Roads and Little Villages

by raenarcam

He leaned forward, tall and narrow shouldered he hardly fit in the hovel, let alone cramped in between a writhing man and a sweating apprentice who struggled with a curved needle. “Careful now, Aelfric. You are moving too quickly.” The man laid out on the rough-hewn wooden table let out a groan, attempting to move away as the needle went in again, pulling together ragged flesh over a deep wound. White glinted beneath red, truly the axe had done the business it intended, if it intended anything at all.

“Yes Doctor, sorry doctor. He is just moving-”

“And what do we do if a patient is moving, Aelfric?”

“Well we have to hold him… down…” He seemed to struggle to speak and maintain the stitches on the desperate, pained man.

“You do not, you are stitching. Remember the first rule of medicine, Aelfric. You must be commanding.”

“Right. But-” On the table the woodsmen once more tried to pull his arm away, he was blind drunk on whatever clear spirit they distilled in the village, strong smelling stuff that the man had gulped down quickly before being ill and passing out. Stitches were no good thing to take conscious, but now in his stupor he seemed to believe the pain could be ended by removing his arm.

“But nothing. Go on.” He spoke almost encouragingly, though it was muffled behind his great, glinting beaked mask.

“Would someone hold him down!” Aelfric’s voice cracked a little, but overall an admirable attempt. Athalbert waved a hand to beckon the man’s son who laid over his legs to stop him spasming, while Athalbert himself held down the injured arm in a vice-grip, resting the rest of his weight on the man’s chest.

“Suitable. Now mind your stitches.”

“Yes Doctor. Sorry Doctor.”

—–

Outside of the woodsman’s hovel Athalbert poured the same local, clear spirit that had rendered the man unconcious from a jug into two wooden cups, holding one out to the apprentice now gulping down the clean air of the woods. With his hood and cloth mask off he was an unremarkable young man of 17, his face marred by a few pock scars but otherwise clear, with the plain brown eyes and hair of a Dalelander. Save for the stillness of his hands and the remarkable quality of his singing voice, Aelfric was largely unremarkable, but fortunately one of those qualities suited him to a remarkable occupation. Or so Athalbert often told him. It was good to be reminded of the essential nature of their profession, for the money in these peaceful times rarely made up for the tasks one was forced to take on.

He looked up when Athalbert spoke, in a faint rasp after a sip of the liquor, “Ghastly business.”

“The attack, sir? I agree, who would attack another man with an axe so-”

“I meant the liquor, Aelfric. Drink up. We might have to find some medicinal use for this shit, I’m sure it must serve some useful purpose.” While the physician examined the liquid in his cup Aelfric casually pretended to take a sip and then dumped it into the garden. The smell was enough to make him want to retch.

“What purpose would that be, Doctor?” He asked, thoughtfully, watching the physician tilt back the glass with a faint grimace.

“Gods only know, Aelfric. Still, between this and the coppers we should be ready to move onto the next village. A fond farewell to Brawaite and all that.” He seemed to survey the village, with its muddy roads and piles of lumber ready to be shipped away. His mask lay between them, beside the jug, and without it in the light of the moon the physician was almost unrecognizable.

“Doctor?”

“Aye?”

“Why… Why’d that fellow attack the woodsman? Do you really think he’d gone mad?”

“Well…” Athalbert poured himself another cup of the burning spirit, pouring some into Aelfric’s cup as well, which he stealthily tossed as soon as the physician’s attention was turned to the vague extensiveness of the cosmos. “We will never know for certain, one cannot ask the dead if they are mad or not, and he’s been in the ground now the better part of the day. Would it make you feel better to know that a man who attacked another with an ax could not possibly be in his right mind?”

Aelfric sought for the right answer to this obviously very esoteric question, but the physician got in ahead of him.

“Wars are thought of by sane men all of the time, murders are a very low level sort of war. As soon as you take the agency away from someone you’re leaving it up to fate, you’re making them less responsible for it.” He paused to drain his drink, how he managed it without more than a grimace baffled Aelfric.

“Is that why you don’t believe in fate, sir?”

“Don’t be dense, Aelfric. I don’t believe in fate because it’s not real. It’s a story elves tell to make themselves look less like a bunch of rotten bastards.” Aelfric noticed it, whether the doctor did or not, but when he said this he glanced warily into the woods, as though somewhere the trees could hear his cursing and might send some foul attack against them. He stood up, and Aelfric followed, trying to match the taller man’s long strides as they abandoned the hovel and headed down the road. “We’ll have one more night in the inn and then an early morning I think. I don’t like the air this close to the woods. Smells foul.”

“Yes sir.”

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