The carriage rolled to a stop, and the door opened. Larah stepped onto a narrow street in front of a tall, iron-wrought gate set into a stone wall. The wall ran from one towering edifice to another that faced the street. Beyond the wall, she could make out the rooftop of a house covered with red tiles. The Captain stepped in front of her. “Follow me and do what I say.” The Footman opened the gate with a loud screech and motioned them through.
A crushed shell walkway traced a path through a neatly trimmed garden with hedges and flower beds. The shrubbery traced a fantastical pattern around two fountains on either side of the walkway, ending near a columned three-story façade of white and pink marble. A raised set of steps ran up to a wide arched split doorway with handsome mahogany doors. Larah could barely move as she took in the beauty of it all.
“Come along,” the Captain said, pulling on her arms. Soon they reached the steps. Before they reached the doors, they swung outwards at them. A servant, tall with gray hair, stood in the doorway.
“Welcome home, Master Budro. The Mistress has been notified of your arrival. She is on the veranda and is expecting you.”
Captain Budro motioned towards the trunks being carried up the walkway. “Good to see you, Stavro. See to my trunks, will you?” He turned to Larah. “This is Larah. She is my wife’s new attendant.”
Stavro’s eyes flicked to her, but before she could react, he looked away. “Very well. I will move your trunks into your room.”
Budro motioned for Larah to follow him, then moved inside. Just inside the door, two sets of staircases wound away from the entrance and up to the next floor. The Captain moved between them to enter a hallway that ran toward the rear of the home. Open windows within the home let shafts of light inside, gleaming off the coat of arms on the wall, a shield bearing a palm tree and a pineapple. They soon entered a large dining room with a long table. Beyond which were open doors, revealing a large white stone veranda. Pausing at the door, the Captain took a deep breath and turned to her. “Follow, but at a distance, say nothing until I introduce you.” She nodded and, after he stepped outside, proceeded to follow.
The wide veranda ran the width of the house and extended some thirty feet into a yard encompassed by tall stone walls covered in ivy. Trimmed hedges ran along pathways from each end of the veranda to a small grotto beyond which stood a rippling pond of fish. To her left was a small table, which had a chaise lounge. The Captain slowly approached a figure sitting in the chair.
From her location, Larah could see it was a woman dressed all in white and wearing a wide-brimmed hat. As she approached, the Captain was taking the woman’s hand and kissing fingers at the end of pale long thin arms. They were talking, but she couldn’t hear what was being said. By the time she stood within arms reach, the Captain’s words could be discerned.
“I have brought you an attendant,” he said, his voice low and soothing.
The woman appeared to say something, but Larah could not hear the words. The Captain leaned in close and whispered in the woman’s ear. She turned to look in Larah’s direction.
A pair of light green eyes swept over her from within a very pale countenance. Reddish hair ran in waves across thin shoulders. Though her form looked youthful, the woman’s face was lined with dark circles under her eyes.
“Mareaum, my darling, meet Larah,” the Captain said, looking in Larah’s direction.
Larah nodded toward her. “A pleasure to meet you, my lady.”
“My goodness, she’s hardly more than a child,” Mareaum said in a shallow voice. “Are you sure she’s a healer?”
“Of that, I am certain.”
“Come closer,” Mareaum said, extending a hand and waving Larah closer. The young woman stepped closer and knelt next to her. A cool hand cupped Larah’s chin. Mareaum squinted, “How old are you?”
“I am nineteen,” Larah answered.
Mareaum smiled, though it looked tired and worn. “How old do you think I am?”
Larah looked at the Captain, but he was expressionless. “Older than I am.”
Mareaum chuckled lightly. “Good answer and you’re correct. I am only three years older than you are.”
Trying to suppress her surprise, Larah was glad she hadn’t offered her first answer of thirty-five.
“I wasn’t always like this. Just a few short years ago, I could stop men in their tracks.” His eyes shifted to the Captain, “Like Benj here.”
Budro smiled at her, but it was wistful and tinged with sorrow. “You still do, my dear.”
“You’re a terrible liar,” Mareaum stated with a hint of bitterness. She turned back to Larah as her eyes glistened. “I envy your beauty. Enjoy it, for you can never have it back once it is gone.” A tear traced a path across her cheek. “When I get to the underworld, I wonder if I’ll get my beauty back.”
Larah leaned forward and placed her hand on Mareaum’s. “None of that talk. Let us focus on getting you better.”
Mareaum sighed and let her thumb stroke the girl’s cheek. “I suppose you’re right.” She turned to Budro. “Leave us so that we can get acquainted.”
“Yes, my love,” he rejoined before walking away.
Once the Captain left, Mareaum spoke up. “Help me to my feet. I feel the need to rest in my quarters.” She turned and pointed to an elegant-looking cane propped up next to the table. “Hand me my cane.”
Larah did as she was asked. “Yes, ma’am”
Mareaum braced herself and, with a grunt, stood but wobbled unsteadily until Larah offered her an arm to balance herself. Slowly they moved back to the house, only to be greeted by a flight of stairs. Though not steep, the number of steps looked daunting. Mareaum seemed to anticipate her concern, “I know what you’re thinking; how do we get up these stairs? Unfortunately, I do not have the strength and balance to climb the stairs on my own, so I have to have one of the footmen or a servant carry me up.” She started to reach for a bell pull by the staircase.
Larah stopped her. “No need for that.” She knelt in front of her. “Climb on my back.”
“Are you sure?”
Larah nodded, then braced herself. Mareum draped herself over Larah’s shoulders and wrapped her legs around her waist. Slowly the young woman stood, braced Mareum’s legs, and trudged up the steps, one at a time. Heart beating in her eyes and huffing and puffing, she crept upwards until they stood at the top some long minutes later.
