Mama was weeping and my brother was dying, so the healer, Petrok, had no choice but to talk to me.
"Keep him cool. Bathe his forehead. Make him drink the herbs when he is able. I fear that soon he will lapse into the sleep..."
The sleep, I knew, from which he would never wake.
Mama wailed from my brother's bedside. "Who shall take care of me?! Who will run the smithy?! Oh Gods Above and Gods Below! Please don't take my only son!"
It was the same prayer she'd been repeating for three days now. Ever since Papa was killed seven years ago, Mama had doted on, and placed all her hopes upon, my younger brother Johan, waiting for the day when he would be old enough and big enough to work the bellows in the smithy.
"Is there nothing you can do, Petrok?" I asked, trying not to plead. I knew the answer already. There was no cure for the fever. Every year people died of it, more and more of late. This year it would be my brother and the widow Gumara, and the washerwoman's infant son. Next year, who knew? We were just a small village at the base of the mountains, largely reliant upon travelers passing through. Soon perhaps, there'd be no one left at all.
Petrok shook his head sadly. "I'm sorry. As you know, the only cure is Eventine."
Eventine. A small blue flower which grew in Balkard's Valley, priceless as gold, and guarded as such. It had been generations since anyone had harvested Eventine. Many had gone to try. None in memory had returned.
Poor Petrok, I thought. How horrible to be so helpless as healer. Petrok was still young, but his face was careworn beneath his mussy blonde hair. How awful it would be to know the cure, but be unable to attain it.
In my brother's room my mama wailed, then started helpless sobbing.
Petrok's eyes avoided my face, and I saw him shudder as he reached for the door. What was he thinking, I wondered? That the family was cursed? First father, then son?
I sat down heavily on the cold hearth of the empty fireplace and let my skirt spread about me on the floor. It should have been me in there, dying. Not Johan. Johan had done nothing. He was young and innocent and undeserving of death. He was Mama's only hope.
I could never earn as much silver as Papa had in the smithy, or as Johan would when he was old enough, even if Mama had let me try. Though Papa had taught me much, Mama would not let me work the smithy by myself. So I'd done everything else I could to keep us clothed and fed. I'd gathered herbs for Petrok's master before old age had taken him. I'd washed dishes at the only inn when the caravans came through. I'd helped the sheep farmer shearing sheep in spring, and I'd helped old Rasman plow his fields after his only son had left with a caravan to cross the mountains into lands unknown. I'd even tried my hand at weaving, and though Mama wouldn't let me touch a loom of hers, the widow Gumara had taught me on her own.
A copper here, a chicken there, a sack full of vegetables perhaps, left on the doorstep as Rasman wended his way to the inn for his afternoon mead. Somehow we'd survived. It just wasn't enough. It would never be enough. And worse, it was all my fault.
I wiped the tears off my cheeks with a callused hand. Tears did nothing, did no good. I'd learned that long ago. They'd not soften Mama's heart, nor bring Papa back from dead. And they'd not stop Johan from dying.
Only Eventine could do that. Only Eventine.
It seems odd, I suppose, how, at unbidden times, unwanted thoughts presented themselves in my mind with force and clarity which could not be resisted. It did not freeze the blood in my veins, the thought which occurred to me just then. It did naught but make me sigh with utter weariness, though I was certain it would mean my useless death. Yet I knew I had to go to Balkar's Valley in search of Eventine, to save Johan or die in the attempt. If Johan died, I knew, I would not want to go on living. Mama would make sure of that.
Despite myself, two more tears ran down my cheeks. If Johan and I were to die, the village would look after Mama as they had the widow Gumara. She'd not starve nor suffer. Perhaps she'd be glad to be rid of me, her worthless girl.... certainly she'd not mourn my loss as she would Johan's, and rightfully so. Perhaps she'd not miss me at all, not even notice I was gone. Or maybe she'd think I'd run away like Rasman's son, never to return. Worthless girl. Clumsy oaf.
Resolve was like a trusted friend within me. I knew what I had to do, now, just as I'd known what I had to do after Papa died so we'd not lose everything, then. While Mama wept herself to sleep at Johan's bedside, I gathered the few things I'd need for the trip: a small satchel with a packet of food, a water skin, a fine-woven sack for carrying the Eventine, my worn leather boots and a patched woolen cloak, the shepherd's crook that the sheep farmer had given me.
I slipped out the back door carefully, making sure the hinges didn't squeak to bother Mama, and hesitated by the door to Papa's smithy. I'd been forbidden to enter it, and Mama had the only key. But the door was old, and I knew could break it down if I wanted. There were weapons still there, weapons that Papa and I had made, swords and knives and maces. Papa had been a weapons smith in the city before he'd met Mama, before she'd insisted he move to the village of her birth. But, while I knew how to make them, I did not know how to use them.
