A Quandry and a Solution
Knowledge wasn’t enough. I needed training, but didn’t want the notoriety that would come with it. How to get one without the other? It was a quandry. I contemplated the problem as I sat in the Citadel’s library and gazed thoughtfully at the back of a head of red hair several tables away.
I excelled in my studies in healing and surgery. My instructors suspected a gifted intellect, but although I did learn quickly there was more to it than that. I had a gift, but it wasn’t extraordinary intelligence. It was, however, my secret, and I was loathe to share it. But share it I must, if I wanted to learn to control the gift and not the other way around. As I saw more patients, my visions became more intense and more difficult to break from, like a narrow path that was previously overgrown but now, through extended use, was wide and well-worn.
I chewed on the inside of my lip. If I did approach him, how should I set up the situation so that I had the more advantageous position?
The owner of the unruly mass of red hair yawned, stretched, and rubbed his eyes. Suddenly he cocked his head, as if he’d heard a strange noise, and started to scan the room.
I quickly immersed myself in the book in front of me, concentrating distinctly on each word, pushing out all other thoughts. Concerning the herb Borage, those of our time do use the flowers in sallads to exhilerate and make the mind glad. There be also many things made of these used everywhere for the comfort of the heart, for the driving away of sorrow and increasing the joy of the minde.
I looked back up, casually, but he was gone.
“You’re a pretty one,” the old woman smiled at me as I walked into the room. She still had most of her teeth, I noted automatically. It was a nice smile and I found myself returning it.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
“Well, Chella, what brings you here today?”
“Aren’t you s’pose to tell me?” she giggled. “That’s how this goes. I answer your questions and you’re s’pose to figure it out.”
“Yes, I’m familiar with the procedure,” I replied. “Did the archmaester explain what’s ailing you?”
“Nah. He didn’t want to run the risk of me blabbing to you students. He said he’d tell me afterwards. And then I’d get treated for free.”
“Good deal, huh?”
“I thought so,” she agreed.
“You’ll get poked and prodded by a dozen or so nervous young men with cold hands,” I warned.
“I don’t mind so much. Are your hands cold?” she asked coyly.
I smiled and maintained my distance for the moment. “Tell me about your symptoms.”
“Sometimes me heart, it just starts pounding, like I been runnin’ a race, though I’m not doin’ no such thing. Then it goes away.”
“When did these palpitations start?”
“These episodes of your heart pounding. When did they start?”
She narrowed her eyes and looked away, thinking. “Oh…last full moon or so. They been comin’ more often.”
About a month, I noted. “What are you doing when they happen?”
“Goin’ about my business. Seems to mostly be when I’m sittin’ doing needlework. They last for a moment or two. Do ya think that’s the cause?” There was hope in her voice. “I hate needlework but my son makes me do it. Now if there was a reason not to…”
I shook my head as I checked for excess fluid in her lower extremeties. Nothing. “I doubt that’s the reason.”
She looked mildly disappointed.
“Are there any other symptoms? Anything else unusual?”
Chella shrugged. “I been having problems getting to sleep. I just lie there. That’s recent,” she added, before I could ask. “Perhaps I’m pining for me poor Herold. He was a fisherman, had his own boat, the Saucy Lass. Died last year in his sleep. Perhaps I’m to die the same way, in my sleep, and that’s why me body doesn’t want to go there.”
“I’m sorry for your loss,” I said, “but I need to ask a few more questions. Are you taking any medicines right now?”
“I drink willow bark tea every morning for me joints,” she replied. “Does that count? Sometimes in the afternoon, too.”
“That counts. Anything else?”
She shook her head, then wavered. “Well…just a nip of whisky every now and then. For medicinal purposes,” she added hastily. “It keeps me bowels movin’ regular-like. You won’t tell my son?”
Whisky would do no such thing for her, but I didn’t point that out. I struggled not to smile. “I won’t say anything. You mentioned your heart pounding and not being able to sleep. Anything else?”
“Not that I can think of,” she said. “Just the joint sickness, but I know lots of old people with that.”
“Anyone else in your family suffering these problems?”
“Well…my daughter-in-law is also having problems sleeping, but it might be more that my son won’t leave her alone.” She shook her head ruefully. “Eight children, and another on the way…and I have to do needlework to help bring in money to feed the little ‘uns… Is it possible for a man to be too…you know…?”
