Ice Yearning

Ice Yearning

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Chapter Two

Katen wanted to run back to the shrine, but Tohflair insisted on taking some time to prepare.

"Tell me a bit about what is wrong with her. I might be able to take the right medicines to treat her on the spot, and that will be much faster than going to the shrine and coming back here."

Katen looked for a moment as if she would object, but then she swallowed, hard, and conceded.

"Yes, of course. She vomited this morning immediately after eating, and she complains of the heat, although her body feels very cold." Tohflair nodded, but Maalioh was already taking fever medicine and chills medicine from the stores. Only the weaker ones, because Teni was young. As he measured out some of the anti-vomiting preparation he pulled a face, both at the smell and at the amount left. It was really about time to restock, something he did not relish doing in winter. Tohflair glanced at the medicines, and caught Maalioh's eye, nodding his approval.

"Anything else, Katen?"

"I think she had a bit of a rash. But I'm not sure." Maalioh thought it sounded a lot like food poisoning, and added two purgatives to the kit they would be taking. As he was bundling it up, Tiisam emerged from their sleeping area, still in her short inner tunic.

"Anything I can do?" The question was directed at Maalioh, but Tohflair answered.

"I don't think so; even if we need to bring her back here, Katen can carry her." Tiisam nodded.

"I'll go out hunting again, then. Make sure the sick don't go hungry." Maalioh realised that he had been staring at Tiisam's legs at the same time as he realised she had turned to look at him, and he quickly raised his eyes to her face. She was smiling at him. "See you later, Maalioh."

"Um, yes. Good hunting."

"Come along, Maalioh. We mustn't waste time." Tohflair sounded slightly amused.

Katen wanted to run back, but Tohflair refused again.

"I'm not a hunter, Katen. I simply can't run all the way to the shrine, at least not if I expect to be able to treat a patient when I arrive. We will walk quickly."

Katen set a very stiff pace, but Tohflair did not complain again. As they reached the foot of the hill it began to snow, a few flakes in the air at first, but steadily thickening as they climbed the steps. Tohflair did slow down now, clearly concerned about his footing, and Katen said nothing, although her impatience was clear.

"I'll go on ahead, and wait for you in the shrine," she said, the fifth time she had to wait for them to catch up. Tohflair agreed.

"Good idea. We won't be far behind you." The hunter turned and sped up the steps, so fast that Maalioh was afraid she would slip. The snow was heavy enough now that it became hard to make her out long before she reached the shrine, and at several points Maalioh thought that the shrine itself was on the point of disappearing. However, they were approaching quickly enough to keep it in sight. A glance back confirmed that the base of the hill was invisible, however, and Maalioh started to worry about getting back.

They entered through the left-hand outer gate, bowing deeply as they did so, and hurried across the precincts to the main sanctuary. Katen was not in the vestibule, although her outer clothes were piled roughly on one table. Another of the women, Lairna, was, however.

"Pesii is sick as well, doctor. She seems the same as Teni." Maalioh felt his stomach lurch. Two sick children with the same symptoms was a lot worse than one, because it threatened even more. He glanced at his master, but Tohflair's face was impassive.

"We will examine them both then." Quickly, he began stripping off the layers of fur necessary for surface travel, and Maalioh, putting the medicine bag on a table, followed suit. Lairna's impatience was obvious from the way she kept looking at the doors to the nave, and finally Tohflair told her to go to Pesii. When she had left, he turned to Maalioh.

"How much medicine did you bring?"

"Enough for two doses of everything, master." Tohflair nodded.

"Good. We might be able to treat both of them, then." Without another word, the doctor pushed the inner door open, and led the way into the nave.

There were very few people present; most had presumably gone down to the village at first light, although they wouldn't be able to do much work while the snow lasted. It was mainly the old and young, with the mothers of the sick children standing out. Kiisair and Ketaa were tending to them, but quietly withdrew when the doctor approached.

Both girls were crying and naked, moaning about the heat and trying to run for the doors, but held back by their mothers. Teni had a clear rash, red lines in a regular diamond pattern standing out against the brown skin of her chest. Even from a distance Maalioh could see that neither was sweating, which was wrong for a fever.

