He was almost dead. His eyes had sunk into the skull and his nose looked like it had been pinched shut. The skin was ashen and stretched taut over the cheekbones. I couldn’t tell how old he was, perhaps my age, or a little younger. There was the hush and chill in the room that always accompanies someone’s last hours. But for now he was alive.
He drew a hissing breath and shifted slightly in the pillows, but did not open his eyes. I knew how hard that would be in his state. Lifting the eyelids would be like trying to heft a large sack of grain, and the body would be a stone colossus one could never hope to move. I leaned forward to touch his forehead. The white candles on the mahogany nightstand flickered in the draft from my motion and the shadows that hid in the corners of the room trembled and grew. My patient’s face was framed by uneven tufts of dark hair, the hairstyle of the sick and dying, cut in bed to reduce warmth and perspiration, yet his skin felt cool and dry, not feverish in the slightest. However, his pulse was barely perceptible, and very slow. Had I not seen him move a moment earlier, I might have given up searching for it.
“Lung disease,” the request to my recently established practice in Kronstadt had said, but whatever illness held him in its grip had progressed too far for me to stop, or even slow it. The only thing I could do was ease physical pain with poppy tincture, and even that was risky with bad lungs.
A silver rosary with beads of purple glass lay in his lap. As I watched, he shifted again, and the rosary started to slide down the sheet. His eyes fluttered. I pulled the rosary up, the chain tinkling.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I shall see to it that the rosary remains.” He sighed, then grew still. A heavy chair with a back in red brocade stood against the wall. I pulled it across the worn burgundy carpet to the bed and sat down. My patient remained quiet and the room was silent and dark.
I saw the dead—my wife, our children, our parents, siblings, and neighbors. They stroked my cheeks with their hands and spoke soothingly, yet when I woke up I couldn’t recall what they or I had said.
Someone was knocking at the door and opening the barrier on its squeaky hinges. I heard myself give a loud snore and opened my eyes, ready to apologize for having dozed off. An elderly woman carrying a tray with a clay jug, a wooden cup, and a plate of bread and cheese inclined her head at me, then hurried across the floor.
“Here, let me,” I said, and reached for the tray.
“Thank you,” she said, and smiled, her teeth white and healthy-looking. “One of the cows gave birth last night, so the milk is of the first, and very nourishing. It will strengthen you and your work.”
“I think your master may need it more than I do,” I said.
“Don’t give it to him,” she said. “He’s too weak. He’ll only throw it up and that will sap him even more.”
“Don’t lose hope yet,” I said, although I hadn’t seen anyone go this far and return.
“By the way, someone is asking for you,” the woman said. “They are waiting in the courtyard.”
More patients, I wondered, as I descended the stairs from the bed chamber. Halfway down, a small window illuminated the staircase from a niche in the thick wall. Through the bubble-filled, colorless glass I could see that the light had turned a bluish gray. My patient had survived the night.
The footman, a middle-aged fellow with dirty-blond hair and square shoulders and strong-looking hands, pulled the oak door open. A cold draft rushed towards us, carrying a mist of icy droplets. Outside on the moisture-beaded cobblestones stood a small group of people. Judging from their thick wool jerkins and caps, they were locals. The oldest of them, a small, wiry man, slightly stooped with age, but with a head full of dark, barely-graying hair, approached me. Several of his companions resembled him closely, sons and brothers, I surmised.
“Please leave,” the old man said.
I looked at him without hiding my incredulity. “I’m tending to a sick person,” I said.
“Physicians do not abandon their patients. Besides, he is the master of this domain and your lord.”
“That is exactly why we don’t want you to help him,” the old man said. “We’d be better off without him.”
“Why is that?” I said.
“Too many privileges and not enough duties.”
