From the author: In the midst of his own crisis, a shaman fails to cure his friend's Blood Fever. He must choose to watch his friend die slowly, or help him find another way. Letting go is never easy.
Connor considered skipping the next frozen hill to speed the search for his sick friend. The steep incline would be difficult in Harlon’s condition, but abandoning the search pattern risked precious time. The lead dog barked and Connor commanded the team to stop. He locked the brake and checked on her find.
Cresting the hill, Connor spotted a lone figure silhouetted by the setting sun. The wind tugged at the man's coat, flying his scarf in a wild dance around him.
"I wish you'd favor the same hill." Connor set his belongings down behind Harlon. "It's bad enough I’m serving two villages this winter without having to race between them to find your ever-changing favorite sunset view."
Harlon coughed in response, and Connor regretted his words. His friend coughed like an old man, the curse of a lingering disease that aged its victims beyond their years in health and appearance. The silver threading around Harlon's temples had overcome his once-dark locks. He could have been mistaken for Conner’s father when in truth the two men had forged their friendship before they had learned to walk.
Harlon held his position. "I promised Hannah I wouldn't miss the sunset."
Conner wanted to remind Harlon that his dying wife had been delirious with pain. Instead, he fumbled his emergency pack open and sorted the contents onto the snow. "How can I get you to enjoy it from the warmth of your hut?" He layered small sticks in formation for a fire; just enough to warm his friend before hauling him back home. The injuries, whatever they were, didn't seem life-threatening. He could handle those after Harlon took his medicine.
Harlon grunted. "My hut isn't any warmer than this hill."
Connor cocked his head to the side. "Isn't Romie coming to tend your fire anymore?"
"Fire doesn't warm a man's soul."
Connor blew on the tiny sparks and added some tinder as the flame danced to life, then filled a small pot with snow. They sat in silence while the fire grew, and while the snow heated and melted. It was the same routine every few nights--Harlon grieving his family, Connor regretting his failure to save them and his broken magic.
Was this his punishment?
The Shenai, ancient spirits who gifted him with healing magic, had left him the day he lost his fingers. Connor found himself frozen in time with the Blood Fever riding upon the heels of his loss. Harlon had become frozen, too, but Connor could push him through it without magic.
"Fire cannot warm a soul that seeks the cold," Connor said.
"You think I seek the cold?"
"For as often as I find you out here, you must."
"You haven't lost what I've lost. Don't judge my intentions."
"Then set me straight, Harlon."
Harlon still refused to face him. "You don't know if Hannah's spirit follows me, and there aren't any other shamans around to ask." He continued to work himself up. "I just want to share the sunset with Hannah. And I want to know that my daughters have moved on. I won't have them haunting this world for want of the next."
Connor had observed spirits haunting their husbands and wives until death claimed the survivor and, together, they were welcomed by the Shenai and escorted from this world. Children's spirits fared worse: their spirits often resisted the Shenai and waited for their mothers or fathers before they moved onto the next plane.
"Hannah is waiting for you," he promised.
"Hollow words from a healer blind to the spirits."
"As a blind man sees with his ears and his hands, so I have new medicine for you." Connor mixed a paste into the steaming water. His own healing abilities could no longer help Harlon, and so he turned to the fruits of nature. This time, it would be different. "A batch of elderberries arrived from Bay Breeze this morning. They have incredible healing properties. Surely they'll have some impact on the Blood Fever."
"Save it for the villagers."
"They don't have Blood Fever."
“But they might, again.”
Harlon was right. The villagers who had contracted it last spring died just before autumn. Only the midsummer bloom Vellis affected the disease, slowing the progress of the infection, delaying the transition from one stage to another. Harlon survived the longest, holding it at bay for months. The blood Harlon coughed up indicated the final stage nearing, but Connor hoped for more time, at least until midwinter. The hardy arctic herbs would sprout soon, and he could test those against the Blood Fever. If it returned this coming spring, Connor needed to be ready. No one else would die from lack of effort on his part.
Connor poured the mixture from the pot into a stein and handed it to his patient, praying silently that it would help.
As if any prayers would work for me. Not when the Shenai ignored Connor's existence.
