The twins were sent home after it became obvious to Elebeth that they were no better off in her shop than they were anywhere else. Their situation perplexed the healer. Though they had no fever, Nius and Jairo remained pale as death, never stirring once, their breath as calm as that of a deep sleep. Mara still insisted that she had seen nothing during her watch, though by the way she fidgeted, her sisters wondered if it was the truth. Atia had tried to catch her, using what she thought to be impressive rhetoric, but she could find out nothing. Safira finally ordered that all interrogation stop, concerned of how damaging the constant pressure might prove if continued. Atia was reluctant to obey.
“You don’t actually think that Mara is the one to blame?” Safira had asked when Atia complained.
“I know she would never harm them,” Atia replied quickly, but then added, “I just wonder if maybe…oh, I don’t know. If this is no common sickness, which Elebeth has made clear that it isn’t, there must have been some provocation.”
“Like what, then?”
“I don’t know. Anything! The smallest detail might give us a clue, but without consulting Mara we have no way of finding it out!”
“I highly doubt Mara is able to supply such answers,” Safira returned, “and I’m not going to put her through such scrutiny for nothing. It isn’t fair. She’s already terrified as it is, and to make her feel even more like it’s her fault is out of the question.”
The discussion had ended there. Atia still believed that she knew better, but Safira was not to be crossed in these affairs. So instead, they looked elsewhere, in hopes that they might stumble upon the cause or cure another way.
Mavaya told all this to Loma Grimnor as they sat together in the Grimnor library. Loma turned the page of her medical encyclopedia and ran a slim finger along the line of text, brow furrowed, ambitious stack of paper sadly devoid of notes, and reflected that, for the first time, perhaps Atia was onto something.
She certainly wasn’t. The seven-volume collection was the most expensive in the library. Her father had purchased it when her mother fell ill four years prior. For all its words, The Encyclopedia of Medicines and Ailments had proven clueless about Jairo and Nius’s problem.
Mavaya had gotten up and gone home half an hour ago. Loma looked across the shiny wooden table to where the healer, Elebeth, sat reading.
Her skin crawled a bit.
“I don’t understand it,” Loma sighed, leaning back in her chair, arms folded. Sunlight poured through the diamond-paned windows. “Chesstel is such a small place. How could any disease come here and not be listed in these books? Surely, this isn’t the first case in the whole world!”
“Keep looking,” Elebeth advised as she turned the pages of volume three. “It’s in here, somewhere. It has to be.”
Sighing once more, Loma returned to her book. As she browsed thoughtfully through, she came to a section she hadn’t considered, entitled Section Fourteen: The Ailments of Magic.
Intrigued, Loma scanned the introduction: “Ailments caused by magic can be difficult to cure, as they are oftentimes hard to identify. An important fact to remember, however, is that the severity of such charms can vary on a large scale. With proper care, many spells can be reversed. Though there are many people in this world who possess magic, very few are powerful enough to command lasting curses. That said, very few people, other than the magicians themselves, are aware of the susceptible nature of curses. Since curses are so common, however, no true physician can afford to be uneducated in the art of repairing them, which is why Section Fourteen has been provided.”
A table of contents followed the introduction, and as Loma’s finger traced the list, her eyes fell upon the Spell of Sleep. Excited, Loma turned quickly to the appropriate page.
“The Spell of Sleep,” Loma read silently, “can be cast in many different forms and strengths. The most common version is known as ‘Faldri’, translated to mean ‘Swoon’. It is the easiest to perform, and requires no treatment, as it will usually wear off in a matter of minutes, though there have been accounts of it lasting up to three hours.
“Other sleep charms exist, more potent in their effect than the harmless ‘Swoon’. One rendition is performed by charming the victim into a restless stupor, which dooms them to walk ceaselessly about until proper measures are taken to recover them. This version is known as ‘Ghosting Trance’. A quick counter-spell can heal the subject immediately, but when no magic is available, an aromatic remedy can be substituted. (See page 234 for recipe.)
“ ‘Death Watch’, also known as the ‘Devil’s Fast’, is a much darker version of the sleep charm. Those affected by this spell become frozen in a deep slumber. Victims of the Death Watch can be identified by their exceedingly pale, almost gray complexion, which comes as a result of the sinister preservation of nutrients to keep its victim from starving, hence ‘Devil’s Fast’. If proper treatment is not quickly applied, the victim’s enchanted store of food and hydration will run out, and starvation will be inevitable. In most cases, the fast will last no more than two weeks. Magic is the quickest antidote, but when such measures are impossible, a special balm must be concocted and applied to the forehead and beneath the nostrils as soon as possible. (See page 235 for recipe.)”
“Elebeth!” Loma’s cry was so shrill, the healer nearly fell out of her chair.
“What is it, child?” Elebeth asked, rushing to see what had caused such a stir.
Loma pointed meaningfully at the paragraph concerning the Death Watch. Her finger tapped against the page impatiently as she waited for the healer to finish reading.
“Loma, you’re a genius!” Elebeth exclaimed, cradling the young woman’s face in her hands. “Magic—of course! Of course, it was magic!”
