saying. It doesn’t make sense at all, and every time I ask you, you say that it’s not time for you to explain it.”
“It’s not something to be explained, child; it’s something to be understood. Now I want you to promise me that you will concentrate on learning to make a serum from those quince berries you gathered last sennight. No more looking at those old books.”
Lilike said thoughtfully, “I don’t understand why you kept Cyon’s books if you can’t read. Could he read? They’re very interesting, but they’re hard to follow. There are pictures of animals, too. There’s one with a big knot of rats with –”
“Enough!” Rebecca interrupted forcefully. In all her years as a healer, she had never needed to know how to read. Everything Cyon had taught her had been passed down orally and committed to memory. She could not understand Lilike’s endless fascination with the two books. Rebecca simply had never had the reason or inclination to do anything with them since cleaning out Cyon’s shop. They might be worth something to someone, but Rebecca’s long, hard days didn’t leave her time or energy to first have them appraised, then try to find a buyer. Instead, they’d sat on a shelf, forgotten, for years — decades, actually — until her new apprentice had spotted them. Lilike’s interest was harmless, but also a distraction. Perhaps now it was time to look into selling them.
However, that would have to wait for another time, because Rebecca’s day was already spoken for. “I need to go to the marketplace. A ship from Kimmeron docked yesterday, and I’m sure their spices and herbs are in the market by now. We’re out of the cough syrup, so I want you to make it. Do you remember what to do?”
Lilike rolled her eyes as only an adolescent could. “Of course I remember. Rebecca, I’ve made it every other day for two months! I promise I won’t let the fire die out, and I’ll boil it for the time it takes me to sort all the tansy weed.”
“Good girl. And if anyone shows up for anything other than a fever or cough, send word to me, straight?” Without waiting for a response, Rebecca set off, trusting that Lilike would act responsibly. Even though she was playful and did not appear interested in learning about herbs, she was always gentle and caring with the patients. Rebecca would do her best to help the young woman become a healer, but Lilike’s dedication to that goal needed to come from within.
When Rebecca returned from the marketplace, Lilike had one of the books open again, but since she had faithfully made the cough syrup and plucked all the flowers and leaves from the tansy weed gathered two days prior, Rebecca refrained from scolding.
Lilike looked up and said excitedly, “Listen to this, Rebecca:
“For cough is from lough
And pansy seeds are best,
But use naught save caulk for fest.”
The young woman paused dramatically and then asked, “What do you think it means?”
Rebecca paused in picking up the sorted herbs, her interest caught. “It’s true that a serum of pansy seed fortified by brandy is good for a cough.”
“What do they mean by ‘caulk for fest’?” Lilike asked.
“Well, ‘fest’ means ‘festival’ …” Rebecca’s voice trailed off as she turned her attention back to her task.
“Do you mean like Melrin?”
“Yes, like Melrin. There are usually only two sicknesses after any festival: one is caused by too much to eat, and the other is caused by too much to drink,” Rebecca answered. “It makes sense that they talk about caulk, since that is what –”
A face looked in at the door and both of them turned.
“Lilike! Hello!” The high voice belonged to Kerith, one of Sian Allyn’s young orphans. The child’s unbridled enthusiasm made Kerith one of Rebecca’s favorites. Her guardian, looking haggard, followed her into the little room.
Rebecca silently gauged the symptoms she could clearly read in the child’s appearance. Her long, golden hair hung like rats’ tails around her face. Her skin had lost its sheen and her body was emaciated, except for a small, rounded belly. “Hello, Kerith,” she said, letting the tale of her malady come out in its own time.
Kerith turned and asked, “Lilike, can I have some water?”
Lilike brought a cup in silence, and as Kerith drank, the apprentice touched the little girl’s forehead and asked, “Is she not eating properly?” There was a serious note in her voice, one that Rebecca had not heard before. The healer realized that Lilike too sensed Kerith’s illness. She was encouraged that her apprentice had begun to recognize the look of sickness, despite the fact that she had only been with Rebecca for a few months.
Sian’s hazel eyes, rimmed with red, were the only color in her pale face, and her shoulders sagged as she replied to the apprentice’s question. “Yes, she is, but nothing stays in. And she’s using the chamber pot all the time.”
“How long has this been the case?” asked Rebecca.
