Published: September 20, 2011
The air was wet and heavy and it stuck in her throat; she thought of the smell of rotting gardens and coughed until scarlet blood hung from her lips and stained the moss beneath her cheek. She couldn't groan, couldn't even voice the pain. And her body was too dry for crying. All Andra could do was lay crumpled, her very self fighting her with the sickness that tore through her insides like a lash, the last vestiges of her strength being fed to her twitching limbs for shaking and spasming.
There were ants crawling over her fingertips. Flies at her mouth, the corners of her eyes. She shifted her head, weakly, desperate to drive them off while she still had life in her, but the creatures were impatient. They swarmed back again. It wouldn't be long, now.
Andra thought of her mother, who wept as she pushed her out the door. Her father, gray and still on the bed and set to be burned. Master Thomas was dead in his home. Father Calton, huddled in his church and praying for mercy. The bells were hung in black, the walls
Sputum bubbled in her windpipe. Andra tried to cough it out, but her lungs were weak and she was choking instead. Her mouth was permanently laced with this copper-slick taste, it was in her gums, between her teeth. The burning was worst on her back, her armsshe'd seen the sores on others and she knew. Sinner's marks. God had marked her to be punished. She was wicked.
Or was it her mother? She'd heard it whispered, it was her mother's sin. Her beautiful mother. Her mother, whose husband was dead and now her daughter marked and driven from town, there was too much already, she had to go. Had to go. Andra understood. If the marked were banished, perhaps God would relent.
She buried her face into the dirt, the cold of fever gnawing at her bones. Her only sadness was that she didn't have her rosary; even if she was a sinner, the comfort of it would have been nice. She tried to pray, but not even her mouth could form the words when the rasp of her voice failed her, and her thoughts were fleeting, skittering out of reach. The trees were swaying in the wind. The trees were closing in on her, thick and silent and sentinels. Like a top spinning over the floor, frogs birthing, the patter of rain on molding leaves swaying like rusting chains. Andra wanted to push it out of her, these claws in her organs and the base of her neck and joints. She was wicked. She couldn't think.
She didn't hear the footsteps until they were but paces away, and even then there was little room for surprise left in her. An animal, come to finish her off. A panther or a bear. She closed her eyes and waited, resignation clouded with exhaustion and her breath stuttering, but then she felt a hard prod, as with a stick, and she looked up in confusion and terror stilled her ragged breath.
Black. Black and pale like Death himself. The darkness of his boots and the sheen of his waxed overcoat, his hood and the broad-brimmed hat misted with the rain's faint drizzle. But white as bone shone his face, a face not for any human man, it was drawn into a strange disfigurement, a long and protruding bill that curved out in a long arc beneath the sanguine and glinting discs of his eyes. His short staff was rough blackthorn with a polished knob on the end; he poked her gingerly with it, again, and rolled her over with the slightest push.
The sky was gray and her eyes were stinging. Andra felt herself slacken with the horror racing through her spine. She couldn't run, it was death, death, the men in masks, she'd seen them, they came for the dead, they came for her father, they came for her
"P-please," she gasped, harsh and broken words dribbling like the blood off of her tongue. "Don't
D-don't take me
The death-man tilted his head slightly. Studying her. A single bead of water trailed over the tip of his beaked nose, and he crouched down, his breathing heavy and thick. He bent over her, and then he gripped her shoulder with a massive black-gloved hand.
"Glad I found you," he said. His voice was deeper, softer, gruffer than she expected. She shivered, and he reached out to wipe a smear of dark-streaked spittle from her chin. "Easy. I'm here to help. Thought I'd collected the last of you two days ago. Dammed idiotic of Sarton to cast out their own. Barbaric."
Andra didn't understand, but stared up at him in transfixion, breath whistling painfully between her clenched teeth. The death-man slid a brawny arm beneath her shoulders, easing her upright a bit.
"I've saved worse than you," he said, but she wasn't sure what he meant, or that it mattered anyways. When he cradled her in his arms and stood, her world rocked and spun, and when he took a single step she coughed raggedly and her vision spiraled into a cold and vast dark nothingness.
In her dreams, Andra walked through a city that she'd never seen before, leaving ashes in her wake. The stones of the road and foundations were crumbling and slime-slick. When thunder boomed dully in the distance, wind stirring her hair, she cried out for her mother, but there was no answer save for the wetness on her face.
She opened her eyes without meaning to, and her first sight was that of an enormous black bird squatting upon a stony hearth, ebony talons digging scratches into the mantel. Beady eyes pierced her gaze, and the creature cawed, beating its wings. Shuddering, Andra turned her head, and found herself under the crimson gaze of the death-man, his own blanched and curving beak near touching her face.
"S'alright," he said, as the breath caught in her throat. "M'not gonna take you away."
There was a damp cloth laid on her brow. The man lifted it, dabbing gently at her burning cheeks. Andra shivered, despite the heat. How strange, the heat. Last she'd remembered, she'd been aching with cold, but now her skin was hot, sweat-damp. She tried to kick at the rough blankets that covered her, but her movements were feeble, her limbs heavy. The death-man touched her arm.