Pulling away from the healer’s grip, Loma turned to the page with the recipe. While she copied the instructions onto a sheet of parchment, Elebeth read over her shoulder. Hardly any of the ingredients sounded familiar to Loma, but Elebeth seemed perfectly at ease, and so she assumed all was well. It wasn’t until she delivered the finished sheet that Elebeth began to look troubled.
“I cannot make this,” she declared.
Loma’s heart dropped. “Why not?”
“This plant,” Elebeth said, lowering the parchment so that Loma could see which one she meant, “does not grow near the Basin. I’ve scarcely even heard of it before and know nothing about it, save that it has peculiar qualities, and is only used in the most extreme cases. It can be poisonous.”
“But surely, there is a way that we can get it?” Loma insisted.
“None that I know of,” Elebeth replied sadly. “Berome leaf is native to the Amora region, near the sea, which is far away from here.”
“Has it not been cultivated elsewhere?” Loma cried, desperate.
Elebeth thought for a moment. “Deltarus is the capital of our kingdom. There is a chance that we may find it there.”
Loma lunged for volume seven, the book with the herbal index. After a moment or two, she let out a triumphant shout.
“Berome leaf: Native plant to the Amora region, cultivated on account of its special properties into the gardens of Deltarus and Falderlon.”
“Deltarus.” Elebeth smiled.
Loma jumped from her seat. “Father must send a horseman.”
“Loma, wait.” The healer touched her shoulder.
“What is it?”
Elebeth stared at the recipe in her hand. She looked at the book, then back at the paper. Slowly, she shook her head. “Two weeks until death, at longest. Jairo and Nius have been infected for more than two days. We can’t fetch anything from Deltarus in that much time.”
Again, Loma felt her heart drop. Loathsome as it was, Elebeth had a point. It was impossible to ride to Deltarus and back before time ran out.
How could this happen? It wasn’t right. The answer wouldn’t be there if they couldn’t obtain it. There had to be a way. Agitated, the young woman began pacing back and forth over the rug, wringing her hands.
Her fingers tingled. “We could send Mathias.”
Elebeth, who had slumped into Loma’s vacated chair, looked up sharply. “What difference would that make?”
“All the difference in the world!” Loma pulled out another chair and sat, seizing the healer’s hands. “Mathias is the best horseman for miles around. He’s been to Deltarus countless times with my father, who just so happens to be a knight, which will earn Mathias immediate assistance when he arrives. Think of it! Every obstacle blown away! He’ll be gone and back in no time at all!”
Elebeth pursed her lips. What Loma said was true, but it didn’t seem right. One look at Loma made Elebeth realize that the girl knew the cause of her hesitation.
“This is no time for emotional preferences, Elebeth.”
“I haven’t said it was,” she countered lamely.
“Elise won’t object to him. He’s all we’ve got. She’ll be thankful.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” Elebeth warned. “Elise is not so likely to forget what he’s done. He betrayed Acinath—he fathered a child with a servant girl!”
“His sin does not alter his competence,” Loma replied. “If you won’t help me, then I’ll tell Elise myself. He’s the only chance we’ve got. Besides, in all frankness, it might do good for everyone.”
At this, Elebeth frowned. Then, looking like she had discovered something secret, she drew herself up a little, mouth twisted in a disapproving and slightly condescending smile.
“Are you really so crafty, Miss Loma? You should be ashamed.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You are amazingly subtle for one so young, but Elise is no simpleton. You plan such things and censure my emotional preference? Now admit the truth!”
“What are you talking about?” Loma demanded.
The healer sighed patiently. “You are to be commended for your devotion to your brother, but do you think Elise will believe you? We all know how well Mathias rides, but the difference is not sufficient to make him a better choice for the job. You want us to forgive him. You want him to prove himself.”
“You think I’d try that at a time like this?” Loma cried.
“Can you deny it?” Stuffy principles swelling her breast, the healer tried to stare the young woman down. “Tell me I’m wrong!”
“You’ve never been right!” Loma exclaimed. “How dare you!”
“Your father would—”
“My father would throw you from the house!” Possessed with a sudden fury, Loma leapt to her feet. “What right have you to reproach me? To speak to me with such impudence? You’re a fool and a witch! Odious, meddling woman!”
Stunned and terribly frightened, Elebeth tried to reclaim the young woman, uttering quick words of apology.
“Begone, woman! Leave this house at once!”
Bowing, the healer did as she was told, leaving Loma to fume alone. The young woman’s heart was beating rapidly, but she could not sit down.
Insolent woman! Perhaps Loma should not have lost her temper, but it had been many years since she’d held any real affection for the self-righteous herbalist. Though Mathias had insisted she try, Loma had never forgiven Elebeth for the part she’d played in her brother’s unhappiness, and to be scolded like a child was more than she could stand.
The library door opened and a manservant poked his head inside. “Is everything all right, my lady?”
Loma nodded. “Where is my mother?”
“In her bedroom, I believe, my lady.”
“Thank you. You may go.”