“I didn’t really notice it coming on. Maybe a fortnight or more?”
Rebecca’s eyes narrowed in suspicion as she examined the child. She thought she recognized Kerith’s illness, and dreaded being right.
“Can you help her, Rebecca? What’s wrong with her?” Sian asked, her voice stronger than before, looking at the healer.
When Rebecca looked into Sian’s eyes, however, Sian instinctively sensed the gravity of the sickness. The little hope that Rebecca had seen in her face disappeared.
“Come with me. Lilike, talk to Kerith,” Rebecca said, leading the way toward the back door to the small garden and alleyway behind her shop. As she stepped over the threshold, she turned back and added, “And don’t give her anything to eat.” She knew that Lilike might give Kerith the dried fruit and honey that they kept to persuade small children to take bitter medicine, and that would probably not be good for the child.
When they were outside, Sian spoke, words tumbling out in a torrent. “What’s wrong, Rebecca? You know what’s wrong, don’t you? Tell me.”
Rebecca nodded. “I think it is the sweet sickness.”
“The sweet sickness? What’s that?”
“It is a rare disease, but if that is what is afflicting her, you cannot let her eat anything save a bit of meat — and not even fatty meat — and maybe lettuce, and those but once a day. Do not, on any account, let her eat bread or honey. Do you understand me?” Rebecca put every bit of authority she could into the last question and was rewarded by Sian nodding with determination in her face.
“Good. Now, before I tell you more, I must be sure.” There was no sense alarming Sian further until she was certain.
“How will you do that?” Sian asked.
“We will do it right now,” Rebecca said, going back inside. “Kerith, come with me.” She led the way out of the back door.
After Sian and Kerith left, Rebecca sat down and stared blankly at the floor, searching her memory for everything she’d ever been told about the sweet sickness. The silence was unbroken, as Lilike did not speak for a long time. The apprentice sat on the floor, crushing dried quince berries in a small mortar, eyes on her task. When the ninth bell of the day tolled outside and dusk was fast approaching, Lilike finally asked.
“I can’t believe Kerith looks like that. What’s wrong with her, Rebecca?”
Rebecca looked at the youthful figure before her and sighed. “It is the sweet sickness. People get it when they offend the Olean goddess Shilsara, she who stands for joy and desire. I have seen it manifested in older people and rich ones a sennight or more after a great celebration. They overeat, then they become fat, and then they get the sweet sickness. They suffer from an unquenchable thirst, and all their flesh and limbs dissolve into urine. They waste away to nothing, and by the time –” Rebecca stopped abruptly, unwilling to complete that thought.
There was horror on Lilike’s face, and her hands paused in their action. “By the time what?”
Rebecca stared grimly at Lilike and then looked out the window, letting the silence be her reply.
“Is that what’s going to happen to Kerith?” Lilike asked, as if needing an explicit answer.
“I’m not certain. I have never seen a child so afflicted.”
Lilike asked, “Then how are you sure it is the sweet sickness?”
“My teacher, Cyon, used to use the taste test,” Rebecca said, leaning back in her chair, “and there are ants out back.”
“You took her out back to pass water?” Lilike asked, awareness dawning.
“Yes. The ants were attracted to her water because it was sugary. That’s why it’s called the sweet sickness,” Rebecca said, unable to stop the pedantic note that crept into her voice. “It’s unmistakable. The thirst is the first indication, followed by the wasting away of limbs, then the urine is the final proof.”
“What is the cure?” The tone of Lilike’s question was hesitant.
Rebecca did not answer, keeping her eyes trained on the window.
After a moment or two, Lilike got up, replaced the mortar on the shelf, and turned to implore, “Rebecca, is there a cure?”
“For the older people who get it, it can be controlled for a while by avoiding many foods and eating only certain foods: lean meats, lettuce, spinach. Bread and sweets must be avoided, and no spirits of any kind. One small meal a day only. If they follow this, they can live for another year or two. Still, once you have offended Shilsara in this manner, there is no way to lift her curse.”
Lilike glared her denial at her mentor. “That’s not true. I don’t believe it. I refuse to believe it! How can you say that? There must be a cure. If we beseech Shilsara and give Kerith herbs, she will get better. We just have to know which ones to give her.”
