*** 8 ***
The Rovers ran at a steady pace; if Elden and Brillar hadn’t been hardened, they would have fallen behind, “And that,” puffed Elden, “would never do,” as he muttered spells to renew them as they ran.
It was two hours before they reached an encampment by the only running water they had seen. Elden’s spells meant they arrived only slightly out of breath.
“These travelers are welcome among us,” the leader called out as the camp stirred. Children came out to stare or hold their mother’s legs and peek at them. Largish dogs barked at them from tethers. The leader gestured to the group. “They take no harm here. Obis,” the man came up, “take them to your son.”
Obis lead them up a slight hill next to the stream. The camp was in a gently sloping valley and Rovers were camped on both sides of the stream which was no wider that two paces across but seemed to have a steady flow. The tents nearest the water seemed better than those behind them. All were a good size however, broad and deep although made of varied materials. Doors and some walls were made of blankets, thick and thin, some whole and some patched. Skins covered the tops of the tents which were pitched with long branches of a wood she hadn’t seen before. Most had flaps at the side facing the stream. There were small fires in front of some of the tents but cooking seemed to be done at a large communal fire where a huge kettle was hung alongside a spit of roasting meat. Women tended the fire and the kettle and she could see a second fire some distance from the first.
The Rovers seemed a clean people. Brillar had expected a rank odor when she saw the size of the camp, but these people evidently moved away from the tents when they needed to relieve themselves. Clothing she saw around her was dusty but not ragged. In all, she counted more than 40 tents around the stream and one further away. Behind her there was some activity. When she glanced back she could see men putting up a small tent set away from the others. A look at Elden and he said, “A guest tent I imagine. Away from the others but close enough that they can keep an eye on us.”
Obis led them to a tent and pulled back the flap. A woman in her late twenties stood up as they entered, a second knelt by a boy of perhaps eleven who lay motionless on his bedding.
“She’s a healer,” Obis told them as Brillar moved to the boy’s side, thrusting her bow at Elden.
“Our healer,” he said, “much good she has done him.” He pushed the woman out of the tent. “And my wife,” he gestured to the kneeling woman who looked at Brillar with anxious eyes.
“More light,” Brillar snapped, “and clean water.” To the woman, but quietly, “What herbs do you have.” Seeing them she shook her head and removed her pack.
“I said light, remove the top of the tent if you have to.” Obis and Elden scrambled to the task.
Brillar ran her hands over the boy. His body was hot with fever, his breathing harsh, but he was still as she probed. “Ribs, internal injury, his head, how long has it been?”
“Two days,” there were tears in the mother’s voice.
“Two cups of hot water for herbs. Now!” she snapped when no one moved. She looked at Elden and shook her head.
“It can’t be helped. I have to open it.” He just nodded.
Brillar dumped her pack quickly and pulled out the foldbox. Opening it in front of everyone, because the leader and some others had gathered outside, she pulled out an orb and more herbs. She could hear muttering and astonishment from the small crowd. Cups of hot water were set down near her as she closed the box. She crushed the herbs and moved the orb over them then set the cups aside.
To his credit, Obis pushed everyone away. “Move back, be still, let the healing be done.” A few words from the leader were more helpful. “Everybody, MOVE,” he bellowed. They moved.
In the light, Brillar now moved the orb over the boy’s chest muttering spells. Up and down the boy’s body the orb moved. She dipped her fingers in one of the cups of herbs and painted them over his chest and upper belly still chanting. The boy moved slightly and made a small noise in his throat. Still she moved the orb holding it over one place then another. The boy moved his head and she turned him on his side so he could vomit weakly.
“Hold him like that,” she told his mother, “there’ll be more.”
Now she painted the boy’s back with the heated herbs and moved the orb. The boy vomited again and again; those left nearby moved away at the stench. Only the boy’s mother remained. Feeling her need, Elden moved away from the crowd and muttered under his breath, renewing her.
Setting the orb down, Brillar took more herbs, rubbed them between her hands then moistened them in with herbal water from a cup.
“Now his head.” She smeared the herbs the bruise at the back of the boy’s head, murmuring spells. The deep bruise, swollen and purple oozed out rank clotted blood. Brillar took up the orb and spoke spells over his head.
The boy’s eyes fluttered and his mother’s hand went to his cheek. “I fell,” he said, “tell da……..sorry.” His eyes closed in sleep not in pain. Beside him, his mother looked at Brillar, who nodded. His mother’s face crumpled into tears.