“The right of the first night, for example,” the old man said, jutting his chin. “Other lords have abandoned the custom, but our master refuses, saying it’s his privilege. There are children, of course, yet he never acknowledges them, saying they already have a family. For every calf or lamb born, our lord takes just as many as food for himself and his guests, saying it’s his property. He taxes us freely, yet refuses to send for a doctor when we need one. But when he himself is ill—”
“That’s quite enough,” I said. “I don’t care who he is or what he has done. He’s my patient and I will treat him as best as I can, just as I will any of you. Are there any sick or injured that need tending to?”
“Not right now, but there might be later,” the old man said, his mouth a downward pointing curve.
“Then call for me and I shall assist you freely,” I said, ignoring his threat. “But for now your lord is my patient.”
They muttered and shot me dark glances, but turned and moved towards the gate.
“Why didn’t you tell them we shall lose the master soon enough?” the old woman asked when I returned inside.
“Let us not assume anything,” I said.
The bed chamber held only one window, protected by heavy burgundy drapes. I opened them a little and a stripe of gray light streamed in. I pushed against the old wood to let in some air, but when the frame finally snapped open, the morning was so moist and cold that I shut the window almost immediately. Below I saw part of a thatched roof and a straw-covered, empty pen. A stone parapet surrounded the courtyard, but the corner I could see, from my position, fused with a grassy mound that sloped over the low wall. Beyond the parapet, at the edge of visibility in the fog, I glimpsed the shore of a lake.
My patient seemed to sense that it was day. He relaxed visibly and his breathing turned less labored. His eyes began moving from side to side beneath the lids, as if he were watching a landscape roll by from a carriage. But the softer drawing of air also made it harder to hear if he was still alive.
I took some bread and cheese and drank from the thin, sweet first milk the matron had brought. As I ate I kept my eyes on my patient in case the sound and smell of food would stir him to waking and hunger. As I had hoped, his eyes stopped moving and his breathing grew faster.
“Have some of this,” I said. “It will strengthen you.” I held his head up and put the edge of the pitcher to his cracked lips. His throat bobbed eagerly and I poured a little of the liquid into his mouth. He swallowed hard, but shortly thereafter coughed the liquid back up. I turned his head sideways and wiped the milk from his chin and neck with my handkerchief.
“My apologies,” I said. “I was hoping you’d manage to keep a little.”
His eyes fluttered and I thought I saw a faint nod. I returned to my chair and didn’t eat anything more.
As the morning grew into midday and early afternoon, my patient slept several times. I noted his states in my journal, to see if he would make any progress over the next few days. At intervals I opened the window to let in fresh air and ease his breathing. The wind smelled of heather and rain. When it grew dark I closed the drapes and lit the candles on the bedside table. The matron arrived with food. Tonight she had turned the remaining first milk into a pale pudding, served with a few cuts of cured mutton sausage and a jug of yellow water.
“I hope this will be enough, sir,” she said. “I’m afraid the larder is rather empty at this time of year, and with the master sick, we haven’t been able to procure more.”
I handed her a paper note. “Will this buy more food?” I said.
“I will purchase it tomorrow morning,” she said, and left me to the meal. I realized I was less hungry than I thought, since I had been sitting still for most of the day, and the sausage cuts and pudding were surprisingly filling. After the meal I warmed the jug with my hands and gave a little water to my patient, but like the previous night he only coughed the fluid back up. It was probably best not to give him anything more that evening.
I was standing at the bottom of the castle walls. They rose out of the ground as if they had been grown instead of built. The dusk was the pale blue of winter. I turned and saw a person standing at the lake a small distance away.
That must be the lake I saw from the window, I thought. The temperature had sunk further and the ground was sprinkled with snow, the first of the season. But the sound of the wind in the trees and the grass was soft and distant, as if a thick layer of white already covered the land.
I approached the person at the shore. It was a slender man with a proud bearing, eyes ringed by shadows and hair an uneven bristle. He was younger, at least by a decade, than I had assumed. A white sheet was draped around his shoulders and trailed along the ground. He began wading into the water, his bare feet leaving no prints on the gray sand.
