In Sickness and In Health
Raine looked at the darkening sky with timid eyes. She had tried her best to work on the fields, but she had never been a strong person and now the rain was coming. Giving up, she started to walk back to the village.
It had not always been like this. Raine's mother and father had tended the fields until the Sickness had come; sweeping through the villages of Ashvalaria like wildfire. Now the village was a shadow of its former self, with only a few people left, and fewer still able to maintain their way of life.
So it had come to Raine to sow the fields and water them; to learn the ways of growing plants. She had help, of course, but the yield was small and Raine worried for the winter when their grain stores ran out. The other villagers were looking to leave; to pool their resources with other villages and cut their losses, but Raine would not leave her home.
After their parents died, she had moved in with her best friend since childhood, Lena. Lena had become paralyzed from the waist down when she fell into the well as a child. They had both come through the Sickness together, and had held each other's hands when their parents had died. They had always been there for each other when times were tough.
"You're home early," Lena said, as Raine came in through the door, "I saw the clouds gathering outside. The rain's coming, right?"
"Yeah, work's over for today," Raine said, "My back hurts, so maybe it's just as well. I've been doing this for almost a year now... why can't I get used to it?"
"You're doing a fine job," Lena said, "I wish I could help, Raine. I feel so guilty just lying here in bed reading all day while you and the others try to keep this village together. Sometimes I think... Perhaps it would have been better if the Sickness had taken me instead."
"Don't say that!" Raine sat at Lena's bedside and held her hands, "Lena, you're the one who's kept me going through all this. You're the reason I keep working so hard! If anything happened to you, I would surely die..."
Lena laughed, "We get so melodramatic sometimes, don't we?"
Raine hugged Lena, giving her a kiss on the forehead. Lena laughed and pulled Raine's face down with her hands, kissing her on the lips. Raine felt giddy inside and deepened the kiss. Lena had never kissed her like this before, but it felt right. Not the sisterly affection that she had pretended to feel, but an adult love, the kind of love her parents had felt for each other.
They parted reluctantly, "Lena... I had no idea that you felt that way..." Raine said.
"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have done that..." Lena said, "I guess now would be the time to run away... but I can't really do that, can I?" She looked away.
Raine put her hands on her shoulders, "No, Lena, don't apologize. It was right. I'm not sure what it means yet, but it was right, for both of us..."
As they spoke, the rain began to fall outside. And then there was a darker sound, a sound that sent waves of fear running through them, a sound they had not heard since the Sickness; the sound of the village bell pealing. It only happened in emergencies, and both Raine and Lena looked up in horror.
"Go," Lena said, "We can talk later, okay?"
Raine nodded and rushed outside. Most of the villagers had gathered in the square, except for the Elder and Lena. Raine counted six other faces, people she had known her whole life, and they all looked uncertain and afraid. A young man, the Elder's only surviving son, was ringing the bell and stopped when he saw they had all gathered.
"What's this all about?" one of the village boys, John, asked. He was barely older than thirteen, but he worked the fields with the rest of them. He had aged so fast in the past year, Raine thought. The Sickness had aged them all, sorrow and grief changing their lives forever, forcing them to be better, stronger people in order to survive.
"The Sickness is back," the Elder's son, Nigel, said, "The Elder has it. He is in the last stages; coughing blood, struggling to breathe. He hid the truth from all of us; I did not know until just now."
A look of resigned fear crossed the faces of everybody gathered, "You're completely sure?" One middle-aged woman, Asha, asked, "The Elder is old. He could just be dying from natural causes."
"It's the Sickness," Nigel said, "I'm sorry."
"Then this is the end of the village," John said, "We need to leave and find other places to live before it is too late."
"If you leave, you may all die!" Nigel said, "Chances are, if it's back, the surrounding villages are probably suffering as well, and if you leave, you are condemning us all to death. We need everybody here if we are to survive the winter."
