Cassie shook and moaned. The fever had left for the moment and she shivered uncontrollably. Her fierce headache threatened to explode inside her skull. She wanted only to slide back into a deep sleep but annoyingly, someone was propping her upright and pouring a liquid into her mouth. Its bitterness made her wretch. She squinted at the blurry face above her.
Tess. She might have known. Tess, her sister, the healer. The liquid tasted like poison, and Cassie mumbled out an accusation. “What is this stuff? You’re trying to finish me off, aren’t you?”
“Drink it.” Tess was firm. “It’s Mambo’s tree bark medicine. She’s made some for everyone with the fever.”
“I’d rather die of the fever than take one more swallow of that!” Cassie hissed through clenched teeth as she turned her head away.
“You might get your wish. Mambo says it’s the swamp fever. She says the fever will weaken you and Nathaniel will die.”
“What?” Cassie’s eyes opened wide in alarm. “I don’t feel that sick!”
Tess looked uncomfortable. “Mambo says Carlos’s spirit will take over your body and then claim his son’s.” Tess rested her hand on the raised brand on Cassie’s arm. “She says it’s Carlo’s brand. That his spirit is linked to you and her through it.”
Cassie rolled her eyes in disgust. “He’s dead! Dead is dead! Tess, you can’t really believe her!”
Tess only shrugged her shoulders. Seeing that, Cassie knew Tess would not be drawn into an argument with her. Besides there were the three spinner rings that Tess wore. Supposed powers of prophesy, healing, and persuasion. What had initially seemed to be only the irrational ramblings of a dying woman had since played out to be a series of eerie coincidences beyond explanation.
“You have a duty to stay alive for Nathaniel, if nothing else,” Tess gently reminded her. At the mention of her son, Cassie locked eyes with Tess once more, than reluctantly opened her mouth to accept the bitter liquid. She swallowed hard to keep it down. “Well if we’re dabbling in spirits and potions, you might as well give that emerald ring of yours a spin for my health, and Nate’s, and I suppose for this other little fellow’s, too.”
Cassie’s son, Nathaniel. Cassie had never dreamed she could feel so strongly, or would ever feel so much love, for anyone until she’d had her child. And Samuel Smith, her husband, loved the boy as if he were his own. She was grateful for that. An arm’s length away, little Nate stirred in his woven-frond basket. Cassie smiled. It was as though he knew she was thinking of him. In spite of her fever, Cassie had not lost her milk, and her breasts, swollen and warm, reminded her it was time to nurse him. She didn’t purposefully play favorites, but made sure that he had his fill before nursing the orphan.
“Tess, lift him over to me, would you?” Cassie looked forward to lying with Nathaniel in her arms. It was such a peaceful few minutes for them and–
The doorway darkened as a large body filled it. All hopes for peace and quiet vanished, as Cassie looked up to see Emma entering, with her usual grand smile stretched even bigger from cheek to cheek.
“Tch, tch, what kind of worry-look is that now?” Emma Lancaster clucked to Cassie. “You’re wonderin’ if you’ll be able to continue to feed the extra wee one, aren’t ya’, me darlin’?” Without waiting for a reply, she carried merrily on, “Course ya’ can! An’ if ya’ don’t believe that, just think about why God thought it proper to give us two apple-dumplin’s on our chest, instead of just one big kettledrum right square in the middle!”
She smiled at Cassie. “It just takes some rearrangin’ of the babes at their mealtimes, that’s all. An’ be sure to be tradin’ sides every other feed so’s ya stays balanced!” Having finished dispensing her wisdom for the moment, she scooped up the newest baby into the air and then clasped him to her shoulder, clapping him gently until he emitted a gurgly burp.
Or maybe it was wet bubbles from the other end, Cassie thought, in which case I’m glad someone else is holding him.
Smith and William eavesdropped from outside the hut. “He sure is scrawny, that new one, ain’t he?” Smith remarked.
William nodded in agreement. “Will she be able to feed two?” he whispered and tipped his head in Cassie’s direction.
“I dunno,” his friend responded, shrugging his shoulders and frowning. “What choice does she have, but to try? Just so long as my Nathaniel don’t suffer none.” The confusion Smith was feeling was plainly carried in his words.
“Well I guess ….” William’s voice trailed away. How would I feel if Tess had another– He shook his head What am I thinking? We don’t even have one.
Scalding resentment flared up inside of him again. Tess had been ignoring his advances–sometimes outright rejecting them–and that piqued William even more. His family had been brutally torn from his life. The deep emptiness that he carried around could only be filled by starting a family of his own. Having lost most of her own family, surely Tess could understand that.
He and Tess were as safe now as any could predict. They needed to carry on. Tess would not have her grandmother with her forever. She would need more family, as he did. His forehead furrowed. And what is so wrong with wanting a family of our own anyway? Tess is so busy spending her time tending to everybody else’s needs–what about mine?
He knew Tess was tired. The fever sickness had afflicted nearly two dozen of the camp’s small population, and Tess’s medicinal powders and tinctures from the ship had been lost in the hurricane, leaving her with only her emerald ring to use with the sick.
He’d seen the power of the ring. On board the ship, her treatment results had been nothing short of miraculous when she’d spun the emerald bands around her finger, but here in the hidden confines of the Maroon’s encampment, there were many sick ones all at once, with a variety of conditions, some familiar, and some of unknown strangeness. The continuous demands for healing meditations were exhausting her.
Maybe she just needs more rest. Or maybe when she learns more about the medicines here in the jungle, she’ll relax. He sighed. Tess wouldn’t even talk to him about it. Whatever had brought about her disinterest in him, William had no choice but to wait it out.
Or so he thought.