Chapter 14: The Mute and the Cellmate

If one knows and dresses his own small needs, and takes particular care of himself, then he will understand how to benefit others, and will find friends aplenty, even among strangers. But if one is not a friend first to himself, then he will have no friends, even among his own people.

The Book of Odim Kalodim, chapter 6, verse 7


The door to the cell popped open and let in a blinding light from the outside world. Three figures stood in the doorway; the guards, Cairn and Brough, and a prisoner between them. The prisoner could not keep his feet, and so the large guards carried him into the room.

Cairn and Brough placed the man on the room's only cot. Cairn simply let the man go as Brough lowered him with a gentle hand. The new prisoner was visibly sick. He moaned and groaned as the guards set him down. He turned on his left side, his face to the wall. A sickly sweet smell emanated from the stranger. From his seat on the floor, Krumpus frowned at the guards.

Brough shook his head. "Non, old man. This one was sick when we found him."

Old man? Krumpus thought and frowned at the guard.

"This one gon' keep you up all night," Cairn smirked as he looked about the room.

"Come get yer stuff when yer ready," Brough said over his shoulder. The two guards made their way out. The door did not close.

Another man stood in the doorway. Krumpus wondered when he had entered. Unlike the guards, Krumpus did not know this man. He was smaller than the guards with a nervous air about him. "I am told you speak Ministrian," the stranger began. "Or at least that you understand it when others speak..."

Krumpus gave a nod.

"Good. I am Celt, ancestrian and surgeon of the Empress' Own. This man suffers the sweet rot. We cannot heal him. Can you?"

Krumpus turned back to the wounded man on his cot. Suddenly, he recognized the smell. It was the rot root of the bugbear! He turned back to Celt with wide eyes.

Celt frowned at the Trohl. "I dare say, you are not inspiring much faith."

Krumpus signed at the man, but Celt shook his head.

"I do not know Tallian Hand," the ancestrian stated. "You will have to write in the dirt."

I will try. Krumpus wrote.

"Try?" Celt frowned. "I ask only for a bit of certainty..."

Krumpus shrugged as he wrote. Only fools are certain.

Celt glared at the witchdoctor. "Do you call me a fool, for I am certain I cannot do it! Nor my men!"

Krumpus decided not to comment on Celt's foolishness. Instead, he addressed the matter at hand. I have cured the rot. If I am lucky I might again.

"Then it is decided!" Celt smiled. "You will treat him, and we will observe! In this way, the surgical corps of the Empress' Own will learn to fight this insidious infection! Thus, we shall overcome the waokies' greatest weapon against us!"

Krumpus frowned at the man and shook his head. He was not interested in giving away secrets, especially for nothing in trade.

"What do you mean, no?! This man is dying!" Celt snapped.

Krumpus scribbled on the floor. You watch. I go free.

"You go free...? Do you think I have the authority to make such bargains?" Celt huffed. "By refusing, you fail your human brothers!"

They fail me by locking me in this box.

"If you do not behave, we may put you in a much tighter box," Celt threatened.

Krumpus shrugged. He was uninterested in idle threats.

"You'll let this man die!?" Celt raged.

Go away. I will heal him. Krumpus wrote in the dirt.

"We will watch," the surgeon insisted. "You will teach us, for the good of mankind." Celt stood as tall as he could, proud and intimidating.

Krumpus scribbled in the dirt. I am man's kind, and you refuse to do me good. Stay, and he dies.

"If you allow us to watch, it will help in your case for freedom! Indeed, I will personally argue for it!" Celt pleaded. "Think on it! You might yet be free!"

Krumpus shook his head. He figured such arguments would amount to nothing, especially if they already had his secrets.

"You must heal him!" Celt snapped at the shaman. "And we must attend!"

Krumpus shrugged and turned away.

"There will be consequences!" Celt snapped. "I cannot say what will happen if you do not do as you are told!"

Krumpus ignored the man. No longer interested in arguing, he drew lazy circles in the dirt. For several seconds, Celt glared at the shaman. Krumpus was sure a blow was coming.

Finally, the ancestrian huffed. "If this man dies, I cannot guarantee you will live!" Celt turned and stamped from the cell. He slammed the door and the lock clicked. After a couple of seconds, the lock clicked again. Once more, the door was unlocked. Krumpus knew he was expected to gather his implements and attend the dying man. He wondered if his captors planned to interrupt, if they planned to spy on his work. He'd have to take measures to obfuscate his methods. Still, even if they should interrupt, Krumpus doubted they would understand.