"Take it easy, lass. You'll need your strength." He folded the cloth and draped it over her forehead again. Andra could only whimper and look away from his shining glass eyes. The ceiling above her was low and sloping with bare wooden rafters, hung about with dried herbs, and the enormity of being indoors rolled over her. Even this little cabin, one-roomed as far as she was able to discern and with its shuttered windows and badly-chinked walls, was shelter from the darkness of the forest and tearing violence of its storms.
The bird shrieked again, and the man looked up. He rose and held out his arm, and it flapped from its perch to land on his black-clad wrist, pecking at his glove. He strode to the door and hauled it open a crack.
"Make yourself useful an' go see what's happening in town," he said, and all but tossed it into the air. It was gone with barely the sound of a wingbeat, and as the man eased the door shut and turned to her, Andra clenched her fists into her blanket, curling into the roughness of her cot and its single pillow like it could hide her from his approach.
He sat himself down on a creaking stool beside her. "Your fever's stabilized, at least," he told her, voice muffled and hollow from the depths of his mask. "With luck, it'll break by tomorrow." He shifted, turning to reach for something on a table beyond her view. She heard liquid trickling and couldn't help but run her tongue over crackled and parched lips. When he came to face her again, he held a little wooden cup. Andra tried to reach for it, but her hands were shaking and unsteady.
His arm nudged under her head in a familiar motion; he drew her upright with practiced ease and tipped the cup against her teeth. Andra sipped greedily and nearly gaggedthe contents were thick and bitter.
"C'mon," the man murmured. "Drink it all and you'll get some water, there's a brave lass." His fingers tightened into her shoulder in silent reassurance as she swallowed. Reservations and fear be dammed, her body was craving moisture so badly that she was willing to endure whatever it took.
Three more gulps, and the cup was taken away, replaced with a broad clay vessel. The water within seemed colder and more clear that any she had ever tasted, so pure that she nearly sobbed with relief. It ran in trails over her chin and throat, mingled with the rivulets of sweat between her breasts, but she didn't care. She sipped until the death-man pulled the vessel away, despite her mewl of protest.
"Gotta take it slow," was all he said, and laid her down once more, shifting her body so that she lay angled, partially on her side. She was grateful. The burning in her back was painful to the point of nauseating and to be off of the blisters was a relief.
The man sat back and watched her, and she watched him.
"What's your name?" he finally asked, a note of something akin to gentleness tempering his rough voice. She hesitated a moment, uncertain.
"Andra," she finally whispered. "Andromeda."
He hummed in consideration. "How old? I'd guessed seventeen winters or so
Close enough. "S-sixteen."
"Right. Alright." He nodded, beak dipping slightly as though in thought. "S'good for a healer to know. Promising, you being young an' strong." He reached out then, tugging her blankets higher around her, fiddling with the damp cloth. "Get some rest, now."
She wasn't surethere were so many questions, so much fear balanced on the tip of her tongue. But her sight was fading in and out again, and he probably knew that, and she was tired. She looked to him and caught a wavering glimpse of a green band wrapped round his right arm, the white circle and scarlet cross.
"You're a Surgeon?" she mumbled, but didn't recall hearing a response. Her last thoughts before tumbling back into sleep were a jumble of confusion: what would so educated a man, of such a rare and lofty profession, the highest of medical ranksbe doing in plague-infested Sarton, town of the dead?
Delirium washed her across reality and back againfever visions, flickering things, crowded her mind and sight until she was thrashing, weeping, desperate to escape or just to die. A persistent, angered growl in her ear would sometimes lance the nightmares, bully her to keep fighting; a strong tea, thick with honey, was spooned past her lips. Shortly thereafter, all visions ceased, and Andra slid gratefully into white noise.
Gray light was filtering through the shutters when she woke again. She was alone but for the bird, who regarded her evenly from its landing on the hearth, dark feathers ruffled and long crest raised against the chill drafts. It shuffled its feet and croaked when their eyes met, but other than that, there was very little sound but for the outside hum of insects and the slight pop of a fire burned to embers.
Andra shifted, uncomfortable. Her back was itching something fierce and she was drenched in sweat. She realized that she was nakedperhaps a practical state, considering her illness and the need to discard any traces of contamination, but a defenseless one. She gathered the withered blankets to her chest defensively, casting a mistrusting glance at the bird. There was far too much intelligence in its gaze for her to feel secure.
She wasn't sure if she was any better, but for the first time in what could have been weeks she felt like she could think, despite the aching in her head and the throbbing of her sores and joints. Taking stock of her surroundings helped just a littleshe recognized this little cottage as one of the quarantine huts that had been built outside the town limits, deep in the woods. But the piecemeal arrangement of furniture seemed outside the original design, ordered neatly, spread with plants and scrolls and a heavy book and note-scrawled parchment. The smell of burned wood and fragrant herbs spiced the air, and despite the roughness the place was clean.
Which meant that she probably wasn't dead, because she certainly hadn't expected death, after being so sin-marked, as being either this pleasant or strange. And despite the nightmarish appearance of her host, the Surgeon, dressed in what she now recalled as the garb designed to protect him.
Andra let her head thump back into the pillow with a sigh. The fatigue was weighing heavily on her bones and even her new sense of clarity couldn't stop the occasional cough. She found a bucket, evidently used by her before, beneath her cot and spat into it. What was coming up bore far less blood than before, which stirred a faint degree of encouragement in her.