“Wait!” I said, my breath a mist in the air. He turned towards me, smiled and made a small bow, then continued. Large wet snowflakes alit on him and the still surface of the lake. The white sheet floated for a moment, like ice, then soaked black and sank.
“Come back!” I said. “Please.” But he kept walking until his head vanished beneath the surface.
I woke with a start, the chill from the blue dusk and the slowly falling snow still in my bones. I gazed down at my patient. His eyes were moving fast behind his eyelids, and his breathing was irregular.
In the morning the old man and his relatives were back.
“Is he dead yet?” the elder said.
“How dare you hope for another man’s death, no matter how poor a ruler he was?” I said.
“You must leave,” the elder said. “This is not your place and you can’t stay.” His companions turned towards me, their shoulders hunched and their hands balled into fists.
“I’m a physician of your lord,” I said, hoping my voice wouldn’t tremble. “I will leave when he tells me to, not a moment earlier. Now go home.”
“Are you prepared to sacrifice everything to save him?” the old man said.
I met his eyes. “Leave,” I said. They glared at me, then sauntered towards the gate as if they were guests reluctantly leaving a party, and not intruders being thrown out. When the courtyard was empty, I hurried inside and latched the heavy door.
“Please lower the portcullis,” I told the footman.
In the bed chamber I studied my patient’s face, searching for hints of arrogance or brutality in the slack-jawed features. Was he really as ruthless a ruler as the old men had described? In the dream he hadn’t seemed cruel, but he wouldn’t be the first person to change on his deathbed.
The villagers came again that night, but the portcullis and walls stopped them, as they most probably had other intruders in the past. The unbidden visitors rattled the old iron, banged on the ancient stone, and yelled that they’d give me the same treatment as they would their lord. They didn’t leave until dawn grayed the snow-tipped mountains across the valley, and the rooster in the coop in the courtyard started to crow.
My patient was not strong enough to flee. In fact, he seemed a little weaker and had stopped moving altogether. He was so quiet that I had to hold my shaving mirror up to his mouth to see if he was still breathing.
“There must be some way to stop them,” I muttered to myself. I knew they would be back, if not this evening, then soon.
“Why are the villagers so eager for their lord to die,” I asked the matron when she arrived with hot porridge and honey-sweetened water for breakfast.
“Our master has the power to save everyone, but he refuses to,” she said. Tears welled up in her eyes and rolled down her cheeks. She wiped them away with the sleeves of her thick wool jacket.
I thought I knew the answer. I hadn’t seen any signs of children or a lady. Presumably the lord had no heirs. If he died, the village would have no formal ruler. It wouldn’t be the same as freedom, but it might feel like it for a while.
After the previous night’s tension I felt drained and cold, and fell asleep in the chair. Someone touched my shoulder and said:
“You must leave immediately. You are in great danger.” His voice was soft, yet clear, without any wheezing.
“I know,” I said, too full of sleep to open my eyes. “But I’m not giving you up to the villagers.”
“They are not what you should be afraid of.”
“Then what is it I ought to fear?” I said.
Suddenly he was close, too close. His breath on my skin was ice cold, like the air from the window. I jerked back, but something sharp stung the side of my neck and bored into it, like Saint Thomas the Incredulous’ probing finger. I cried out and woke in the chair by the bed.
The window, whose drapes I had forgotten to close completely, was flickering an ominous red. The stench of smoke filled the room. Outside, bright fire rose in the courtyard.
“I knew I should have put panes on all the roofs after the previous invasion,” someone said next to me. My patient was watching me from his bed. He looked pale and weak, but he was awake and speaking.
“Are there horses in the stable?” I said.
He nodded and closed his eyes. “Bridles and saddles are on the wall right by the door.”
“You can show me,” I said, bundled the sheet around him and lifted him up. He had been sick for so long he was as light as a woman. In the staircase the smoke grew thicker. I stepped inside the alcove and broke the window with a kick, hoping to get some air, but that only made more smoke pour in.