I blinked. “Too what?”
“Too…” She gestured in the direction of my groin. “Too filled near to burstin’ all the time?”
I coughed and cleared my throat. “Well, shall we continue on? I hope my hands aren’t too cold.”
“They’ll be just fine, I’m sure,” Chella smiled, accepting the change in conversation. “You have the most soulful eyes, like ones I saw on a dog once.”
“Mmm?” I said as I counted her pulse. Strong enough, but quite rapid.
“It was a strange dog, more wolf than dog, really…”
I looked in her eyes, her mouth. Nothing unusual.
“Liked to eat lettuce.”
“In my experience dogs will eat most anything.”
As I encircled her neck with my hands and felt along her throat with my thumbs, an orange light blazed across my eyes and was just as suddenly gone. I paused. From past experience I associated the color orange with something in the body that wasn’t behaving as it should, rather than an outside influence.
“That’s true,” Chella agreed. “Don’t matter how rotten neither.”
“Shhh,” I told her. “Quiet for a moment.” I felt her neck again, this time with my fingertips. The left lobe of her neck gland was larger than her right. “Does it hurt when I press here?”
Chella shrugged. “Not especially.”
I knew with a certainty that defied explanation that there was something going on here, even though there was no sign of goiter. The left lobe felt…not right. I couldn’t define it more than that.
The orange light flashed again, followed by a whirling sensation, as if I was moving too fast. Spinning, round and round, faster and faster…
I inhaled sharply and with considerable mental effort managed to separate myself from the vision. It dropped as if it had never existed and I was once more in a room in the Citadel examining an old woman where everything was still and quiet. I stepped back, lest I accidently touch her again.
“Something wrong?” Chella asked. I must have had an interesting expression on my face.
I shook my head. My heart raced in my chest, but I knew it would calm in a moment.
“Have you had any weight loss recently?” I asked, wanting to change the focus from me back onto her.
“Now that you mention it, well, my clothes are a bit looser than I remember.”
“Any weakness? Shortness of breath?”
She shook her head.
“More appetite than usual?”
“Not much to eat, even if I did. Eight little ‘uns and another on the way…”
“Tremors? Hair loss?”
Chella shrugged. “Don’t all old people?”
I smiled at her.
“Thank you for letting me examine you, Chella. I’m done now.” My heart was beating normally, my vision wasn’t orange, and nothing in the room was spinning. Yes, I was done now.
She shrugged again and smiled back. “Sure. Tell the next young man comin’ in to warm his hands first.”
“I’ll do that. By the way, try chasteberry for your son.”
Outside in the corridor Archmaester Ebrose motioned me over. He sat on a bench under the glass window, his robe stretched taut across his considerable stomach, and looked at me over his half-moon spectacles.
“Well?” he said.
“Shouldn’t I report in to Maester Beryl overseeing the test, first?”
The archmaester made a dismissive gesture. “I’m not concerned with protocol. I am concerned with results,” he proclaimed in his rich baritone. “What is your diagnosis?”
“I think her metabolism is running too fast,” I said, remembering her various symptoms and adding them to my spinning vision. “I think it’s possible it has something to do with her front neck gland.”
“Isn’t the woman complaining of heart palpitations?” Ebrose asked, raising his eyebrows. “That’s what every other acolyte coming through here has said. Besides, we don’t know what function that gland has.”
“She is,” I agreed, “but I noticed one lobe is larger than the other. Besides palpitations, she’s also experiencing rapid pulse, insomnia and weight loss. Perhaps there’s a connection.”
“Interesting conclusion. What would you prescribe as treatment, then?”
“According to a recent paper by Maester Tomas of Bitterbridge, tincture of bugleweed has had some effect on reducing the size of an enlarged front neck gland. Then hawthorn for the palpitations and rapid pulse, and valerian for the insomnia. Re-examine her in a couple of weeks to see if symptoms have subsided.”
“There’s no apparent goiter,” Ebrose pointed out, narrowing his eyes.
“No, there’s not,” I conceded. I couldn’t explain to him that it didn’t matter, that I knew beyond all doubt that the problem was there. I gazed back at him silently.
He nodded slowly, his expression disconcertingly calculating as he gazed at me. “Very good, Rhys. You may go now and report to Beryl.” He waved me away, our discussion apparently over.