She was studying the ceiling somewhat foggily when the door creaked open. The Surgeon was back from wherever he had gone to, and with a rush basket slung over one arm. In full daylight, no matter the faintness of it, he was far less threatening. Alien, yes, and unnerving, but not quite the deathly specter she'd thought him earlier. He kicked the door shut behind himself and glanced her way, leaning his blackthorn stick against the wall.
"You're lookin' better," he remarked, and stumped across the room to set his basket upon the table, moving to her side. He sat himself on the same little stool she'd seen him use before, staring at her down the long beak of his mask. Two gloved fingers rested delicately on the side of her throat, waited. And then he mumbled something and drew his hand back. "Sorry, lasshave to wash up later, but I just can't work like this
" The right glove was yanked off, irritably, and tossed to the floor. Andra blinked, startled, but his hand, warm and callused, felt for her pulse once more before resting gently over her brow. He made a pleased sort of sound. "That's good."
The bird on the mantel squawked, the noise like a sharp barb of irritation. The Surgeon looked over his shoulder at it.
"Hush, you," he snapped. "I'll be fine. Stop being a pest an' go get yourself something to eat."
The bird preened at its breast and scolded, but after a moment it hopped from the hearth and onto the window ledge. As Andra watched with wide eyes, it tumbled the shutter latch open with its beak and shoved it open, taking off and leaving the shutters swinging behind him.
The man rose with a grumble. "Damned featherbag never closes anything after himself." He wove around the table to cover the window once more. "Try not to mind my friend too much, lass. I asked him to keep an eye on you anytime I go to town."
The frankness of his voice startled her, the way he casually talked to his giant bird and expected her to think of it as normal. And the mention of town was a shock that twisted in her guthowever long she'd been here, she'd shoved Sarton and its plight to the back of her mind, like some play she'd seen, or a terrible ballad. She pulled the blankets a little closer.
"You went to Sarton?" Her voice was the slightest croak, and talking made her cough again. The Surgeon came back to her, pulling out the bucket to let her spit into it once more.
"Aye," he said, when she could lay back. "Arrived there near a fortnight ago. Nasty one, this illness. Not incurable, though. Once I started getting things more stableand more Physicians were willing to come back an' helpI went looking for the folk they cast out, though all the ones I first came 'cross were already gone. Then I found you."
Her mind was reeling; Andra could barely register his other words beyond the offhand remark that he was curing their plague. She felt her arms shake with the realization.
Am I going to live, then?"
He snorted. "If I've got any say in it, aye. Your fever's broken, though you're still contagious. You take it easy and let me help you, an' we can get you cured like the rest of Sarton's curing. Deal?"
She nodded, and he dipped his beak in a satisfied manner and stood.
"That's a lass. First task involves lots of resting, though I'm gonna see if you can stomach a little food. Probably good if I looked at those blisters, too. But then I want you sleeping."
She watched as he went to the table to begin unloading the basket. Most of it seemed to be herbs, blankets, supplies, but there was also a small pot with a savory smell that made her stomach start to churn with a hunger long-forgotten, the hunger she'd felt in the first week of banishment, that had driven her to eat moss and gnaw on roots, before deep sickness stole all thoughts of food away.
" she rasped, shyly, as he ladled a clear broth into a small bowl. "W-what's your name?"
He glanced up, the dim firelight glow shining in the glass over his eyes, and said nothing for a long moment. But then he ducked his head and went back to spooning broth. "Cliff."
Andra frowned. "That's a title, not a name."
"It's all you need to know, isn't it?" He moved around the table and dropped back onto the stool, wooden bowl and spoon in hand. "S'what they give you when you graduate University, 'long with a scrap of parchment. I'm a Surgeon and I came to Sarton 'cause I wanted to help. Nothing more to it than that."
"Oh." She dropped her gaze, embarrassed. How could she forget that he was a man of high education, and probably great wealth? It wasn't her place, a little common girl, a baker's helper, to ask for his Christian name. She'd heard that Physicians were touchy about that, she could only imagine what standards a man of such a high order would hold.
But then he started to pull her upright again, and she flushed and pinned the blanket to herself hastily. The mask showed no expression, but in such close proximity now and with unclouded vision, she could swear that she could see a pair of dark eyes behind the scarlet glass, crinkled in awkward amusement.
Her hands trembled too much for her to eat unassisted. In a way, she was grateful, for it allowed her to keep her blanket-shield fixed firmly in place. The broth was bland and lukewarm, but it was so welcome after so long, and she was hungrier than she first realized. She ate until the bowl was empty and sighed when it was pulled away, and then he let her drink some water before he tipped more of the nasty medicine down her throat. After, he helped her to lie on her side, facing the wall, so that he could smooth a cool and stinging ointment over the swollen, angry red blisters across her back and shoulders and arms, blanket draped generously to protect at least a little of her modesty, to her relief.
Soon enough she was bundled back into her covers and arranged to be half-tilted once more, watching as he scrubbed his hands harshly over a basin with lye soap and alcohol until they were chapped pink. He dried them off, donned a fresh pair of gloves, and shot her a sidelong glance.
"You sleeping yet?"