At the bottom of the stairs I pushed hard against the door. I feared it was barred, but it opened easily and noiselessly, and I stumbled into the courtyard. The flagstones were slick with the first snow of the winter. I slid and dropped my patient.
“Are you still alive?” I said, pulling him up and over my shoulder.
“Yes,” he whispered, but hung very still.
I carried him across the courtyard and into the stable, which had not caught fire due to its tiled roof. It was almost completely dark, save for the restless, wan light from the flames. I had expected a lot of yelling and screaming, but except for the crackle from the burning wood and the occasional, almost questioning, whinnies from the horses, the courtyard was quiet.
I bridled and saddled the horse closest to the door, lifted my patient up into the seat, then mounted behind him. I took the reins and steered the horse out of the stable, my patient leaning into me, the hooves thundering across the stone.
“Where’s the road?” I asked my patient. It probably wouldn’t be safe to stay on any public thoroughfare, but I would need to follow it from a distance, as I didn’t know the region well enough to find the way back to the city on my own.
“East of the lake,” my patient whispered. He slumped and lurched like dead weight, but at least he remained in the saddle. We climbed the small mound I had noticed from the window and crossed the parapet. Beyond it, a long slope led down into the night.
“Hold on,” I said. I reined the horse in and started to descend. It was steep and dark and we more slid than rode down to the bottom. When we reached the snow-slick grass I kicked the horse into a gallop. A musket barked behind us and its ball flew whistling into my back. The horse screamed and reared from the sudden noise, throwing me off. The side of my head struck a rock jutting from the ground, and two hooves banged into my chest. I rolled away from the bolting animal, but couldn’t get up, my body too heavy.
I coughed, spraying red across my chest. Fluid dripped into my eyes. It was painful to breathe and difficult to see. I hoped the horse and my patient were long gone already, but to my great sadness I saw the horse come trotting out of the gloom. A white figure slid down from the saddle and hobbled close.
“Run!” I gasped. “Hurry!” I expected them to be upon us at any moment, once they had gotten down from the castle walls.
“Be still,” my patient said above me. His voice seemed far away, and his face was already fading, yet his eyes gleamed brightly in the light from the distant flames. My heart was slowing down, becoming fainter with every throb. How embarrassing to die in front of one’s own patient, I thought. What would my teachers and fellow medical students at the University in Vienna have thought if they’d seen this?
My patient’s face was very close. His eyes were large and round and he stank of dust and ashes. I shrank away from him. He blinked for a moment, then looked at me as if just remembering who I was. Then he bowed his head and moved out of view.
“Drink,” he said, and put something moist and cool to my lips. I felt very thirsty and swallowed what he offered. It tasted like iron, seared like lye, and spread like arsenic through my body. For a moment it felt like everything stopped and became very quiet. I was certain I was dead, and it was infinitely more peaceful than I had expected. But then sounds began to reach me and the world slid back into view. Strangely, I could move again, as easily and painlessly as before I was struck from the horse.
“Go, go,” my patient hissed, pushing me to my feet. “Run, and don’t look back.”
“No, I’m not abandoning you,” I said.
“It’s you they want,” he said. “Whatever they told you, it was a ruse to make you stay.”
“What?” I said. “Why did they wish me to stay?”
“I can’t tell you, I’m sorry, now go!”
“I’m not leaving,” I said, and met his eyes. “You are still my patient.”
“Go!” he snarled. “Before I kill you myself for breaking my defiance with hunger!” It was as if another face had lain hidden behind his visage, like an iceberg in the ocean. Now it rose to the surface and became fully visible. His eyes were black and terrible and his teeth were long, gleaming knives.
I scrambled up and away, mounted the horse with my heart pounding in my ears, the taste of blood burning in my mouth, fled across the shivering grass and the hissing heather until I found the road that led out of the village and followed it through the mountain pass and down to the lowland. On the way I turned only once. Through a veil of falling snow I saw him continue, already chest-deep, into the black water of the lake, while the villagers shouted and cried at the shore for him to come back and save them.