Harlon refused the drink, part of their ritual, but finally took it at Connor's insistence.
Shivering, Connor watched Harlon sip as the sun disappeared below the snowy horizon. "The dogs are below. They'll take us home when you're done."
"Not tonight." Harlon abandoned their ritual.
Caught between Harlon's suffering and his own shortcomings, the healer stoked the flames with a stick. He forced himself to use his damaged hand, a reminder that failure had consequences. "Why not?"
"I'm going to die, Connor."
"Everyone dies, but not you, not tonight. Elderberries, remember?"
Harlon finally turned to him. The flames cast a glow across his bandaged face, illuminating a barrage of dark spots staining the cloth.
Blind man, indeed. Connor cursed and dove into his pack for new bandages. "How long have you been bleeding? How old are those dressings? Hasn't Romie been in to see you at all?"
He pulled his gloves off and removed Harlon's hat, which was crusted to his head, and then started on his facial bandages. Dried blood had coagulated between bandage and skin, and flesh peeled off along with the cloth. He sat back on his heels, studying the mess in fury.
And then he noticed Harlon's foot: bruises and swelling were visible above his deerskin shoes. "What is this?"
"Slipped. Ice patch." Harlon tried to push Connor away, but he was too weak. "Why do you insist on this? Go help someone that will benefit from your time. Leave me be."
"Don't you believe I'll find a cure?"
"I don't have the patience." He coughed blood again and threw himself down in the snow.
Connor wrung his hands, massaging his stumps. "If anyone should be losing patience it's me."
"There." Harlon pointed into the darkening sky.
All Connor could see was blood, old blood, new blood, blood he couldn’t cure. "There what?"
Connor looked through tears, staring at the stupid dots of light that fascinated his patient, his friend, and he tried to imagine why a star was so absorbing when a life was at stake.
"Watch the arc; there it goes, follow it."
Connor watched as best he could, but he lost the light and turned to Harlon in desperation. "Now can I tend your wounds? Before they get infected with something else I can't fix?"
"Where do you think it went?" Harlon's gaze was still on the sky.
"How do I know? Give me your hands."
Harlon shook his head. "Play along, healer. It'll make me feel better."
Defeated, Connor glanced skyward. "It must have been caught."
Harlon laughed and lapsed into coughs. "Caught by what?"
"A heavenly net. Other stars. The Shenai. Do we really need to know? All that matters is that something out there stopped it from falling out of the sky.” He took a deep breath.
Harlon ignored him. “It faded."
"Fading means death."
Harlon peeled the bandages and skin off his left hand. "All life fades, Healer."
"When it's done living."
Harlon flung the bloodied scraps to the snow. "And who determines this? When is it enough? When the disease has ravaged my entire family? When my pain is so encompassing that I can't feel my broken foot? Or am I to linger for months until that blessed morning when I don't wake?"
"You're not alone, Harlon." Connor's throat tightened as he watched the other hand come free of its coverings.
Harlon met his gaze with a gentle shake of his head. "Why did you amputate your fingers?"
Connor went cold. "Don't. Don't do this."
"You knew you couldn't save them."
"We're not talking about me," Connor stood, his voice rising.
"We're talking about your useless magic." Harlon shouted, spitting blood. "Your fingers would've poisoned the rest of you, made your hand useless, and killed you. Your magic failed you, just as it damned Hannah, just as it damned me. Why should I deal with this pain day after day because you can't heal me?"
"What about me?" Connor demanded.
"What about you, you selfish, spirits-be-damned 'I can fix everything' healer?"
"I lost my magic without warning. I don't even know why." The blizzard had forced him to shelter in a cave between the villages and trapped him there for two days. Prior to his rescue, he had treated himself by amputating his blackened fingers.
"Everyone knows why, blind man." Harlon snorted. "It wasn't your magic you lost: it was your faith. You failed. You failed, and you can't fix this. Just say it."
The truth stung. "I failed the Shenai. I failed Hannah and the girls. I failed you."
"I found you." Harlon's voice softened. "Hannah came to me at the mine, told me you were missing and the blizzard wasn't letting up. So I formed a search party, all of whom gave you up for dead by nightfall."
