The Way of the Word

20. October 2010

The Gatherers – Chapter 31

The two girls discussed it while they walked back to the village at a steady pace. They didn’t like any of the explanations they came up with. Finally, just before they reached the village, they agreed on a story that, while in their opinion pretty far-fetched, fit in quite well with the reputation Ghenni had developed during the last couple of days.

They heard Elomei chanting while they were still several yards from the hut. The old woman’s voice sounded quite hoarse already. Ghenni almost pitied her. Almost, but not quite. All things considered, her family’s health was definitely much more important than Elomei’s voice. Their health? Recalling Habbassin’s words, Ghenni decided that survival was the better word. The djinn hadn’t said it in as many words, but she had finally figured out the implications behind his words.

Most of the time they run their course and finish, he had said. But these were germs her family’s bodies didn’t know. If they didn’t know, perhaps the germs wouldn’t simply run their course. Perhaps they wouldn’t stop until they had killed their victims.

“Do you really think we should go in?” Miki said. “What if those germ animals decide to attack us?”

“I have to. You don’t. Why don’t you go home. Offer a prayer to Wakano if you like. Couldn’t hurt.”

Miki nodded and stepped back a few paces before she turned to run home. Ghenni watched her run. She wished she could run too. Run as quickly as she could as far as possible, farther even than the island’s size would permit. She couldn’t, though, so her choices were limited. Taking a deep breath, she admitted to herself that she really had no any choice at all.

She grew up at that moment.

Ghenni entered the hut. Elomei, not missing a beat of her chant, looked up. She shook her rattle at Ghenni, who sat down beside her. Ghenni had no idea what Elomei was burning in the bowl by the foot of the bedroll. Judging from the smell, it couldn’t be healthy. She waited until Elomei had finished her chant. It was important not to interrupt the witch doctor when she was working. One wrong spell or even intonation could ruin everything or even turn the outcome around. Which was exactly the last thing Ghenni wanted.

Finally, Elomei finished her chant. She put down the rattle.

“What do you want? I thought I had told you it is too dangerous here.”

“I know, but I had a, uhm, a vision, sort of. A vision about what is hurting them.”

Elomei looked at her with one eyebrow raised.

“A vision, you say? Tell me more.”

“When I ran away yesterday, I hid in a cave near Wakano’s Throne. I went to sleep there. Sometime during the night, I dreamed that there were hundreds, millions of tiny little animals inside them. They were too small to see with the naked eye, but Wakano changed my eyesight and pointed them out to me.” Ghenni drew a wave into the soft ground. Hopefully, Wakano would forgive her this lie. It was all for the purest of intentions. Slowly, she told Elomei what Habbassin had explained to her, carefully turning the djinn’s words into Wakano’s. Elomei listened carefully to Ghenni’s description of her ‘vision.’ Now and then she nodded, as if she had an idea what the girl was talking about.

“What you are saying,” the witch-woman finally said, “is that our two visitors have unwittingly brought little murderous animals to our island, and that it is these animals that are killing your family.”

“Uhm, yes. That’s how I see it also.”

“Those animals might also, at any time, turn upon anyone else.” Elomei nodded gravelly. “Something must be done about this.”

“How about talking with Bolwyn, or Terek?” Ghenni suggested. “If they brought the little animals here, perhaps they know what it is they do. Perhaps they even know what to do about them.”

Elomei nodded again.

“What you say rings true, child.” The old woman rose from her cross-legged seat. She stretched, moaning. Ghenni was sure she heard something creaking. Elomei smiled. “Don’t look so surprised, child. There shall come for you also an age when your body moves less gracefully, or even painlessly, as it does now. Enjoy that suppleness while it lasts.” The old woman cast a long look at her two patients. “Let’s be off, then,” she said, heading for the doorway. “Our two visitors have some questions to answer.”

Ghenni hurried after the witch-woman. Something was nagging at her, something that was difficult to put into words, because it might upset the success her story had enjoyed. Still, it was a question that had to be asked.

“Why do you believe me?” she said. “Yesterday, you were willing to put all the blame to me. Willing? You did blame me! You didn’t even want to consider the idea that Terek or Bolwyn were somehow involved. Today I drop in out of nowhere, I tell you about a vision I had, and off you go to confront the two strangers.”

“Because you believe,” Elomei said. She stopped to look at Ghenni. “Yesterday, your words were only a feeble defense. You were only trying to shift the blame away from yourself. Why, I don’t know. But I will find out eventually. I’m old. You learn to be patient as you grow older. Yesterday, our two guests were nothing but targets to shift the blame to.

“Today however,you believe. I see it in your eyes, in the way you move. Something, or someone, has convinced you of the truth behind the little animals. Someone has enlightened you about their source. It may well have been Wakano. Such stories are not unheard of.”

Ghenni nodded. Island lore was so full of tales of visions from Wakano that receiving such a vision wasn’t entirely unbelieveable. That’s what Miki and she had counted on when they had agreed on this story.

“You believe that what you told me is true,” Elomei continued. “Because of this belief, I am willing to look into it, whereas yesterday I ignored your words.” The witch-woman looked down. “Also, the two are powerful wizards. They might succeed where my magic was too feeble.” She straightened up as much as she could. “Come, let us continue on our way.”

It was Terek who opened the door for them when they arrived. He was clearly surprised to see them. Rightly so, Ghenni surmised. The two women hadn’t exactly been on speaking terms while he had been here.