"I'm trying." She closed her eyes. She was still frightened, a little bit, and sore and sick, but she was warm and dry, thinking almost clearly and with food inside her for the first time in days. It couldn't be so bad, right? If Cliff had saved her
Her notion of time may have been permanently skewed, a constant swirl of distortion that began the moment her mother thrust her out the door and latched it against her. Andra didn't mind so much. Perhaps hours were passing, perhaps months or years, but against all her predictions she was sheltered andfor the time being, at leastspared from the wrath of God. She questioned the Surgeon about it the next time she woke, as he tore slices of soft bread into pieces and dipped them into broth for her to eat, why he was here and saving a town the priests had told her was marked for a Gomorrean fate.
"I don't see how God has anything to do with it," he growled, holding her hand steady on the spoon as she ate. "Surely society's gotten better than to be blaming the Almighty for every sneeze."
it's not sneezing, it's a plague," she insisted, and she could swear he was rolling his eyes behind the mask.
"Look." He dabbed at her damp chin with a rag, careful motions at odds with the underlying impatience in his voice. "Plagues spread like any other sickness. Just 'cause it's deadly doesn't mean it's too different from a cold you catch by getting yourself coughed on. Men spread diseases, not God. Hellgates, d'you think he'd really be interested in grantingI don't knowsyphilis to sinners when whores are doing it so well already?"
Andra felt her cheeks heating, and not from fever. She turned her attention to her meal, spoon clattering against the bowl as she tried to steer it. "But they said it was
it was a curse," she murmured, meekly. "God's curse. The disease began with the plainsmen, the pagan barbarians from the west. We did trade with them, made peace with them, let them walk in our streets and tended to them when they became unwell. And their punishment became ours."
"And what, you killed yourselves with kindness?" He huffed impatiently, but still reached out to hold her hands to the bowl as she raised it to her lips to drain the last drops. "Don't be ridiculous."
Andra couldn't look at him as he stood and went about putting things away. She'd heard that new studies were taking much of the religion from medicine and she wasn't sure how she felt about it. When her father was first ill, the town herbalist had consulted his star charts.
And now both her father and the town herbalist were dead.
The Surgeon set the utensils outside to be washed and went to stoke the fire. Evening was coming on, and the stir of the wind made Andra wonder if another storm was on the way. He'd already spent the day sealing the worst cracks in the chinking, as if he was anticipating continuing rain as well.
A sort of silence stretched on as she settled back to try for more sleep, eyes half-closing but faint thoughts churning through the axis of her mind. The heavy tread of his boots moved over the floorboards as he went to continue his straightening, and as he brushed past her something fell into her lap. Andra reached out and felt round, smooth beads, the familiar shape of a blessed crossit was a rosary, the kind she'd seen all plague healers wear at their belts.
"Not that's there's no room for God in illness, mind," he said softly, tersely. "M'sorry if I'm coming off harsh."
Andra didn't know what to say, but she made a wordless noise of appreciation, curling her fingers around the familiar corded strand and bringing it close to her face so she could kiss the crucifix. She fell asleep with the press of it to her cheek, prayers running through her head like the comforting babble of a brook in spring.
But the peace in sleep was not lasting. Hours later, deep within the night, Andra burst into wakefulness in a spasm of terror, her own strangled scream mingling with the bone-shaking boom of thunder, the crashing of the rain against the shutters. The dark bird on the hearth exploded into frenzied caws, seizing her heart in a grip of bewildered panic, and the stark burst of lightning that brought more noise in its wake made her shriek once more and scrabble for something, for the rosary dropped on the floor, for her father, for anything, and when a viselike grip clasped her 'round the arm, she nearly fainted until she heard the Surgeon's voice.
"Andra! Lass, lass, it's fine. It's me. You're fine, lass. Hush, now, just a dream, s'all. Dream and a storm--" His bare hands fumbled, taking her by the shoulders, touching her face, smoothing down the dark strands of her hair. By the orange glow of the firelight she could see the white of his mask, far more reassuring that she could ever have imagined it to be. It was crooked, strapped on hastily, his cowl thrown haphazardly over his head and his hat missing.
He'd been sleeping, she realized. She hadn't realized that he slept like any ordinary man. Her eyes found the slight pallet of blankets on the floor before the fire, but the nightmare-fueled hysteria pumping in her veins couldn't allow her to dwell on itshe saw the faces of the dead, the putrid decay, and she shuddered and buried her face into his shoulder before she knew what she was doing, fingers digging into his arms convulsively, and her body heaving with unwanted sobs.
"Oh, God. Oh, God, Cliff. I'm sorry, I didn't mean it, I left themI didn't meanmy Da can't beand dear Jonathan, my
" She hiccupped, coughed, tried to catch her breath. The Surgeon's mask brushed against her neck, and then his broad, leathered palm pressed her head to him, a comfort. Her brow rested against the high collar of his coat. "I didn't want to see it like... I
bugs and flies everywhere and they were dead, Cliff, a-and
they were rottingb-bloody and falling apart and
His hands were moving through her hair, the muffled murmur of his voice closer than she'd ever heard it. She could smell the pungent herbs that stuffed the beak of his mask to ward off sickness. "Andra. Andra, it was a dream. Listen to me. Relax. Breathe. It wasn't real, lass. It wasn't real."