Rebecca sighed. Lilike’s blind optimism was both valuable and dangerous. As a healer, she would see many patients survive because of her efforts, but perhaps as many would die despite them. She would need her optimism to endure all that and persevere as a healer, yet it was a painful burden to bear in cases like this, when the affliction was both irrevocable and fatal.
“Fine, be that way. I will do it myself,” Lilike muttered. “I’m going to the Olean temple to talk to the priests.”
Rebecca opened her mouth to say something, but the young woman was already across the threshold. It might do Lilike good to meet something she couldn’t conquer, but the thought of that being Kerith’s sweet sickness was painful, even for Rebecca.
The following afternoon, Rebecca watched Lilike’s angry face and sighed. Her visit with the Olean priests the previous evening had apparently yielded nothing of value, and when Lilike had returned to speak to the master priest a second time, he had been unavailable. Not that Rebecca had expected anything else.
Sian had visited earlier in the day, and Rebecca had told her the truth: the only way to prolong Kerith’s life was by controlling what she ate, and that would but delay the end. Sian had left, bravely overcoming her tears, but since then Lilike had sulked. Rebecca turned away to continue her tasks, deciding to avoid the subject for the time being.
There was a knock on the door and both women looked up.
“Come in. How can I help you?” Rebecca invited, glad of the interruption. It was a young man whom she did not recognize, but a healer’s home was open to all who needed help.
Lilike rose, smiling, one hand extended in invitation. “Come in. Rebecca, this is Cereid, one of the acolytes I met at the Olean temple. Cereid, this is Rebecca, my teacher.”
Rebecca nodded. “Have you come to visit with Lilike?”
Standing next to Lilike, Cereid looked only a little older than she did. His dark hair was shorn close to his scalp, leaving little more than a trace of stubble, and he wore plain breeches made of homespun. His tunic, though worn, was of good material. Dark eyes glittered in a pleasant face that looked as if he smiled often.
“Milady, when Mistress Lilike came to the temple, she asked to see our books of healing. She related her need to treat a child with ‘the sweet sickness’, which is unknown to our healers. Since we have only three healers, none could be spared to look into her request, and no one is allowed into our library but initiates.”
None of this was news to Rebecca, although Cereid’s apologetic tone was an improvement on his elders’ earlier dismissal of Lilike. The young man continued, “So I took it upon myself to borrow a couple books from the temple, which I can share with Mistress Lilike in the hopes that this child can be cured with something we learn from them.” From a shoulder sack, the priest brought forth two small but thick books, which he handed to Lilike.
“Oh, thank you, Cereid! Thank you!” Lilike’s praise was enthusiastic, but brief, as she grabbed the first book and opened it, exposing pages and pages of closely-written lines, occasional drawings of leaves, knives, and other, unrecognizable things. Cereid looked over her shoulder, and helped decipher the script.
Rebecca was pleased, but she felt divided. Was there a cure to be found? While she wanted to cure Kerith, she also did not want to foster a treacherous and likely false hope in herself or her protege.
As the healer watched, the two of them pored over the tome. Several of the pages they dismissed immediately because the writing was apparently about wounds or childbirth. One page looked interesting, and the two of them spent quite some time discussing it until Rebecca realized that it sounded much like leprosy, a disease of the skin. Skipping it, they moved on to another page with a drawing of a ewe. The volume seemed endless, and Rebecca became depressed by the sheer number of maladies and misfortunes that mankind was subject to.
“It’s almost nightfall,” Rebecca observed. “Cereid, don’t you have tenth bell prayers to attend at the temple?”
Cereid rose and rapidly packed away the books. “I didn’t even hear the ninth bell. Yes, I must go.”
Rebecca chuckled. “That’s because the two of you were so engrossed in that last rhyme. What was it about? Sounded a lot like sour stomach to me.”
Lilike stretched. “Oh, something about worms in the stomach. I wonder if people get real worms in their stomachs.”
“That page said they cut up a thief who was hung for banditry and they saw worms in the stomach,” Cereid said as he walked to the door. “So they must, no? Do you want me to return tomorrow to go through the books some more, Lilike?”
“Actually, why don’t I meet you at the temple? I think I’ll go see Kerith and then come there.”