The servant disappeared again. Loma let out a sigh of relief. Her mother’s chamber was too far from the library for her to have overheard their conversation. Worse than anything would be to upset her. Her health had taken a slight downturn since yesterday.
I should talk with Mathias first, she decided. While the healer had clearly overstepped her place, she had been right in that the sisters would not be thrilled with the idea. Having Mathias already in compliance would help tremendously in trying to persuade them. Loma wondered what had set the healer off so badly. The villagers had no place in their hearts for Mathias anymore, but it had been a long time since anyone had vocalized their dislike so hatefully. Troubled, Loma left the library to search for her brother.
She found him sitting on a bench beneath a small willow tree in the garden, not far from the house. In his hand was an open book, but his gaze had drifted into the distance, and it wasn’t until Loma was sitting beside him that he noticed she was there. Flashing a brief smile, Mathias looked down at the book he had forgotten.
It felt so good to have him back, and here she was, planning to send him away.
“We found a cure.”
Mathias looked up immediately. “A cure for the twins?”
Loma nodded. “Elebeth and I found it today.” Turning so that she was facing him, Loma went on, “They’ve been cursed with magic.”
Mathias frowned, leaning back in surprise. “Magic? What makes you think that? Who in Chesstel can use magic?”
“We found a spell in the medical encyclopedia that sounds exactly like what they have,” Loma explained, ignoring the last question. “Everything lines up perfectly!”
“What’s the cure?” Mathias asked.
Loma bit her lip, wondering how to tell him. “Some spells can be undone through means other than magic. The ailment that troubles the twins can be undone by a special ointment applied to the forehead.”
“What is the ailment called?” he asked.
Loma shivered. “The Death Watch.”
“So this could kill them if not treated.”
Loma nodded. “It has never reached past two weeks.” Mathias was about to interrupt, but Loma quickly went on, “We need to get the ointment as soon as possible. We’ve already lost valuable time. The problem is that in order to make the medicine, we need an herb called berome leaf, which does not grow here. It grows in Deltarus, however, and if someone were to go and fetch it, then all would be well.”
Mathias’s face fell at once, and he shook his head. “It’s impossible to get it in time, Loma. It’s a full week’s ride to Deltarus, and another week to get back. It’d never get here in time.”
“But couldn’t you go?” Loma blurted. “You’re such a fast rider, Mathias, and you’ve been there before. Couldn’t you make the journey in time?”
“Elise will allow it, I know she will. If you can just make the trip, then everything will be all right.”
“There’s a double meaning in that,” Mathias said, a sad half-smile forming.
Loma looked away, face flushed. Elebeth had belittled her by suggesting that she cared more for Mathias’s recovery than the twins’ life, never mind that she had spent the last two days tracking down the cure, which in the end she had found. But she had been right in that Loma did have other hopes for this arrangement.
If Mathias went, then the town, or at least the sisters, would see how good he really was. Maybe then, after he’d proven his character, they could be allowed to understand, or at least forgive what they could not know.
“More than one good thing may come of this. If you can do this, then the twins will be saved, and everyone will see that you’re…” Loma’s words ended in a strangled sob, and she fell silent.
A slight squeeze on her hand made her look back at her elder brother, who was watching her with solemn eyes.
“No one could ask for a dearer sister than you. Though I cannot guarantee my success, I will ride to Deltarus, but only with Elise’s consent.”
Loma laid her head on his shoulder. “I knew you would.”
Mathias smiled and placed an arm around the girl’s slim form, kissing her forehead lightly. “You should talk with the Morrens soon.”
Loma straightened and nodded. “You’re right. I should.”
“Or perhaps I should go.”
Loma stared at her brother, startled by the suggestion.
Mathias shrugged. “I see no reason why I shouldn’t. After all…well, maybe you’re right…”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Loma said, wincing.
Mathias chuckled. “You’re right. Very well.”
“I’ll leave at once.” Loma darted for the stables.
Convincing Elise took less time than Loma anticipated. The young mother agreed almost at once, needing only to hear a few details before announcing her approval. Safira didn’t say much throughout the exchange, and neither did Atia, though both were clearly unsettled. Mavaya spoke now and then to smooth the way, being frightened for the twins and ready to take any chance, but the only other who did speak was Acinath.
“Does Mathias want to do this?” she had asked.
“Of course,” Loma replied, smiling reassuringly. “I spoke with him already. He’s perfectly willing.”
That had settled the matter, and word was soon all over Chesstel. Loma had no doubt that Elebeth was to blame for that. She’d have a word or two to say once she got hold of that woman. By the next morning, almost everyone knew. Sir Grimnor and Alemira were baffled beyond speech when they heard the plan from one of their attendants, and demanded that Loma and Mathias come before them. Mathias was unable to come, however, because he was busy packing, giving the excuse of a tight schedule and promising to explain once he was ready. Loma had quickly explained everything to them after that, and while they were far from satisfied, they made no move to stop him. Before lunch arrived, Mathias had left, mounting his stallion and riding for Deltarus and the berome leaf.