Her tears gave way to shuddering, and then, eventually, to shivers and shaky breaths. When her fingers relaxed their iron hold on him, he laid her down and reached out to take her pulse, measure her breathing, cup her cheek in reassurance. He drew the blankets back up to her shoulders.
"I'll make you something to help you sleep," he told her. "Without dreams. Herbs I'm using to cure you right now can make nightmares fair vivid."
Andra nodded, dazed. He reached down and found the rosary, laid it on the pillow by her ear. He was bending over her, checking the sound of her breathing again, when she reached up without thinking to touch the side of his face, half in confusion, and half in wonder at the slip of skin his crooked mask and cowl revealed. His flesh was warm, and human, a weathered cheek covered in the soft bristles of a short beard.
The Surgeon stiffened, and she realized her mistake. She might be still contagious, and she had just touched him without warning. She froze, aghast, but he didn't pull back, and when nothing was said she closed her eyes and let her hand drop slowly, ashamed of her lapse in judgment.
"I'm sorry," she whispered. He shook his head and clambered to his feet.
"S'fine. Lemme get you that tea."
The bird was hopping about on the table, croaking and clacking his beak; the Surgeon swatted at him as he went by, mumbling about hurling him outside if he didn't shurrup. Andra huddled into the blankets and squeezed her eyes shut, desperately wishing the nightmare images away, clinging to the rosary with all her strength when the thunder's threat rolled over the little cottage once more, shaking the shutters against the window frames. Eventually, Cliff returned with a steaming mug of heady-smelling mixture; he coaxed a few swallows between her lips and stood watching as sleep claimed her.
She hoped, and hoped desperately, that she hadn't infected him.
Andra woke in late morning to birdsong and balmy air, and the sense of having risen out of the deepest of slumbers. Outside, the forest was stirring and rain-beaded, and dull light was creeping in through the opened windows of the cabin. Stretching her limbs, she gave an experimental cough over her hand, and blinked in surprise when it yielded neither phlegm nor blood.
Over at the hearth, the Surgeon glanced over his shoulder at her. He was in perfect order once more, clad in fresh black and covered completely, but there was something in his movements that suggested good cheer.
"You're doin' much better, and so's your town," he said, bending over to stare at something he had brewing in a pot over the fire. Andra thought she caught a glimpse of him lifting a corner of his mask to get a better look, but the shadows of his cowl obscured the movement and what might lay beyond it. He made a thoughtful noise and stirred at the contents before casting her another look. "You'll be getting some fresh air today, since it'll do you good, an' I've got some badly made oatmeal with dried fruit for you to try and stomach. Meantime, I'm stepping out for just a minute, if you want to see if you can get yourself dressed."
Andra rubbed her hand across her eyes, somewhat befuddled, but before she could ask questions he was already gone, a bowl of the oatmeal and a hunk of bread in his hand, his bird flapping behind him as he slipped outside. The door snicked closed and she shook her head.
Well, then. Apparently he ate like anyone else did, too. She'd never thought to wonder why she'd never seen him do so, but it seemed that he took his meals outside, so that he could remove his mask without fearing contamination. She raised herself up on her elbows to see if she could catch a glimpse of him, but beyond the swaying of the wet, glistening trees, all was still.
There was a neatly-folded pile of clothing on the stool beside her, and the sight of it made Andra grin and sit up, drawing her quaking legs over the side of the cot. Evidently he'd deemed her well enough to attempt dressing by herself, which was rather significant considering that until now, her only forays from bed had been the times he'd carried her back and forth from the washroom, him hovering outside the closed door while she was there. Steadying herself against the wall and her cot, she pushed herself up and reached for the garments.
Simple clothes, really, very simple. Underthings and a long shift and a dressing gown, and the way they hung heavily on her body was surprising. She glanced at her arms and legs, startled at the amount of weight she'd lost, and she then sighed and tightened the dressing gown's tie before sitting down on the side of the bed to catch her breath.
In time, the Surgeon came back, and in this light she could see through the bits of red glass on his mask enough to watch his eyes tighten in what could possibly be a faint grin. He nodded.
"Paler than I'd like, but that's progress," he told her, and came over to heft her up into his arms without effort. She noticed that he had to duck when carrying her through the doorwayhe was very tall, and his shoulders broad enough that he had to go sideways to avoid whacking her on the frame.
Going outdoors was like the shock of cold water, or a wind that left her breathless. Compared to the stifling closeness of the hutno matter how much she appreciated itthe vast open of the rich outdoors, the swaying treetops and pearl-gray skies, was dizzying and astonishing. Asters and violets swayed in root-shadows, and columbine in the hut's shade. The Surgeon set her down on a little stump, damp but covered with a dry blanket, and Andra couldn't help but feel at the grass with her bare toes.
"It's so much different than when I'd been here last," she said, and her voice was stronger, not as shaky. She nearly burst out laughing at the sight of a red squirrel scurrying along an aspen tree; it was as if the forest she'd remembered from her childhood had returned, leaving the dark terror of the plague graveyard the stuff of faintest, unreal memories.
