Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Blue Rose

The doctor leaned down to look the boy in the bed over, shaking his head as he did so. He pulled out a strange instrument from his bag that looked like a small wooden stick stuck to a finely crafted brass handle. He waved it over the boy, and the tip began to glow a pale pink. He shook his head again.

“I’m afraid that William here has Red Fever,” he said, standing up and turning to face the woman in the room.

He looked her over. She was tall for a Jandurian woman, but stood slightly stooped, probably due to a life of raising children and running a farm. A touch of gray could be seen in her otherwise still shining brown hair, and the signs of age could only just be seen on her face. She was not what one would call plump, but her body was also not the skinny of youth any more. He shook his head once more. Such a woman should not be raising three children and a farm on her own.

“How is that possible?” she whispered. If he had not been looking at her at the time, he wouldn’t have even known she said anything. “No one has had Red Fever in…”

“Generations,” the doctor said. “Yes. It’s true, in this part of Janduria, the Red Fever is all but a myth. Occasionally, however, someone will break out in it. It’s likely that your son contracted it from that bite I saw on his leg. Was it a stray cat?”

“No,” she said almost absently. She moved to the bed now, looking down at her sleeping son. She started to cover him up in his blankets as she spoke. “It was a squirrel. It bit him four days ago. I thought I had cleaned out the wound.”

“No doubt you did,” the doctor said, taking her face in his hands to make her look at him. Her eyes remained absent. “Listen to me, Bhodi. That squirrel probably was a carrier for Red Fever. I saw this kind of thing all the time in the larger cities, but occasionally an animal will get infected and go mad. We don’t know how, but once infected, they’ll bite people, as if purposely trying to pass the disease on.”

“But,” Bhodi said, tears coming down her cheeks, “there is a cure, yes? Red Fever went away, no one gets it anymore.”

“Well,” the doctor hesitated.

“What?” Bhodi said. “Tell me.”

The doctor hesitated for a moment, studying Bhodi’s stern look before sighing heavily. “I saw written in an old journal of the previous doctor for our village, my master, had spoken of the cure. It said that if you take the petals of a blue rose, and crush them into boiling hot water, and then drink it once it’s cooled enough to do so, it will break the fever and bring the infected back to health.”

“Then let us do that!” Bhodi said, her eyes bright with hope.

The doctor looked down at the floor, refusing to look her in the eye. She put her arms on her hips and stared at him like she would her son when she knows he’s lying to her.

“What?” she demanded.

“There’s a problem,” he said.

“I figured that much,” she said.

“There are no more Blue Roses in this area,” he said. “They stopped growing here years ago. The only place left to get them now is the other side of the Dragon’s Teeth Mountains.”

“What?” Bhodi said. “The Dragon’s Teeth are a week away, at least.”

“Yes,” the doctor said.

Bhodi looked from the doctor to her son and then back again. She sighed again.

“How long does Willham have?” she asked.

The doctor looked back at Bhodi’s eyes. He saw determination there.

“About a month before the Fever kills him,” he said, deciding that honest truth was best with this woman.

She looked back down at her son, her jaw set. She thought hard about what the doctor had told her. Red Fever was deadly, but a month… that would give her more than enough time to travel to the Dragon’s Teeth and get a blue rose and return. If only Davin, her oldest son, was here. He was the adventuring hero, out fighting evil monsters with his friends. She was just a mother and farmer, and at forty was too old for adventure. But, Davin was not here. He was in far off Flandar, according to his last letter and gift of two gold coins a year ago.

“Thank you doctor,” she said after a few more moments, nodding her head. “We’ll call on you again if Willham gets worse.”

The doctor hesitated for a moment, but seeing the look of determination crossed with anger on her face, he decided it was best to leave. Bhodi remained in the room with her sleeping child for nearly ten minutes before she collapsed on her knees and started crying. She didn’t know how long she spent there with the tears coming from her eyes, but eventually she was brought back to the real world by a gentle touch on her shoulder. Getting up, she turned around to see her middle child, her thirteen year old daughter Sahnda.