The others who had gone to the valley had always carried weapons, but none of them had come back. And reason told me that if armed warriors could not defeat the thing that guarded the valley with their skill at arms, I would have no hope of doing so myself, me who would fumble with a sword like an infant with a spoon. If my crook were not enough to defend myself, then I would die. It was my hope to find a way to find the flowers without facing the guardian, somehow. Somehow.
I set off into the darkness with a heavy heart, knowing that I might never return to my little village and my home. I did not look back.
Balkard's Valley was not even a half a day's journey straight up into the mountains. I'd never been there, nor anyone else in the village, but well we knew the high peaks that surrounded it. The thing that guarded the valley was said to live in the ice cave in the glacier blocking the valley, the only entrance into the Valley itself, lest one could fly like a mountain eagle.
The moon was high overhead when I finally topped the ridge by the waterfall and saw the glacier cave ahead. Beside the roaring waters of the stream, metal glinted in the moonlight. I had no desire to approach the cave, still out of breath, so quietly I went to see what sparkled so.
An old suit of mail, a helmet, several bones, and a sword lay scattered there on the stony ground. The mail was rusted, the helm dented, and it was far too old to tell what might have been the cause of death. It did not matter, I supposed. I would be facing the monster that killed this poor soul soon enough. Resigned, I stood and climbed toward the glacier, the ice glinting pale blue in the moonlight, much like the dented helm.
I stopped again just below the gaping maw of the cave, blood thundering in my head, heart racing. I scolded myself for being so frightened. What was life, after all? Pain, misery. No great loss, then, to lose it. But what horror awaited me there in the darkness? What monster, what creature that left the bones of men to rot at the entrance to its lair? Would my body soon lie next to the one below? With no armor, I would quickly be decayed, rotting, claimed by the dust of the mountain if the foxes and wolves didn't devour me first.
I shuddered at the thought, then dispelled it. What happened to my dead body did not matter. What mattered was finding the courage to enter the darkness and face what awaited. Worthless girl. Clumsy oaf. My Mama's voice goaded me. I had to go in, to do something. I couldn't go back home knowing I hadn't even tried. I couldn't go back and watch Johan die. Mama would find a way to blame his death on me, too. And what could be worse than that?
I started sobbing into my hands, my crook falling unheeded into the dirt at my feet.
What greater horror could there be than to have killed one's own father?! He'd been shoeing a horse; while I held the horse's head. My responsibility had been to keep the horse calm. My responsibility... memory blurred, Petrok across the way, waving... I waved back...the horse started, I could feel his muscles heaving, then father's cry... so horrible, the horse pulling from my grasp bucking.... I couldn't hold on...! and Papa, lying crumpled on the smithy floor with so much blood...! Petrok running, saying he was dead.... Mama's screaming... and Papa... poor Papa.... unmoving, his bloody face... I couldn't bear the thought!
"Oh Papa," I whispered, feeling the agony of his absence tearing apart the very fabric of my soul. "I'm so sorry, Papa.... I'm so sorry... !" They were ineffectual words to express the flood of guilt and emotion in which I drowned. Gods but how I wished he could hear me speak those words! If only I could know he had!
I leaned over and picked up my crook. Nothing, I decided, could be worse than what I had already faced. Nothing. Not even being ripped open and eaten alive by some nameless horror. The horror inside of me could match anything in the pitch black darkness before me.
My only hope lay in the fact that it was still night. Perhaps the beast was asleep. Perhaps I could slip by without it waking. With this slight hope, I stepped into the icy stream and followed it into the darkness of the cave.
The stream was not deep at the entrance, but I had no way to know if it would remain so. Each step I took was cautious and slow. Still, all too soon, the moonlight behind me faded, and all that was left was the loud echoing of the stream itself as it rushed through the hollow ice.
I strained to hear any sound of scraping claws or heavy breathing above the stream, my heart in my throat. I clutched my crook with both hands. One step, another. Once, I slipped and crashed against the icy side of the cave. I froze once I regained my balance, certain that the monster would have heard me now, and I waited for death to come tearing at me from the darkness. My feet were numb with cold, but I hardly noticed. It seemed I waited an eternity, eyes straining against the darkness, ears tuned for any sound. Yet, nothing happened.
