Slowly, I become aware of my surroundings, the soft light through the window waking me gently from a very deep sleep. I open my eyes and look around. I’m lying in an unfamiliar bed in a room I’ve never seen before. Across the room, beside the window, a man in priestly garb dozes in a chair. Trying to raise myself up to get a better view, I discover that I’m almost too weak to do so. My stirring brings the priest immediately alert.
“Ah,” he says quietly, rising from his chair, “I see you have decided to come back to us.” Crossing the room, he sits beside me on the bed and places one hand on my forehead. “And the fever has not returned. That is good . . . very good indeed.”
“Where am I? What is this place? And how did I get here?”
“I shall leave your first two questions for others to answer. As to how you arrived, I am told that your horse brought you.” I must look puzzled, for he continues, “Yes, I know that sounds silly for that is how many men go places. Yet I am told that when you arrived, you were almost passed out . . . delirious with fever . . . barely able to stay in the saddle, clinging to your horse’s neck . . . and that the horse brought you here and called out for help.”
Vague recollections are coming back . . . of endless rain . . . of giving Star Dancer his head. “You say there are others. Are they sick as well?”
“They are not,” he replies, “nor do I think they will be; and for that I credit your lady wife.” So it wasn’t a dream! “She realized immediately that you had the sickness, so she made everyone leave the room, including herself. Anyone who had touched you . . . she made them strip naked and have a hot bath . . . fresh water for each bath. She ordered all the clothes burned, including her own. Then she banished everyone to the other side of the house and sent for me.”
“She thought I was dying?”
“Quite the contrary, my son. She wanted to be sure you would survive. You see, I spent some years with the monks of St. John’s Abbey where I learned their medicines and their methods of healing—they are by far the most skillful of any in this land. So you might say that I am a healer of men’s bodies as well as men’s souls.” His speech has the sing-song rhythm of the Kingdom of Lakes though he speaks my tongue with ease. Wherever I am, it must be somewhere in Gwen’s homeland.
“How long have I been here?”
“Today marks the fifth day. When I arrived you were still in the grips of the fever. I was able to rouse you enough from time to time to drink the infusion of herbs I had prepared. We know not why, but this infusion helps to keep the throat from swelling, which is the most dangerous part of this sickness and what usually causes death. When I could no longer get you to drink, I kept a steaming pot of the infusion by your bedside. Strangely enough, breathing the vapors . . . while not as good as drinking the draught . . . can also have a beneficial effect.”
I look on the table beside the bed and there sits a steaming pot of his mixture. I sniff it cautiously. Surprisingly, it doesn’t have the stench so typical for medicinal preparations, instead smelling slightly floral but also oddly pungent.
He continues. “Two days ago, your fever broke and you fell into a deep sleep from which you could not be roused. Some think this is the spirit deciding whether to go on to the next world or stay in this one . . . and perhaps sometimes it is. But the monks taught me that often it is merely the body’s way of taking the time it needs to heal itself.” He hands me a cup of water. “Drink. We must begin to replenish what the fever took away from you.” The water is fresh and sweet.
The next morning, I wake feeling remarkably refreshed. Osbert is waiting and shows me down the hall to the master’s chamber. A bath, a shave, and fresh clothes make me feel even more like myself, and I emerge from the dressing room to find the promised porridge waiting. Gwen lingers while I eat. Something is disturbing her; she seems . . . distracted? . . . apprehensive? I can’t quite put my finger on what’s troubling her, so finally I ask directly.
“I promised to tell you today how we came to be here,” she begins, and then hesitates. “You must promise me you won’t fly into a rage.”
“Have you ever known me to fly into a rage?”
“No,” she admits. “But then I’ve never had to tell you something like this before.”