“Momma?” she asked, concern on her face. “Is… is Willham going to die?”

Bhodi sat up and hugged her daughter. Sahnda had inherited her father’s gift for getting straight to the point.

“No, my dear,” she said. “Not if I have anything to say about it. And unless God wills otherwise, I do.”

She stood her daughter up, got on her knees and looked Sahnda in the eyes. “I’m going to need your help, though.”

Sahnda nodded, eager. Bhodi smiled. It was obvious that Sahnda had a close attachment to her younger brother. But this would be hard on the young woman, who was just three years away from marrying age.

“I am going to have to go on a trip,” she said, “to get medicine for Willham. While I am gone, I need you to look after him. Do you think you can do that?”

“I… I don’t understand, Momma,” she said at last.

Bhodi decided to tell her daughter the truth. “Sahnda, your brother is very sick. He has a disease known as the Red Fever. If I don’t get this medicine he needs, he will die. So, I am going to get the medicine. And to do that, I need you to stay here and take care of him.”

Sahnda seemed to be thinking this over. Finally, she nodded. “Yes, Momma. I can do that.”

“Good girl. Now,” Bhodi said. “I need you to help me gather my things.”

A few hours later, Bhodi was dressed in her traveling clothing, including a pair of expensive leather boots she had bought with the gold her son sent her, a walking stick and a backpack filled with what supplies she could carry. She leaned over the bed of Willham and kissed him on the forehead. It was hot, even to her lips. She frowned, but realized that she didn’t have the time to waist waiting.

“I’ll come back, Willham,” she said. “I’ll bring you the blue rose, and you’ll be okay. Momma promises.”

She walked to the front door where Sahnda was waiting for her. She looked worried. Bhodi smiled what she hoped was a comforting smile and hugged her daughter.

“You will be fine, my daughter,” she said. “I have trained you to run this household, and you can do it better than even I. I will not be gone so very long.”

“Do hurry back, Momma,” Sahnda said.

“I will,” Bhodi said. “And remember, the money I have left you is…”

“Is for food,” Sahnda interrupted. “And for the doctor should Willham get worse. I know mother.”

Bhodi smiled. “You will be okay.”

The two smiled at each other, and then suddenly, Sahnda ran down the hall to the kitchen. Bhodi watched her go, realizing that this was just her not wanting to watch her actually leave. Taking a deep breath, Bhodi turned and walked out the door. She exited the town with tears streaming down her face.

The first few days of her journey are uneventful as she traveled down well-worn merchant roads. She even managed to catch ride on a caravan that was passing by. After a few days riding with the caravan, she finally reached the city of Danka. Having spent her whole life in the small village of Hillside, Danka was a sight to behold. Walls surrounded it, and guards could be seen all along the top. The main gates were open during the day, and the Caravan just came right in. She looked around and thought that the land the city occupied could have held ten farms and the whole of hillside. And the people! Never in all her life had she seen so many people. They were running about here and there on some errand or another. Everyone seemed to be in a hurry.

When the Caravan stopped at the warehouse district, she got off and thanked the caravan master for the ride. She decided that she didn’t want stick around Danka if possible, the city made her nervous. It was late in the day, though, and she didn’t fancy sleeping on the ground when there were Inn’s so close by, so she decided to get a room and move on in the morning.

She was following the directions to inns that were safe for visitors tot the city when she felt like someone was following her. She turned to look, but other than the mass of men and women from the caravan, there was nothing that really looked like she was being followed. She shrugged and kept moving. A little while later, she turned down a street and found that she was alone. The few shops down this street had closed up for the day, and everyone had left. She was nearby the inn the caravan master had recommended, though, and so continued to stride on. Then she got that feeling she was being followed again.

She stopped and turned to look again, this time seeing several young men in black clothing. They didn’t hesitate when they saw her looking and charged up at her. Bhodi screamed and started running, but with the backpack slowing her down, the toughs caught up to her quickly and dragged her into an ally way. Bhodi was not completely defenseless. She had dealt with pig thieves several times since her husband had died, and knew how to handle the walking stick she was carrying. She swung it in a wide arc, slamming it into the side of one thugs head. He collapsed to the cobblestone grabbing his head.