"You never told me this before."
"You weren't ready to hear it." Firelight threw shadows across Harlon's face, making him appear the wise shaman. "I prayed and found poppies. Bright orange petals danced over the snow, directly to your cave."
"I don't believe it."
"Why can't you believe the Shenai sent me to find you?"
Connor clutched his damaged hand. "They abandoned me to die."
"Have you considered that it was you who abandoned them?"
The chest-crushing loneliness rushed back to him: it settled upon him when he had lain freezing in the cave and it never abated. He had learned to live with that pain to the point it became his shadow. Could it have been for nothing?
Closing his eyes, he stretched his arms out, palms skyward. He sought the wind and it caressed his cheeks with warmth; he sought water and the snow beneath his knees melted; he sought the earth and it trembled, knocking him onto his back.
How much time passed, Connor didn't know. When he regained his breath and sight, the sky had birthed the moon and full darkness, and Harlon tended a dying fire. Above the tiny flames, the spirit wisps danced.
Magic coursed through him again like a raging river, roaring in his ears. He savored it for a long moment, and when he spoke again, he couldn't keep the quiver from his voice. "Could I have cured the Blood Fever if I'd turned to the Shenai?"
"We've had other shamans visit, and they had less luck than you in fighting it."
Connor stared deeper into the flames. "After I've seen you home, I will commune with the Shenai and beg their forgiveness." He felt the familiar pull toward prayer trance and their gentle acknowledgment, but he reluctantly dismissed it. Harlon had to be safe first. He turned toward his friend and stared in shock.
Air shifted around Harlon, waves upon waves of rippling, of spirits clustering around him. Hannah and the girls held unusually tight to him, and others who loved Harlon and his family, all victims of the Blood Fever, hovered around them. "Hannah knows," Connor whispered. "She knows you've been finding her the most beautiful sunsets. Like summer fruit, she says."
A quiet sob escaped Harlon. He leaned close to Connor, his voice soft. "I don't want to die like she did, the pain blinding her even to my presence. Connor, I need you to do something for me. I can't endure the pain, I'll go insane. Send me to meet Hannah."
Connor paced around his friend. "And you think I'm arrogant."
"It's my pain, and I choose not to live with it anymore."
He faced Harlon. "I just reconnected to my magic, barely even acknowledged the Shenai, and you want me to call upon them to end your life? No, I won't help you die."
"No one has suffered with this as long as I have. You have to help me."
"Well that's just my fault isn't it, for trying to keep you alive?"
Harlon balled snow into his bloody palms and threw it, hitting Connor's face. "You're my only friend. Everyone else will just be relieved that I'm finally dead."
Connor brushed the snow away. "We're more than friends, Harlon. We're brothers. I can't even remember my life without you in it. I've been fighting with every breath to find your cure, to keep you alive. I cannot help you die. "
Harlon slumped. "You want to save the world, but you can't do this one little thing."
Connor grabbed Harlon's shoulders. "Letting you die is wrong. Helping you die is worse. Your spirit can only leave your body when it's ready. Hannah is waiting for you. Sara and Melinda are waiting for you. If I release your spirit, there's a chance the Shenai won't take you to the next plane. You're asking me not just to kill you, but to destroy every life that you and Hannah are supposed to share after this one. And your daughters? Stuck on this plane with no chance for another life. Is that what you want?"
Only the wind whispered during the next few minutes, its voice harsh in Connor's ears, its gusts thick with snow. The fire died and the cold took both men to shivers.
If Connor did this, he would always know he broke the body-spirit bond, an act a shaman should only commit in the most dire of circumstances. Harlon's body had sickened beyond healing; death was a rite of passage to the next plane, but his soul wasn't in any danger, not yet.
Harlon sighed. "I'll do it myself then."
"You can't. Men who take their own lives are left behind. Your spirit will never rejoin Hannah's."
"Is it taking my own life if I just lay here in the snow?" Harlon stripped off his coat and boots and tossed them aside.
"Don't." Connor's voice broke.
"Go home, Connor. You won't want to see this."