Alone with his patient, Krumpus turned to the man on his cot – a Saot by all appearance. There was a long slit in his shirt. Krumpus lifted the shirt and exposed the Saot's wound. Praise Jeiju, his entire side was spiderwebbed with the rot! It was the worst case of the rot he'd ever seen! No wonder the surgeons turned him over! Cairn was right: this would indeed be a long night – unless the man should die. Then it would all be over in the space of one, long breath.

Krumpus pushed aside his doubts. If this man was meant to die, nothing could stop it. If Krumpus was meant to die at the hands of the MInistrians, nothing could stop that either. Worry certainly wouldn't do the trick. Krumpus pushed inconvenient thoughts from his mind: of being a prisoner, of death threats, of wyrms, of Melmorahn and the distress. A man suffered and died before his eyes, and though it served his enemies, Krumpus knew it was right to try and save him.

First, he would need his medicines. Krumpus turned to the door and pushed it open. Outside his room, Krumpus made his way down the hall and passed the other cells. He wondered who occupied the rooms as he heard the occasional cough or groan. His heart went out to these unknown retches, though he knew so little of them.

In the guard's room, Cairn stood from a table, hostile and obnoxious as he blocked the way. "What d'ya want?" He snapped as a troublesome smirk split his lips.

Krumpus made a scissoring motion with his hand.

"Non, you're going to have to use your words," Cairn insisted.

For several seconds, Krumpus waited for the guard to step out of his way. Cairn glared at him expectantly. The shaman tried to step around the guard, but Cairn cut him off.

"Speak," Cairn ordered.

Not wanting to waste any more time, Krumpus obliged. "Sublies," the word tripped from the shaman's mouth. "Wahder," he added and blushed, embarrassed by his rough tongue.

Cairn harrumphed as a grim smile stretched across his face, "I knew you could talk." He turned to Brough as he stepped out of the shaman's way, "Didn't I say he weren't no mute?"

Unimpressed, Brough nodded his head, "Sure did." He looked at Krumpus and pointed to a closet, "It's all in there. Now be about your business."

Krumpus turned to the closet and grabbed his pack and cloak.

"Only take what you need!" Cairn yelled.

"Olofit," Krumpus told him as he hugged the pack and cloak.

"Let 'im 'av it," Brough said and waved the healer away. He stared daggers at Cairn. "I swear, you keep blockin' 'is efforts and I'm calling off our bet!"

"Come," said a third guard. "Let us play this game. You'll know soon enough if the nobleman dies." Krumpus stared at the man, sure that he knew him. It took a moment until he realized it was the caravan captain that captured him. Leverkusen smirked at the shaman. "Don't you have work to do?"

Cairn snorted. Slowly, he sat down and picked up his cards. He eyed the shaman with suspicion as Krumpus filled the kettle and a pitcher of water. Although he continued to stare, Cairn did not interfere any further.

Krumpus returned to his cell. He'd come back for the hot water when it was ready. In his cell, Krumpus searched his cloak and bag. The majority of his stuff was still there, though they took his dinner knife – the longest of his blades – and a couple of his medicines. The grave mushrooms were gone, which was a bit worrisome. Krumpus used the mushrooms to escort the fatally wounded from the world, but they'd take a vital and healthy man all the same. Krumpus wondered who had them and what they intended. He assumed whoever took them knew what they were. They must. Or they were fools.

The secret pockets of his cloak were untouched. He had his black powder bombs and considered using them on the guards – but he only had three. He did not think they'd get him free of the prison and the camp. Not alone. Besides, he meant to cure the Saot first and foremost. Preserve life – then escape.

Most of his medicines were unmolested. Krumpus had everything he needed, including several incredibly rare and potent items, thank Jeiju. He wondered if the camp surgeons searched his bag, and if so, why did they take so little? He did not know Ministrian medicine frowned on plants and herbs, preferring minerals, toxins, and no end of cutting. Most patients that survived the treatment of Ministrian doctors seemed to do so in spite of the best efforts of their surgeons.

Having access to his supplies, Krumpus decided to clear his mind – or perhaps muddle it in a proper fashion. He needed to get the noise out of his head, and he needed to do it in a rush. Normally, he'd sit and breathe, but time was at a premium and there were quicker ways to reach a proper state. Krumpus packed his pipe with the dried flower of conicle. The plant was quite good at washing away the flotsam of a discontented mind and focusing one's efforts. Having no fire or flint, he channeled his inner energies and focused them to his fingers. A slight flame popped and danced between the tips of his thumb and forefinger. Krumpus lit his pipe and took a long drag. Smoke filled his lungs as he flicked the fire from his fingertips.

