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Authors: Kim Fielding

The Pillar (3 page)

BOOK: The Pillar
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“What did
you
do?” Faris asked as he spooned yet more tea between slack lips. Not that it mattered, but he couldn’t help being curious. Had this man been as stupid as a youth who thought he might cure his constant hunger by stealing a heavy bracelet from a goldsmith who’d briefly turned his back? Unlikely.

By the time darkness fell, the fever was raging despite Faris’s efforts. The man shook and thrashed and mumbled incoherently in spite of the cool cloths and additional doses of medicine. Faris couldn’t do any of his planned work on compounding tinctures. In the brief moments when the patient was still, he simply sat on a stool at the bedside and listened to the wind blow.

The patient had settled for a few minutes, so Faris decided to eat a bit of a stew and brew some coffee. He was tired. But just as he put the first spoonful in his mouth, he was interrupted by shouts.

“No! No! Please God, no!”

Faris let the spoon drop back into his bowl and rushed to the man’s side. The man’s eyes were wide open, but he didn’t see Faris. He must have seen something terrible instead, because the whites of his eyes were showing and he continued to scream hoarsely. “No! No! No!” He moved so violently that Faris had to lay himself over the writhing body to keep him from tumbling to the floor. Faris’s weight couldn’t have been good for the deep bruises and open wounds, but Faris remained and tried to soothe him.

“Hush, hush,” Faris murmured into the man’s ear. “Hush now. You’re safe. Rest. Hush.” He didn’t think the man could understand him, but maybe the tone helped, because after a few minutes, tense muscles relaxed, eyelids closed, and the screaming faded to moaning and then stopped.

Faris carefully removed himself from his patient. “It’s going to be a long night,” he said, then went to prepare more tea.

 

 

I
N
THE
end, Faris caught a few hours of prickly, uneven sleep. He woke up sore and exhausted, but the first thing he did was check on his patient. To his immense relief, while the man’s face was still flushed and sweaty, the fever had gone down to more reasonable levels and the man appeared at peace. “At least
you’re
getting some rest,” Faris said irritably. He was always grouchy when he didn’t get enough sleep. That was why he’d told Mirsada he would no longer rescue anyone left tied to the pillar.

That was a lie.

In truth, he spent years watching Enis tend to these unfortunate souls. It used to be Mirsada’s father who’d fetched the old herbalist when someone was whipped, and before that it had been
his
father. Not many months after Faris himself was untied and healed, Enis had made him help wash and doctor wounds. And after Enis died, Mirsada started sending for Faris. He’d never liked the task—it dredged up far too many memories. But perhaps he would have continued nonetheless, except one night he found a man who’d been beaten as well as lashed, who moaned with pain over a horribly broken arm, and who was nearly insensible with terror over a lower body that he could neither feel nor move. His breathing was labored, each inhalation a struggle.

Faris killed him. Gently, humanely, and because there was nothing else he could do. But he killed him.

And then there was another one. A boy not yet out of his teens with something inside him ruptured. Black blood trickled from all his orifices, and Faris helplessly watched the boy grow paler and weaker. This boy had begged for death, his voice as frail and wispy as a midsummer cloud. Faris granted his wish, and the next day he’d buried the boy on a hillside. He still had the grave soil on his hands when he marched to the kafana and said to Mirsada, “No more. I’m done.”

She’d stared back at him, expressionless and silent.

“I meant it,” Faris said now to the unconscious man. “I won’t—I can’t do this.” But even as he spoke, he was smoothing fresh ointment onto lash marks and smiling slightly at the lack of infection.

Faris was out of bread, but there was plenty of stew left over from the previous day. He had just enjoyed three warm spoonfuls when someone knocked at his door. It was one of the local midwives.

“Sara has been in labor for hours. It’s her first, and she’s young and small. I need some skullcap.”

Faris nodded at her but didn’t invite her inside. Few people came into his home. “And maybe some crampbark tincture as well?”

“Yes. That would be good.”

“It’ll take a few minutes to get it ready. Could you maybe fetch me a loaf or two in exchange? I’ve been busy….”

Instead of answering, she turned and headed up the street in the direction of the baker. She was never one to waste words.