The Surgeon handed her a bowl and spoon, arranging her fingers around both but still drawing back to let her eat on her own. "Tends to be that way when you're not out of your mind with fever," he remarked, squatting down beside her. He almost seemed to be more comfortable, crouching like that, instead of sitting like she was or on a chair. Andra started eating, slowly, but watched as he poked a worm from a puddle onto higher, drier ground.
"Do you have to keep wearing that mask?" she asked, cautiously. "I mean, at least around me? I'm getting better, right?"
He shrugged. "You are. Be more comfortable with the notion once you fully lose that cough, though. I've got a working theory that it's spread by saliva, this disease. Or blood. The miller's son got it after his sister coughed some blood in his eye."
The food curdled on her tongue right then, and not on account of mediocre cooking. Andra let her spoon still in the bowl. "Did he live?"
"Samuel." She stared at her feet, dismally. "The miller's son. Did he live? He'd only just turned seven winters."
"He did. He's doing alright." The Surgeon fingered the beak of his mask, as though searching for the proper words. "M'sorry, but the little lass
Oh, but those words. The thought felt like a rock in her throat. Andra swallowed it down. "It's alright. We didn't really expect her to live. She was only a baby."
"I tried." His voice sounded raw. It was strange, a different emotion than she'd heard on him before, and Andra felt a stirring of unexpected sympathy. She'd seen him care, he obviously cared. Did it hurt him as much is it hurt her, in some way? She reached out and touched the edge of his sleeve.
"I know you did," she told him, and when he looked at her she gave him a small smile. The next question was a painful one, but she had to ask it. "Did you treat a boy named Jonathan?"
It was probably hard for him to remember everyone. Andra forced herself to take another bite of her breakfast before speaking. "He's a farmer's son, on the outskirts of town. He'd had a cough when I left. Do you remember him? He has brown hair and eyes, freckles
about my age, a little older
The Surgeon made a noncommittal sound, and it made her heave a sorry sigh. It probably sounded like she was describing half the boys in town to him. Still, her heart rose when he bobbed his leather beak in a nod. "I do remember ordering a freckle-face to the well-ward. If that's him, he should be doin' fine. Next time my friend shows up here, I'll make him to get himself to town to inquire."
"Thank you, Cliff." Andra stirred at her oatmeal. She could only assume that the bird was out hunting at that moment. Just like the Surgeon, he did have to eat, after all. "Is
your friend a raven?"
The Surgeon chuckled darkly. "No, I wouldn't call him that. He'd be insulted." Nudging a fallen spider back into its delicate, grass-suspended web with his little finger, he glanced her way. "This the same Jonathan you mentioned last night?"
"It is." She didn't want to think about the nightmare, though. Shivering, she ate a few more spoonfuls, as if focusing on the food could make the images go away. Much better to think of him in health, then, dark curls and round cheeks and a eager laugh, that dear sweet boy she'd known since childhood and loved, loved fiercely. She toyed with a bit of dried apple on the bottom of her bowl. "We're not engaged, but we do plan to be married
someday. Not now. We're too young."
"So long as you don't rush into it." His voice was dry. "Take it from me, s'good to wait."
The cryptic remark made Andra curious. She set her bowl aside. "How old are you, Cliff?"
"Older an' wiser than you. You're finishing that before I let you back in, by the way."
She picked up her spoon again, half-heartedly, but still peered at the healer with a growing sense of inquisitiveness. "I guess you won't let me ask where you're from, either."
"D'you think it would offend me?" His tone was like his mask, unreadable. Andra shrugged.
I thought you'd be. At first, when you first brought me here and didn't say your name. I thought you were haughty 'cause you went to University." She tugged at her hair, the faint edge of nervousness she felt at his mystery warring with the comfort of his presence. It was so strange. "Now I just don't know."
The bird returned the next morning with news: the town of Sarton was indeed healing nicely.
"There's at least a dozen shops back to running," the Surgeon informed her, as he cut slices of a soft white cheese for her breakfast. "They say the mayor's well enough he's starting work on getting things back to order."
Andra sipped at her tea and said nothing, thinking. She started to reach up to scratch at a half-healed scab on her shoulder, only to have him reach a long arm across the table to flick her fingers.
"Stop that. You want it to break and fester?"
"It itches," she grumbled, sullenly. He grunted.
"Means the blisters are healing. Leave 'em alone and they'll be gone in a week." He slid the cheese over to her, along with some grapes. "An' I suppose you'll be wanting to hear how your lad Jonathan's fairing?"
Tea sloshed over her wrist as she set down her cup with a startled clunk; the Surgeon cursed and frantically shoved his papers away from the spill, casting about for a rag before the little puddle reached his precious notes. Andra helped him move things with shaking fingers, vaguely apologetic but mostly desperate for him to hurry up and say something.
A towel was finally located and he relaxed. Dabbing at the table, he looked up after a moment and chuckled when he saw that she seemed fit to burst. "He's doin' well. My friend says he's walking about, an' possibly stronger than you at this point. Good color. His father's looking to find a farmhand or two, since his brother passed, but Jonathan himself is doing fair fine. Must be a strong one."
Andra nodded, stiffly. Her throat was thick with mixed emotion and her eyes swimming with something at least touched with bitter relief. She swiped her wrist over her face and gathered her breath, staring into the depleted contents of her cup. "That's good," she whispered. "Oh, that's so good, Cliff. Thank you."