“Grab her stick!” one of the youths said.

She swung it again, backing into a wall, and caused the young men to hesitate before rushing her. She tried to take advantage of their hesitation, and swung again.

“Just what do you boys thing you’re doing,” she said in her best Mom Voice. She used this voice when trying to intimidate her children into doing something they didn’t want to do. It seemed to work, and the boys attacking her actually took a step back. She wasn’t sure what to do next, however.

“What are you waiting for,” one said, pushing another towards her. “Get her!”

She tried to swing the walking stick again, but this time they were ready for her. One thug grabbed the stick and yanked it out of her hands. This caused her to stumble forward, off balance. Another tough took advantage of this and grabbed her arms, yanking them behind her and holding her up by them. She struggled, but moving caused her pain in her shoulders. The one that had been shouting orders that the others came up to her and punched her hard in her stomach, knocking the wind out of her.

“Old cow,” he said. “Stupid old cow. This could have been easier on you. We just want your purse. Now, we’re going to have to teach you a lesson, as well.”

He punched her in the stomach again, and Bhodi tried to double over and cough, but the youth holding her kept her up. This gave her the perspective to see what the boy in front of her was doing. He pulled out a long knife, the kind used in hunting, and held it up for her to see.

“Now, I’m going to have to cut ya,” he said.

She tried to scream, but another of the youths held her jaw and twisted her head around so that the side of her face was now towards the leader. He put the cold metal blade up against her face, right next to her eye. She was sweating in fear, and a tear escaped her eye. The youths all around her laughed, and the leader slowly scraped the blade down her cheek, tracing a line of red down to her jaw. She tried her best to not cry out in pain, lest the knife do worse than a mere cut.

“Hey, Jed,” one of the youths off to the side said in surprise. “You have to see the money in this ladies purse.”

This caused the leader to back off and go see. She was left alone with the young man holding her arms.

“By the name of God, this is nearly a whole gold,” the boy said. “We’ve struck it rich, gang! We’ve got enough here to buy ourselves a whole house.”

“Too bad you’re not keeping it,” said a voice from down the alley. A flash of red came sailing into view and smacked the youth holding Bhoid’s purse in the face, which was then covered in a runny red paste of some sort. Another red blob hit the leader, and Bhodi saw that they were tomatoes. Rotten tomatoes from the smell.

“It’s that little snot from yesterday,” the leader said, wiping tomatoes from his face. “Go get him!”

“What about the cow, Jed?” the one holding Bhodi asked.

“Leave her,” Jed was saying, already running down the alley towards the boy throwing the tomatoes. All the others ran after him, taking her purse with them and leaving Bhodi alone in the alley. She collapsed to the ground and began to cry. She couldn’t hold it back, and just lay there on the cold cobblestone, crying. She wasn’t sure how long she had been there when she finally got up, but she saw that the sun had gone down, and now it was well and truly dark. Shaking, she got up, grabbed her backpack and her walking stick and slowly made her way out of the alley.

“Hey, you’re still here,” came a voice from the street, and Bhodi clutched her walking stick, ready to attack again.

“Woah, there, lady,” the voice said, and Bhodi saw it was attached to a young boy, maybe eleven years of age. He wore ragged clothing so dirty that it was difficult to determine what color they really were. But it was obvious that he was not part of the gang that had attacked her earlier. He carried a satchel over his shoulder, and was reaching into it while he moved slowly towards he.

“I got something in here I think you might like,” he said.

Bhodi watched as he carefully pulled out a small leather purse and then offered it to her. It took her a few seconds to realize that it was her purse. She reached out and took it, and felt that it was still heavy with coin.

“I don’t know if they managed to get any money out of it before I snatched it from them,” the boy said, “but I didn’t take anything out of it when I got it.”

She opened the purse and looked in, and saw that most, if not all, of the money that had been in there when she entered the city was still there. She looked back up at the boy, shock on her face.