I started forward again, one step, another. Thus I continued until I spied light ahead, and froze once more, fearful that I might have found the monster's lair. It was a dull light, bluish and cold, not like flame. Mustering my courage once again, I started forward. One step, another. The light grew brighter, and I realized that I was looking at moonlight shining into the tunnel. I hurried now, thinking perhaps I was near the end of the cave. My sense of danger shifted. Perhaps the creature was behind me now. Who knew how many tunnels I had passed in the darkness, tunnels which led to a sleeping monster? I almost ran the last few steps, heedless of the loud splashing I made in the stream. I could see the valley beyond, moonlight on sheer cliffs.
I rushed into the open, and leaped out of the stream. The sight of more mail, more helms, more bones brought me up short. How many men had died here, gotten this far, just like myself? I counted seven helms... then quickly surveyed my surroundings. I was in the valley, the glacier behind me. The valley rose steeply toward the cliffs, sheer and bare of trees. A waterfall spilled down at the valley's head, the source of the stream beside me. It was beautiful in the moonlight, so beautiful, I felt the tears on my cheeks at viewing such loveliness. Yet such beauty concealed so much death. Many were the places the guardian monster could hide. Even here, under the moon's bright face, I would be easy prey.
But I had come for Eventine, and looking around me, I saw that the valley floor was covered in a blanket of small blue flowers on long silver stems. I moved away from the cave entrance and opened my sack. At least I was going to harvest Eventine!
I dropped the first blossom when the fresh silver stem stung my fingers. Frowning, I examined my hands in the dim light. Blisters were rising where I'd touched the foliage, like the nettles of the lower dales, only worse. I shrugged to myself. No matter. I reminded myself that Eventine was a potent herb, and as such it was not surprising that it had unusual properties.
I wrapped my fingers in my skirts and set about harvesting more blossoms. One, two, three, four... how many would Petrok need? twenty, twenty five, thirty... my small pouch was nearly bursting when my stomach suddenly lurched and my head began to spin. I thought perhaps that the excitement and high altitude were effecting me, so I sat down to let the nausea pass. My arm brushed against a plant, and it began to burn.
I stared at it, watching as the blisters rose, listening to my heart as it began to labor.
Eventine was poison. I knew it with certainty and almost laughed as the realization dawned. There was no guardian, no viscous beast. Eventine was its own guardian - and more deadly than any dragon, if the bones I'd seen were any sign, the bones of people not trying to get into the valley, but out.
I broke into a cold sweat and staggered to my feet. I was three hours from home, perhaps two, downhill, if I ran. Only two hours. How long had the others lingered here before they realized their peril? Might not they have thought as I did, that it was altitude, or giddiness, and stayed to pick more flowers? I prayed that it was so.
I could not die for two more hours.
I washed my hands and arm in the icy waters of the stream and hurried back through the cave. I slipped twice this time, but no noises startled or frightened me; no monster lurked in the darkness of my imagination, only the very real specter of death nipping at my heels like a rabid dog, pushing me forward, hurrying me home ahead of it.
I stumbled down the mountainside as fast as my feet would carry me. Frequently I tripped and fell in the poor light. The blisters on my hands burst when I landed on them. Soon they began to bleed.
The vomiting started first, then the numbness of my hands and arms, burning nerves and fevered blood. Twice I dunked my head in the icy stream to cool it. Twice the shock of cold knocked me back to my senses long enough to stagger on.
I do not remember when I finally left the stream to cross the ridge to the valley which led to my village. With fevered clarity I noticed the clouds racing across the moon, the distant howls of shy wolves, the cool wind blowing down from the mountain tops rustling the tops of tall pines as I wandered downward until I finally collapsed in despair.
"Get up, Mairin," my father's voice said, and I forced my eyes open out of astonishment.
His indistinct figure nodded, smiling quietly. "You never gave up so easily when you were trying to get into my smithy," he said, and his voice was slightly chastising.
My eyes filled with tears. If I hadn't been so persistent, so stubborn, perhaps he would still be alive.
He squatted down beside me, and I stared at his huge hands, his dark brown leather smock with the myriad of burned spots, his black leather boots laced up the sides. He looked just the way I remembered him, my Papa, my beloved, beloved Papa.
"Mairin," he said gently. "You mustn't give up now. Your mother needs you."
"No she doesn't. Mama hates me."
He shook his head sadly. "Perhaps it seems that way, but, Mairin, truly, she loves you dearly. You will see, if you return home."
I cried, knowing the futility of it. I was hallucinating, sick, poisoned.
"Mairin," my father said sternly. "Get up!"
"I'm dying, Papa."
"Not yet, Pumpkin," he said, and it seemed to me that he was crying, too. "What did I always tell you? In the smithy, when you got frustrated?"
"Keep trying," I whispered. "Always keep trying."
