‘Are you ill?’

‘No. A friend of mine is though.’

‘Ah. The physicians occupy that building over there.’ The student pointed at a squat-looking structure made of grey stone.

Thank you, neighbour.’

‘I hope your friend gets better soon.’

‘So do we.’

When they entered the building, they encountered a rotund man in a black robe.

‘Excuse me, sir,’ Sephrenia said to him. ‘Are you a physician?

‘I am.’

‘Splendid. Have you a few moments?’

The rotund man had been looking closely at Sparhawk. ‘Sorry,’ he said curtly. ‘I’m busy.’

‘Could you direct us to one of your colleagues, then?’

‘Try any door,’ he said, waving his hand and walking quickly away from them.

‘That’s an odd attitude for a healer,’ Sparhawk said.

‘Every profession attracts its share of louts,’ she replied.

They crossed the antechamber and Sparhawk rapped on a dark-painted door.

‘What is it?’ a weary voice said.

‘We need to consult a physician.’

There was a long pause. ‘Oh, all right,’ the weary voice replied, ‘come in.’

Sparhawk opened the door and held it for Sephrenia.

The man seated behind the cluttered desk in the cubicle had deep circles beneath his eyes, and it appeared that he had forgone shaving some weeks ago. ‘What is the nature of your illness?’ he asked Sephrenia in a voice hovering on exhaustion.

‘I’m not the one who’s ill,’ she replied.

‘Him, then?’ The doctor pointed at Sparhawk. ‘He looks robust enough to me.’

‘No,‘ she said. ‘He’s not ill either. We’re here on behalf of a friend.’

‘I don’t go to people’s houses.’

‘We weren’t asking you to do that,’ Sparhawk said.

‘Our friend lives some distance away,’ Sephrenia said. ‘We thought that if we described her symptoms to you, you might be able to hazard a guess as to the cause of her malady.’

‘I don’t make guesses,’ he told her shortly. ‘What are the symptoms?’

‘Much like those of the falling-sickness,’ Sephrenia told him.

That’s it, then. You’ve already made the diagnosis yourself.’

There’s a certain difference, however.’

‘All right. Describe the differences.’

There’s a fever involved – quite a high one – and profuse sweating.’

These two don’t match, little lady. With a fever, the skin is dry.’

‘Yes, I know.’

‘Have you a medical background?’

‘I’m familiar with certain folk remedies.’

He snorted. ‘My experience tells me that folk remedies kill more than they cure. What other symptoms did you notice?’

Sephrenia meticulously described the illness that had rendered Ehlana comatose.

The physician, however, seemed not to be listening, but was staring instead at Sparhawk. His eyes narrowed, his face became suddenly alert and his expression sly. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said when Sephrenia had finished. ‘I think you’d better go back and take another look at your friend. What you just described matches no known illness.’ His tone was abrupt, even curt.

Sparhawk straightened, clenching his fist, but Sephrenia laid her hand on his arm. Thank you for your time, learned sir,’ she said smoothly. ‘Come along then,’ she told Sparhawk.

The two of them went back out into the corridor.

‘Two in a row,’ Sparhawk muttered.

‘Two what?’

‘People with bad manners.’

‘It stands to reason, perhaps.’

‘I don’t follow you.’

‘There’s a certain natural arrogance in those who teach.’

‘You’ve never displayed it.’

‘I keep it under control. Try another door, Sparhawk.’

In the next two hours, they spoke with seven physicians. Each of them, after a searching look at Sparhawk’s face, pretended ignorance.

‘I’m starting to get a peculiar feeling about this,’ he growled as they emerged from yet another office. ‘They take one look at me, and they suddenly become stupid – or is that just my imagination?’

‘I’ve noticed that, too,’ she replied thoughtfully.

‘My face isn’t that exciting, I know, but it’s never struck anyone dumb before.’

‘It’s a perfectly good face, Sparhawk.’

‘It covers the front of my head. What else can you expect from a face?’

‘The physicians of Borrata seem less skilled than we’d been led to believe.’

‘We’ve wasted more time, then?’

‘We haven’t finished yet. Don’t give up hope.’

They came finally to a small, unpainted door set back in a shabby alcove. Sparhawk rapped, and a slurred voice responded, ‘Go away.’

‘We need your help, learned sir,’ Sephrenia said.

‘Go and bother somebody else. I’m busy getting drunk right now.’

That does it!’ Sparhawk snapped. He grasped the door handle and pushed, but the door was locked from the inside. Irritably, he kicked it open, splintering the frame.

The man inside the tiny cubicle blinked. He was a shabby little man with a crooked back and bleary eyes. ‘You knock very loudly, friend,’ he observed. Then he belched. ‘Well, don’t just stand there. Come in.’ His head weaved back and forth. He was shabbily dressed, and his wispy grey hair stuck out in all directions.

‘Is there something in the water around here that makes everybody so churlish?’ Sparhawk asked acidly.

‘I wouldn’t know,’ the shabby man replied. ‘I never drink water.’ He drank noisily from a battered tankard.

‘Obviously.’

‘Shall we spend the rest of the day exchanging insults, or would you rather tell me about your problem?’ The physician squinted myopically at Sparhawk’s face. ‘So you’re the one,’ he said.

‘The one what?’

The one we aren’t supposed to talk to.’

‘Would you like to explain that?’

‘A man came here a few days ago. He said that it would be worth a hundred gold pieces to every physician in the building if you left empty-handed.’

‘What did he look like?’


Tags: David Eddings The Elenium Science Fiction
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