Roween recognised the bay; it was where the Schaaldt met the
Cold Sea. The fishing skiff would veer left here, hug the coast the short
distance to Bridges.
Everything seemed so quiet, now, so peaceful, almost serene.
Conley was still asleep, but she was no longer feverish despite the
dampness of her clothes. Roween herself felt almost dry, knew it was
illusory, that she was numbed bone-deep.
One of the fishermen smiled at her; she smiled back. When
they'd first plucked her from the water, she'd genuinely expected them to
throw her to the Voths. She'd even been looking for a weapon; then she'd
heard someone say that Conley looked in a real bad way and ought to see a
doctor. That single remark had torn her out of survival mode, so violently
it was almost physical: these people were concerned! After weeks of living
in the penumbra, constantly alert to death's omnipresent proximity, she was
suddenly released from fear's chains. Safety! The sense of relief had been
too much for her: she'd wept, uncontrolled, freely.
What the pursuing Voths had done she didn't know. She had a
vague image in her mind of a young man in an embroidered gown
commanding them to leave her be, but she couldn't be sure if it was
memory or fancy. Perhaps -
A half-moan from the woman in her arms snapped her into the
present. Conley was real, and Conley was on her way out, steadily
deteriorating through Roween's stupidity. You don't drag people with fevers
into freezing cold rivers, not if you want them to live. Conley whimpered
again. Life, I'm so brainless!
Her only hope was that Ihann would know a cure.
* * *
Bridges, capital of the Lowlandic principality of Seesel: even as
the boat was being secured at the foreigners' quay, Roween leapt off and
ran. The customs guards let her through, were more interested in what
she'd left behind on the fishing vessel, contraband, magic. She hit the back
streets and sprinted for the Womansway.
Ten minutes, she reckoned. Then five minutes explaining to
Ihann, fifteen minutes to get back in a carriage - surely the fishermen could
stall for half an hour? Conley would have to be checked over medically, if
only so the officers could prove she was ill enough to lose rights of entry.
Gods, I hope I have time!
She swerved to avoid a barrow, kept her balance. It was around
here somewhere, she knew it! A right, then it's on the left, she skidded to
make the turn. What if he isn't home?
The plaque read: "Ihann Gefson, Physician." She didn't knock,
just flung back the door, staggered in. He was talking to a patient leaving
his consulting room, saw Roween, froze.
"You've got to come," she panted, hardly able to speak. "I've
got a friend, she's dying."
* * *
When they arrived at the quayside, the boat was still there with
Conley still in it, guards standing around discussing what to do. They
looked more than relieved when Ihann showed his licence, were happy to
heed the authority in his voice and let him take her to hospital.
Roween gave the fisher-folk all her remaining rubies.
* * *
"So you were expecting me?" Roween bit into the biscuit, was
hungrier than she'd realised.
"Sometime this month, yes," he replied, "although with all
ferry services currently suspended I was wondering quite how you'd make
She smiled, half-heartedly, looked away.
He leant forward, touched her arm with an elegant, gentle hand;
she met his eyes. "Conley will be fine, Roween, I promise. Those hospital
doctors are the best."
A nod, shaky. "I know, it's just, well she means so much to
"She means so much to all of us." He sat back, sipped at his
"No, I don't mean as part of the plan, it's, well I've grown to
like her as a person. She's a friend, a companion. I feel responsible..."
His expression didn't change. "Will that alter things?"
She sighed. "No, no, I guess it won't. It'll just make the job
even harder - as if it wasn't impossible enough already."
"It has to be difficult, or it wouldn't work. You told me
yourself, two years ago, remember?"
"`Demanding and distant', yes, I remember. But it took nearly
three weeks to convince you!"
He chinked his cup on the saucer. "You know that you had me
won after fifteen minutes, I'm sure you do. The rest of the time, you were
straightening it in your own mind, telling yourself that this was the way to
do it, that it would work."
"Perhaps I still am?" She shook her head. "I often think of my
stay here, that never-ending Summer, the freedom before the responsibility,
youth's last days."
He finished his coffee, nodded. "Those were good times,
Roween. Safe for both of us."
"All times are good when they're passed."
* * *
So the spell she'd cooked had taken away Conley's symptoms,
but not tackled their root cause. The Purian infusion the moon priest had
supplied probably really was capable of keeping the illness under control
but only if taken daily, otherwise there would eventually be a relapse.
