by i Bethron

March 4, CR 708

This town was completely unique.  The building styles and composition were similar to any number of other towns he had seen in his travels, but the community as a whole was different from all of them.  The simple lumber and plaster used to make houses and places of business, with the occasional stone dwelling for the rich or entitled, clashed in a sharp juxtaposition with the menagerie of peoples, ages, and - most surprisingly - species that Adtulon watched.  This sea of impossible forms living side-by-side with mundane people provided a captivating tableau, and one that the traveler had watched flowing from the town entrance and ports to the markets and back since the sun had first begun poking over the mountains to the east.  At this point, though, the sun had passed overhead and was dropping down toward the range of craggy peaks on the other side of the valley, and the rivers of people had started to disperse, despite the odd air that had begun to spread among them.  Adtulon’s stomach was impatiently growling at him in anticipation of the first warm meal he’d had in weeks, and he could ignore it no longer.

Gazing over the impressively large town square, he decided on a three-story inn made entirely of stone.  The few windows it had were practically slits, perfect for shooting through if not for gazing at the scenery.  Its impressive gates, oak banded in iron, stared across the square at the town hall, as if reminding the seat of government where the real money - and power - lay.  Adtulon figured that anyone with the money to build such a fortress must also have the money to provide good food.  Of course, the food itself would probably be expensive, but he had enough coin on him to enjoy himself a little.

Making his way over to the gates, he finally noticed what was on the hanging sign.  A collie, painted quite well in orange, brown, and white, sat facing the square with its tail in the middle of wagging.  Wondering if the sign reflected its owner, Adtulon shifted the swords on his back and walked into the stone-walled courtyard, past the stable built into one of the walls, and up to the also well-reinforced front door.  As he opened the door, he reflected that his current garb most likely didn’t match the normal styles that came through.  A sleeveless wool cloak covered a shin-length greatcoat of the same material, perfect for the recent chill weather, but the clothes were obviously meant for travelling on foot, not riding in a carriage or on a horse.  The knee high, mud stained leather boots did nothing to dispel that impression.

The innkeeper, a tall middle-aged woman, turned to the sound of the door opening, calling out, “Welcome to the Jolly Collie, finest inn in Euper for the best price!  My name is Jimmy.  Would you like anything this evening?  A meal, a room, or both?”

Adtulon hid his surprise at the innkeeper’s name by eyeing the well lit room as he made his way to the counter, past a male server and a marmot who were talking together, and said, “Both.  The meal first, please, with a room to follow.  How much lighter should I expect my purse to be after tonight?”

Jimmy laughed as the traveller reached the counter.  “Not much at all.  Rooms are only a Moon a night, and the meal is as expensive as you’re willing to pay for.”

“All right, then.  The Moon is a silver, right?”  At her nod of assent, Adtulon opened his greatcoat to get at the purse, then set the proper coin down on the counter.  “I guess I’ll have the room first after all.  How should I procure my meal?”

Jimmy gestured over the common room.  “Sit yourself down, and I’ll have one of the servers come around to take your order.  The menu is posted on the center beam,” she said pointing at the sign hanging in the middle of the room.

Adtulon made a slight bow.  “Thank you, ma’am.  I’ll pick up my key after the meal.”

Crossing the still moderately full room, he chose an empty table under the stairs, and sat down with his back to the wall and a good view of both the main entrance and the doors to the kitchen.  Once he had draped his outer layers over the chair, the same man who was talking with the marmot came over.  He was no older than sixteen, but already had an impressive physique and handsome face, complemented by shaggy brown hair.  Despite the distant look on his face on the way over, he focused on Adtulon’s face when he said, “Hello sir, my name is Patrick, and I’ll be your server this evening.  Can I start you with something to drink?”

After ordering both a suitably toxic beverage and his meal for the evening, Adtulon sat back and watched the dining room, amazed at the diversity he still saw.  Despite the higher number of human males from the first of the spring trading caravans, he noted an impressive number of women and children at the bar with mugs in front of them, and even though the animal people were the smallest group, they had the largest presence.  The traders from out of town made themselves painfully obvious, as it took effort for each one of them to stop looking at the shrew at the bar, or the lioness waitress, or the beaver that was even more off-putting by parading his entirely plaid fur around.  Adtulon spent his fair share of time watching those new sights and forms, but also attempted to spend as much time watching the other patrons and examining the room itself.  At one point, halfway through his repast, he marked a tod fox with one ear missing come through the door and hold conversation with Jimmy before realizing he was staring and returned to his food.  When most of the crowd had retired and he had finished off his meal, he stood up, left payment and a modest tip on the table, gathered his outer garments, and walked back over to the counter where Jimmy was still standing, talking with his server.