A deep calm and clarity settled over the shaman. He stared at his patient and wondered at this chance to stick metal in another living man. He was fascinated by the human body and marveled at its inner workings. It was one of the great thrills of surgery to poke about a living man's tissues. But he swore to remain delicate. There'd be no imprudent cutting – which was the great temptation of every surgeon.

Krumpus blew the smoke of the conicle in the injured man's face. It could do no harm, and might alleviate a bit of the man's pain. He took a few more drags of the flower, and blew smoke over the wound. It was not essential, but neither would it hurt. There were more potent medicines to administer. For now, Krumpus settled his own nerves.

Krumpus returned to the guard room and fetched the pot of boiling water. As he collected two cups, he noticed several bits and bots in a pool between the guards. They did not interrupt their game as they barely glanced at the shaman. Instead, they concentrated on each other. It looked to be a hotly contested hand. With any luck, the cards would be fickle this night and favor would ebb and flow between the men. Let it be a long and absorbing contest, Krumpus prayed. With hot water and cups, he returned to his cell.

Krumpus poured water into the first cup. He added dragon's tongue to the water as he kept the cup far from his face. Next, he made himself a cup of peppermint tea, which he also set aside. For several minutes he allowed both the teas to steep. While he waited, Krumpus scratched sigils in the dirt floor around one side of the bed. These sigils described the course of the treatment. He made a neat arch as he wrote which drugs and elixirs he hoped to administer, and reminders of the process. Did Celt plan to interrupt? If so, Krumpus could drag a hand through the instructions and obscure them. To further confound anyone that might interrupt, he wrote in Tallian styled the letters with a fancy hand. Let them try to read that!

Krumpus left the middle of the arc blank that he might sit next to the man and work. He double and triple checked his spells. He made small adjustments here and there until he was sure the plan was right. Finished, he admired the arch of his orders. Now, all he needed to do was execute.

With the spelling done, Krumpus said his prayers and asked that he might heal this man. He checked the dragon's tongue tea. The drink was not yet dark enough, and without the analgesic effects of the tea, Krumpus could not begin the cutting. But the peppermint tea was properly steeped. He added just a little blue honey; enough to open his eye – but not so much that he might be overly distracted by the ethereal plane. Unlike the conicle, blue was a thing he might easily overdo. He should not want to do it at all, but with such an advanced case of rot, he felt he needed the assistance of the little doctors. Though he'd met a few that could call on the little doctors without the help of blue, Krumpus was not so blessed.

Sipping his tea, Krumpus thought calm thoughts of peaceful times. He stretched and mentally prepared himself for long, meticulous, and smelly work. Finally, the dragon's tongue was ready. Krumpus added several herbs to the brew; items that would give strength to the body and help purify the blood. He added a heavy dose of blue honey to make the tea more palatable. If the blue should take the man's mind further from here and now, all the better. The dragon's tongue itself would numb the man – but there was no damage of overdoing blue for the patient. Who knew what fever dreams he might experience? If he should die, why not let him die far from the ravages of his sickness, and happy perhaps. If he should live, let him wonder at the strange dreams that saw him through his disease.

Gently, Krumpus lifted his patient's head. He offered the man cold water. Not surprisingly, the man was ravenous. Krumpus switched him to the bitter dragon's tongue tea and fed him both liquids until the tea was gone. Despite the bitterness of the dragon's tongue, the stranger took it without complaint. Indeed, the man was beyond delirious!

Krumpus sipped his own tea while he waited for the dragon's tongue to take effect. Before long, the patient's eyes grew far away and unfocused. There was an easy smile on the Saot's face, and his breath was slow and deep. Krumpus grinned. The patient was ready.

Krumpus pulled the shirt and pants away from the rot. The wound stretched to his chest and back and covered most of the right half of his body. It ran from his underarm down past his hip – a dark webbing of infected blood vessels. The rot stopped shy of the stranger's genitals, a blessing for sure.

Krumpus located the initial wound, a neat bulging point of dark rot near the center of the infection. He took up his surgical blade in one hand and a clean cloth in the other. He braced himself against the coming onslaught and gently lanced the boil. Thick black puss sprouted from the prick. The stench of the rot multiplied. Krumpus gagged. He recoiled from the smell, and wondered if there was a way to neutralize it. He noticed his teacup, took several of the spent leaves of mint, and smashed them against the insides of his nostrils. With the cool burn of peppermint in his nose, he turned back to his patient.