Tohflair quickly knelt beside Teni, putting a hand on her forehead, then her chest, and then the small of her back. He looked at Maalioh, and frowned very slightly. As his master turned to Pesii, Maalioh repeated his investigation of Teni. He tried to keep the shock from showing on his face. Her forehead was cool, but her chest and back were positively cold. Pesii had slightly milder symptoms, and her rash was less clear, but the two clearly had the same problem.

"Wrap them up again, with a blanket or cloak." Both girls started kicking and complaining at that, shouting that they were too hot already. "Can they hold fluids down?" Both mothers shook their heads.

"They vomit water up almost as soon as we give it to them," Lairna said. "They haven't even tried to eat."

"What did they eat last night? Katen?"

"Teni had some seaweed, fresh ptarmigan, and some bear berries." Tohflair nodded.


"Seaweed, ptarmigan, and red berries. Pesii doesn't like bear berries."

"Was it the same ptarmigan?"

"No," Katen answered. "We ate one I caught, but Lairna and Pesii ate one from Tiisam."

"Where did the seaweed come from?"

"The stores here." Tohflair looked up, searching until he found Ketaa.

"Ketaa! I want to see the seaweed stored here, the one you ate last night. Is there any left?" The apprentice shaman just looked at him for a moment, and then looked around. Kiisair's voice came quickly from across the shrine.

"Of course you can see it. Ketaa, take Maalioh to the store room, and show him which seaweed it is." There was a definite edge to her voice, but Ketaa bowed her head in a formal way that gave no indication that she had noticed it.

"Yes, my lady. Come, boy."

Fuming at being called a boy again, by someone who was still an apprentice even if she was a year older than him, Maalioh said nothing as he followed her to the vestibule. It wasn't even as if he needed to be shown to the shrine's store room; everyone knew where it was. As he began pulling on his outer clothes, however, he reflected that he didn't know which seaweed they had eaten, and couldn't think of any way to work it out, at least not quickly.

"The store room is next to the outer wall. I will show you the way." On the other hand, he thought, Ketaa seemed to be going out of her way to be patronising. Keeping his mouth firmly shut, he nodded and followed her out of the right-hand door.

The snow was still falling heavily, and the new fall made walking rather difficult. He could barely make out the red of the precinct wall, now topped with a layer of white snow, but it was still obvious enough where the store room was.

"This way. Do not lose sight of me." Maalioh couldn't entirely repress a hiss of irritation. She was acting as though she was guiding him through the mountains, not just across the courtyard.

Ketaa pushed the curtain out of the way and stepped into the room, letting the leather fall behind her. Maalioh pushed it out of his way with a bit more violence than was really necessary, and followed her in. The room was very dim, as little light filtered in through the gaps under the roof. Ketaa placed one hand on a bale.

"This seaweed was eaten last night." Maalioh moved to take some, and realised that Ketaa was glaring at him. For a moment, he wondered what it could be, and then he realised.

"Thank you, my lady." He tried very hard to keep all traces of sarcasm out of his voice, but from the way Ketaa's eyes narrowed he suspected he hadn't quite succeeded. He pulled a little seaweed out of the bale, and sniffed at it. It didn't seem obviously bad, but that was hardly surprising; several people had eaten it without immediate problems. He took a little more, so that they would have enough to analyse, and then turned to nod at Ketaa.

"You may speak, boy." Maalioh's eyes flew open in surprise. Did she really think he had been requesting permission to speak? Who on earth did she think she was? He tried to remember if she had always been like this, but realised that this was the longest conversation he had had with her since she became an apprentice shaman. Before that, they were all small children, and he just remembered that she was always the bossy one. So yes, maybe she had always been like this.

"I have gathered the necessary seaweed. We may return to the shrine."

"You do not grant permission, boy. That is the prerogative of the shamans. We shall return to the shrine. Follow me." As Ketaa turned to lead the way back out of the store room, Maalioh shook his head in disbelief. She was acting more high-and-mighty than Liifa; come to think of it, more so than Sairtowa herself.

Back in the shrine, Ketaa swept off to the shamans' area without a word. Maalioh ignored her, and went over to where Tohflair was still examining the girls. Teni was doubled over a bucket, retching violently and crying. Maalioh couldn't help wincing a little, but Tohflair's face remained calm, as always.

"Master, I have brought the seaweed." Tohflair nodded in acknowledgement, and gestured at a bench.