Patrick had his hands behind his back and his head bowed slightly.  “Jimmy,  I know that closing involves cleaning everything, and that with a person missing it takes extra time, but I really need to get home now!  Deagan says that she’s getting worse, and I want to be by her side.  And this is the first time I have ever asked to go home early.  And everyone else can still get it done - Matilda knows how to do it better than I do!”

“Yes she does, but no one else,” Jimmy said with her arms crossed.  “I’m sorry, but people get sick all the time.  The most you can do at this point is sit next to her and tire yourself out, since there are no healers in the town and none of the healers from the Keep will get here until morning.”  

“But this is different!  Deagan says it’s really bad!”

Jimmy stepped forward and put her hands on Patrick’s shoulders.  “Believe me, I know what you’re feeling - I had to go through the same thing with Lori - but right now the best you can do is to stay here and keep yourself busy to keep your mind off of home.  Now go on and grab a rag from the back.”

The server boy’s shoulders slumped, but before he had the time to get back to the kitchen, Adtulon stepped forward and asked, “I’m so sorry to intrude, but did I hear you mention that you need a healer?”

The boy snapped his head up to look Adtulon in the eye.  “Yes, my mother has taken ill today, and no one can divine what ails her.  Can you help her?”

The healer nodded his head.  “I have studied those arts, and while I am afraid that I am not nearly as proficient in them as whoever might come tomorrow, I have seen enough of the world to diagnose her.  That is, if I have a guide to where she is staying.”

The boy whirled around to face his employer, a desperate look on his face.  “Please, ma’am?  I even have the healer now!”

Looking like nothing more than a mother besieged by her child, Jimmy assented, saying, “All right, go ahead.  But expect that this will be coming out of your pay later.”  Turning to Adtulon, she asked, “Shall I hold your room until you get back?”

Adtulon nodded gratefully and said, “That would be very kind, thank you.”

Patrick grabbed his coat and threw it on as he led Adtulon out into the chilly spring night.  On the way to the boy’s house, Adtulon asked him a series of timid but insistent questions about his mother.  The answers came readily: she had felt sick before noon that morning, and he had registered a fever not long after that.  She had been coughing, but Patrick wasn’t sure that was entirely the fault of her illness, as she normally had a slight cough about this time each year.  Worst of all was that the marmot, whose name was Marcy, had told Patrick that his mother had just started shaking uncontrollably, and with odd spasms.  Patrick managed to get one question in, about the doctor’s swords, but Adtulon simply said that anyone who travels much must be able to defend himself.  Patrick led the doctor through several streets and two alleys before arriving at a wooden door hanging on one hinge.  The door sunk into a plaster wall thrown up between two buildings that leaned on each other at the end of the alley.  Patrick carefully swung the door open as he called out, “Nana?  How is Mother?  I found a doctor who can help her.”

Upon that announcement, a sharp scuttling issued from the floorboards, shortly followed by a boy no older than seven years with his hands clasped in front of him.  He quickly approached the stranger and offered several Crescents and three Moons in his outstretched hands, saying, “Here’s some payment for your services, kind sir.  Nana put in what we had an’ I went under the beds an’ behind the shelves an’ around in the midden an’ it was really cold an’ I put in what I found.”  He gestured to a Crescent that still had some brown grime around the edges.  “That’s one that I found.”

Adtulon felt Patrick tense up beside him, but knelt down and closed the child’s hands around his bounty before the older boy could do anything.  He said, “Thank you, but I have all that I need, and I think you need these more than I ever will.  Keep them, but try to clean them off before you give them to anyone else.”

At that moment, Patrick gave the young boy a push toward the stairs and said, “Kurt, give those back to Nana.  Quickly, now.”  While Kurt ran back downstairs, he said in a low voice, “Your humility is worthy of Akkala.  I am sorry you have to see this, but Mother needs your help.  She is this way, down the stairs.  We moved the bed to separate her from the larder, but we do not know what else to do for her.”  As they walked down the stairs, he gestured to the far corner.  “There she is.”

Adtulon dropped his cloak at the foot of the bed, making sure not to jostle his swords much, and unfastened his greatcoat as he gave the girl on the bed a visual inspection.  She looked around fourteen years old, though she had possessed the ability to produce children once - probably before she was cursed, he mused.  She was turned on her side, facing the wall, giving the blood she was coughing up an easier exit and preventing it from choking her.  Noticing an elderly otter sitting in a rickety chair near the bed, he asked her, “If you be so kind, what is her name, and who am I asking?”

The otter smiled at the formality and replied “Her name is Clarise, and you may call me Annalise.  She is my daughter, and the boys are my grandchildren.  Though, Patrick was not always my grandson, and we yet await what Kurt will grow up to be.”

“Speaking of Kurt, where is he?  I figured he would stay as close as possible.”

Annalise chuckled.  “I sent him to put the money back.  If he can remember where to put it, he will hopefully distract himself before he can make a nuisance of himself to you.”