Not long after, Faris was able to sit down with his stew, bread still warm from the oven, and a fresh pot of coffee. He poured the brew carefully from the old copper pot that had once belonged to Enis. He smiled as he remembered the hundreds of times he’d seen his master’s big hands wrapped around the long wooden handle, the hundreds of times he’d heard Enis mutter something about needing to drink less of the stuff. “It’s a vice,” the old man would say. “And I’ll never fall asleep properly.” And then every night he’d begin snoring almost before his head hit the pillow. Sometimes Faris had to wrap the hearth rug around his own ears in order to get some sleep.

Faris was deep within these pleasant memories when the patient began to stir, this time slowly and without feverish desperation. Faris brushed away the crumbs from his lap, stood, and walked to the bedside. “Hello,” he said mildly.

The man looked at him in confusion. “Where…? What…?”

“I’m an herbalist. Faris. You’re in my house.”

Blinking, the man looked slowly around. He tried to sit up and gasped with pain.

Faris eased him back down onto the pillow. “Don’t move. You’ll reopen your wounds. Do you want some water?” He already knew the answer and left to fill a cup before the man had a chance to respond. Faris returned to the bed and propped the man’s head to allow a few sips.

“Just a little or you’ll be ill. You can have more soon.”

The man took a few swallows and licked his lips but didn’t complain. He didn’t say anything at all, actually, although his eyes were full of questions.

“What’s your name?” asked Faris.

“Boro.” It was a familiar name, yet he pronounced it a bit oddly. He had a slight accent, Faris thought, but he didn’t know from where.

“All right, Boro. Aside from your back and chest, are you having any pain?”

Boro took a moment to consider this. “Arms,” he finally rasped, raising his hands slightly.

“The rope dug deeply into your wrists, and your shoulders were strained. But you’re healing well enough. Just try not to move very much.” Simple statements and simple directions—best for a baffled and fevered mind. “And sleep. Soon we can try some broth.”

After a long silence, Boro closed his eyes. Faris thought his patient might in fact have slipped back into unconsciousness, but then Boro looked at him again. “Am I yours now?” he whispered.

“No.” The answer came more sharply than Faris intended, making Boro wince. More softly, Faris repeated, “No. I don’t own you. Now sleep.”

This time when Boro closed his lids, they remained shut.

Chapter Three

 

F
ARIS
WANTED
to wash, but he wouldn’t with Boro’s gaze upon him. Nobody had seen Faris’s body since Enis healed him so many years ago. If it weren’t so cold, Faris would have considered sneaking down to the river late at night to bathe alone in the darkness. As it was, he cleaned his face, combed the worst of the tangles from his hair, and scowled.

And then he faced the task of tending to Boro’s wounds again. It wouldn’t have been a difficult job, but touching an alert man—at times touching him in rather intimate places—was quite different from caring for one who was unconscious. Boro was a stoic patient, remaining very still as Faris ministered to him, the only signs of his distress being a slight catch in his breath over the more painful bits.

“You heal quickly,” Faris observed as he applied fresh bandages. “You have a strong constitution.”

Boro grunted slightly in response. He’d been watching Faris closely, even cricking his neck to observe while Faris worked on his back. His brow was furrowed, as if he were trying to solve a puzzle. But he hadn’t said a single word.

Faris tied off the last of the bandages, helped Boro ease into as comfortable a position as possible, and covered him with the blankets. “Are you hungry?”

“Yes.” It came out as more of a croak than a word.

“All right.” After considering for a moment or two, Faris strained some of the liquid from his stew into a clay cup. He added a little warm water from the teakettle and then a sprinkle of herbs to aid digestion and further fight infection. The resulting mixture smelled good. He brought it to the bed, along with a small hunk of bread. He tucked a folded blanket under Boro’s shoulders to raise his head.

“Can you hold the cup yourself?” he asked.

Boro started to lift his arms but winced and let them fall heavily onto the mattress. “Hurts.”

“Your arms and shoulders were under a lot of strain while you were being lashed. And afterward. They should be all right after some rest.” And perhaps a heated poultice, Faris thought. He’d prepare it later.