"Sit down and wait a moment." Katen was comforting Teni, who seemed to have finished vomiting. "Is that the same as this morning?" The question was directed at Katen, who nodded. Tohflair looked in the bucket, sniffed, and frowned.

"Maalioh, give me a little of the seaweed."

"Yes, master." Maalioh had a little ready, and handed it over immediately. Tohflair sniffed at it, and put a little in his mouth, slowly chewing it. Then he sniffed the vomit again, put a finger in and touched it to his tongue. Maalioh shuddered a little, as always. He had still not quite got used to this kind of testing; it was one thing to know intellectually that an amount that small could not unbalance your own elements, and quite another to actually taste vomit.

"Maalioh, you should do the same." Maalioh could feel his shoulders sag at Tohflair's words, but he knew his master was right. He had to practise all kinds of diagnosis if he was going to be a good doctor. He took the seaweed first, noting that it tasted rather good, but also trying to catch the distinctive flavours of the elements in it. As far as he could tell, it was normal; water and wood, with a touch of earth, and nothing detectable of the others.

Then he moved to the bucket, and sniffed at the vomit. There was something very odd about the smell, as well as very unpleasant, so he sniffed again, but he still couldn't place it. Then, very gingerly, he reached out and touched his right index finger to the surface of the liquid, and raised it to his mouth.

There he paused for a long moment. Most people were quite deliberately looking away, slightly pale around the mouth, but he could feel Tohflair's eyes on him, even though the older doctor said nothing. Taking a deep breath and screwing up his courage, he touched his finger to his tongue.

His first reaction was to gag at the foul taste, and he desperately tried to concentrate, separate out the signs of the elements. Excreta were supposed to be easy, that was what the books, and his master, said. Easier than food. But, for a long moment, he could detect nothing but visceral disgust; he could feel his own stomach starting to churn.

And then he got it. Fire and water, both strong. That was why it seemed odd. Hints of wood, earth, and air, which fitted with what they had eaten, although the metal from the berries and ptarmigan was extremely weak if he wasn't just fooling himself. But fire and water together; that was very strange.

He looked at his master.

"Fire and water, master." Tohflair nodded.

"Yes, Maalioh." The doctor turned back to the mothers. "Lairna, I am afraid that I am going to have to check Pesii as well. They may not have the same problem." Lairna sighed, but nodded, and took up a cup of water, holding it to Pesii's mouth.

When the other girl had vomited, and they had checked the vomit, it was clear that she had the same strange imbalance. Tohflair's face was as calm as ever, so Maalioh tried to school the confusion from his.

"I will need to consult my books," Tohflair said. "This does not appear to be food poisoning, however. It may well right itself quickly, but in any case, please collect their urine the next time they pass water; I need to examine that as well." Both the mothers nodded, clearly worried, and not at all sure that it was going to get better quickly. Maalioh was also unsure; for fire and water to both be in excess at the same time, in two patients, was very strange. One should really offset the other.

Gathering their things, the two took their leave, and set off back down to the village. The snow had weakened, but new fall was still heaped up on the steps, making their footing somewhat treacherous. Without Katen to hurry them on, they took things slowly, and Tohflair was silent, apparently lost in thought. By the time they reached the house, the snow had stopped and the sky had started to clear, and the thin crescent of the winter sun was high in the sky. Maalioh paused in the land porch, taking his bucket and nipping out of the door to fetch some fresh snow.

When he entered, Tohflair was already in conversation with one of the builders, Miila, who was wrapped in a guest robe.

"...complaining of the heat." Tohflair nodded.

"We will come right away. Maalioh, prepare the medicines again."

* * *

It did not take long to confirm that Miila's son had the same complaint; he had the same rash, and the same cold chest and back. Tohflair had insisted that they check his vomit anyway, and that had also been the same. Miila's house had survived almost untouched, so her family were still staying there, and they had not been back to the shrine. That confirmed that it wasn't food poisoning.

But, as they dried off after returning, Maalioh racked his brains for some reasonable cause. There was an obvious possibility, of course, but he was keen to find an alternative. Tohflair seemed to be taking the same approach.

"We must consult the books, Maalioh. Light the lamps and prepare the lectern."

