by David McLeod
Mission of Mercy
The flip-flop of sandaled feet broke Jon's concentration and he looked up from the book he was reading. The feet were those of Lawsonius, the Boy-Healer who had brought Tyler aspirin upon his arrival at the monastery. Immediately after that, the tween had made opportunities to interact with Jon. In less than a year he'd moved in with the companions; now, three years later, the boy was Jon's student in fact if not by formal assignment.
The boy sat at the table opposite Jon. Jon smiled. "Hello, Lawsonius. You're excited about something."
The boy furrowed his brow for a moment, and then said, "My face is red and my breathing is fast. Perhaps I just ran up the stairs."
"No, for there's no perspiration on your upper lip, and that is the first place it would form," Jon replied. "So, what is the source of your excitement?"
"The Senior Healer sent me for you, to ask if you would meet with him and a few others. A new disease has risen somewhere in the south, and our people do not know what it is or how to treat it. May I go, too? He didn't say, but acolytes aren't usually allowed, unless a Senior asks, that is."
"But I'm not a Senior," Jon said.
"You might as well be," Lawsonius replied, "and if you took vows, you'd certainly be, even though you're years and years too young."
Years and years, Jon thought, remembering an early conversation with the Senior. I am still not accustomed to the notion of living 500 or more years, and that Lawsonius, who looks no older than 17 would have celebrated his 60th birthday last month…if these people celebrated birthdays, that is.
Jon's request that Lawsonius be included in the discussion was received amicably. When all were seated, the Senior Healer began.
"News has come to us of two diseases–perhaps new ones, perhaps new forms of old diseases, perhaps ancient diseases that have been revived. The first involves the skin, especially at the extremities. There appear small macula or blotches on the skin that have lost their pigmentation; other macula will have lost sensation–these may or may not have lost pigmentation. As the disease progresses, the fingers and toes become calloused; the loss of sensation becomes greater and greater; the patches begin to flake and then suppurate, opening the affected person to other diseases including gangrene.
"The second disease involves the mucosa–the membranes of the nose and mouth, especially. Those affected have nasal congestion and epistaxis–nose bleeds. There are, however, none of the ordinary symptoms of nasal-pulmonary diseases.
"The blood and lymph, as well as secretions from the suppurating macula have been cultured, but no new bacterium has yet been identified. The only treatment at this point has been palliative. Naturally, when the affected individual is weakened and other, known, diseases are present, these are treated using normal methods."
Questions followed the Senior Healer's presentation, however he was unable to provide any new information.
"From whom did you learn this?" Jon asked. "Perhaps if we could question the messenger?"
The Senior Healer and another exchanged glances. "The messenger is quarantined," the Senior Healer said. "He has the skin disease."
"Here?" Jon asked.
The Senior Healer nodded. "Well then," Jon said. "Let us go meet him."
Their precautions before entering the room of the sick messenger were no less thorough than those at any operating theater on Earth: Jon and the Senior Healer bathed and donned linen robes, caps, and masks that had been boiled. They wore no gloves, but Jon knew that after leaving the patient, they, especially their hands, eyebrows, and feet would be thoroughly cleaned using magic.
The Senior Healer introduced Jon. "He's a healer from far away. He knows much that we know; however, much of his knowledge is new to us, and he is teaching us many things."
"I am learning many things from you, as well," Jon said. He turned to the patient, a man who appeared to be in his 50s but who could have been–and probably was–nearly 500 years old. "May I examine you?"
The man nodded, and Jon began his examination. When's the last time you did an annual physical exam? He thought to himself. Let's start with that. I never was a diagnostician, but I do know… Jon interrupted his own thoughts and concentrated on the patient. He'd learned how to listen to a heartbeat without a stethoscope, by using a touch of magic. He'd learned how quietly to concentrate his sight until he could see inside a patient, the way he'd seen inside Alfred. He'd also learned that what he saw was reality, and not some sort of analogy. It's not like the computer-generated photos of an MRI, he thought. And I still don't know why I can think of those things but can't talk about them.
Using the Mage Sight he'd discovered and then taught to the Monks, Jon looked deeply and closely. That's his finger, yes, now concentrate, focus I can think it, but I can't say it. Let's look inside a cell. That one. Wait, what's that?
"Rod-shaped and with a waxy cell membrane; extra cellular. The symptoms. It all fits. It's not two diseases, it's one: leprosy, it was called," Jon announced. "I saw it in the desert."
The Senior sought out Jon after breakfast a tenday later. "Jon," the man began. "I must ask you to leave this place and face the danger you were trying to avoid when you found us. Not," he raised his hand to forestall whatever it was Jon was about to say. "Not that you are not welcome and not that you are not Good. However, you are needed elsewhere.
