In the smoky interior of the split-log cabin, Karina moved from bed to bed, tending to coughs and fevers alike with poultices and cool drinks. Soon, it would be time to turn the patients again, to help prevent bed sores — a task she usually had help with, but this was not a usual winter. This year, the ague had hit hard, taking not only her Gran and all the babes of the village, but many of those her own age, usually so strong and fit. She paused to wipe her own forehead.
“Are you okay, Karina?” The voice was so weak, she had trouble identifying it, until it came again. “You should rest so you don’t wind up joining us.”
Heidi, the blacksmith’s wife — how like her to worry about others. She’d lost both her son and daughter the week before, the sweetest two year olds Karina had ever seen. Now Heidi lay to the left side of the fireplace, stricken by the same illness.
Karina crossed to her and pulled a stool close to sit beside the cot. “It’s just the smoke. I’ll be fine. Would you like some water?”
“Maybe a little.” Heidi touched her throat. “It’s so warm in here.”
“Gran always swore by heat for the ague.”
“She would know.”
Nodding, Karina rose and fetched a tankard of water. She held it to Heidi’s lips and waited while the other woman sipped.
A crash behind her made Karina spin around, slopping water onto Heidi as she did so. Thomas, one of the young men her own age, had fallen from his cot, knocking it over in the process. Grimacing, Karina set the tankard on the floor.
“I’ll get you a towel in just a moment.”
“It’s all right. I understand.”
The fall had woken Thomas, but he lay on the floor, staring at her rather than trying to get back into the cot. He must be worse off than she had thought. Karina knelt and pulled the cot closer to him, then rolled him against it, pushing upward so that his weight would help right the cot. After three tries, the cot rocked upright.
His face was waxy, and he stared up at the ceiling, unblinking. Karina shook her head; he wouldn’t make it through the night.
She picked up the sweat-soaked blankets that had fallen to the floor and stuffed them into the large pot of lye water sitting next to the fireplace. His would be changed a little earlier than her other patients’. A trip to the blanket chest yielded a threadbare woolen blanket and towels for both Heidi and Thomas. Heidi smiled appreciatively at Karina, but when Karina dabbed at Thomas’s forehead, he caught her hand.
“It’s always been you,” he said. “Always.” Then his hand dropped and he rolled away from her touch.
She stared at the back of his head; she’d never thought of him that way, and now to hear it like this, with others listening, was too much. She almost couldn’t bring herself to reply, but if he was going to die today, she couldn’t be that cruel to him.
Softly, hoping her voice wouldn’t carry beyond his cot, she said, “I’ll be yours when the daffodils bloom again.”
A sigh was his only response, and she tucked the blanket around him and returned to her rounds.
Bodies — too many — had been stored in an abandoned cabin and added to the hillside cemetery as soon as the ground thawed enough in the spring. The laborers trickled back to their homes, glad of the friends and family they had still living. Now Thomas, who had pulled through against all expectation, stood in the cemetery, staring down at Karina’s grave. Looking back, it seemed inevitable that she would succumb to the ague, as she had spent all her time around those who were sick.
He spoke as softly as she had that night back in the smoky cabin. “You said you’d be mine, and now the daffodils are blooming, yellow and cheerful beneath your windows.” A lump caught in his throat, and he looked away for a moment at the pine trees sweeping down the neighboring hills. “I just — it’s still you. Always.”
Silently, he placed a gold ring on the stone marking her grave. After staring at it a few minutes, he turned to head back to the home he’d hoped she would share.
A breeze touched him, whispered, “Yours,” and then was gone.
Thomas looked back. For a brief moment, he thought he saw Karina standing beside her gravestone, hair blowing in the breeze, his ring upon her finger. Blinking back tears, he took a step and reached out one hand to her. Then she was gone.
Only after he stared a moment longer did he realize his ring had vanished as well. He hadn’t imagined her, then — she had taken his ring. She was his.
This time, when he turned toward home, his step was lighter. Karina was with him — always.
— The End —
My blog is participating in the Forward Motion Flash Friday Blog Group, a weekly flash fiction exercise (not that I’m managing weekly!). Check out the other participating blogs for more flash.