The healer nodded, setting himself down across the table from her. "Won't be easy, though. For the town. We had to destroy the grainlot of how the disease was spreading, that. Don't worry," he added, hastily, catching the look on her face. "I've been sending letters, an' so has the mayor. Our lump of a king might not be lifting a finger, but I think we'll have enough support in time that Sarton will make it. It's a known crossroads. I think it'd be in a number of folks' best interests if it lived."
"Right." It was hard to process the thought. Andra tucked it away. There was an aunt in Kingscross she could flee to, if conditions got too bad, but she wasn't going to let herself make plans. She was here, in this warm cabin for now, and the boy she loved was still alive and she was getting better, as well. Even if there was a world outside, it was nice to pretend, just for a little, that she could stay in here forever, away from the cold and sadness she had seen in her hometown. Just her and this masked Surgeon and sometimes his bird. But still
"Is there any news of my mother?"
Cliff was silent for a long moment. He stirred at his latest batch of medicine, almost to excess with the time his took. Eventually, he looked up and sighed. "M'sorry, lass. She left town two weeks ago. No one knows where she's gone."
"I see." Andra's chest felt heavy. She shoved the plate of food away, any appetite lost. Her companion noticed and pushed his chair back, starting to rise, but she shook her head.
"Forgive me," she whispered. "I need to cry for a bit."
The Surgeon seemed reluctant, but he nodded, and sat down again. Andra stood, turned waveringly, and tottered to her cot. She curled up in the middle of it and covered herself in the blankets and was tear-streaked even before he left the room. She didn't care what he thought. It hurt. It hurt worse than sickness, being alive when there was so much that was dead.
She wept until her chest was aching and her eyes and nose were streaming, and until everything faded to dullness and she tumbled into sleep, empty and grieving and thankful for it.
Though she spent the day like she was half in the grave, wandering little and taking food and drink mechanically when she was ordered, when night fell she lay awake and thoughtful, listening to the croaking of an old bullfrog outside her window and the chattered mutters of the familiar red squirrel as he bedded down in his drey.
Perhaps she didn't feel better, not entirely, but she was calm. The pain of loss was still sharp, still as fresh and stinging as if she'd run her thumb along the blade of a new knife, but there was a clarity in it. Many had died, but she still lived. Things would be alright if she made them so, and it would probably be wise to do just that, if she could. Rebuild. Re-do. She'd have Jonathan and her health and a few others. Maybe they could make it.
She lay still for a long while, staring at the rafters and thinking about the future. Darkness hung thick over the cabin's interior, and quiet, but the fire was warm and flickering in the hearth, casting orange and monochrome shadows over furniture and floor, touching her pale skin with a faint and apple flush. The pops and crackles were familiar and comforting, and that awful, unnerving bird was out hunting. Andra rolled over to her side, staring toward the hearth.
She'd seen the Surgeon sleeping there before, when he wasn't outside, always with his back to her and his hat draped over his face as if to shield his eyes from the light. But tonight, he wasn't wrapped in the blankets of his makeshift pallet. He was sitting upright with his legs crossed, hat and mask set to the side and his cowl draped half-hearted and drooping over his head. Thinking. Restless, like her. Without the mask and its stifling herbs, his breathing was so soft that she could hardly hear it.
Andra gazed out at him for a time, studying his wide back and the shape of one ungloved hand, draped over a small flask at his side. She'd seen him drink before, but it was always very, very little and never enough that he seemed affected, and she understood. His job was hard. She wouldn't begrudge him a swallow or so every few nights.
Impulse seized her. She sat up swiftly and swung her legs down to the floor, silent as she could. Pushing herself up off the cot, she padded around the table towards him, and there was just enough strength in her limbs that she no longer needed to cling to anything for support. She drew close, felt the graze of the fire's heat against her shoulders, and then she reached out and brushed his black-clad shoulder with tentative fingers.
He started violently, caught by surprise, hand darting instinctively to clamp his mask back to his face in reflex. He twisted to face her, his mask's straps and buckles swinging, his scarlet eye covers shining a brilliant reflection of her own face back at her. He seemed like a man who wasn't used to being snuck up upon.
"Andra, lass," he said, looking her up and down. "I thought you were sleeping."
She shrugged. "I guess I've got a lot on my mind," she murmured, and eased herself down to sit on the floor beside him, arranging the folds of her overlarge shift as demurely as possible before she glanced up at him and smiled softly at his expressionless face. "You too?"
"Aye." His gaze wandered to the fire as it had been before, as though it held answers to some question he'd been holding. "I might need only be here for another week before it's time to move on. You in Sarton are determined group of folk."
Oh, but that made her feel a pang she hadn't been expecting, to hear him say those words. "Move on? Where do you usually work, Cliff?"
It was his turn to shrug. "Nowhere in particular. Haven't really found a need to settle, I guess."
"An itinerant Surgeon?" It was an odd thought, but not inappropriate, considering the way he seemed to like things. It struck her that this was probably the most about his personal life that he'd said to her thus far, when he'd already come to know so much about her. She waited as he poked at the fire.