The days progressed in much the same way, with Cereid bringing books for Lilike to look at when he could. While his visits became less frequent, he would sometimes leave a book for Lilike to read overnight, although he made it clear to her that he could get in trouble if anyone at the temple found out. In this manner, a fortnight passed, and then another, while Lilike grew ever more somber. Sian had not returned, but Rebecca knew that Lilike saw her in order to visit Kerith. The healer knew that her apprentice would lose a part of herself when the end came, but she could not bring herself to stop the young woman.
One afternoon, a month after Kerith’s initial visit, the two of them were seated in their customary positions, Rebecca in her chair facing the window and Lilike on the ground near the door, for once without any herbs to work on or a decoction on the fire. It had been a busy day for the two of them, and Rebecca had decided that they both needed to sit quietly for a while. In the silence, she watched Lilike, who had one of Cereid’s books open before her. The young woman had lost most of her optimism about finding the right herbs to give Kerith. She hadn’t even touched the book that Cereid had left two days before until Rebecca had asked her why.
Rebecca sighed, realizing the irony in that. After all her impatience whenever her apprentice had talked about Cyon’s books, today she herself had encouraged Lilike to continue looking for a solution in Cereid’s Olean tomes. Not that it had helped; the book lay open before her, while she stared out of the door. It was late afternoon, and there was barely enough light to read by, although Lilike had yet to notice. Outside, the town bell tolled nine times.
“Lilike, what are you doing?” Rebecca felt sorry for her but could not allow her to become morose over one patient.
She sat up, meeting the older woman’s gaze. “Nothing. I was just thinking. I went to see Kerith this morning.”
Rebecca sighed. “I think you need to stop going to see her.” When Rebecca had run into Sian at the marketplace two days prior, they had discussed Kerith’s condition. Rebecca knew that the end was near.
Lilike’s distress came out in a rush. “Her stomach is like a pregnant woman’s, but she’s like thin sticks held together by the clothes she wears. She can’t get out of bed. And Sian has decided to let her eat anything she wants!”
Rebecca shook her head. “If the child is starved, she may survive for a year or so, but if Sian lets her eat whatever she wants, a fortnight, maybe two.”
“We’re close to finding something, Rebecca. I know it!” Lilike said earnestly, “I went to ask her to feed Kerith no more than once a day again.”
Rebecca shook her head, already knowing the answer. “She didn’t listen, did she?”
Lilike grimaced and recounted the argument they’d had, and the unexpected anger in Sian’s voice. Lilike was afraid that not only would Sian let Kerith eat as she pleased, but she would also prevent Lilike from seeing the child again.
Rebecca sighed. “Lilike, dear, sometimes when someone is about to die, the people who love that person lose hope and become angry. As healers, we have to accept that.”
Lilike wiped her tears and said, “It’s not that, Rebecca. I understand that, and I’m angry too! But I’m so close to finding something, and I couldn’t make her agree to limit Kerith’s food. Sian simply won’t give me more time.”
“No, Lilike. She’s just afraid that you may not be able to find a cure, and she can’t bear to see Kerith starve,” Rebecca comforted. “You have to accept –”
“I think I understand what it means,” Lilike said, seemingly at random. A tear traced a line down her cheek. “A healer is he who has not healed a hundred beings.”
“Oh, girl …” Rebecca felt her throat catch. She hadn’t wanted Lilike to have such a harsh route to that understanding.
Another tear crept out of Lilike’s eye and she brushed it away, meeting Rebecca’s gaze. “She’s going to die, isn’t she? No, don’t answer that; I know that Kerith is going to die.” There was silence for a long moment. Finally, she said in a small voice, “What do I do now, Rebecca?”
The healer looked into the blue eyes gazing trustfully into hers. Rebecca thought she herself had accepted that death was an integral part of a healer’s life. Watching Lilike deal with her failure to save Kerith led Rebecca to ask whether that acceptance was only a veneer. Maybe she had needed this reminder as much as Lilike had needed the lesson. “We go on. There’s always another patient, another wound, another cough. There are always people who need –”
By the time Rebecca turned to see who had knocked at the door, the young priest Cereid was already inside the room. “Lilike, I found something. It’s not the answer, but it might be a clue!”