“Thank you,” she said after a second.

“You’re welcome,” he smiled at her. “Not everyone in the city is a bad person. Plus, I have a personal vendetta against Jed. There’s really no need to thank me.”

She found herself smiling back at him. Then she realized that he looked like the other boys in that he must live on the street. She reached into the purse and pulled out a silver coin.

“Oh, no,” he said, waiving his hands at her. “I didn’t do this for a reward.”

She continued to hold the coin at him. “Consider this a retainer,” she said. “I need a guide in the city. I’d like to hire you.”

He looked at her suspiciously.

“For instance,” she said, looking around at the dark buildings. “I need an inn for the night. Then, I’m going to need some help in the morning. Let me hire you.”

He walked up to her and looked her straight in the eyes. After a moment, he nodded and the smile returned to his face. He took the coin, stuffed in into a pocket in his satchel and then extended his hand to her.

“My name’s Tadd,” he said.

She accepted his offered hand and shook it.

“My name is Bhodi,” she said. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Tadd.”

“Now, to an inn,” he said. “There’s a great one that is friendly to visitors to the city just around the corner. I know the owner; he’ll give you a good deal. Come on.”

And so he lead her to a fine three story building that was still open and introduced her to the innkeeper, who was cleaning up the last of the dinner plates and glasses. He told the innkeeper the story of her mugging and the man took pity on Bhodi and gave her a fine room for a single cooper. The next morning, she went down to the commons room to find Tadd and the innkeeper waiting for her with a bowl of hot breakfast.

After eating, she told them the story of her quest, that she needed a blue rose to cure her son from the Red Fever. They were both shocked. Red Fever hadn’t been seen even in the city in generations. They understood her need, but getting up the Dragon’s Teeth was difficult. There were, of course, mountain men that lived up there and came down occasionally to sell furs or meat and purchase needed supplies before returning back to the mountains. Bhodi brightened. Perhaps she could hire one of these men.

“It’s unlikely,” the innkeeper said. “They generally don’t like people. Thus, they live in the mountains. It’s not likely that they will hire themselves out, and especially not to a farmer looking for a flower.”

Bhodi’s face fell at the news. “Is there no one that can aid me?” she asked.

“What about Mikhail?” Tadd asked. “I heard he was back in town the other day.”

“Who?” Bhodi asked.

“You do not want Mikhail,” the innkeeper said. “He is a drunk. He goes into the mountains for months at a time and when he does come back, it is only to trade his furs for money that he immediately spends on alcohol. He drinks himself into oblivion for a few days, then when his money runs out, he goes back to the mountains.”

“Months at a time?” Bhodi said. “Is that normal?”

“No,” the innkeeper said slowly. “Normal for mountain men is a few weeks. It is difficult to survive up there in the snow and rocks.”

“But this Mikhail does it for several months?” Bhodi asked. “Then he is very good.”

“Good?” the innkeeper snorted. “He is perhaps the best mountain man there is. His furs are always the best, his tracking skills are second to none, and as you pointed out, he can survive in the mountains for extreme amounts of time. But he is untrustworthy. You should seek out someone else.”

“Is there anyone else?” she asked.

The innkeeper and Tadd looked at each other and then back to her, but neither said anything. She nodded.

“Tadd,” she said. “Take me to Mikhail.”

About an hour later she found herself in another inn, spooning food into the mouth of a large, dirty, smelly man that Tadd assured her was Mikhail. He was sobering up pretty quickly given the fact that he was passed out cold when she first found him. A quick dousing with ice water and some food has fixed it. Finally, he shoved the spoon away from his mouth, coughing.

“Who are you, woman?” he asked, his words only a little slurred. “And what exactly are you doing to me?”

“I am Bhodi of Hillside,” she said, “and I am attempting to sober you up so I can hire you to take me to the peaks of the Dragon’s Teeth Mountains.”

“You want to… hire me?” he said through the rough fur that covered his face. Then he began to laugh, a loud and rough laugh that made Bhodi think it was an action he didn’t perform often.

