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The child was burning up with fever and as the night grew older her condition worsened. Mauren once more wiped a wet cloth across her daughter’s brow. It made no difference. The prayers hadn’t worked either. The head priest, Brother Eamonn himself, had come by earlier and given her the sacred ointments and holy sand. He’d stayed and prayed with them for hours. Mauren had been full of hope and faith; she’d seen such prayers work before. But the hours she and her husband had spent on their knees meant nothing.
Eventually Brother Eamonn had stood. She had always been a little overawed by him. Rumour said he was especially beloved of both the God and the earthly rulers. Now Brother Eamonn smiled at her, sympathetically, and it was more frightening than any of his stern sermons. She knew it meant that the Blessed One wanted her baby, her little girl. She tried to prepare herself for that, to accept it with the grace, the thankfulness, such an honour deserved. But after the priest left she stayed on her knees by Senda’s bedside while her husband continued to pray at the little altar upstairs.
But God wasn’t listening and her little Senda was still caught in this deadly fever.
The house shook with the wind and in the distance there was the wild roar of the sea. A log shifted in the grate, sending up star-blue sparks. It needed tending, but Mauren couldn’t pull herself away from the bedside, couldn’t stop herself from counting each and every rasping breath of her daughter. It was nearly midnight and Mauren caught herself in a superstitious shudder. The hour of changing. Sen was growing ever quieter now. Earlier she’d twisted and fought, shouting nonsense in confusion and fear. Mauren found the stillness worse.
She watched her daughter, dry-eyed. This was a pain beyond tears. If only the Temple had not banned the healers from their craft. It was a blasphemous thought and once she would have felt guilty for it, but once too she could have taken Sen to the hospital and gotten medicine and aid with which to fight this sickness. The healers were wrong, of course they were, to practice arts that sullied the body and taunted the wisdom of the Blessed One. But only a few years ago she would not have had to rely on prayers alone, prayers that no one answered. Except her sister had said there was another way, in whispers, away from the knowing eyes of the priest. She had even offered… but Mauren had refused and it was too late now.
Except suddenly there was a soft tap against the window. She glanced up but saw only her own candlelit reflection in the glass. There was another tap. She stood and hurried to the window, throwing it open. The curtains and the edge of the rug stirred in the sudden breeze. In the flowerbed beneath the window stood two men, one plump and white-skinned, the other slim and black-skinned. Both wore kindly expressions and gentlemanly cravats.
“Good evening,” the plump one said with a bow. “We were told you might be in need of some assistance.”
“I – ” Mauren almost agreed but cut herself off just in time. This could be a trap. There were harsh penalties for those who engaged the services of a healer. “Who are you?” She demanded instead. “What are you doing loitering here? It’s after curfew, you know.”
The two men glanced at each.
The slim one cleared his throat. “My dear lady,” he said. “We mean no harm. We heard from someone close to you that you needed help.”
“We prefer not to give our names,” the fat one interjected. “But your daughter is ill, is she not?”
Mauren nodded, heart in her throat.
“Then we can help,” he said softly. “If you’ll let us.”