"Try to get up, Mairin. For me?"
I would do anything for Papa. So I got up. I did. But I did not know where to go, what to do.
"This way, Mairin. I will lead you. Follow me."
And I followed.
"Watch that tree," Papa warned, but I fell over the fallen log despite his warning. "Up, then, Pumpkin. Up again!"
With bleeding hands I pushed myself back to my knees. "Why are you here, Papa?" I whispered, trying to focus my mind.
"Because I love you, Mairin."
"But you're dead. You shouldn't be here."
He chuckled. "You are strong, Mairin. You must keep moving."
I was strong. Strong enough to work in Papa's smithy. Strong enough to swing his heavy hammer and work the bellows, even when I had to stand on wooden blocks to get the proper angle on the anvil because I was too short. Papa called them my stumbling blocks because he always tripped on them. My stumbling blocks...
"You're strong, Mairin. Get up."
I was strong. I had Papa's broad shoulders and back. I was tall enough now that I wouldn't need my stumbling blocks to work on the anvil. Somehow I stood up again.
Papa continued to talk me down the mountainside, cajoling, encouraging, pushing me ever forward with his words. The world was reduced to nothing but Papa's voice and the sheer determination to keep moving which he instilled in me.
"I'm sorry I k-killed you, Papa," I stammered.
He smiled sadly. "You didn't kill me, Pumpkin. A horse did. I'd been kicked by many horses, no matter who held them. Barkley's big black just had better aim than some. It's not your fault, Mairin. Believe me, it wasn't your fault, and I have never blamed you for it. You can stop walking now."
I blinked back tears and found myself staring at a door. Petrok's door.
"Papa?" I asked, suddenly confused. Why was I here? What was happening?
"I love you, Mairin. Give my love to your mother and to Johan. Teach him well, what I taught you."
"I love you, too, Papa," I said, trying to focus on his face. He smiled, then seemed to fade.
"Knock, Mairin," his voice said, and I raised my bloody hand and knocked upon the door .
Inside, I heard Petrok grumbling as he stumbled out of bed. "What is it?" he asked sleepily. "Who is it?"
"It's me, Mairin," I said, fighting pain and darkness.
The door flew open in surprise, and not until I fell into Petrok's arms did I realize that I had been leaning upon it.
"Mairin!" he exclaimed, catching my weight and helping me regain my balance. "What is wrong? Are you hurt? Is it Johan?"
I shook my head weakly, and fumbled for the bag attached to my belt, staining it crimson. "I b-brought Eventine, for J-Johan...." I stammered, holding up the bag which promptly fell from my numb fingers to the floor. I smiled at Petrok. "There is no guardian.... only flowers.... " I held up my hands, "and the plants.... the plants are poison...." I collapsed again, then, and did not remember more.
I moved in and out of fevered dreams. Sometimes I talked to Papa, other times to Mama. I dreamed she told me that she loved me, that she did not want me to die, but I told her I knew better. I dreamed Johan thanked me for his life. I dreamed that Petrok held my hand always, and told me of his love for me, how he could not live without me. I smiled at that, for Petrok would say no such thing. Dear Petrok, so sad from all the deaths. It was all too good to be real, of course, to be loved by Mama, Johan, and Petrok, and I knew that, even in my dreams.
Then came the morning when I awoke, truly awoke with no dreams clouding my thoughts, and found Petrok sitting beside my bed. He was holding my hand, and he smiled when he saw me looking at him.
"Mairin," he said quietly, and kissed my hand. "I am very glad to see you awake this morning."
It was then that I first doubted I was truly awake. Yet, my mind seemed very clear, and I felt awful, as one feels only after a long illness. "Petrok?" I asked, believing, perhaps that my eyes deceived me. He had a certain joy in his eyes that was very unlike him.
"Yes, Mairin?" he said. "May I get you something?"
Petrok smiled. "Johan is fine. He is still weak, but the Eventine cured his fever, and he will be well again. Your mother is in the next room. She has been frantic with worry about you. May I let her in to see you?"
I nodded, surprised that Mama would stay close to me, much less that she would be worried. Clearly I was still in Petrok's house.
A moment later the door to my room opened, and Mama stepped in. There were tears on her cheek. She sat in the Petrok's chair and took my hand.
"Mairin," she whispered. "I'm so sorry... I mean... Oh Mairin, I'm so happy you're still here with us... I.... " She wiped her cheek. "Thank you for saving Johan. Thank you... for everything." She took my hand and pushed something cold and odd shaped into it. "I love you, Mairin."
Were all my fevered dreams come true, I wondered? Then I looked at the object in my hand. It was the key to Papa's smithy.