“Yes,” she said after he was done. “I hear you are the best mountain man out there, and I wish to go to the top of the mountain.”

“I don’t do tours,” he said.

“I’m not looking for a tour,” she replied. “I’m looking for a blue rose.”

He stopped and stared hard at her, and she simply stared back at him. She was unflinching.

“Why?” he asked simply. Talking was obviously not Mikhail’s strong suit.

“My son is dying of Red Fever,” she said quietly. “The blue rose is the only cure.”

He looked hard at her again, and again she refused to look away, though this time a tear wet her cheek.

“Okay,” he said at last. “I’ll take you.”

“Thank you,” she started to reply.

“There are rules,” he interrupted. “First, you do everything I say, when I say it. No hesitation. No questioning. Second, you carry your own weight. I carry supplies for myself only. Third, no complaining about the food. I hunt, you eat. Those are my rules.”

Bhodi had to bite back from laughing. “Those are acceptable.”

“Good,” he said. “We will go in the morning. I need to sleep off this hangover.”

Abruptly, he good up and walked to the innkeeper. “I want one room. She is paying.”

The innkeeper handed him a key, and he walked abruptly upstairs, not even sparing a glance at Bhodi. Without a word, Bhodi walked up to the innkeeper and paid for Mikhail’s room, and then one for herself. She spent the rest of that day shopping for mountaineering supplies with Tadd’s help. She thanked Tadd profusely, paid him another silver, telling him that he could go home now. He refused, stating that he would help her right out to the city gates, and he would wait for her to return. She smiled. He reminded her so much of her oldest son.

When she awoke the next morning, it was to a loud banging on the door to her room. She dressed quickly and went to open the door, only to find Mikhail there.

“We go now,” he said, then looked her up and down. “Finishing dressing. I will wait down stairs. But hurry. We are burning daylight.”

With that, he left downstairs. Bhodi quickly dressed in her new mountaineering gear and rushed down stairs. True to his word, Tadd was there, smiling. Mikhail was glaring at him, but stopped when she came down. He walked up to her and made her turn around while he inspected her gear. He grunted, but she was unsure if that was in approval or not.

“It is good gear,” he said. “Your boy Tadd knows where to buy good equipment.”

She smiled at Tadd. Mikhail nodded once, then started to leave. He didn’t look to see if she was following, but she quickly rushed after him. At first, following Mikhail was a bit like when she first left Hillside. A quick, easy walk, but quiet and somewhat lonely. Still, she felt better knowing that this time, at least, she had someone to follow. Once they reached the mountains, however, it all changed. Sometimes, they were hiking, other’s they were climbing the rocks. He was patient, if somewhat gruff, seeming to understand that she didn’t know what she was doing.

That first night, once the camp was set up and they were eating, she decided to start talking to him. She had been thinking about some things and wanted his response.

“I was always told that there were monsters in the mountains,” she said, finding her voice to be loud in the quiet of the night. “Is that true?”

He grunted. “Trolls,” he said, nodding his head. “There used to be hundreds of ‘em living here in the mountains. But, they were mostly hunted away. They tented to attack and eat the woodsmen and mountain men like me that tried to make a honest living here. Now, they’re all gone, pushed over the peaks to the other side.”

It was the most he had said all at once to her since they had met. She smiled. So, he could talk. He just didn’t. Probably wasn’t used to it.

“So, no dangers going up the mountain?” she asked.

“Oh, plenty of danger,” he said. “The mountains are temperamental. They like to test you, to see if you’re serious. Rock slides, snowstorms, ice… there’s lots of danger. Just not from monsters. Or trolls.”

With that, he stretched out and went soundly to sleep. She marveled at his ability to simply shut off like that, and then tried to sleep herself. She thought of Willham back home. She still had three weeks to make it back, and if this pace kept up, she’d be there with a week to spare.

The next few days were relatively quiet between the two of them. As per his rules, Bhodi did whatever Mikhail said, when he said it, with no hesitation or question. At least twice, doing so saved her life. At night, they would talk, and he warmed up to her some as time went on. She learned that he used to be a merchant, with a wife, but she died of an illness as well. It’s why he lives in the mountains, and why he agreed to take her up. No one should see a loved one of illness die when a cure exists.