Panting and sweat cascading down her temples, Larah knelt, and Mareaum slid off. “That was quite an adventure,” the young woman said.
Mareaum smiled at her. “I appreciate your effort, but it might be better for us to get the men in this house to take care of this.”
“I agree,” Larah offered as Mareaum started giggling. Minutes later, they reached Mareaum’s quarters. An ornate four-poster canopied bed stood in the center of the room, and a multi-drawered chest stood nearby, as did a full-length mirror. By the large window were a tea table and two chairs.
“I must lie down to rest,” Mareaum said. Larah helped her get changed and took the time to examine her. She was thin, painfully so, ribs showing through her sallow complexion, but no injuries, rashes, or other trauma. Yet, she moved slowly, as if she was much older. Soon, however, she was in her bedclothes and propped up.
“Is there anything else I can do for you?” Larah asked.
“Not right now.” She paused before continuing. “You appear to be a natural at this. Have you helped others before like this?”
“Just Melinda, when she injured herself some years ago.”
“Yes, and my mentor. She raised me.”
“Oh, so you don’t have a family?”
“No,” Larah answered quickly but then paused and continued. “Well, sort of.”
“I have close friends that are my family, and I’ve only recently discovered that my father is alive.”
“Oh, this is intriguing. What’s he like?”
Larah fought with an appropriate descriptor, but ‘scary’ and ‘ruthless’ did not seem reasonable to share. Hence, she decided too just be completely honest. “He’s a complete mystery to me.”
Mareaum sighed. “That’s how men like to be. It allows them to be completely unaccountable for what they do and gives them the freedom to do anything they want.”
“Like capturing slaves,” Larah said without thinking.
The silence stretched between them before Mareaum spoke. “I’m well aware of what Benj does and why. You would do well to remember that your presence in this household keeps you from being sold in the slave market.”
Larah’s face grew hot again. She’d clearly overstepped her bounds. “I’m sorry.”
Mareaum placed her hands in her lap. “Don’t be. I would prefer if our way of life did not depend on it, but it’s the only one we’ve got.”
She needed to change the subject. “Can I ask you some questions about your health?”
“Yes,” Mareaum answered, sitting back in her bed.
“When did you start feeling ill?”
“About a year ago, I started feeling weak, and within a few weeks, I could hardly walk.”
“Any fevers or bleeding?” Mareaum shook her head no. Larah shifted closer to the woman. “May I look at your eyes and in your mouth?”
Larah reached toward her face and checked both her mouth and eyes. Her mouth looked normal, though dry, and her eyes had a slight yellowish tint. Perhaps her liver? “Do you drink spirits or wine?”
“No, I can’t tolerate it. Tea is my drink of choice.”
“Have you been under a healer’s care before?”
“Yes, about three months ago.”
“Is she still around? Can I meet her?”
Mareaum looked away from her before answering. “No, she left.”
“Oh, that’s unfortunate. Do we know what this person did?”
“She tried several things, but none worked. However, she kept notes. I had them moved into your quarters. It is through that doorway,” Mareaum said, pointing to a small passage in the wall.
“Good, I’ll review those. They might give me an idea of what the problem is. When…” She stopped. Mareaum had fallen asleep. Larah looked around. The door to the hallway was closed, and she was all alone with Mareaum. Getting up, she walked over to the door and pulled on it. It swung toward her, and she poked her head through.
A footman stood next to the doorframe. He gave Larah a pinched look. “Do you need something?”
She put a finger to her lips. “The Lady is sleeping. When she awakes, I want fresh water brought to her.” He nodded, and she retreated back into Mareaum’s quarters. So, she was being watched by the other servants, which would make moving about problematic. Walking past the sleeping Mistress, she headed toward her quarters. Down the short passage was a small room, just big enough for a bed, a small dresser, and a desk. There were no other doors or windows, so the only way out was through Mareaum’s bedroom. A tied-up bundle of papers, and ledgers, covered in spidery script, lay on the desk. She pulled out, sat in the chair by it, and untied the bundle. The bound material looked to be journals chronicling the day-to-day activities of the healer, with some notes regarding Mareaum’s condition. The papers looked more useful, covering herbs, potions, elixirs, and other attempts to treat the woman.
Overall, she had quite a bit of helpful information, but how best to organize it? The simplest thing would be to arrange everything chronologically and trace the healers’ attempts. Some of the papers, however, did not have any dates on them, so it was difficult to know when they came into play. Perhaps the journals would provide the necessary hints. She picked up the oldest journal and began leafing through it. The handwriting, though compact, was neat and complete. The first few entries mentioned homesickness and fear as well as some initial likes and dislikes of the household. Fairly mundane. Flipping a little over halfway through the journal, judging by the dates recorded, some weeks had passed. The script, though very similar, was not as compact. Several entries had some missing punctuation, and a few sentences flowed together.
She closed the journal, spread the others out, then grabbed the most recent one, which started six months ago. The script sprawled wildly on the page, filled with misspellings, meandering and nonsense words. Entries skipped days. Further on, the parchment had brown rings as if a cup had been set on them. About halfway through the journal, the entries stopped. She flipped back to the last entry. Scrawled in large, scraggily letters was “CAM,” then the ink trailed off the page as if the writer had been interrupted mid-stroke. Larah stared at the page. What happened to the healer? Did she get sick too? Was what Mareaum had contagious? She closed the journals and pushed them away. Did the poor woman die in this very room? Was that going to be her fate? Tears filled her eyes. Once again, death continued its relentless stalking. Was nowhere safe? If it did not claim her, would death instead take Mareaum, leaving Larah to be sold on the slave market? Face in hands, sobs clawed their way out.