"You know that we maintain contact with other monasteries," the Senior continued. "We also maintain contact with other communities that serve the Light. That is how we learned of the leprosy you diagnosed. Your diagnosis allowed us to look in the right place for a cure; we have found it. You know that the messenger agreed to the treatment, even though perhaps 50,000 years have passed since it had been used. You know that he was cured.
"During your stay with us, you have learned that we heal using magic and knowledge of anatomy, physiology, endocrinology, chemistry, and other natural sciences. I think you also know–although you have been too polite to mention it–that we have become a little too attached to magic, and a little less knowledgeable of the various sciences. You, on the other hand, had to learn healing without magic, and therefore know a great deal more than we about the body.
"World is at a turning point, and I believe the fulcrum is the place from which the messenger came." The Senior paused. "That is a terrible analogy, and a mixed metaphor. Nevertheless, it is correct.
"Will you leave this place of sanctuary? Will you take your companions–including, I understand, Gentian and Lawsonius–through danger in order to serve that which is Good? If you agree, I will send James and his acolyte with you. James is my Second, and both he and his acolyte are accomplished warriors.
"You would travel often on paths like the one that led you here," the Senior continued. "You would often sojourn at other monasteries, and at the homes of people we know to be followers of the Light. Nevertheless, you will be exposed to danger. At times, you must use the public roads.
"You do not have to answer now," the Senior concluded. "However, the matter is urgent."
"I know that Symphytus believes that I am on some sort of quest," Jon said. "When at supper the first night we were here, he suggested that. No one–including you–disputed his assertion. Do you believe I am on a quest, and that some force is directing me?"
The Senior nodded. "I do, and I wish you had asked this question long ago. It is not something easily answered. However, I believe you serve the Light and I believe that people of the Light will aid you. Whether something other than coincidence guides you, and whether you receive clues from something other than the zeitgeist–not a force or a being, but merely the sum of all around you, what you see, hear, sense–I do not know. I do believe that this journey will be hazardous; I also believe that the goal is worth the danger."
Jon nodded. "Your answer was more complex than you perhaps intended, and holds enough to keep my mind occupied for many hours. Of course I will go–I do not doubt that Tyler and Morgan will agree. They're both certain we're on quest. Gentian and Lawsonius, James and Camphire: they are under oath to you. They would, however, be more than welcome."
"Would you accept James' leadership?" the Senior asked.
Jon smiled, remembering that he'd been asked to assume the second-in-command position at the Medical Center. "It is not my nature or talent to lead such a body," he said. "This is one of the reasons I question whether or not I am on a quest."
After leaving the Senior, Jon found Tyler and Morgan tending their horses. "Guys," Jon began, "the Senior wants us to travel to Algoropolis. It's a long and dangerous journey, but it's important. I know you swore to obey me, but I can't demand that you do this. You must not go unless you want to, and unless you really understand the danger."
Jon repeated what the Senior had told him, and then added. "You remember we were hiding from press gangs when we found this place. There's no reason to believe things are any better outside the monastery than before. So, will you think about it, and let me know, say, by tomorrow morning?"
"You are going?" Tyler asked.
"I must," Jon said.
"Then I am going," Tyler said.
"And I," Morgan echoed. He paused. "Jon, you should not have asked. Oh, I'm not angry. It's just that you don't understand. Our pledge to you still stands."
"I know," Jon said. "And I love both of you for it."
"Besides," Tyler added, "I like it here, but I am getting bored!"
Despite the Senior's misgivings, the journey to Algoropolis was unmarked by any danger, and by little hardship. The weather was mild, and the few nights they spent in the forest were not unpleasant. The guards at the gates accepted the story that they were healers come to join the local House of Healing.
"Algoropolis was named by Elves who fortified it during the last Great War. In their language, it means cold city," James explained. "The Elves are long gone, but the name remains. It is the most southern of our outposts. A small group of our brothers operates the House of Healing. They also recruit likely boys and send them to one of the monasteries for training."
"Are they known to be clerics?" Jon asked.
"No," James replied. "However, they are known to be better than the charlatans and heuristic healers that are the only alternative. Ah, here it is."
"This place was a Temple," Tyler said. "I can feel it, and I can see the lines of magic; they are cleaner than elsewhere–straight and solid."
"You are quite right," James said. "But please do not discuss this with anyone. The Light burns here, but dimly, and we are amidst many enemies."
The man looked very much like any of the many people who came to the House of Healing. His clothes were dull; his expression was lackluster, although not as sullen as many others. His boots were scuffed and dirty. His hair was lank.
"Is there a healer who would come to my home? A boy is sick. He cannot be moved."
"What is wrong with the boy?" James asked.
"He has the new disease–the one called leprosy–in his nose and mouth," the man said.
James nodded. "Jon? Would you and Tyler go? Would you like Camphire to accompany you?"
