Fifteen years later…
Feel it?” Joseph Baxtor asked his son in gentle tones.
Garth raised his head and met his father’s compassionate brown eyes. He nodded slightly, and Joseph could see the sickness flicker across Garth’s face. He was proud of his son; despite the pain and decay that he obviously felt through his hands, Garth had not flinched nor loosened his grip on the hand of the woman who sat on the chair between them.
Joseph touched the woman gently on the shoulder. “I will mix grinnock and juminar powders for you, Miriam, and you must take them four times a day mixed with milk. With milk, mind, otherwise they will irritate your stomach.”
Miriam, a small and delicately boned woman in middle age, sighed and stood. Garth let go her hand and stepped back. If he felt any relief at breaking the contact between them he did not show it.
“The ache is getting worse,” she said, and Joseph held her eyes steadily.
“I will not lie to you, Miriam. I can take the worst of it away with the grinnock and juminar mixture, but you have a wasting growth inside of you. I can do nothing to stop its spread.”
Her dark eyes were anguished. “Not even with…?” She glanced at his hands.
Joseph folded them before him. “I am sorry, Miriam. In your case I can soothe, but little else.”
Miriam’s eyes filled with tears and, unasked, Garth stepped forward and took her hand again. He had his father’s depth of compassion and now his face, as did Joseph’s, radiated understanding and sympathy.
Miriam blinked, then she composed herself, grateful for Garth’s touch. “You are a good boy,” she said quietly, and patted his hand. “Mind your father’s lessons.”
Then she turned and picked up her coat.
Joseph helped her slip it on, wincing at her fragile shoulders and arms, and grateful that his thick dark beard hid his expression. Despite his years of experience, it never failed to distress him when he was faced with a disease he could do nothing for. And Miriam was a close neighbor and a friend. It would be hard watching her die. “Garth will come around later this afternoon with your powders, Miriam. If you need anything more, let him know then.”
Miriam nodded, then turned and left the surgery, her rope-sandaled feet whispering across the stone-flagged floor, her thin fingers clutching the coat about her.
As the door closed behind the woman, Joseph looked at his son. “Are you all right, Garth?”
Garth turned away, fiddling with some instruments on a tray to one side. He was a rangy youth, tall and raw-boned, but with warm hazel eyes and an open and friendly face under a mop of curly hair as dark as his father’s beard. On his twelfth birthday, almost four years ago now, Garth had entered his seven-year apprenticeship in the craft of physic with his father.
It was a craft he had been born to. Not only because Joseph was a master physician himself, but because Joseph had bequeathed the Touch to his son. For generations the Baxtor physicians had aided their knowledge of diseases and herbal powders with their gifted and sensitive hands. The Touch could not heal by itself, but it aided understanding, soothed hurts, and encouraged the processes of healing. In Garth the Touch was stronger than it had been for many generations; Joseph knew that one day he would be a physician of note.
But the Touch also acted as a conduit for malignant tumors that sometimes afflicted people, and Joseph realized Garth would be feeling physically ill himself after holding Miriam’s hand for some fifteen minutes. The Touch was a wonderful gift, but when a Baxtor boy began to demonstrate his burgeoning powers around nine or ten, it sometimes took him years to learn to cope with the pain and the death that would all too often flood into his own body through his hands.
“It was worse today than I have ever felt it before,” said Garth eventually, his voice strained, and when he turned back to his father, Joseph could see how pale his face was.
He stepped over to his son and put his arm about the boy’s shoulders. “Miriam’s growth is particularly virulent, Garth.” He hesitated. “I wish I could say that you will become used to the feel of death, that you will become inured to it, but you never will. You must learn to accept it.
“Now.” He forced some cheerfulness into his voice. “Mother will have boiled the pot and made us some tea. Come. We can mix the powders in an hour or so. For now we both need the comfort of your mother’s smile.”
* * *
Nona had both tea and raisin buns hot from the oven for her husband and son. She locked eyes with Joseph as they entered the spacious kitchen from the surgery next door, knowing Miriam had been to see them, then glanced at Garth.
The youth smiled for her, but Nona could see the strain about his eyes. Well, she had become used to the strain about Joseph’s eyes, but it was a hard thing to see the lines now appearing about Garth’s eyes as well. Nona turned back to the stove for the teapot, wishing not for the first time that she had managed to bear another child, a child she would not lose to the Touch and to the demanding craft of physic.
And, to add to her worries, there was the matter of the sealed letter the courier had delivered earlier.
“Well now.” She smiled, placing the pot on the table. “You have kept Garth in there too long, Joseph. Breakfast was hours ago. Sit down and have something to eat.”
