Small, strong hands half-lifted him, propping him upright before moving what felt like rolled sleeping furs against his back to brace him. “Here. Now drink this.”
The brim of a ceramic cup pressed against his lips. The fragrant herbal scent that drifted up managed to make it past the numb, heavy weight in his nose and breathing-ways, and it promised bitterness. Windburn shook his head and leaned backwards; when the cup persisted, he bared his teeth and snarled.
A hand found his back and pressed him forward. The touch was cool but firm against his fever-hot skin. “Drink it,” a young voice insisted, and before he realized it, Windburn was doing as he had been ordered, letting the herbal tea pass his lips and swirl past his tongue. He swallowed, braced against bitterness, and found instead a promise of honey and a pinch of sea-salt. The brew didn't taste good — but the beesweets made it possible to get the liquid down, and the salt answered a craving he hadn't expected, so that he gulped the second, third and fourth swallows, until the cup was empty.
The cup went away, and cool hands helped ease him back into his nest of sleeping furs. Windburn burrowed into them and drifted asleep to the strange sound of birdsong... not a bird he knew, and hadn't the most delicate singers gone south with the winter...
He drifted in peace for a while, and when Windburn woke again, the worst of his fever had broken. Young Newt sat next to the bowl of Windburn's bed, playing a sighing tune on a bird-bone flute. The youth looked at his chief with a smile as he put aside his flute, and touched a cool palm against Windburn's forehead.
“That's better,” the youth said, smiling with pleasure. “I promised you my recipe would work.”
“You... promised me.” The words seem to float in the air; it took Windburn several heartbeats to realize he'd even said them. It seemed the hardest thing in all of the world to sit upright on his own, but Windburn managed it. “I don't remember that.”
“What do you remember?”
|Illustration by Melanie D.|
Windburn blinked slowly. He thought on that for a moment, realizing at the same time that his mouth felt impossibly dry. The inside of his eyelids felt stubbled with sand. His lung-sacks felt clogged with mud. His bones ached and his joints felt watery. There was a soft scruff and scrape — Windburn looked askance at the sound and saw the youth filling a painted pottery cup with liquid from a flask. Windburn took it when Newt offered, and drank without complaint despite the taste.
“I remember that,” he said as he handed the cup back. “What's in it?”
“Willow-bark and feverease, steeped together for fever, with boneset to ward off the fever-aches. And lots and lots of honey to make it go down easier,” Newt said, adding the last with a grin. “How much more of it can you drink for me?”
Windburn rolled the bitter-honey-salt aftertaste around in his mouth for a moment, then reached out a hand. “How much have you got left?”
Newt handed over the leather flask and simply smiled as Windburn drank the herbal tea down to the last drop.
Windburn handed the empty flask back, then laid back down on his furs. They stank of sweat and sickness. Now that the distraction of his body feeling parched was gone, Windburn could almost remember yesterday. He had lost his hood during the hard ride of the hunt, then ridden home bareheaded in a bitterly cold wind and rain. It wasn't the first time he had ever weathered such conditions; elves were hardy and seldom came down sick, so it had been a risk Windburn had been willing to take, having taken successfully it before. Only this time, he’d lost the gamble. The last few miles of that ride were just a hazy fog of increasing fever and weakening limbs. Had it really only been yesterday?
“You've been fever-sick for more than two days,” Newt supplied the answer to a question Windburn hadn't realized he'd asked aloud. “Here, I've got a rosemary rub. Let me apply that before you sleep again.”
Windburn let the youth apply a pungent mixture of goose grease and crushed rosemary. The fragrance wafted into his nose with each intake of breath, and after a time, each breath began to feel a little easier.
“One-Leg and Moss are still out with their word-hunters, and Starskimmer and Brightwood are gone up to Raincaller Hill for Starskimmer’s winter dreamberries, so Goldspice sent Foxtail off to find Blacksnake's hunting party and Willow, and she sent Notch off the other way to find Cloudfern and Evervale along the thornwalls,” Newt was saying. It took Windburn's fever-weary mind some time to process those words, and then to realize that the youth was giving him a report for what his tribemates had done once they'd realized how sick their chief had fallen. “With Cloudfern and Starskimmer away and Willow out hunting, we knew I needed to treat you. But then I had to break into Cloudfern's craft-den with an axe because woodmice got to the boneset in the stores below, and all of Cloudfern’s supplies were closed up tight. So I borrowed One-Leg's axe off his wall. Greenweave helped me chop into Cloudfern’s den, but we broke One-Leg’s axe doing it. I got what I needed, though, and we made sure that the hole we made is lashed tight with a hide. Cloudfern will be able to shape it closed again once he gets home, but I'm going to have to repay One-Leg for his axe.”
Windburn looked at the youth before him with fresh eyes. Newt had been apprenticing with Cloudfern for several years now, but somehow, Windburn had never expected the boy to truly learn the healer’s art. He studied the youth for a moment, seeing a calm competence and maturity there he had never even looked for before. “You healed me.”
Newt's milky skin flushed at that, and the youth nodded again, clearly proud of himself but too shy of boast of his accomplishment.
Windburn inhaled a deep breath, filling his lungs with the pungent aroma of rosemary and goose fat. His lungs filled, deeper than they had when he had first awoken. “The debt is mine,” Windburn said, letting his eyes ease closed against the mingled weight of exhaustion and relief. The tribe had another proven herbalist-healer. Somehow, between the space of one fever-dream and the next, one of their time-orphaned foundlings had metamorphosed into a considerable asset. “And you can tell One-Leg and his word-hunters when they get home that I'll knap him a brand new axehead. Two, even, if he thinks that's fair.”
“Yes, my chief,” Newt said. “When you wake up again, I'll have more of my special tea for you to drink.”
Windburn had never expected he would accept a command from little Newt — but he nodded now, and accepted his healer's orders without question.
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