Krumpus cut the inflamed and jutting vessels. He drew the slight blade ever so lightly along the dark lines of rot. Thick black puss oozed from the cuts. The reek increased. Krumpus breathed through his mouth. He soaked the rot away with the cloth, and gently wiped the wounds. With a delicate touch, he continued to trace the various lines of infection as they rose and dipped back under the surface of the skin. He paused to wipe the rot that billowed from the man's skin.

The rot concentrated just under the skin. Krumpus was careful not to cut the man too deeply. It was a novice mistake to try and cut out all the rot, to think it must all be removed. The rot congealed near the surface where it could overcome the immune system and explode capillaries. Though it massed at the surface, there was little rot deep in the blood until after the victim expired, at which point the rot blossomed throughout the body. For this reason, many healers believed they must cut deep and get every bit of the rot. The corpses of the dead suggested such. But this was a faulty conclusion. This was not a battle for the knife alone. The blade was simply to remove the bulk that boiled close to the surface. The rest of the healing depended on the victim's constitution, and any helpful herbs and medicines that might be taken internally.

Tight knots of the rot formed where the veins moved deep into the body. Ever so lightly, Krumpus lanced these knots and soaked up the draining rot. As the hours passed, Krumpus amassed a small pile of bandages soaked with stink. He set them near the drain. Finally, Krumpus had traced the infected vessels and considered the cutting done. He drew his finger along the lines of his cutting and gently disgorged more rot. He started at their furthest extent, drawing his finger back toward the initial wound. He used a light touch and hoped he did not push the rot any deeper. The rot mushed from the vessels and dripped along the man's skin. The stench was bearable only because Krumpus could do nothing more about it.

Now it was time for a miracle. Krumpus crumbled bits of sugar petal into the drain. The sugar petal had a red color and was anything but sweet. The sugar petal was the first essential ingredient needed to summon the small doctors. The second was the blue he already took. The third ingredient was song, and the fourth was an honest need. Krumpus began to hum as he called out for help.

But the doctors were not forthcoming. Krumpus repeated the song several times. Still, the doctors did not come. Krumpus became increasingly worried as he sang. He began to question himself. Did he take enough blue? Did he offer too much sugar petal? Could the doctors hear him, buried so deep in this tower?

The door to the cell popped open. Celt the ancestrian stepped through the doorway. He glanced about the room and glared at Krumpus. The shaman sat in his small arch of writing and continued to hum, though he decreased his volume.

Celt waved an arm in front of his face. "This room stinks," he said as he marched into the room. "Are you praying?"

With his nose plugged, the surgeon stepped in to the cell that he might divine the process used to heal the sick man. He eyed the writing on the floor with suspicion. Krumpus thought to obscure his spell, but there was no recognition in the Ministrian's eyes. The writing only seemed to confuse the surgeon all the more. Celt glanced about the various implements but there was no chance he could decipher the treatment simply by seeing the shaman's medicines and tools scattered about. Indeed, the cell was a bit of a mess. Almost all of the shaman's medicines were set out, including the ones that were not being used. The soaked bandages sat in a lump near the floor drain and stank to high heavens.

"I won't interrupt," Celt said as he glared at Krumpus and continued to inspect the scene. He sniffed both cups, and Krumpus secretly hoped he got a good whiff of the dragon's tongue. "I come only to see that you have not killed the man."

Celt was careful not to walk on the writing. He put a couple fingers under the Saot's throat as he looked over the wound which still had a black tinge – but no longer bulged. "I should think he is not out of the woods," Celt surmised with a smirk. "Keep praying," he snorted. He turned and walked slowly from the room as he glanced once more over the shaman's puzzling mess.

The door slammed shut. Krumpus glanced about the room and was relieved to see several translucent ants crawling about the lip of the floor drain. The small doctors answered his call after all!

Krumpus was always curious to see what form the small doctors might take. Once they'd attended him as birds with flame red wings and needle point beaks, twice as creeping spiders with long thin legs, and once as the smallest lizards he'd ever seen, half the length of his thumb. This was the fourth time they took the form of translucent ants.

More and more ants climbed out of the drain. They were slow as they wandered about the floor. Several marched to the edge of his spell circle, but would not disrupt his writing. Krumpus stretched his hand to the ants that gathered at the edge of his spells. They climbed up his fingers, across his hand, wrist, and up his arm. The ants tickled as they crawled under his shirt and across his chest and back. Slowly the ants made their way to his far arm, down his hand, fingers, and finally to the patient himself. There were thousands of ants and more poured out of the drain. Another trail of ants formed from the drain to the nearby lump of rot soaked rags.