Joseph and Garth sat silently, letting Nona bustle about them, their faces relaxing in the warm spring sunshine and the reassuring sounds of the street that flooded in through the open windows. When Joseph had set up his practice in the busy trading port of Narbon almost seventeen years ago he had purchased this house and surgery right in the heart of the town. “Easier for my patients to reach me,” he’d explained to his young wife, and both Joseph and Nona had quickly become accustomed to the noise and bustle of the town. Garth had never known anything else.
“Master Goldman said he would come to see me this afternoon, Garth,” Joseph said eventually, putting his empty mug back on the table. “His hands have several minor lesions caused by the chemicals of his craft. I would like you to treat him.”
Garth nodded. His father usually let him deal with most of the minor problems that came into the surgery. It had been easy to learn to treat the countless minor skin rashes, lesions or lacerations that presented themselves each day, and it relieved Joseph to concentrate on the deeper diseases that required years of knowledge and experience—and extensive use of the Touch—to be able to treat.
Joseph smiled slowly, his teeth gleaming behind his beard. “I’m proud of you, Garth. You did well with Miriam. Once you have treated Master Goldman and delivered Miriam’s powders—I’ll show you how to mix her particular preparation—you can have the rest of the day off. Enjoy the sunshine.”
Garth grinned, his face losing its seriousness and relaxing into boyish enthusiasm. “Really? Thanks, father!”
Joseph rolled his eyes at Nona. “No doubt the lad will rush down to the wharves and gaze moon-eyed at the cargo ship from Coroleas that docked this morning.”
But Nona did not smile as he expected her to. Instead she wiped her hands on her apron and licked her lips. “Joseph. A letter was delivered this morning. From Ruen.”
Garth’s face fell and he glanced at his father. Joseph’s own face had lost all traces of amusement and his hands had tightened about his empty tea mug.
Joseph sighed. “From Ruen.” It was not a question. All three knew what such a letter meant.
“Sometimes I hate spring,” he said into the silence. “With the sunshine comes the inevitable summons. With the spring warmth comes the inevitable three weeks of darkness.”
“It’s only three weeks,” Nona said, trying to put the best light upon it that she could. “Then you’ll be home again.”
Garth’s eyes flickered between the two of them. “Father? Can I come this year? I can help. Truly I can.”
Joseph shifted his eyes to his son. “If you knew what awaited you, Garth…”
“I can help,” Garth said. “It will lessen your load if I come to help. And I’ll have to go one day, anyway.”
Nona watched her husband with increasing consternation. Surely he couldn’t be considering…“Joseph! No!”
Joseph looked at her wearily. “He’s right, Nona. He will have to go some day.” And Garth would be a help. And it would relieve him of some of the stress. But was it fair to subject Garth so young to…
“The Veins,” he said quietly, returning his gaze to the mug, now turning restlessly between his hands. “Nona, let me see the letter.”
Any hope that it might be something completely different died the moment Nona placed the sealed parchment in his hands. A great blob of sky-blue wax sealed the flap, and impressed into the wax was the royal insignia of Escator, the legendary Manteceros. He hesitated, then broke the seal with his thumbnail and opened the letter.
“Physician Baxtor,” Joseph read, and his voice was emotionless although the lines deepened about his eyes, “You are hereby summoned to your yearly service in the Veins. You shall arrive two weeks after the receipt of this summons and remain for three weeks. This duty will discharge your debt to the royal treasury.”
Instead of paying taxes, all physicians in Escator spent three weeks of the year treating both guards and prisoners of the Veins, the mines where gloam—the tarry black rock used as fuel—was mined.
All physicians would rather have paid tax.
“There’s more,” Joseph added, his forehead creasing. “You are also summoned to attend King Cavor at his court in Ruen. You may attend the King on your journey to the Veins. Be there.”
He smiled wryly. “Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. So, Cavor has need of me again.”
Nona sat down at the table. Eight years ago Cavor had also required Joseph to attend his royal person on his way to the Veins; her husband’s skill with the Touch was widely known and appreciated. “It is a pity you can’t discharge your duty to the royal treasury by your assistance to the royal person, Joseph.”
Joseph put the summons down on the table and smoothed it out. “To be frank, Nona, I’d rather use by skills on the prisoners of the Veins than Cavor. They need me more than he. Still”—he lifted his eyes and stared at Garth—“no doubt the boy will enjoy the spectacle of court.”
Garth sat back, both excited and nervous. It was a measure of his father’s trust that he would allow Garth to accompany him to the Veins, and a measure of his father’s pride that he would allow him by his side at court. He would see the King!
“Joseph!” Nona cried, distressed. “Let him wait another year or two, please!”
Copyright © 1996 by Sara Douglass Enterprises Pty. Ltd.