He turned to face Lilike, who had yet to move. “You know that I’ve been trying to help you ever since you first visited the temple. Because of my duties there, I couldn’t come visit you every day, but I’ve spent as much time in our library as I could, with more than just the books I brought here. And this morning I found something that might help us.”
Lilike asked hesitantly, “Are you saying that you found a potion or something to cure it?”
“No, not really, but in some notes written about eighty years ago, one of our healers wrote about the sweet sickness and mentioned that there was a cure. I spent all day in our library, looking for the actual cure, and I just can’t find it in any of the tomes in the Olean temple.” The disappointment on his face was reflected in Lilike’s.
As she thought it through, she ventured, “If there was a cure, might one of the other temples in Dargon have recorded it? I can go to each one and ask if their healers knew anything about the sweet disease …”
“Oh, and one other thing.” Cereid touched Lilike’s sleeve to get her attention. “It wasn’t called the ‘sweet disease’ in the notes, but the ‘sweet curse’. Not that — What?” Cereid interrupted himself as a huge grin spread across Lilike’s face.
“I know it!” she squealed. “Rebecca, it’s your book.”
“What?” Rebecca watched in amazement as Lilike, with scant regard for the conversation they had been having, turned toward the shelves and pulled one of her master’s old books out of a box, wiping her tears off carelessly with the back of one hand. “Of course! Cyon wouldn’t have a book about magical curses; he’d have a book about diseases!” She opened the heavy tome, then suddenly stopped and muttered, “How are we going to find it?”
Cereid looked from her to the book, openmouthed.
Rebecca said sharply, “You have to first know what you’re looking for.”
“How is it that you have the book?” Cereid’s astonishment still played on his face.
“We do know what we’re looking for,” Lilike responded to Rebecca. “It’s called the sweet sickness. You said so yourself. Or the sweet curse …” She turned to Cereid, grinning. “Rebecca’s teacher gave this to her. She’s had it forever.” Lilike sat down near the door and set the open book before her.
“But how do you know that it will work?” Rebecca thought her voice had acquired a shrill note, so she consciously lowered it and continued, “Lilike, how do you know that’s what it’s called in there?” Lilike’s enthusiasm worried Rebecca. It was bad enough that she was visiting Kerith, but if the apprentice’s hopes were renewed, she would be doubly devastated when the end came, as it inevitably would.
Cereid was still unable to get past his amazement. “I just found out the name of the disease, and you already have the book? Is that not a miracle of Ol?”
Lilike frowned as she turned the pages, and Rebecca could see that most of the young woman’s concentration was on the book rather than the conversation. The healer waited in silence, watching the two younger people.
“Oh Cereid, the miracle isn’t that we have a book of curses; the miracle is if we can find the answer in this huge book!” Lilike paused and hefted it to show the other two how big it was, “And the real miracle is going to be when the cure actually works. Rebecca, how can I not try? Don’t you think it’s worth it?” She looked up at the older woman, her expression pleading. “Not just for Kerith, but there must be other people who are accursed with it. You recognized the symptoms immediately, which means you must have seen many people with it. Even if I can’t help Kerith,” she stopped and swallowed before finishing, “it will still help others.”
Rebecca sighed, reading Lilike’s grief easily. How could she refuse, even if it probably meant more disappointment later? However, Rebecca did not want her own hope rekindled. She knew that a master healer needed to have hope, but it was also a very treacherous emotion to nurture. “Straight. As long as we don’t have too many patients, or anyone with serious wounds, you can pursue this.”
Lilike smiled and said, “Thank you! Don’t mind her, Cereid. Come over here. You never answered me: was there anything in your healer’s notes that would help us find the right curse in this book?”
“All the notes said was that the cure required a young pig.”
Lilike hesitated, incredulous. “A pig?”
“Yes. Every Olean knows that pigs are special. My mentor told me that’s because the great Ol gave a pig to each of the gods to show them what life is. That’s why Oleans eat pork on days special to our gods. If there’s a ritual to cure Shilsara’s sweet curse, it makes sense that it involves a pig.”
Rebecca frowned, knowing that pork was holy for Oleans, but at a loss as to what that had to do with curing the sweet sickness. It all sounded very specious.
Lilike began flipping pages while answering the priest, “I don’t know, Cereid. It certainly sounds believable, but — Look, here’s a page with a pig …”
The two of them read it aloud together.