"Suppose you can call it that," he eventually mused, shifting his hand on the mask. "My friend hasn't really been forthcoming about what he's got planned for me exactly. I'm just following him, I guess he's something of a mentor."
" Andra rubbed at the back of her back of her neck. "Does he really talk to you?"
The Surgeon snorted. "Talk? Sometimes I can't get him to shut his beak. He'd Old Magic, aye, but that doesn't make him any less annoying. He just doesn't always speak in front of people. Likes makin' me look stupid, I guess."
"Oh, you don't look stupid, Cliff." She grinned at him teasingly. "Just insane."
He let out a soft guffaw, lightly sardonic. "Thank you, lass. I'm comforted."
Andra merely laughed a little and leaned back against the table, curling her legs up to her side. When he didn't say any more, she just decided to let the hush linger for a bit and reached up to gather the long mass of her hair to one side of her headit'd gotten rather tangled in her time of sickness, but thankfully the Surgeon had brought her a comb the other day. She ran her fingers through it for a while, contemplatively, until the bed-tangles were smoothed and she could tie it back with a thread from the hem of her slip. When she had finished, she raised her head and saw that he was watching her, and she felt the impulse stir in her once more, stronger.
"Do you have to keep wearing your mask?" she asked. Her companion shifted somewhat.
"No," he replied, the admission soft and gruff. But he made no motion to lower it; Andra waited, but the stillness stretched on into heartbeats of silence and nothing. Was he afraid?
She stretched out her hands. Her fingers, steady, curled around the leather edges, and he let go so that she go pull the mask away, and he brushed back his cowl and his eyes met hers, steadily. Black eyes, the purest black-of-coal she'd ever seen.
And his hair was mahogany, thick, his beard glinting almost red in the firelight. Somehow, Andra wasn't very surprised that he was a plainsman. No, not entirely a plainsman. His features were too rounded, his skin too pale, his eyes too wide. A half-blood, then. His face was weathered but it held a faint boyishness, almost tarnished by the wary stab of his gaze as he searched her for a reaction.
She was cradling the mask in both her hands. Andra set it to the side. "So, you're
"A barbarian?" His voice was dark, even sharper without the muffling leather walls. "Savage? God-cursed bringer of disease? I've heard 'em all. Maybe you'd understand my caution when--"
But she shook her head, and she surprised him. She took his hand and wrapped her fingers around his, feeling the scars and calluses there. He was so young, really. Certainly less than thirty winters, possibly barely into twenty. He was defensive. She didn't mind.
much more handsome than I'd thought," she finished softly, forgoing all other thoughts, because she was half-laughing and it didn't matter, this. It didn't. "That's what."
Cliff raised an eyebrow. It was a very expressive look on him, even more so when the edge of his mouth cocked up into a coarse, crooked half-grin.
"Thank you, Andra," he said, and, hesitantly, gave her fingers a little squeeze.
"But do you know where you'll be going next?" she asked him, as they stood with their backs to the cold sun and he shoved the last bolt into place across the door of the little hut. Out in full daylight, with the plague gear either stuffed to the bottom of his pack or discarded, he looked a different man entirely in his fringed hide jacket and tall moccasin boots, a beaten brown hat shoved comfortably on his head. An active man, a man who walked miles when he had to and worked his hands as much as his mind. The black bird was swooping circles over his head, and when he turned and held out his arm, the creature dropped there with a familiar squawk.
"I've no notion whatsoever," Cliff admitted, scratching at his beard. He looked at the sky and inhaled a little, breathing in the cleanliness of crisp morning air. "I guess I'll find out. I've got a list of places Sarton ships grain to, I guess I'll swing by those towns and see how they're fairing. Hopefully I won't be needed."
Made sense. Andra bobbed her head, smoothing her fingers over the fabric of her new gown. It was deep green and very soft; Cliff had brought it to her yesterday, along with two others that were brown and a pair of sandals. She was grateful, since all her other things had probably been burned.
"What'll you do?" he asked her, nudging the bird up to his shoulder. Andra shrugged.
"Go home. See what's left. I'll probably stay with Jonathan's family for the time being. Once we get a new baker, I might have somewhere to work, too." She could help but notice the faint clinking in his belt pouch as he strode across the clearing to her, the way he had his fingers draped over it. "Did they pay you for your help, then?"
"Some. Thought it'd be wrong to take much, what with there bein' a need for funds an' all." Drawing up to her side, he held his blackthorn walking stick out to her, pressing it into her hands when she didn't take it at first. "Here. You'll need it more'n me, at least until you're steadier on your feet. I've rubbed it down with soap an' alcohol, so it shouldn't be contaminated."
"Oh?" Andra took it. She smoothed her fingers over the polished knob of the head and felt a smile creep over her face. "Thank you," she whispered, and the Surgeon chuckled.
"Not a problem, lass. Much better use for it than tossing it out. Don't care for much extra baggage when I travel light." Shifting his pack on his back to settle it more comfortably, he held out an arm to her so she could latch onto his elbow. "Well, missy, should we get you back home, then?"
The clouds were drifting, slightly. Enough to allow the faintest touch of sunlight to graze the back of her neck, warm as fresh bread on her skin. Andra looked up, and then she looked at the path.
"We should," she said. And thought, inexplicably, that maybe she would make it after all.