Boro looked longingly at the cup of broth, then clenched his jaw and looked away.

“I can hold it for you,” Faris said.

That brought Boro’s confused and suspicious gaze back to Faris’s face. Faris shrugged slightly and held the cup to Boro’s mouth. After a brief hesitation, Boro sipped at it. His eyelids fluttered a little at the taste, and Faris thought the man might faint. But then Boro looked steadily at him with those ice-colored eyes.

Boro drank the entire cupful and chewed a few bites of bread, but the effort took a lot out of him. “Rest,” Faris said as he stood. “More later. Oh, and let me know when you need a chamber pot.”

His patient didn’t respond. He was probably already asleep.

Faris busied himself with his usual small tasks. He tidied and cleaned; he worked with his dried leaves and stems and berries. A few weeks earlier, an old man in the hills had told him that a certain mixture of plants was good for dry, cracked skin. Now, Faris crushed some of those plants and added the powder to a small vial of olive oil. He smeared a few drops on the back of one hand. If he suffered no adverse effects, he’d give the vial to his laundry woman. Her hands were always chapped from her work.

Boro woke up now and then over the course of the day, and each time Faris gave him some broth or tea. Once he helped Boro use the chamber pot, which embarrassed them both a little. In late afternoon, Boro’s fever spiked again, but not as badly as the day before, and Faris was soon able to bring his temperature down to more normal levels. Throughout the day, Faris spoke very little to his patient, and Boro’s words were even more spare. That was fine. Faris hadn’t brought him to his house for conversation.

Not long after evening fell, Faris went outside to refill his water jugs from the nearby well. When he returned, he lit a lamp and brewed himself some coffee. He sat at his table with a quill and ink, planning to make some notes.

“Why am I here?”

Surprised, Faris looked toward the bed. That corner of the room was too dark for him to see many details, but Boro’s eyes glinted slightly in the firelight. “I’m healing your wounds.”

“Why?”

“I’m… I’m an herbalist.”

“Will you put a collar on me?”

Faris sighed and set the quill down. “I told you that I don’t own you.”

“Why not? You have the right to. Your laws say so.” Boro put a slight emphasis on
your
.

“I don’t want to. I have no use for a slave.”

Boro was silent for a minute. “What do you want from me? I can’t pay you.”

“I know that,” Faris said, his voice tight with anger. “I don’t need payment. That’s not why I do this.” That was the truth. Some of the townspeople paid him in coins, and many more paid him in goods or services, like the woman who did his laundry or the baker who gave him fresh bread. But sometimes a patient couldn’t pay him at all, and Faris provided medicines nonetheless because it was his duty, and because he could. His needs were modest.

“Why would you do this for a slave?” Boro asked.

“I do this for an injured man. Whether he wears a collar—or used to wear one—makes no difference to my remedies.” Faris lifted his quill again, dipped it in the inkpot, and began to write.

Boro went silent, but Faris could feel the weight of his gaze.

 

 

F
ARIS
HAD
become spoiled. When he was a boy, he’d have considered a soft rug in front of a fire a luxury. But now he woke up sore and bad-tempered, missing his mattress.

But he should get his bed back soon, at least. Boro was doing much better. He was able to sit up for short periods, albeit propped by pillow and blankets and with some soft cloths piled underneath him to pad the wounds on his buttocks. The lash marks on his back were looking good enough that Faris applied ointment but not bandages. “They’ll heal better if we leave them open to the air,” he explained. “Are you warm enough?”

Boro nodded. “The fire is nice. I usually sleep—” He stopped himself with gritted teeth. “I’m used to cold.”

Faris knew how that felt. When he was a boy, in wintertime he’d made himself a sort of nest of rags and leaves at the end of a very narrow alley, where the surrounding buildings protected him from winds. He was often joined at night by a stray dog or a cat, and while he wasn’t happy about the inevitable fleas, he’d welcomed another warm body beside him. His makeshift home was near the tanneries, which meant the smell was bad, but nobody complained about his presence. He’d easily endured temperatures then that would now make his teeth chatter and body shiver.

“We can try more solid food today,” Faris said. “Just a little at a time.”

“All right.”

BOOK: The Pillar
9.2Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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