“For mawkish rain when the flesh is water,
The curse is of the body and all goes out,
Naught but skin and bone is left without doubt,
To set all right bring a lobed gland to barter.
Swill a swine, lose the guts
A sennight’s prayer, skin to skin.
Repentance distances the sin.
To set all right, drink of the pot
All is well. Hail Shilsara!”
There was silence as the two youths tried to work through the verse. Rebecca examined the drawing next to the poem. She didn’t think that they had found the cure, but Cereid appeared to be certain. It was obvious that Lilike wanted to believe badly, and Rebecca could not find it in her heart to deny that hope. Despite Lilike’s arguments that the search for the cure would help other people, Rebecca knew that the impetus was the need to help Kerith. Other patients were in a distant future; Kerith was dying slowly before their eyes. It would be difficult for Lilike’s first death of a patient to be a child whom she knew and had played with. It was a daunting loss for an old and experienced healer, much less an idealistic apprentice.
“Straight,” Lilike said, her brisk voice and bright eyes revealing her interest. “Tell me how this is what we’re looking for. It doesn’t say anything about a sweet curse, but it does talk about a pig. You were right about that.”
Cereid answered, “Listen. The ‘sweet sickness’ is a name that Rebecca uses. It doesn’t mean that that’s what it was originally called. You said that there was sugar in her urine, correct?”
Lilike nodded at that, and so did Rebecca. He continued, “Straight. The first line says ‘mawkish rain’ which could mean ‘sweet water’. The next two lines describe the curse. It says that the body expels water until there’s nothing left but skin and bone.”
The description of the indications seemed to fit. Rebecca shrugged, not ready to believe, even though it was apparent from the way Lilike nodded that she was.
“Then it says to swill the swine and lose the guts. I think that would mean to soak the pig in water, drink the water, and throw the guts out. I’m not sure what ‘lobed gland’ means, though.” Cereid looked thoughtful. “It says a sennight’s prayer to Shilsara. I can do that.”
“No, no. Look!” Lilike pointed to the picture, words tumbling out. “See how they show the pig tied to the stomach in that picture? We cut the gland out and place the rest of the pig on the stomach of the person. Then we boil the gland in water for a sennight and have Kerith drink it.”
Cereid was shaking his head before she finished. “No. You don’t boil something for a sennight, do you?”
“I don’t see why not. Are you sure ‘mawkish’ means sweet? Everything hinges on that one word.” After her initial confidence, Lilike seemed to be growing doubtful once again.
“Yes. Don’t you believe me?” Cereid was looking aggrieved. “You can ask my mentor if you don’t trust me.”
“I trust you,” Rebecca interjected. The two younger people looked up in surprise as if they had forgotten her presence. “As for the sennight, they don’t mean boil the gland for seven days, they mean that the patient is fed nothing but the gland’s liquid for seven days. And you can see what the gland looks like in the picture.”
The two of them looked up at her as she spoke, and meeting their anxious gazes, her own doubts began to crowd in. Could this work? Had they indeed found it? If so, Kerith could be cured. On the other hand, what if it didn’t work? Did she, Rebecca, have the right to subject Kerith, not to mention Sian, to a treatment that two youngsters had discovered from some notes that had been buried and forgotten for eighty years?
Rebecca turned away from the two sets of expectant eyes to stare out the window. As if they knew she was pondering, Lilike and Cereid remained silent. She prayed, staring up at the clouds in an evening sky that glowed a deep azure, and she saw Kerith’s smile.
A sennight later, Rebecca and her apprentice waited anxiously around Kerith’s bed. Sian had stepped out of the room to fetch a light. Lilike stood silently, while Rebecca sat on a chair next to her, reflecting on the frenzied pace of the past few days. Cereid had managed to buy a piglet, although he’d had to take a loan of a few Rounds from the butcher. She would have to remember to ask Sian for the money, although she was sure the foster mother would be hard-pressed to find it. Perhaps Kerith’s older brother, Aren, who had also been adopted by Sian, would be able to help, now that he had begun working for Derill Carpenter.< /p>
Rebecca had extracted the gland, and, to Lilike’s vocal surprise, it had protruding lobes that looked like miniature ears. Rebecca had placed the piglet on Kerith’s stomach, with the animal’s torn body against the little girl’s skin. The gland had been soaked in water, and every day Rebecca had made a fresh broth. Because Kerith had lost consciousness, Rebecca had shown Lilike how use a reed to drip the liquid into the little girl’s mouth. As each day passed, the piglet seemed to deflate, while Kerith’s bloated stomach became less distended. Yet it happened so gradually that, despite being at Kerith’s bedside for most of the sennight, none of them, including Rebecca herself, had noticed it happening.