When they reached the plateau right under the peak, he pointed out the tips of the bushes that grew up there. She could just make out the blue roses blooming in the cold.

“Do they need the cold to survive?” she asked.

“No,” he said. “Blue roses are hardy, they grow almost anywhere. Just happens to be here is all that’s left.”

To her surprise, Mikhail told her to set up camp. It was still daylight, and she was anxious to get a rose. Still, not wanting to question his expertise at this late stage, she did as he commanded. After getting the tent set up, she turned around, expecting him to be setting up the fire, and saw that he wasn’t there. She panicked, and started looking around the camp. Then she saw his climbing gear had been hooked up. He had gone onto the peak without her. She was angry at first, and briefly contemplated following him, when she realized that this wall was far too steep for her inexperience. She would never make it. It was all up to this hairy stranger now. She returned to camp and started setting up the fire.

She had started cooking the snow rabbits he had caught the night before when he returned to camp. He smiled when he did, smelling the rabbits.

“Mmm,” he said. “Smells good. How long?”

It took everything she had not to smack him with a hot fork right now.

“Did you get it?” she asked instead.

“What?” he asked. Then he looked at her as if seeing her for the first time. “Of course I did,” he said, and pulled something out of his jacket. It was a small bouquet of roses, all a dark, deep blue. She jumped up and kissed him square on his cheek. It was covered in snow and dirt, but she didn’t care.

“Oh, thank you!” she said, taking the roses. “Thank you!”

“It was easier for me than you,” he said, whipping his cheek as if he could clean away the kiss. “Faster. I figured that was what you wanted.”

She was so happy. They ate in silence, but she didn’t care. She had the rose. The cure. All was right in the world. She slept soundly that night, and woke up to find herself colder than when she went to bed. Mikhail was already outside, picking the last of the rabbit straight from the pitch.

“Storm,” he said. “You slept through it. It was a big one, too.”

She crawled out and looked around. Everything, everywhere she looked, was white. It was a bit, white, show covered blanket, covering the whole mountain. What she didn’t see was a way out. Their tent was half buried as it was.

“What do we do?” she asked.

“Noting to do,” he said. “Take to long to dig ourselves out, maybe a week. Better to just wait for it to melt.”

“No!” she cried. “My son is sick and dying. I don’t have time to sit around and wait for snow to melt.”

And with that, she started to dig. At first, with her bare hands, then she pulled out her pack and started to dig with her plates. He let her go at it for several hours, probably figuring that she was just upset and would quit. When she didn’t, even after he offered her food, he grunted. Finally, he picked her up and pulled her away from the snow.

“Nooooo!” she cried, but he dragged her back to camp. When she started to get up again, he pointed back at the spot he put her down on, in front of the fire, and yanked her plate out of her hand. Then, he did something that surprised her. He went with her plate to where she was digging and started to dig himself, taking over from where she left off.

It took them then next five days to dig through the snow and finally back down the mountain, but they did it before the snow melted, something Mikhail thought was not possible when they started. When they parted ways, Mikhail refused his payment, stating that knowing her son would be safe was reward enough for him.

When she returned to Danka, so wasted no time, and got Tadd, who was waiting for her, to help her get a ride on a caravan heading back her way. He came with her, much to his surprise, and with the aid of the caravan, they returned home. She came up to her house and hesitated before going in, fearful that Willham would be dead already. Tadd nudged her on, and she entered.

“Momma?” Sahnda cried, running down the hall. She threw herself into her mothers arms. “Momma, thank the name of God that you are home safe!”

“Willham?” Bhodi asked.

Sahnda nodded. “He has gotten somewhat worse, but he still lives. Did you get the medicine?”

“Yes,” she said. “Yes I did.”

She reached into her pouch and pulled out a single blue rose and handed it to her daughter. Everything was right with the world, Bhodi thought. Everything would be okay now.

The End

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