PD emerged from the forest to find a small village clustered around a road that broke through the trees on her left. She could see a small blacksmith’s shop, another that was probably a wheelwright’s, and a few houses.
The first person she saw was a young human man chopping wood behind his house. His hair was sweaty brown, his skin a rich olive. When he saw PD, he missed his swing and almost chopped his own leg.
PD held out her hands to show she was unarmed.
The man put down his axe and cocked his head at her.
PD stopped walking and waited for him to speak.
“Can I help you?” said the man, in a deep warm tone. He wiped his forehead with a bright rag and draped it neatly over the wood waiting to be cut.
PD relaxed. “I’m looking for a healer. My friend is sick and I don’t know what to do for her.” She put her hands down. “Is there someone who can help me here?”
The man nodded. “Our healer lives down there. I’ll take you.” He headed down a well trod path, away from PD. “It’s over this a’way.”
“Thank you,” said PD as she followed him. “I’m sorry to take you away from your work.”
The man smiled a sheepish smile and waved a hand in dismissal as they walked between houses. He stopped before a house with a prize-worthy garden. “This’ll be Winter,” he said. “She’ll help you right.”
PD smiled and held out a hand. “Thank you, again.”
The man gave her long, webbed hand a look over, but he still shook it, and then he left her to see Winter alone.
PD strode up to the door and knocked.
The human woman who opened the door was in her early forties, with brown hair and a strange quirk to her mouth. Before PD could get a word out, Winter said, “You’re the oddest-looking creature I’ve ever seen.”
“My pleasure,” PD replied. “I have a sick friend. Can you help her?”
“Hence why you’re on my doorstep.” Winter looked past PD into the garden. “Where’s your friend?”
“She’s in the woods. We got lost and she collapsed.” PD swallowed nervously. “She’s hot and she’s too weak to walk.”
Winter opened the door a little farther and stepped back, a silent invitation to come in.
“Thank you,” said PD as she stepped over the threshold. “I really appreciate this.”
“Thank me with your coin,” said Winter over her shoulder. She began to pull dried bundles of herbs off the shelves and stuffed them into a bag. She grabbed some small bottles, wrapped them in a cloth, and stuffed them in the bag too. “What else can you tell me about your friend? I’m not walking back to get more supplies.”
“She was fine yesterday,” PD explained. “At least, she seemed to be.” It occurred to PD at this point that being chased by a mob would probably have a galvanising effect on most people, an effect that would have worn off by morning. “This morning she seemed weak, but she was alright. She fell asleep when we stopped to eat. Then she fainted, not far from here. We — I couldn’t lift her.”
Winter didn’t say anything in response to this. She finished packing her bag and shoved it at PD. “Carry that,” she said.
As PD swung the bag over her shoulder, she caught Winter staring — which the woman had been doing a bit of anyway, but this was specifically at somewhere around PD’s neck — an uncomfortable place to be stared at.
“Now,” said Winter, “show me where your friend is.”
PD did so gladly. They passed the woodcutter, who waved when PD waved at him, and made their way back into the forest. PD had marked her path carefully; they had no difficulty finding Chande. Bee was nowhere to be seen, but that wasn’t surprising.
Chande lay quietly somewhere between asleep and awake. She stirred a bit as PD dropped down beside her and asked for water. PD helped her with the skin.
Winter was watching warily from a few steps away, with the quirk to her mouth much more obvious and a deep crease in her brow. When PD looked up impatiently, Winter grunted unhappily and knelt beside Chande. She placed a hand on Chande’s forehead, feeling her heat. After a moment, the hand slid down Chande’s face and peeled her lip back, not enough to see the gums, but enough to see the two large teeth.
PD cleared her throat.
Winter moved her hand away to tap the puncture in Chande’s studded jerkin. “I want to check on this,” she said, and began undoing the straps on the jerkin. When she moved the shirt away, it revealed a clean pink scar, beautifully healed over. Winter grunted again and did the jerkin back up. She sat back on her heels. “She’s feverish. If you take care right, it should break in a few days. Give her lots of water. There’s a stream you can get it from. And give her some willow bark.” Winter held out a hand for her bag, and when she had it, pulled out a small pouch of what looked like dried tree bark. “An infusion a couple of times a day.”
“Put it in hot water and make her drink it,” said Winter, as though this was the most obvious thing in the world.
“Thank you,” said PD, and although she was quiet about it she did really mean it.
With a sniff, Winter stood up and shouldered her bag of medicines. “We can talk payment now.” Her gaze slid away, over PD’s head and to the trees above them. “Lots of magic here. That amulet around your neck — let me see it.”
PD put a hand to her neck without touching the saxophone medallion, which would activate it. “No — I mean, yes, it’s magic, but it’s mine.”
“Sure? I’d accept it.” Winter stepped forward, trying to get a closer look through PD’s fingers. “It would pay for my trouble, helping your friend. I’m busy, you know, I didn’t have to come trek through the woods.”
When PD hesitated, she tried again. “Come along. It’s just a little trinket. Surely your friend’s life is worth that much to you.”
“I’m sorry,” said PD. “But this is my livelihood. I can’t give it up.”
This wasn’t enough to convince Winter. “You’ve got more magic, then. I can sense it. I have a nose like a bloodhound for a bit of magic.”
“I’m sure,” said PD politely, “but I don’t have more magic.”