This was the seventh and final day. They had fed the last two cupfuls of the gland fluid to Kerith, who looked much improved. The child still looked ill, but her stomach was no longer bloated, and her hair, while still looking ratty, had lost its brittle quality.
Outside, the last bell of day tolled, and Sian entered with a small taper in her hand to light the single sconce in the bedroom. Completing her task, she approached the bed to stand across from the two healers. The last rays of the sun that entered the room through the single window dimmed.
“Rebecca?” Lilike’s voice quavered, and Rebecca smiled at her, knowing the cause for her apprentice’s worry. Even though Kerith looked much improved, she had yet to awaken.
Rebecca said, “Be patient, girl. Sian, why don’t you bring up a slice of bread and some water?”
Sian looked startled. “For Kerith?”
“Yes, for Kerith.” Rebecca touched the little girl’s hand. “She will wake up soon.”
Sian left and Lilike muttered, “Wake up, Kerith. Please wake up.”
As if she had heard the command, Kerith opened her eyes. Her gaze fell on Lilike, and the little girl smiled. “Hello, Lilike. How long have you been here?”
Lilike whispered, “Oh, Kerith!” Her knees buckled, and Rebecca caught her elbow to steady her.
Turning her attention to her patient, Rebecca asked gently, “How are you feeling, Kerith? Are you thirsty?”
Kerith thought for a moment. “Not really. I’m hungry, though. What’s this on my stomach? Ewww! Get it off!”
“Hush! Wait!” Rebecca held the thin hands tightly, away from the remains on her belly.
“Kerith!” Sian was at the door, and as Rebecca watched, the expression on Sian’s face turned to pure joy, leavened only by passing disbelief. She came toward them, absently setting the plate in Rebecca’s waiting hands.
Kerith smiled at her, and the two of them hugged.
“I’m hungry. Can I eat?” Kerith looked at Sian, who looked at Rebecca, who nodded as she passed the plate back.
“It’s fine. Little meals, slowly. Come to see me in three days, but send word if you notice or if she feels anything is wrong.”
Sian nodded, smiling, and handed the plate to Kerith. The three women watched the little girl eat.
Rebecca said, “We should go.” She reached out and untied the grisly skin and bones from the child’s stomach and rolled it up in the fabric she had brought for the purpose. The moment it came away from Kerith’s skin, it began to stink.
“Ewww!” Kerith’s dismay was closely followed by Lilike’s. Rebecca could not help laughing at the identical expression on both their faces.
“Kerith!” Into the crowded room burst her older brother Aren.
Still smiling, Rebecca said, “Come, Lilike.” The two of them left quietly, leaving the family to their joy. Outside, twilight had passed into a night filled with stars and the slight presence of the moon, Nochturon. Rebecca inhaled deeply, accepting the peace inherent in the heavens.
“She’s going to be completely well now?” Lilike asked.
Rebecca nodded. “Yes. You did good, Lilike. You did good.”
Lilike gave a little skip as if the happiness within needed physical expression. “Is it always like this, Rebecca? I mean when someone is really ill and then they get better because of what you did, does it feel like this?”
Rebecca laughed. “Yes, always. It’s part of being a healer.”
Kerith’s cure had been a truly amazing thing, but what most satisfied Rebecca was that her vision of Lilike as a healer had been true. The young woman had that quality in her soul, and Rebecca would never doubt it again. In addition, such an emotional first triumph would kindle Lilike’s confidence and dedication to her work.
Lilike said in wonder, “That saying isn’t complete is it? ‘A healer is he who has not healed a hundred beings.’ There needs to be more to it …”
“A healer finds his joy in healing,” Rebecca offered, smiling. “My teacher didn’t tell me that until I felt for the first time what you are feeling now.”
Lilike laughed. “Yes! Oh, Rebecca, isn’t it wonderful?”