The rain soaked through Raine's clothing as she impassively watched the proceedings. It was like history repeating itself. Fear consumed the souls of those it infested long before the Sickness hit, and many in the village had turned on each other in desperation, accusing them of hiding treatments or indecent acts with animals, any reasoning they could find to apportion blame for what was happening to them.
"I'm going to pray," the middle-aged woman said.
"Prayer didn't save us last time, and it won't save us now," John said, "We need to decide what to do, so don't walk out on this meeting!"
Squabbling broke out, and Raine found herself walking away into the rain. If these were her last days, she thought, then the only place she wanted to be was at Lena's side.
"What's going on?" Lena looked helpless, sitting up in bed, trying to strain herself to see out of the window.
"You don't want to see out there," Raine said sadly, "Lena, the Sickness is back. The Elder has it. I'm so sorry." She slumped into a chair then, oblivious to the rainwater dripping from her hair onto the floor of their home and her soaking wet clothes.
"Oh." Lena was quiet for a few seconds, "Raine, you need to get out of those wet clothes! I don't want you to get sick!"
Raine changed and sat by Lena's side, "Lena, we could leave this village. I could carry you and we could find a new place to live."
"We can't do that," Lena said, "I'm not easy to carry, you know that. It would be fine for a while, but you'd get tired. There's no way you could manage to carry me all the way to the next village. Even if you did, if we got there and they were sick, what then?"
Raine shook her head, "You're right, I'm sorry."
"You should go, though," Lena said, "Perhaps somebody out there has found a cure. You could bring it back to us."
"I could never leave you," Raine said, "There's nobody left who I would trust to take care of you."
"It's a cruel fate, to have come this far and still succumb to the Sickness," Lena mused, "Thank you for saying you would stay. I know I won't be so frightened if you're here."
"Perhaps we won't get sick," Raine said, "We already survived it, so perhaps we won't get it again. The Elder never got sick the first time..."
When the Elder died, they took his body out of town and burned it, just as in the days of the Sickness. Most of the markers in the graveyard stood upon empty ground, plots reserved but never used. Fire was a cleanser, everybody knew that, and so they had to suspend their ancient tradition of burial in order to keep the others safe.
After they said a few words in his honor, Raine went back to the fields. She had no choice but to work with the others, although they all kept their distance from one another. Each looked suspicious and fearful, and Raine found the day more tiring because nobody would work together.
"I think our village is gone," Raine said to Lena when she got home, "There's so much distrust, so much fear... Even I felt caught up in it today. I feel like a horrible person, Lena. We've all supported each other this last year, and now we treat each other like murderers."
"It's rational to feel a little afraid," Lena said, "Nobody wants to die. We all saw what the Sickness did to our families. Who wants to die like that, fevered and in pain?"
"I promised myself I wouldn't waste these days," Raine said, "After the Sickness, I was so grateful to have survived, even though so many people I loved were gone. I was so happy that I still had you, when some lost their whole families and circles of friends. I'm scared that I've taken this last year for granted, and now I'm going to lose everything..."
"You didn't take it for granted," Lena said, "There's nothing wrong with living without fear, letting the days slide by in a happy fog, only having small things to complain about. It's how we should be able to live. Not like this, in this world of fear."
"Thank you," Raine said, "Because of you, things are always so much better."
When Raine was in the fields the next day, Lena heard a knock on the door.
"Come in!" she yelled from her bed. John opened the door and came inside, "Is Raine here?" he asked.
"No, she's in the fields. Why would she be here?" Lena asked.
"Oh god... It's terrible... Asha shot herself in the head. Nigel thinks that she had the Sickness and didn't want to pass it along." John's composure was cracking, "I should have known Raine would be in the fields... I just..."
"Calm down..." Lena said, "Take deep breaths. John, you're still young. You don't have to deal with this all on your own. You have friends, you know?"
"Thanks," John said, "I really appreciate that. You and Raine... you always seem like you're in a world of your own. I wish I had somebody to take care of me like you take care of each other."