"You seriously want to risk your soul?" The elderberries weren’t enough. Connor's efforts weren't enough, and now that Harlon had reached the final stage of Blood Fever, it was impossible. Yet the healer in him, the hope, refused to die, even when death itself was imminent. Harlon wasn’t a shaman and couldn't understand his soul's journey, not with the Blood Fever clouding his judgment. Connor could ease Harlon's passing. Not with herbs this time. He could ask the Shenai to spare Harlon the pain, or use his own powers and dull it to a bearable level.
Then like a sudden blizzard, the truth hit Connor: Harlon's throwing himself about in the snow, his injured foot, and his willingness to freeze to death rather than face the pain of the Blood Fever's final stage. The final stage wasn't just beginning--it was well underway. Harlon had hidden his pain well and Connor had barely been taking the edge off his agony with the daily medicines.
Watching Harlon half-dressed in the snow, shivers turning to tremors, Connor felt as broken as his friend. He rubbed his stumps with his thumb, recalling his near-death by freezing: the bone rattling shivers, the frigid burning in his blood, the disturbing pull of sleep. "No, Harlon."
Harlon turned his head slowly, his body convulsing in its attempt to stay warm.
"I can't let you die like this." Would the Shenai forgive Connor for following this course without their guidance? Or would they punish him for taking too bold a role in this man's death? How could he allow Harlon to further endure a death that had been haunting him for months? How would he live with himself?
He'd find a way. "Watch your stars, my friend."
When Harlon turned his eyes skyward, Connor wrapped his arms around the man, cradling him. He sent waves of heat through Harlon, subduing the shivers and melting the snow that had fallen over them.
The spirits loomed closer, tighter.
The stars blinked while Connor lulled his sick friend to sleep. With his healing magic, he reached into Harlon's heart, where the soul resided, and he nudged its tired rhythm. The beating slowed. Connor waited through the darkness and now swiftly falling snow as Harlon's heart fell still.
Waited until Harlon’s light faded to a spirit's wisp.
The air rippled above them as Harlon's spirit joined Hannah's and the girls'.
Light sparkled around them as the Shenai rode the wind and gathered the spirits, all but four, and took to the sky. What were they waiting for?
Connor pleaded with the Shenai. "Don't abandon them."
The Shenai paused, waiting on the wind, then their light shifted toward the lingering wisps.
"Go," Connor urged the wisps. "You've paid your passage with pain, now go."
But they didn't.
Three wisps circled one, hovering over Harlon's corpse. Harlon's body called to his soul, and the soul heeded that call. The Shenai wouldn't wait long.
Flesh would not damn four souls, not today.
Connor pressed both hands to the cold skin, commanded the invisible cord between body and soul to break, but it would not. Harlon's body had refused to give in to the Blood Fever, had refused to give in to the treacherous mines, and was strong even in death. If Harlon's soul was to have any chance, his body had to let go.
The fire had died. Making a new one would take too long. Judging by their lights' rapid flickering, the Shenai were impatient.
Connor placed his cold hands on the body, the shell that was no longer his friend, and he closed his eyes. In his mind, flesh stripped away, bone melted, blood boiled into fire. The fire burst from his mind and attacked the soul-thread.
Pain pulled Connor from his trance. Flames licked his face, his hands were engulfed in fire. He tore himself away from the burning body, thrust his hands into the cold snow. Shaking, he looked up.
The wisps fluttered aimlessly.
The Shenai shifted toward them, encompassing the four wisps into their light and launched into the night sky. They arced across the sky and hurtled toward the moon: a shooting star, alive with the spirits of the dead, of Harlon and his family, on their way to the next plane. They passed behind the silver crescent and never emerged.
Connor stared at the moon while his burns healed. He fought the seduction of trance-state, afraid of being semi-conscious in a snowstorm, and focused on the family he had finally saved. A new life awaited them, and Connor knew he would find their souls again one day.
Awakening from trance-state, Connor felt heavy. He shook the snow from his face and looked up at Gala laying on his chest. The three other dogs had curled up on his legs. He withdrew from the mound of waking animals, and raised his hands to the morning sun, healed from the burns, silhouetted in dawn's streamers of rose and amber.
This story originally appeared in Bards & Sages Quarterly.