Obis was instantly in the tent, hand at his knife, only to hear, “He lives, he lives,” in choking sobs from his wife.
“We’ll need cleaning here and at once,” were Brillar’s directions. “Water and sweet herbs to clear the air, clean cloths, something for his head.”
Someone thrust a rolled blanket into her hands and she placed the boy’s head on it gently. “He is to have nothing but herbal teas and broths until I say he is ready.” There were nods from husband and wife. “All others are to be kept away, no excitement for him.” More nods. “Your name?” she asked the mother gently.
“Obiswife,” was the reply.
“Obiswife? Do you have another name?” she asked quietly. Wife looked at husband and he nodded.
“Norrel,” was the soft answer.
“Well then, Norrel, you should rest now. A few hours,” she said kindly, “I’ll need to watch him.”
As they spoke, the woman who had stood when she first entered the tent had come in and cleaned what she could. A girl also entered with a boiling pot of sweet herbs. Setting it down, she fanned it with a large feather sweeping the scent through the area.
The first woman asked astonished, “Then he will live?”
Brillar smiled at her. “He will. Another day and he would have been beyond anyone’s skill.” The woman looked at her sharply, but Brillar kept a steady smile. “You did very well to keep him alive for two days.”
The woman flustered at that but said nothing. “Will you keep watch with me while Norrel sleeps?” The woman looked surprised but nodded.
The breach that could have occurred between the two women was prevented in the next few hours. The woman, who insisted her name was “Widowanlis,” kept nodding. “I have heard that there are great schools for healers,” she said, “away from the Wild, but none born here leave the Wild.”
Brillar kept assuring her that she had done well. “Perhaps you can show me the herbs you use here and we can see what to make of them.” That was readily agreed.
Exhausted, Norrel slept for six hours and woke with a start. “My son,” was her first words.
“Better and resting,” was the reply.
It was full dark when Brillar took her herself away, going out to a fire where food was being prepared eaten.
Without knowing, or, for that matter, caring, she went right to the largest fire where people were slicing meat from a roast and cut a piece of meat from the spitted animal, creating a stir. Glancing around, she located Elden and went to sit with him, noticing as she did, that the circle contained only men. ‘Too late to worry about that,’ she thought and took a bite of the meat.
“Since when does a woman sit with us,” shouted one of the group standing as he spoke.
“Since she healed my son,” said Obis, also standing, staring the first man down. “Norrel and I,” there was another stir, “Norrel and I are forever in her debt. Who would speak otherwise?” He glared at the assembled men.
“I lead here,” came a third voice, “and let no one forget it,” the man they had identified as leader of the Rovers stood. “Unless there is a challenge,” his voice was hard. The other men took their seats.
“These people are outsiders, unused to our ways. The woman has done us a service. Obis’ son will live. For tonight, she sits with us. Tomorrow is for the dawn.” He sat back down.
Brillar began to shift. Elden steadied her and stood slowly first looking at the headman for permission.
“My woman meant no offense for we are strangers here. If there are more who need healing, that also is for the dawn. For now, I ask permission for us to withdraw and rest.”
“Well said. You have our leave,” was the reply.
Elden dragged Brillar up by the elbow to some muted laughter and lead her off to an area a short distance from the tents. He had retrieved her pack and spread blankets under a hastily made tent erected for them by the Rovers.
She had barely passed from the firelight, Elden still holding her elbow, when she wrenched it away from him, muttering. He could only wait for the inevitable which came as they reached their tent some distance from the fire.
“’My woman’ you say? ‘My woman’? And, my lord will you now beat me with the flat of your sword? ‘My woman’ indeed. To be treated this way? Denied a place at the fire? ‘My woman’?” She was in high dudgeon.
“If my lady Brillar would remember where we are and who those people are out there, and keep her voice down, I think all will be well. I hadn’t expected you out so soon or I would have warned you. The local wives did, however, make some provision for you here.” He pulled a cloth off a basket, showing her fruits, tender roasted meat, flat bread with honey, and a flask of wine.
“A woman brought it all to the tent earlier. The wine is a bit harsh, but it should be sufficient. You’ve had a difficult day. The customs of these Rovers are nothing like the ones I’m familiar with and I didn’t have time to warn you about them.”
Seeing what was provided, Brillar was mollified. The meat was still warm, the wine a bit harsh but more warming, the bread and honey, perfect. Fresh fruit was a real treat because they had nothing but dried fruit in their packs.
“I thought you said there were no fruit trees in the Wild,” she questioned, keeping her voice down.