When Raine came home, her face looked dark. She closed the door quietly and sat down.
"I heard about Asha," Lena said, "A tragedy. She was never the same after her husband and children died. I hope she is at peace now."
"John is sick now as well," Raine said, "He came running to me and collapsed in the fields."
Lena swallowed deeply and went pale, "He was here earlier... He came here looking for you. Raine, you should go. I could be infected. Please Raine, please go! I don't want you to get sick."
"You know I won't leave," Raine said, coming closer to Lena, "It's true that I'm frightened of the Sickness, scared of dying. But more than that.. I'm scared of losing you, Lena. I would rather die then lose you. That's not me being melodramatic, I mean it. I love you, Lena. Not in a sisterly way, but truly, romantically..." She choked on the words.
"I know," Lena said simply, "I feel the same way, and that's why I don't want you to get sick, Raine. You have so much to offer the world... You didn't have to stay here and look after me but you did, you're always so beautiful and kind and I love you."
"I think it's been you who's been looking after me the whole time," Raine said, "After my parents died, I pretty much gave up. Then I got sick... and you were the bright light that kept me going. You gave me something to live for."
Raine kissed Lena on the lips again, taking it slowly, enjoying each kiss as though it might be their last. Lena wanted to pull away in case she was infected, but she couldn't find the strength to turn away the thing she truly wanted. She let the kiss go on and on, let Raine's hand slip to her breasts and enjoyed the gentle touch of her love. Lena let her hands roam over Raine's body, and Raine moaned as Lena unfastened her clothes and let her fingers roam into sensitive places.
Afterwards, they slept holding one another, the thought of the Sickness a million miles away...
Raine was awoken by a cough, and was horrified when she felt Lena burning up next to her, "Oh goddess," she whispered, and moved from the bed.
Dressing and running outside, she rushed to the well with a bucket to get fresh water. Nigel stopped her along the way. He looked awful, but insisted on patrolling the village as the new Elder. His two henchmen looked just as unwell.
"John died last night," Nigel said, "We're imposing a curfew. You really should go back inside now."
"I need water for Lena," Raine said, "She's sick."
"I knew from the look in your eyes," Nigel said, "Hurry it up, then." He coughed sharply, and Raine could see beads of sweat trickling down his forehead.
Raine got her bucket of water and rushed back to the house. Dipping a cold flannel in the water, she rested it on Lena's head. Lena came around.
"Raine...? Raine... It's happening... isn't it...?" Lena managed to say.
"Yes love, you're sick," she whispered, "Don't worry, I won't leave your side..." She took Lena's hands in her own and squeezed them.
After hours of waiting, Lena woke and coughed blood, "Isn't there anything I can do?" she whispered, wiping the blood away from Lena's mouth.
"This... reminds me... of before..." Lena said, "Do you... remember... the bitter taste?"
"The bitter taste? I don't know what you mean, Lena." Raine knew she was babbling, that the end was near, but as she thought about the Sickness, she remembered her delirium. It had been a dark and hot place, and she barely remembered most of it, but she remembered the bitter taste. She remembered her mother saying "There's only enough for you two..."
"Lena... Lena... what was that stuff? Was it some kind of herb?" Lena read many books and if anybody would remember what that taste meant, it would be her.
"I think it was... Silver... something... I don't know..." Lena whispered. Raine scrambled to the bookshelves, pulling out the well-read books and looking through them. Lena's mother had dabbled in herbs, but it had only been a small hobby. She had left her books to Lena, but Lena had only briefly studied them, preferring fiction and history to science.
Flicking through, she found several drawings of herbs that contained "silver" in their name. "Is it this one?" She asked, holding the book up to Lena. She didn't even know if Lena would be able to understand which plant she had been given from just the taste, but eventually, Lena got excited, "Yes... I think... that one!" She pointed at the Silverweed page. Rained turned the book around and started to read.