“Your friend, then.”
PD shook her head. “Not that I know of.” She could see that Winter was getting frustrated, so she reached into her clothes and pulled out her last, precious silver piece.
Winter’s eyes gleamed.
“Is this enough?” asked PD.
“It’ll about do it,” said Winter with a shrug.
PD was about to hand it over, but she pulled back. “We’ll need shelter,” she said. “Is there a place we can spend the night?”
Winter’s nose wrinkled in annoyance, but she nodded and said, “there’s a shed by the beehives on the north side of the village. It’s not in use at the moment.”
“Thank you,” said PD, and she handed over the coin.
Winter rubbed it between her fingers, gave PD and the trees one last calculating look, and headed home.
When she was gone, a dry voice over PD’s head said, “It’s always nice to have one’s opinion of humanity reaffirmed.” PD felt pressure on her scalp as the lizard slipped off a branch and down the side of her head.
When Bee was secure on her shoulder, PD shook her head. “They aren’t all like that.”
“They don’t all have to be,” was Bee’s response. “We seem to be in the same dilemma we were in before.”
“Not exactly,” said PD, “This will help.” She held up the bag of bark. “And we know where to go.”
Bee crawled down PD’s arm to sniff at the willow bark, but they didn’t make any further comments, for which PD was grateful. She was aware that giving up a silver piece for a few twigs and some information might not have been an equal transaction, but she was trying to convince herself that what she’d really paid for was peace of mind — reassurance that Chande wasn’t about to die on her, not even a day after they’d met.
Of course, reassurance was not a guarantee, and PD still couldn’t lift Chande, which complicated things. After a moment’s thought and a quick conference with Bee, PD walked back to the village to ask the woodcutter if he had a wheelbarrow she might borrow.
It turned out the woodcutter’s name was Harry, and he did have a wheelbarrow, so PD loaded Chande up — with Bee keeping her head steady — and pushed it around the edge of the village until they came across the beekeeper’s shed. The shed was so small that Chande’s feet stuck out the door when PD laid her flat on the floor, and it was stuffed full of leftover honey.
While Bee worked on the lid of a honey jar, PD set up and lit a small fire, downwind of the bees so as not to disturb their industry. She found a small pot in the shed and set water and willow bark to boil.
Chande seemed no worse than she had before, but no better, either. She was shivering and sweating at the same time, and although she was lucid when awake, otherwise she slept fitfully.
It was hard to tell if the willow bark helped. PD made Chande drink two cups at first, and then went back to what felt like force-feeding her water. The rest of the afternoon passed slowly.
As dusk began to fall, Harry the woodcutter came by with a big bowl of hearty stew and a crusty loaf of bread, still warm. PD thanked him profusely and tried to give him a copper bit or two in return, despite the large dent already in her savings.
The big man smiled his sheepish smile and shook his head. He wished her and her friend well and trudged back home with his wheelbarrow.
PD settled down with some stew and bread. Bee came to sit beside her, slightly gorged on honey and with a bit of a honey moustache, which was an odd sight on the usually dignified lizard.
After the food, PD pulled out her saxophone and played for a while. She was a little reluctant, since Chande needed sleep, but she did her best to be quiet and soothing.
They spent the next few days in the beekeeper’s shed, alternating between forcing Chande to drink, feeding her honey and bread when she could eat, eating and drinking themselves, and for PD, practicing her saxophone.
PD slept little. She was worried about Chande, for one — that if she slept, something might happen. She was also worried about her saxophone, because while she doubted Winter might attempt to steal it, that still wasn’t a risk PD was willing to take.
Most of the time she was just too bored to sleep. Caring for Chande, while stressful, was monotonous.
The first break came on the third day, when PD was giving Chande her morning infusion. Chande sipped the herby water, wrinkled her nose, and said, perfectly clearly, “Willow bark.”
PD almost dropped the cup in surprise. “You recognise it?” She asked.
Bee emerged from a jar of honey to see what was happening.
After another sip and grimace, Chande said, “Headache. Pain. Fever.” She took another sip. “Did you get it from my pack?”
PD and Bee exchanged glances.
“No,” said PD. “You have some?”
Chande was already asleep again.
“It wouldn’t have mattered,” said Bee, trying to be practical. “Neither of us would have known.”
PD nodded. “I’ll know next time,” she said. She stretched and went to sit outside, where there was enough room for the saxophone. Bee followed her out and curled up on a sunny rock, ready for a nap. First, though, the lizard looked back and forth between PD and Chande’s sleeping form. “I think it helps,” they said.
“What helps?” asked PD.
“The music,” said Bee. “She sleeps easier when you play.”
PD glanced back inside. Chande was fast asleep, her chest rising and falling in deep, measured breaths. “A bit of luck at last, then,” she said, and began to play.
Two days after that, Chande was up and about, but too weak to walk far. They bartered a ride out of the village on a peddler’s wagon.
Before they left, PD went to give her thanks to Harry one last time. They wished each other well. On her way out, PD saw Winter watching from her garden. PD turned her back and headed up to the road, where Bee and Chande waited. To herself, and partially to the healer watching her walk away, she said, “Next time.”
Disclaimer: please do not take anything you read here as medical advice. This is fiction. Despite the fact that willow bark is a real thing, and has been used for this purpose in the past, there is very little scientific research on the subject. If you have a fever, call your doctor or local urgent care center.