“None that I ever saw,” he replied. “But then I’ve never seen all of the Wild. We kept to a small area, Brother Verian and I. Even the Rovers haven’t seen all there is. These Rovers keep their woman obedient to the men. You need to be careful. As to the rest of the Wild,” idly, he took a piece of fruit. “They’ve been telling me stories of a great expanse of sand to the southwest, with dunes that seem to have marched inward from the sea. And huge areas of stone where nothing grows and where you have to carry all the water you need because there are no springs or pools anywhere. There is no shade there and the sun is so intense that thirst will overtake you in a day.”
“I want no great areas of stone, but the sea. That would be a sight.” Brillar stretched, yawned, and lay back on a blanket. She was asleep in minutes.
It’s a good thing,’ he thought, as he covered her with a blanket, ‘that she didn’t hear the sport that was made of her before she came to the fire. Or what I had to answer in order to be accepted.’ He stretched out and fell quickly asleep.
He woke in the morning to find her already at Obis’ tent checking on his son and went out with some of the men to hunt although he decided to withhold his real skills.
At Obis’ tent, the boy was still asleep, but his breathing was even and rhythmic and his face, which had been pale, held some color. His head, when she probed it, was mending.
“He won’t die then, lady,” another of the family’s children, perhaps age seven, asked her. She smiled, reached out and touched the child’s cheek.
“No, he won’t die. He will be around to pester you for a long time,” she teased. The little girl just nodded solemnly, then reached for her and planted a kiss on her cheek.
“Thank you, lady,” she said, and ran off.
Norrel came in with hot water and a cloth. “May I wash him,” she asked.
“His legs and arms perhaps, but I would leave the rest for another day.” Brillar sat back as the woman began wiping the boy’s legs carefully.
“Did you really go to the men’s fire last night? I heard it from others but…did you really go?”
“I really went,” Brillar replied, checking the boy’s signs as his mother worked.
There was wonder in Norrel’s voice. “Women have been beaten for even going near the men’s fire after dark. Did he beat you? Your man Elden?”
“As if he would dare,” she replied tartly.
Norrel sat down sharply taking a deep breath. “Then it’s true? That there are other ways? I worry about Ralla. She’s already promised and I don’t like the choice the elders made, but I have no voice. I don’t wish anyone for myself but Obis, but the pairings they sometimes make, and the girls so young,” she came to a sudden halt, embarrassed. “Truly, there are other ways?” she asked, recovering.
“Many other ways,” Brillar assured her and settled back, satisfied that her patient was in a healthy sleep. “My home is to the north. Families there sometimes encourage certain of their older children to make a selection but no one is forced. Before we left…..” She stopped a moment remembering her family and the wedding they had missed. “Before we left, my elder brother, who had cast an eye on many fine young women, finally made his decision and asked for the hand of one. I knew her, studious and with a strong mind. She may have helped him make his ‘decision’ because I think she had settled on him long before he knew it.”
“So a woman can make a choice?”
“She can make half the choice, and hope the other chooses her in return.” The exchange left Norrel thoughtful.
Widowanlis came to the tent later in the morning. “Your pardon, but if you could help me?” Brillar followed her to a tent where an elderly man lay on blankets.
“My gran’ther. He can barely walk. Can you help him?”
Brillar examined the man whose joints were swollen and barely flexible. A quick examination, a probing, and a few words. “We call it joint ill. It afflicts elders everywhere. There is no cure but there are brews that will ease the swelling and the pain. First we give him what I carry, then, if you’ll help me, I may be able to find local herbs that will be of value.” Widowanlis quickly brewed a tea with Brillar’s herbs and made sure her grandfather drank all of it, then the women took a sack and some cloths and walked out along the stream followed by a man who kept watch for danger. As far as Brillar could tell, the women here never touched weapons. Widowanlis pointed out herbs she used. Each time they found a plant that was new to her, Brillar reached deep into it, probing leaves, flowers and roots. Several she thought would be useful were new to her companion. Some she dug up whole handing them to Widowanlis to examine and put into a sack. Others had their leaves or flowers removed to be wrapped in cloth. She kept up a steady stream of conversation with Widowanlis explaining the use and preparation of each plant. She also asked questions.
“Why are you called Widowanlis? Is that a proper name?”
“Until two years past, I was Anliswife,” replied the woman proudly. “Anlis was a fine hunter, so strong, so brave. But a stern man. I felt his hand many a time when I didn’t behave properly.” Her tone was somber. “Still, it was a good pairing, although we had no children.”
“And now?” she reached for a plant with a thick stem.