"It says it's extremely rare though... only found in the forest... only blooms at night... Can be poisonous if too much is eaten. How will I know what to give?" Raine asked in desperation.
"Bring it... try to..." Lena asked.
"I'll do my best," Raine said, kissing Lena on the forehead, "Please hang on."
As she headed to the forest, Raine was stopped by Nigel and his men. Nigel had his sword at the ready, while the others had arrows trained on her.
"I can't... let you leave. You know that..." Nigel said, "Honestly... thought you were better than that."
"I'm not leaving. I have to look for a cure. Lena's mother gave us something during the last Sickness. It helped us through it, I know it. A weed with a bitter taste."
"I never... got the Sickness... the first time," Nigel said, "but if there was a cure... why did everybody else die?"
"Silverweed is rare," Raine said, "It only blooms at night, so I need to go and look for it soon. Lena doesn't have much longer. Please! I can help you."
"I will contain this Sickness..." Nigel said, "I won't let you ruin the lives of other people out there. Men, stop her!"
Arrows were fired, but Raine rushed off into the forest, easily able to outrun the sick men. She ran until she lost them, then started looking for the plant. The page from the book was in her hand, and she was comparing every plant. Darkness fell, and as time elapsed, Raine felt desperation filling her every nerve. Nothing looked like the Silverweed, and she started to cry.
Then she saw it. Under the light of the full moon, growing by the side of a lake, the Silverweed's flower opened up. Raine plucked it and ran through the forest, rushing despite the heat and the feeling of fever that was beginning to burn within her. She realized she had the Sickness, but did not care. Either this plant would cure them both, or she would not care any more.
Rushing into the house, she listened for Lena's breathing, but heard nothing. She shakily lit the oil lamp and held it above Lena, and then Lena coughed, and resumed breathing.
"Oh goddess, Lena, what do I do? I don't know what to give you..." Raine was filled with fear again. The right thing could cure her, but the wrong thing could be poison. Did one eat the flower or the stem? She looked at the page, but there was no clues as to its use.
"The bitter taste... of course..." She bit a tiny piece from the stalk, and it tasted sweet, so that couldn't be it. She was just about to taste the petals when she collapsed.
When Raine woke, she was entangled in Lena's arms, and they were both on the floor, "What happened?" Raine asked.
"You collapsed," Lena began, "In my fevered dream, I saw the Silverweed, and grasped it in my hand. I ate the petal and remembered its bitterness. After that, I started to feel better, but it was a slow process. I crawled from my bed to give you the Silverweed, and dragged myself across the floor to you. I managed to give you the Silverweed, but I didn't have the strength to get back to my bed. So I've been waiting. She smiled, "I was so worried... I didn't think we'd make it..."
"Nigel..." Raine realized, "Is there any Silverweed left?"
"Yes," Lena said, "Raine, be careful!"
Raine rushed from the house. She looked around for Nigel and saw him by the town well, lying on the ground, "Nigel, Nigel... I found the cure!"
He was still, and cold as she touched him, "I'm so sorry..." she whispered. His friends all lay close by, all still as stones.
Returning to her home, she picked Lena up and tucked her back into bed, "Lena, I've got some bad news," she said.
"Nigel's dead, isn't he?" Lena said.
Raine nodded, "So is everybody else. We're all alone now. Winter's going to be hard..."
"Finish the harvest," Lena said. "Store what you can. We'll manage for the winter. In the Spring, we'll leave this village and search for a new home. In the meantime, I'll try to think of a way to travel that won't be such a burden on you."
"You're so sweet, Lena," Raine said, "I think I could never see another person and still be happy, as long as I have you..."
Raine buried Nigel and his friends, and Lena paid her respects from a chair Raine had placed outside.
"Let's hope that no more people die from the Sickness," Raine said, "In the Spring, we'll take Silverweed to all the villages. Let's hope it's not too late."
Raine harvested the fields while Lena read to her, and in the winter they bundled up in their home, safe and well, waiting for the thaw and the promise of Spring...