Title: Secret's Price
Author: Jennifer Campbell
Fandom: Queen of Swords
Disclaimer: Neither the show nor the characters belong to me.
Summary: Tessa's life is in Doctor Helm's hands when she develops a mysterious ailment.
Notes: Thank you to my betas, Woody and Jim. I love getting feedback so please let me know what you think, good or bad.
With a shiver, Doctor Robert Helm pulled his coat collar tighter around his neck and breathed into his hands. The air felt good against his chapped skin but still clouded in the night air. What bad luck, he thought, that the weather had taken such a turn. He had come to California in part to escape these winter chills.
An old wound in his thigh protested as he pressed his knees tighter to his horse. Equus obliged by staying the course, crunching along the dirt road toward the Alvarado hacienda without his master's hands on the reins. So Helm took his time rubbing his palms together, trying to regain feeling. Once again, he scolded himself for leaving his gloves at his office. How could he serve any purpose with his fingers half-numb and his nose sniffling and red as a Christmas candy? At least he had remembered his medicine bag.
The first tiny flake drifted down and landed delicately in Equus' mane, and he groaned. Of course this would happen on a night away from the comfort of his home -- the most unlikely weather event possible for the California coast. The second flake fell on his sleeve, and then they began coming down in earnest. Thankfully the hacienda came into view a few moments later, smoke wafting up from the roof. Maybe, Helm thought as he kicked his mount into a gallop, Marta would make him some of her herbal tea. Snow fluttered in a swirl, sticking to his coat and wide-brimmed hat, as he pounded on the door.
Marta answered, relief in her tired eyes. "Doctor, thank you for coming so quickly, and on such a night. Please come in, before you catch a cold."
He nodded toward Equus, tied to a post. "My horse …"
"I'll have the groom take him to the stable." She signaled behind her to a man who went outside to guide the horse away. Marta meanwhile ushered Helm inside and shut out the cold behind him. "You'll have to forgive me if I'm a little distracted. Would you like some tea? I have some brewing in the kitchen."
Helm started to nod, then caught himself. Duty first. "I'd like to see Senorita Alvarado, if you don't mind."
The approval in her eyes was easy to mark. "Come with me, then."
He did his best to ignore the dull throbbing in his thigh as Marta led him through a succession of rooms. He prided himself on limping only little. They hurried down a narrow hallway and through the parlor, furnished for comfort and heavy use, judging by the papers scattered across the desk and a needlepoint frame in the corner. Helm guessed that the senorita tended to the daily upkeep of the family holdings from this
A fire crackled in an alcove along the back wall of the room, and above it hung a portrait of a heavy-set man with graying hair and a stern look. The late Don Alvarado, no doubt. Helm couldn't keep his eyes from the painting as they passed, and the don seemed to scowl back. Despite himself, Helm gulped hard. Don't worry, senor, he assured the hacienda's ghostly guardian. My intentions here are honorable.
How could it be otherwise, when he had already all but promised his affections to another? Maria Teresa Alvarado was pretty enough -- in some small ways she even reminded him of the Queen with her long dark hair and high cheekbones -- but she lacked the forceful confidence, the steel core of bearing. No, the senorita could never equal the woman to whom he compared all women.
So you see, Don Alvarado, your daughter's virtue is safe from me, for all that I'll probably spend the night in her bedroom.
They entered another hall and soon came to a closed door, the first he had seen. Marta eased it open, but even so it creaked a little. Sweet smelling herbs, burning near the window, curled up wispy fingers of smoke, and their scent cleared Helm's sinuses better than any medicine. He breathed in deeply for the first time since escaping the storm and made a mental note to ask Marta what she had used.
Upon entering, he took quick scan of the senorita's bedroom, sparingly furnished -- much like his own living quarters. He had expected more extravagance, the lace and flowery things common of a wealthy woman's tastes. Instead, she had chosen simple, solid pieces of Spanish style with few accents, and a plain curtain for the window, now drawn aside to reveal the worsening storm. On the mantle above a small fireplace, in which the flames were dying over blackened logs, there was a single painting of green hills. Perhaps it depicted Spain, Helm thought, but certainly not California. In the desert, one saw so little green.
A serving girl, sitting on the edge of large bed, pressed wet cloths to her mistress' forehead. Tessa herself lay half under her covers, eyes closed and murmuring under her breath. Her skin shown with a light sheen of sweat. Helm recognized a woman deep into a fever.
"She's been like this all day?" he asked, all business as he crossed to her bed. His own aches vanished from mind at the first sight of a patient in need of his expertise. The serving girl busied herself with tending the fire as he took her place.
"Since early morning, before sunrise," Marta said, worried. "I tried the usual remedies, but nothing has brought down her temperature."
He touched the back of his hand to her cheeks, clammy but still hot. "Do you have any idea what brought it on?"
"She was out riding yesterday evening and got caught in the rain. She dried off and seemed fine, but then this morning, when I came to wake her for breakfast …" Marta hovered over them both, doctor and patient. "You can help her?"
He gave her a curious look. "That rainstorm didn't start until well after sunset. What was the senorita doing, riding after dark? It's not safe in these parts."
Marta hesitated, then said, "She's always done that, ever since she was a child. She would sneak out at night and give everyone such a scare."
"So it seems she has done it again." From his bag, Helm pulled out a bottle, which held a small amount of white powder. He handed it to Marta. "Boil a cup's worth of water; dissolve one teaspoon of this in it. I'll also need some fresh cold water and clean cloths."
"Yes, of course."
Marta beckoned to the serving girl and they left Helm alone with the senorita. Tessa's skin burned to the touch; she tossed her head and mumbled in fevered deliriums. Helm caught a few words; most sounded like apologies. He wondered, as he smoothed her covers, whom she was apologizing to, and for what.
Marta returned with the cup a few minutes later. Helm lifted Tessa's head and dribbled some of its contents past her lips, which she swallowed automatically. Even in the midst of sickness, the body still functioned on a basic level. Helm repeated the act until the cup emptied.
"Now we wait," he said, and set the cup aside.
Marta brushed a few strands of damp hair from Tessa's forehead. Helm could see the tenderness in that simple gesture.
"The medicine you gave her," Marta said, "is it what you used to treat those who got sick with the fever last year?"
"Yes, it is," he said, surprised that she recognized it. "How did you know?"
"The smell, mostly. It stinks."
He chuckled. "It is rather pungent. But how would you know that? I don't remember having to administer the medicine to anyone at this hacienda. Am I wrong?"
Her eyes widened, and she suddenly became occupied with adjusting the senorita's covers. She had a guilty look, like a child caught in a lie. Helm wondered whether she had let slip a secret and, if she had, what exactly she was hiding. Was the Alvarado household pilfering medicines from his office?
Whatever he had unearthed, it would wait for later. The more immediate concern -- the senorita's health -- took priority, and he couldn't afford to unnerve Marta with an inquisition. He needed her help, not her denials.
"I must be mistaken," he said, and she relaxed. "Perhaps one of the senorita's workers was sick, and I don't remember. I treated so many people."
"Yes, that must be it," she said, nodding.
To be continued ...