“Yes, Archmaester,” I bowed, then retreated down the hall.
It was several evenings later in the Citadel library and I once again took up a position a few tables away from the tall, thin redhead. He seemed out of sorts tonight, as if something was bothering him.
His name was Tobyas, he was two years older than me, and an Acolyte with links in Mathematics and Philosophy. I knew he was currently studying with Maester Barrett, and it was this fact that drew me to him.
The Citadel library was amazing, containing the largest collection of books and scrolls in Westeros. Within I could find information about almost anything, even something as esoteric as clairvoyance—I now had a word to describe the knowledge and visions I experienced when examining patients—but it was scanty at best. Some was even contradictory. None helped me in a very practical sense to deal with it.
Short, balding, and with a perpetual frown on his face, Maester Barrett taught classes in such esoteric matters, much to the amusement and general derision of his contemporaries. Requesting him to teach me would be tantamount to painting myself green and running naked through the streets of Oldtown while I sang at the top of my lungs. I had no desire to attract that much attention.
Tobyas, however… I’d heard he was clairvoyant himself, a reader, and that Maester Barrett was honing Tobyas’s skills to determine whether a person was telling the truth or lying—a very useful talent indeed for, say, a king’s court.
Apparently Maester Barrett thought so too, and considered Tobyas his ride to gain the long overdue respect of his fellow maesters and perhaps even secure himself an advancement to become an archmaester with a link in his studies added to those already offered at the Citadel.
I wondered what Tobyas thought of this arrangement.
I also wondered how I could convince Tobyas to help me learn to control my visions. The problem was I had nothing to offer in return.
Two tables down Tobyas exhaled sharply and put a hand to his head, as if he was in pain. Concerned, I closed the book I’d been reviewing and walked over to sit across the table from him. Perhaps this was the opportunity I’d been wanting.
He looked up at me and winced while blinking at the light level in the room, even though it wasn’t overly bright, lit only by lamps.
“You all right?” I asked.
“Do I look all right?” he snapped.
“Then why are you bothering me?”
I shrugged. “Because I want to help.”
Tobyas gazed at me levelly while he narrowed his eyes. “You’re telling the truth.”
“You can help. You know how.” He winced again.
“There’s something else you want.”
“Help me first. Then we’ll talk.”
I nodded and took Tobyas back to my tiny cubicle so we would have a measure of privacy. It was barely large enough for a cot and a clothespress and a stool. I gestured for him to take the cot and I took the stool for myself.
“My head is…pounding…” he announced through gritted teeth as he sat down. His pallor evident, I could see without him needing to tell me that the short walk from the library had made the pain worse.
“May I?” I raised my hand to touch his forehead, but paused, waiting for permission.
He opened his eyes, saw my intent, and nodded.
I cautiously touched Tobyas’s forehead, not knowing what I’d see, what I’d communicate to Tobyas of my secret, or if even anything would happen at all. His skin was warm and clammy and…
A flash of dark purplish-blue light melted into orange and faded away. I heard Tobyas inhale sharply. Hot, his head was suddenly hot to the touch, surrounded again by the dark purplish-blue light that pulsed forcefully in time with his heart. I suddenly experienced an overwhelming sensation of choking and I jerked my hand back.
The choking sensation and light stopped immediately, but regardless I spent the next few seconds with my hand to my throat sucking in air and convincing myself I really could breathe. I wondered what the vision meant.
Tobyas laid back on the cot and stared at me. “What in the name of the Seven was that?”
“Part of the ‘something else I wanted,’” I replied wryly. “Your headaches are quite…intense, aren’t they?”
He closed his eyes. “Worse lately and more frequent.”
I rubbed my throat one last time before dropping my hand. “Increased frequency and pain corresponding with increased intensity of studies with Maester Barrett?”
Tobyas frowned, eyes still closed. “Aye.”
I was intrigued.
Willow bark and feverfew were standard remedies for headaches and daily amounts of feverfew could help prevent migraines. And if that didn’t work I had a few other tricks up my sleeve to try. I felt jubilant, for I’d discovered what I could give Tobyas in return.
It was the start of a mutually beneficial friendship, one that, despite my good intentions, would lead us both down strange paths that wound through the dark places of the human soul.
To be continued…