“I am permitted to stay with my gran’ther as I have some skill in healing, taught by the elder woman who was our healer. She died these five years ago.”
“She taught you very well,” and Widowanlis blushed. “But you said, ‘permitted to stay?’ I don’t understand.”
“There’s no man to hunt for me but I have family to care for. Anlis was killed in a hunt for irex. My gran’ther was a good hunter but he can’t go out with the men any longer. If I wasn’t a healer, we would be cast out or worse.” She lowered her head. “I have only a small skill with snares. We eat what we are given. That is all. To be cast out….”
Worse? Brillar was angry but she kept it to herself and said quietly, “Isn’t there a wifeless man who might wish to marry you?”
Widowanlis’ voice held shock. “No one would ask me. Not after I was wed to Anlis! It’s forbidden. If there had been children, another man might be permitted to take me, but I was barren. ‘A woman with a child is a woman useful’ say the elders. Another woman might be skilled in basket making and be useful, but a woman with a child has proved her value.”
“Suppose a young woman’s man is killed soon after they marry. What then?”
“Sometimes she’s traded to a new band. We have a gathering every two years. If someone at the gathering wants her, she’ll be traded for cloth goods, iron or even a different woman.”
“And before a gathering?”
Widowanlis glanced at their guardian who was a dozen paces away. Still she lowered her voice.
“You saw that there was one tent set apart? A small one?” Brillar nodded.
“She is there.”
“She?” Brillar dreaded the answer.
“As you say, her man was killed soon after they were joined. Until the gathering, she will be used.”
“Used?” She kept the horror out of her voice.
Widowanlis’ voice dropped to a whisper, “Used by the men. For sport. Or by young men not yet wed.”
Brillar kept her face bent toward the grasses to hide her outrage. When she felt she could control her herself, she said, “She can’t return to her parents? Learn a skill making her worth her keeping? Or stay with them until a gathering?”
Widowanlis voice showed her shock. “That is not done! Once she was wed, she belonged to her husband.”
Brillar sat heavily and patted the ground beside her. “Have you ever wished that things could be different?” She kept her tone light, pretending unconcern.
“They are different in your country?” asked the widow.
“Many things are different in my country,” was the easy reply.
“Well,” Widowanlis glanced again at their guardian, “there is a man in the village whose wife died in a wolf attack when she strayed a bit too far searching for tubers. His daughter brought the sweet herbs?” Brillar nodded. “She is young but he has two younger. He has looked at me with pleasure I think, and I at him.” She stopped, blushing. “He’s a fine man and strong. He doesn’t go to the pleasure woman, he just looks at me.” She blushed more deeply. “I burn for him and he for me I think. But it is forbidden.”
“Have you spoken to him? Asked him, perhaps, what he would do there was a choice for you both?”
She shook her head vigorously. “Forbidden.”
“But you’ve exchanged looks, you feel for each other. The children need a mother and it seems you would be a good choice.”
“They are fine children. The girl studies healing a bit with me, the others are sometimes found underfoot at my tent. I have come to care for all three.”
“Perhaps if the girl or one of the younger children was to speak to her father?”
Widowanlis, lowered her head.
A few moments of quiet for the woman’s pain and Brillar said, “It seems to me that we have all we need if I’ve gathered correctly. Now I’ll show you the preparations and you can show me what you have.” They nodded cheerfully at their guardian and returned to the tents where they found Norj sitting on his bed. They spent the part of the afternoon preparing herbs. Some they set to dry, roots were pounded and boiled, flowers and leaves steeped in boiling water. When the first of the new preparations were ready, they added honey and gave them to Norj.
“He’ll need the tea four times a day. We should see a result in his trouble quickly.”
Widowanlis nodded gratefully, then said, “There is a child you might see? I set her arm but if a true healer could look at her?” Brillar smiled and nodded.
The little girl was about four. Her arm was bound by strips of cloth and fastened to her chest. She pulled away from a strange woman at first, but Brillar reached out with soothing and was rewarded with a little smile. An examination showed that the bone was well set and already healing.
“You did very well; the child’s arm is mending beautifully.” Her words were met with a wide smile from her companion and the child’s mother.
Since she had agreed to one, she found there were others to be looked after. A child with a fever, a woman with stomach pains, she went with a smile wherever Widowanlis led her then returned to check on her first patient.
“Tonight, dine with us at the women’s fire. For company,” said Widowanlis at last.
When she found Elden coming back from a hunt, she told him about the invitation. “Good, it will keep you out of trouble,” was all he had to say.