Krumpus continued to sing. He wondered that he could see into the ants and through them to a degree. Although they tickled as they marched, he sat still. Some crawled about the healer himself and wandered where they might. Most made directly for the sick man, but a few poked, picked, and bit the shaman himself. When the doctors came, they always attended everyone present. They cared nothing for labels of patient and practitioner. Krumpus tried not to notice, though it was occasionally painful. He frowned as errant ants harassed him. Thankfully, they stayed out of his eyes, mouth, and ears – though a couple crawled into his nose. A couple snorts discouraged this trespass – but also dislodged the mint.

For some time, the ants crawled over the sick man and picked at his wounds. Twice, Krumpus restrained the patient so he did not wipe the ants away. The man was weak, and it was easy for the shaman to control his displeasure.

As the ants did their work, they increased in size, became very dark in color, and moved rapidly. They charged back across the shaman – but did not make for the drain. Instead, the small doctors, now fat and riotous, made for the far wall. They picked at the mortar that held the stones in place. Soon, there were a hundred tiny holes pocked among the stones. Krumpus wondered at this. He'd never seen the doctors act in such a strange manner. Before, they always took a quick and easy exit instead of burrowing a new path. A secret hope lit in the shaman. Might they know he was held prisoner?

For an hour or so, the little doctors did their work. After such a long time, the line that returned from the patient was no longer tinted black and did not move nearly as fast. These ants returned from the patient a warm brown color. Eventually, they dimmed to red, then yellow, and finally, they returned back across the shaman as translucent and plodding as they were when they first stepped from the drain. The last of the ants made their way to the wall and slowly disappeared into the holes created by the others. The bandages were picked clean. There was no visible rot along the man's skin or on the bandages, and the reek of the rot was all but gone. Krumpus smiled. The operation was done and the Saot still breathed. He applied a thin coat of his cleansing cream and gently replaced the man's ruined shirt.

As he finished his work, Krumpus studied the freckles, moles, and scars about the man's skin. He did not mean to read the man's fate. Indeed, he did not realize he was doing it until he read too much. The stranger was a powerful man. Indeed, he commanded armies. He was far from home, and had abandoned his responsibilities to take up a quest. The love of his deceased daughter drew him from his realm. This was not a good or bad thing – it was simply the man's choice. But the choice had far reaching ramifications. In his continued absence the man's home would meet the torch, a torch carried by the man's own progeny, married to the motivations of powerful enemies. Krumpus wondered if he interfered with the man's fate by healing him. The rot was well treated and the man should recover. But as he glanced over the constellation of freckles on the man's skin, he saw that this was not the day of the man's death. Although his time drew nigh, the stranger was meant to face increasingly sinister evils he could not hope to overcome. Only by wearing a brave face and continuing forward would he be allowed to pursue his daughter into the realms of the netherworld.

Krumpus was tempted to read further. With many questions still in mind, he covered the man's wound. It was not his place to know how long the man might wander the world, far from home. Days, months, years? But time was relative. The only certainty was that the man might never return home. Was it a certainty? No. There were thin paths leading from this road that may yet be taken. But it was a probability, and a high one at that.

Krumpus pushed the destiny of this stranger from his head. It was time to worry about his own fate. He stretched and flexed his own aching body and scuffed the spelling about the arch. He packed his medicines and placed the cups and pitchers at the door. The bandages were clean, and Krumpus folded them neatly away.

Now that everything was orderly, Krumpus turned to the wall with so many ant holes drilled through the mortar. He scratched at the material. The mortar flaked away under his nail. He wondered if the small doctors had dug him a tunnel. He was excited by the possibility.

Yet, he was also exhausted. The operation took many long hours, and no end of concentration. Krumpus stretched out on the floor and decided to give himself a few moments rest. He closed his eyes and relaxed, if only for a moment. Then he would escape – if escape were even possible. There was still a stone wall in his way.

Almost as soon as he closed his eyes, the cell door banged open. Krumpus lifted his head as Cairn walked into the cell.

"Did 'e give up the ghost?" Cairn stared at the Saot.

Krumpus closed his eyes and laid back on the floor. He shook his head.

"He lives, nah? Well, it'll please the Lord Commander," Cairn shrugged. "Either way, you're done with your potions and poking. That's good! Fedring wants words with you!" Cairn grabbed Krumpus roughly by the arm. "Get up! You have a meeting with 'is lordship."

With one meaty hand on the shaman's arm, Cairn pulled Krumpus roughly from the cell.