I stood against the wall and watched Karen, the township’s best healer and beloved by our community. She was a frail, old, wiry-haired woman who looked as if she wouldn’t be able to carry a bucket of water, much less reposition a human being.
But that was the way of it with healers. Thin as a rail, but able to wrestle an angry badger and win. I had learned long ago not to underestimate a healer. Especially the elders. An elder healer had survived all the ills they’d healed. An elder healer was tough as nails and had forgotten more things than you had ever learned.
Finally, she straightened from where she had been bent over Ashley’s still form. When she turned to me her gray eyes were worried.
“When did she take ill?”
“She’s been tired, but we both thought she was just worn from travel. It wasn’t until tonight that I realized she was actually ill.”
“She showed no other symptoms?”
“You didn’t see the rash?” Her face was fierce, and her voice was hushed but hard. She thought I should have seen the rash, but there had been none. Unless Ashley had hidden it from me, but I thought that unlikely. She must have seen the confusion on my face, because she turned back to Ashley and waved at me to follow.
When we stood beside the bed, she grasped Ashley’s wrist and rotated her arm until the pale skin between wrist and inner elbow was clearly visible. The rash there was red and violent, mottling Ashely’s skin and making the unblemished patches look even more pale.
“There’s more,” Karen said softly, “on her other arm and her legs.”
I hissed out a breath and Karen and I returned to our spot against the wall. “Those were not there this morning.” I met her eyes, all but begging her to believe me.
Karen slumped but patted my arm. “Hush, child. I know you know better than to lie to me. But you’re sure? She wasn’t perhaps wearing a long-sleeved tunic or a shawl and you simply didn’t see them?”
I shook my head. “She was making bread this morning. She had tied her sleeves up like she always does because she hates getting dough on the cuffs when she kneads. I came in from the woodpile. I remember thinking that she had tanned on her trip to the city, so I know I looked at her arms. There was no rash.”
“That’s not the answer I was hoping for.”
“It’s not just a heat rash from the fever.” My words were a statement, not a question. I knew what heat rash looked like. This was different, if for no other reason than that Karen was worried.
“I don’t think so. It looks wrong and it’s spread over her body in places heat rash doesn’t usually appear. I think she picked up something in the city, perhaps from a traveler she came in contact with. There’s really no way of knowing. Remind me how long she was gone. When did she come back?”
“I met her at the western river ferry the day before yesterday, early in the morning. She was gone for twenty-six days, four patterns in Kletson and three days’ travel on either side.”
“I’m not sure why it would take so long to show anything other than fatigue. She must have caught it just recently, or it would have progressed sooner.” Karen frowned and fidgeted with the beads on her sash, showing a very rare sign of concern. “There are many things it could be, but I can’t tell which one just yet. I’ll stay with her tonight and watch her. Perhaps morning will show changes that will tell me what it is.” She turned away from Ashley to face me squarely. “I need you to go sleep.”
I started to protest but the words stuck in my throat when she turned her healer’s glare on me. Only a fool argues with that facial expression and my mother had raised no fools. I let her shoo me out of the room.
“I mean it, young man. You’ll do me no good in the morning if you stay up all night fretting. I’ll stay with Ashley and watch her. You know I’ll take good care of her. Go rest, even if you think you won’t sleep.”
I hugged Karen gently and thanked her. Then I did as I was told and took myself to bed. Like she said, I didn’t think I would sleep. I was too stressed. But as soon as I lay down sleep took me.