Jon understood. James had determined the truth of the man's story and assessed the danger to be slight. Otherwise, he would have insisted that both he and Camphire accompany Jon and Tyler. "I think only Tyler," Jon said. "Camphire was awake very late last night."
Jon wore a satchel containing herbs and a few ceramic bottles of simples and compounds. The satchel was attached to a baldric over his left shoulder. It lay across another baldric that held his sword. A poniard and a dagger were clipped to the belt that pulled his shirt tight around his waist. Tyler also wore a sword and poniard, as well as the dagger bought by Morgan so long ago.
The man led them for several blocks toward the center of the city before turning into a side street. The street was lined with residences, a few of which hosted shops on their first floors. The street was crowded, and when Jon and Tyler realized that they were surrounded by men it was too late. A man on each side grabbed the boys' arms.
"We swear you no harm," the first man said. "But you must not see your destination."
Jon and Tyler were marched into an alley, and hoods were forced over their heads. How can they take us through the city–even this one–without attracting attention? Jon wondered. The clip-clop of a carriage horse and the creak of wheels answered that question.
"You will be taken in a carriage," the man said. "Again, we swear you no harm. Please do not fight us."
They rode in the carriage for perhaps a half-hour. When the carriage stopped, the hoods were removed. "We are in a walled court," the man–who had ridden with them–said. "Please, follow me." He turned, until his back was to the boys, and opened the door to the carriage.
"You left us with our weapons. We could kill you, now," Jon said. "You are not a fool; therefore, you must mean what you said."
Bu this time, they all had dismounted. "You have the right of it," the man said. "Please, follow me."
Four men, ostensibly playing cards, sat at a table outside the door to the sick room. Guards, Jon thought. Their chairs are turned so that they can leap up instantly. And their attention is not on the game. Inside, a single candle lit a figure lying on a bed. Three men stood in a corner, obscured by shadows. The man who had accompanied Jon and Tyler in the carriage, and one other, entered with them, and stood with their backs to the closed door.
A figure lay in the bed. Its face was covered with a cloth. Through the thin sheet, Jon could see it was a boy, and that his chest was rising and falling slowly.
"Is he awake?" Jon asked. "And why is his face covered?"
"You may not see his face," the man said. It was the same man–he was the only one who had spoken. "And yes, he is awake and hears you. You may speak to him."
"He's an Elf," Tyler said abruptly. "And so are the three men in the corner. That's why we can't see his face."
"Why do you speak thus? You must know that is the secret we protect? You could be sealing your doom!" the man exclaimed.
"No," Tyler said. "For I saw your Light. Jon, these are the Lucernae you have been seeking."
Anything else he might have said was stilled when the boy in the bed removed the cloth from his face. "You have the right of it," he said. Then he coughed. Jon saw dried blood near his nostrils.
The Elven boy rested comfortably. Tyler sat by him, monitoring the effect of the healing and the herbs. Jon addressed the man who had brought them to this place. "How did you expect us to heal him without seeing his face?" Jon asked.
Their escort, now their host, looked abashed. "I'd not thought of that," he said.
"Tyler says that you are of the Light," Jon said. "We, therefore, will keep your secret." Jon knew that saying this opened himself and Tyler to danger, but he felt oddly unafraid.
The man looked hard at Jon. "You fear nothing?"
"No," Jon said. He smiled. "I fear many things, but I have a great deal of faith in Tyler's intuition."
"More sight than intuition." One of the three Elven men who had been in the corner said. He'd watched closely during the healing, and now stood next to Jon. "I am Severus, the boy's tutor."
Jon and Tyler walked back to the former Temple that was now called a House of Healing. Their hosts had not bound their eyes, and they realized the place the boy lay was only a hundred yards away.
"That's convenient," Tyler said. "We'll be able to check on him, easily."
"We may not want to, too often," Jon said. "And we may wish to find circuitous routes."
"Army training?" Tyler asked.
Jon nodded, and then asked, "How did you know the boy was an Elf? And the others?"
"I looked," Tyler said. "Using the sight like you showed me."
"But you didn't touch him," Jon said.
"Uh, no," Tyler said. "I just looked. When I saw that his face was covered, I looked and saw below the cloth. You could do it, too, I bet. Anyway, when I saw his eyes and ears, I looked at the men in the corner. It was pretty obvious they were hiding."
"And that they were of the Light?" Jon asked.
"Are you mad at me? I put us in danger," Tyler said.
"No," Jon said. "I'm not mad at you, and you didn't put us in danger. I just want to know how you knew."
"It was something Gentian showed me," Tyler said. "The color of their magic. I really hadn't thought about it, but when I saw them, and realized they were Elves, it just clicked. Their aura is golden. Like your boy magic," he concluded. He blushed.