These Lowlandic drugs the doctors were using now would cure her once
and for all, however the side-effects were horribly unpleasant, hence the
decision to use narcotics.
Ihann was explaining. "She's probably over the worst of it, but
she may be delirious. She could seem to say things - cruel things she
doesn't mean. Just ignore them, don't hold them against her. She's had a
terrible time with this illness, and it's her body's way of releasing some of
Roween smiled at his concern. "I've seen her that way before,
Ihann; don't worry, I won't be embarrassed."
Conley was murmuring when the nurse opened the door to her
room. White walls, white sheets, white vase holding the flowers Roween
had sent. She looked much better than she had when Ihann had pulled her
from the boat, carried her to his carriage - the last time Roween had seen
Ihann approached the bed. "If she was awake, she'd have
scrambled vision, a piercing ringing in her ears, cramp-like muscle pains,
and the sharpest headache you could ever imagine. As it is, she can't feel
any discomfort, but the abnormal sensory stimuli she's experiencing may
induce mild hallucinations."
Roween peered at her, timid, from the doorway. "What's she
He held his hands open, hunched his shoulders. "Who knows?"
"Can I stay with her awhile?"
"If you wish. Come to the main ward when you're finished, I'll
be with Dr Huulder."
* * *
After ten minutes, Roween was bored. It was good to see
Conley on the mend, but she couldn't talk to her, tell her how sorry she
was, that it was she who had caused her this suffering. Conley wasn't
silent, but to Roween her words were meaningless.
"It's me, Con, Ro. Can you hear me?" Of course she couldn't.
Even if she were awake, she'd be all but deaf from bells in her ears.
She waited another twenty minutes, then went to find Ihann.
* * *
On the fifth day, she arrived by herself. The nurses knew her
now, were amused by her eyes in a friendly sort of way, found them
endearing. She didn't know how much this was costing Ihann, but
suspected he was paying in kind, doing specialist work for free in return for
the hospital's treating Conley. He didn't seem to think there was anything
odd about that, working all the day's hours so as to help someone he'd
never met, but Roween felt deeply indebted to him. Lowlanders were
almost all personable people, accommodating, easy to please, generous.
Tolerant, too. Comes of living on land still owed the Cold Sea...
When she closed the door after entering, Conley seemed to
"No, please, don't hit me..." Blurry, child-like.
Roween took her hand. "It's me, Con, Roween. I'm not going
to hurt you. Is it the dream?"
"Dream, bad, listen, listen..."
"I'm listening, Con." Or was she addressing herself? "Are you
"No, I'm not listening." Her eyes were darting beneath her lids,
but otherwise she wasn't moving, maybe breathing quicker, that's all.
"Why aren't you listening, Con?"
"I don't know, hear, I can't hear, hear. Don't hit me..." She
pulled a face so imploring that Roween could almost feel her torment, real
in her mind.
"I won't hit you, Con, it's Roween, I'm your friend."
"Roween, Ro-ween. I've found her, in her big coat."
At least this time she was using real words. "Roween is very
sorry she made you ill."
"Why don't you love me?"
What? Roween dropped Conley's hand like it was dead,
instinctive. No, wait, she doesn't mean you, she's jumped again. "Why
doesn't who love you, Con?"
"Mummy doesn't love me, either."
Her father? But she thinks he does love her, doesn't she?
"I'm a good girl..."
Were Conley's thoughts ones her waking self dismissed? Or
suppressed? They're ones she refuses to accept. Perhaps this was the
prelude to her nightmare? Or was it simple nonsense, like Ihann had
warned her to expect?
"You don't have to hit me."
"Why not, Con?"
"I just want to live..." Very slurred.
"You will live, you'll be alright." Will live? Maybe she
"No, let me be me..." Strangled, hardly audible. Her eyes
stopped their movements.
From then onwards, just incomprehensible. But it had been
* * *
Roween told Ihann that Conley seemed to be able to hear her,
and that she was talking. He nodded, didn't ask what she'd said. He
suggested it was good that Conley had spoken, that it meant her illness was
burning out. Roween had her reservations, but trusted his judgement.
She did, however, persuade him to look after Conley himself
during her recuperation, rather than leave her in the hospital. The treatment
they were likely to prescribe so as to make recovery easier for her, although
well-meaning in its motivation, Roween vehemently considered completely
undesirable. Not unless Conley was fully conscious, and consented.