Adtulon glanced back at her, happily surprised, before handing his greatcoat to Patrick.  He noted the bloodstains on the linen around her mouth, and asked, “How long has she been asleep?”

He kept examining her while Annalise provided the answer.  “Almost an hour now.  She was... talking to her daughter before Artela looked on her in mercy and gave her peaceful rest.”  Adtulon looked at the otter in confusion before his eyes widened and he specifically refused to look at Patrick.

As he turned back to Clarise, he asked, “This may be a sticky question, but may I remove her shirt to get a better look at her?  I have a difficult time hearing the lungs through fabric.”

Annalise nodded in assent.  “Please, do what you can for my daughter.”

Patrick seized the doctor’s hand before he could approach the fabric as he said, “Nana!  This man is a complete stranger!  Why add indignity to Mother’s list of trials?”

The otter’s eyes were hard.  “Because he could help her live to endure them.  He humbly asked us for permission, so I believe he means no harm.  Besides, you are standing over him and will prevent him for acting in an untoward manner, yes?”  The boy grumbled, but nodded.  “Now, please let go of his hand so that he can continue his examination.”

Patrick did as his grandmother commanded him, and Adtulon carefully reached forward to raise Clarise’s arms over her head and draw her shirt over them.  Noticing a large lump in her armpit, he muttered something to himself as he bent down and touched it.  The mass was surprisingly smooth, but when she whimpered in her sleep, he drew back in horror.  Whirling around a hovering Patrick to face Annalise, he said, “Pants, the pants, they need to come off.  I need to see something, can I take them off now?”

Patrick’s right cross sent him sprawling before she could reply.  Annalise’s ears went down and she immediately began scolding him, saying, “What are you doing?  I meant restrain him, not lay him out like a fish!”

Patrick turned from his target to his grandmother, shouting, “You heard what he said!  He wanted to see Mother undressed in her bed!”

Adtulon lay on the floor shielding his head as he mumbled, “You can put her shirt back on first, I don’t mind.”

Completely ignoring him, Patrick kept ranting.  “I knew he would try this sort of thing the instant he asked to remove her shirt!  Next thing you know, he would have been running his hands all up and down her legs, and even down into - !”

“That’s enough.”  Annalise got out of her chair and snagged her grandson’s shirt before yanking him down to her eye level.  “This man is a professional, and in his line of work, such requests are expected.  His behavior earlier suggested no dishonorable intent, just as his current behavior shows no guilt.  He even had the decency to ask before removing any clothing, for he was well within his rights as healer to inspect whatever he pleased for signs of a malady.  I suggest you compose yourself, assist him off the floor, and then maintain a respectful distance between the two of you.”

Gritting his teeth and with fire in his eyes, Patrick bowed to the now-noticeable churr in his grandmother’s voice and moved over to the man on the ground.  He roughly maneuvered him into a generally upright stance before moving to the far wall.  Adtulon, still shaky from the blow, turned again to Annalise and said, “I can provide a fairly certain diagnosis at the moment, the other check was merely for absolute confirmation.”

Sitting back down, Annalise said, “No, please continue.  My grandson shall not trouble you again.”

The healer sighed.  “Very well.”  He staggered over to the bed and leaned on it while waiting for the world to stop shifting.  After a moment, he gently grabbed her pants and tugged them down enough to see another pair of swellings on the inside of her legs, these ones of a black coloration.  After tenderly feeling these growths and observing the same pained reaction, he hung his head and gave a long, tired sigh.

Moving with a speed born of desperation, Adtulon snagged his cloak from the foot of the bed and began wrapping Clarise in it.  As he made a space for her to breathe, he called Patrick over, saying, “You will need to carry her carefully and quickly up through the city and to the keep, or to wherever the best healers are.  If you do not do this as soon as possible, this entire household will most likely die.  Do you know where these healers would be?”

Patrick, originally reluctant but now betraying worry in his demeanor, said, “The Keep itself, I think.  I’ve heard of a raccoon who makes his shop there and is very skilled.”

Adtulon grunted.  “That will have to do.  If the gates to the city are closed, yell at them to let you through until I catch up.  I will be burning her sheets and, if you can afford it, the mattress.  Now go, your mother’s life depends on it.

“I’m sorry.”

The boy gently picked up the frail child, then mounted the stairs.  As Adtulon started stripping the bed, Annalise grabbed his sleeve with a strength belying her age.  He refused to look her in the eye as she said, “What is it?  What ails my daughter?”

His face still turned away, he said, “I am sorry, but you should not bear the burden of this knowledge.”

Resolute, she pressed again.  “I have lived many more seasons than you would think, and care not for my own well-being anymore.  My family is all that is left to me.  What ails her?”

He yanked his sleeve from her claws and continued gathering sheets.  “The plague.”

Annalise, ears down and whiskers drooping, staggered back into her chair, mouth agape at the healer’s back.  His shoulders sagged as he paused for a second.

“I’m so sorry.”