“We need to speak with you,” Elomei said, pushing past him. “Is Bolwyn also present?”

“I suppose I am,” Bolwyn said from elsewhere in the hut.

“What can we do for you ladies?” Terek said.

Elomei sat down, motioning for Ghenni to also sit. She sighed heavily.

“I have a problem. Two of my people are beset by strange animals that burn them up alive. These animals are too … I don’t know. My magic cannot defeat them. Now Ghenni here has had a vision.” Elomei told the two wizards what Ghenni had explained to her. Bolwyn nodded as if he understood. Terek just frowned.

“We did that?” Terek asked when Elomei had finished. He frowned at Ghenni, who nodded.

“That’s what the vision said,” she said. “It also said you didn’t do it on purpose, that you probably don’t even know you did it.” She wondered why Bolwyn smirked.

“Our hope,” Elomei continued, “is that if you look at my two patients you will recognize the work of the animals. Our hope is that you know how to kill the animals so my people can live.”

“I’ve read of something like this,” Bolwyn said to Terek. “It happens sometimes when explorers discover a previously isolated tribe.”

“I think I remember,” Terek said, slowly nodding. “Very well, we shall look at your patients. If we can, we’ll help.”

“Thank you,” Ghenni said, getting to her feet. Elomei waved at her. Ghenni took her hand and helped her up.

“Don’t thank us yet,” Bolwyn said. “It’s still possible we can’t do anything.”

“We might not even know the … animals … that attacked your family,” Terek agreed. “In that case, we would also be helpless.”

“At least you are willing to make the attempt,” Elomei said. “That is all we ask.” A stern look at Ghenni was supposed to shut her up, she realized. It wasn’t necessary. She hadn’t been about to say anything anyway.

The wizards followed the women to the hut where Opona and Lejani lay. Terek sniffed, Bolwyn wrinkled his nose. Ghenni saw them exchange an amused look.

“Let us see, then,” Terek said, hunching down beside Opona. “What are the symptoms?”

Elomei looked at him uncomprehending. Ghenni recognized the word from her meeting with Habbassin. She quickly recited the many problems the others had.

“That’s quite a fever,” Bolwyn muttered, putting a hand on Lejani’s forehead.

“I do not like the way that pulse feels,” Terek said. Ghenni could see he held her mother’s wrist between his fingers. “Quick and flat. Have you seen the rash?”

“Hmm. Almost reminds me of something. But I’m not sure what.” Bolwyn raised Lejani’s eyelid. The child moaned and turned her head away. “Think that was a reaction to light?”

“What light? It is very dark in here. The smoke from all those incense sticks is not exactly helpful either.”

Ghenni lost all understanding of the two men’s conversation after that. Glancing over at Elomei, she read in the old woman’s face that she wasn’t much better off.

After what seemed like an eternity, the wizards rose from their crouches. Ghenni noticed that they held their hands away from their bodies.

“I’ve no idea what is happening with them,” Bolwyn said.

“What?” Terek looked at his companion, wide-eyed. “You must be joking. This is so simple a child could figure it out.” He turned to Elomei. “We call this disease measles. Where I come from, only children get it. They only get it once, then they are immune. I guess your god was right, we probably brought it with us without realizing what it is.”

“Measles?” Bolwyn said. “No way. This is way too virulent.”

“You forget these people do not know measles. They have never had them. So they never developed antibodies. That would certainly account for the disease being more virulent.”

Bolwyn looked at the two prone women. He rubbed his chin. He nodded.

“Yeah, I guess you’ve got a point.”

“But can you heal it?” Ghenni asked. The two wizards both looked at her.

“Heal it?” Bolwyn said. “Cure measles?”

“Where we come from,” Terek said, “this is a disease of children. It’s very contagious,” he said to Elomei, “so you might want to gather up everybody who has been in touch with these two and keep them somewhere away from everyone else. At least until we can be certain that nobody else has been contaminated.”

“I shall do that,” Elomei said.

“As I was saying,” Terek continued, “back home, children catch this disease. I had it as a child. So did Bolwyn, I assume.” Bolwyn nodded. “I really do not remember how they treated it back then.” He smiled ruefully. “I guess I was … otherwise occupied at the time. Anyway, the rule of thumb is that measles take one week to, uhm, breed. They bother you for one week, and then you need another week to recover. What else do I remember, let me see…”

“Feed them fluids,” Bolwyn said. “They need to eat and drink a lot, to keep their strength.”

“Correct,” Terek agreed. “You also need to put down the fever. My mother used to soak cloth in cold water and wrap it around my ankles. That helped.” He pursed his lips and remained silent for a moment. “Other than that, I fear I cannot say. Do you have any ideas?” Bolwyn shrugged and shook his head. Terek nodded. It seemed more resigned that affirmative. “I was afraid of that. The problem is,” he told Elomei, “that back home, this disease is quite harmless. We usually only ascertain that the patients get enough rest, food  and water, and we attempt to keep the fever down. Oh, yes, we also use some salve to help against the itch. Other than that, we simply wait until the disease has run its course. That has proven to be the most efficient method. Once someone has had measles, you see, they never get it again.

“It is really not a big thing.”

“Then why is it killing my mother?” Ghenni said softly. She blinked. “Why is it killing my sister?”

Terek looked at Lejani, who picked this moment to moan in her sleep.

“I wish I knew,” he said. “I honestly wish I knew.”

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