"Yes, master." Tohflair's books were the only ones in the village, brought by Tohflair's master's master from the continent to the south. Even then, Tohflair said that the books had come from even further away, probably from the Empire of the Sun itself. They were written in a strange language, not the tongue of the Frozen Islands and also not, apparently, the language of the trader who had sold them. They claimed to contain the complete works of Saliipipi, but Maalioh wondered about that, as each book had clearly been copied by a different person, and they had not originally been a set. One section, on leg injuries, appeared both at the end of one volume and the beginning of the next. There was nothing obviously missing, but Maalioh always had a niggling doubt that there might have been a continuation.

The books were almost certainly irreplaceable, although Maalioh thought that Seseli, Tohflair's old apprentice, had gone to look for another set. Reading them was almost a ritual, and one to which Maalioh was now thoroughly accustomed. He set up the curtains around the reading area, while Tohflair went to check on Fiitan. The whale-oil lamps, glass and metal ones from the south, were fixed firmly on their stands, and Maalioh lit them with a taper, carefully closing and latching the windows. Finally, he took the covers off the whalebone lectern, moving it to the centre of the reading area and driving the spikes into the slots in the floor. He pushed on it a couple of times, to make sure that it was solidly in place.

Tohflair returned and looked around quickly at the preparations, checking one of the lamps before nodding and turning to the chest. Maalioh hurried over to help lift the cover. Made of bear bones and skin, it was heavy, and strong enough to survive the roof collapsing on top of it. Between the two of them, they could just about lift it off, putting it down again to one side. Within, the chest was wrapped in seal skin, and Tohflair removed that by himself, first undoing the thongs, and then removing the skins themselves.

That exposed the chest itself, the only wood in the village outside the shrine. It was squared off, and bound in metal, which Maalioh thought was probably iron, or maybe bronze. There were a number of loops on the front, and metal plates with a slot through them. When the plates were lowered and a thong tied through the loops, there was no way for the chest to come open by mistake. Tohflair untied the thong and lifted the lid of the chest. Maalioh came over to stand beside him, and took the first book, wrapped in soft fox leather, as Tohflair passed it up. This volume was concerned with injuries, and thus they need not check it. The next volume down was wrapped in hare skin, and included a discussion of digestive disorders. This one was necessary, and Tohflair carefully unwrapped it, placing in on the lectern, and then standing back.

Maalioh moved to stand in front of the lectern, carefully opening the covers. He still remembered the first time he had been allowed to touch the book himself, when his master had told him that the apprentice should read for the master, to fully learn the contents of the books. Maalioh could remember much of the material, now, but there were still many details worth confirming. Slowly, he turned the pages, through the duplicated material on leg injuries, and on to the beginning of disorders of the throat. The scribe of this book wrote in small characters, and was by far the most irregular and hardest to read. On the other hand, he had made small drawings in the margins; some were of things mentioned in the text, but others were apparently doodles, of fantastic animals and people that Maalioh assumed must live wherever the book had been written. Those pictures provided the images for when he dreamed of the Empire of the Sun.

He took a deep breath, and began reading. He found that he still stumbled over some words; they consulted the book on injuries far more often, and that was written by a scribe who formed his letters in exactly the same way, every time, and kept them in almost perfectly straight lines. Maalioh had once tried to copy a page, onto a sheet of ice, but he could not make his letters that similar. It was certainly the easiest of the books to read, however, and Maalioh realised that he had been slightly spoiled by it.

With the habit of long practice he listened as he read, trying to determine whether a disease might be appropriate. After the initial description of each disorder he paused, looking at Tohflair, who shook his head if he wanted Maalioh to skip the details. In many cases the illnesses were so obviously different that Maalioh barely needed to wait; in others there was a slightly longer pause, and sometimes Tohflair even nodded when Maalioh thought that it would be best to press on. He read until his voice became hoarse and his throat sore, but they found nothing that sounded like the illness they faced.

At last, Tohflair raised his hand to indicate that Maalioh should stop reading. He noted the page, and then carefully closed the cover, standing back from the lectern. Tohflair took the fox book from the chest, handing it to Maalioh, and then wrapped the hare book again, replacing it in its proper place. Maalioh watched in silence as his master closed the chest, retied the thong, and wrapped the seal skins around it again. Then they lifted the cover back into place. Only when it had settled did Tohflair speak.

"We must continue tomorrow." Before Maalioh could answer, a voice called from outside the curtains.

"Doctor! Please come quickly now! Our son is sick." For a moment, Maalioh caught a flicker of panic in his master's eye.

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